As a working mom of four, Laura Eldridge is no stranger to the strain of childcare costs. After Eldridge and husband Sean’s 2-year-old twins were born, Sean left his teaching job to be a stayat-home dad for 18 months while Laura returned to her career as a nurse practitioner. When Sean was ready to launch his new fulltime career as an independent contractor, the family struggled to find affordable childcare for their youngest three.
Hiring au pairs is popular in Eldridge’s hometown of Chicago, but Eldridge assumed the program, where a young adult travels from a foreign country to provide live-in childcare, would be cost-prohibitive. Further research revealed the opposite.
“You pay one salary to the au pair regardless of the number of kids, whereas with daycare you’d have to pay per child,” said Eldridge. Eldridge was intrigued with the idea of essentially gaining another family member and with her children learning about the culture and customs of another part of the world.
After working with an au pair placement agency to interview several candidates, the Eldridges hired an au pair from Colombia, and Nancy Castillo arrived in January 2018. The experience has been so worthwhile for all parties that the family extended Castillo’s one-year contract for a subsequent year. Though Eldridge admits there was a learning curve, like Castillo adjusting to constantly hearing and speaking English, learning to use American appliances and realizing her driver’s license wasn’t valid in America, the au pair program has been a great fit for their family. But Eldridge encourages those whose interest is piqued to research how the program works, concerning expectations of au pairs and host families.
“These aren’t professional caregivers,” said Eldridge. “They are young people from another country and culture and they come wanting to learn more English and have a cultural experience in addition to providing childcare.”
What is an au pair?
Au pairs travel from a foreign country to live with and provide childcare to a host family for up to one year. Visa specifications require au pairs to be between 18 and 26 years old, understand and speak basic English, be unmarried without children, have a driver’s license and driving experience, have at least 200 hours of childcare experience and pass a background check. Au pairs can provide no more than 45 hours of childcare per week and have specific time-off schedules to be followed by the host family. In addition to providing child care, au pairs typically participate in household chores like other members of the family. Families pay au pairs a weekly stipend of $195, regardless of the number of children in the home, two weeks of paid vacation and up to $500 for au pairs to take two required college courses per year.
Host families are encouraged to hire au pairs through a credible agency, like Au Pair in America, for which Edmondite Jessica Mullins works as a community counselor. Mullins provides support for host families, from the interview process through hosting an au pair in their home. She also provides monthly educational and social meetings for au pairs, presenting child development and safety topics, and exploring culture by taking a tour of Bricktown or sampling various Thanksgiving pies.
“The nice part about an agency is we have vetted the au pairs for you,” said Mullins. “They have been through an interview process in their home country, background checks, references and education verified. We also provide au pairs with insurance.”
The extensive interviews Eldridge conducted with Castillo before her arrival and now living in close proximity means Eldridge trusts Castillo implicitly with her children.
“The number one benefit is that this person becomes a member of your family,” said Mullins.
Norman native Kaitie Holland, who au paired for a family in the Netherlands from 2017 to 2018, says hosting an au pair offers flexibility. When there were days one parent had to travel, Holland could rearrange her schedule to care for the kids as needed. For families with hectic schedules, live-in childcare means not bundling kids up in cold weather to transport to childcare or worrying about a nanny’s car breaking down.
Perhaps the biggest difference between hiring a nanny or babysitter and hosting an au pair is that it’s truly a cultural experience. The au pair learns about the host country and family’s cuisine, traditions and holidays, and shares his or her culture, too. Eldridge’s children have loved experiencing Colombian holidays, including El Dia del Amor y La Amistad (similar to Valentine’s Day) in the fall where Castillo prepared gifts, Colombian food and explained the traditions surrounding the holiday. Eldridge appreciates the opportunity her children have to learn Spanish as well. Mark Otto came to Oklahoma City as an au pair from South Africa in 2012, primarily intrigued by the cultural experience of living in America and sharing his country’s traditions. But he also adored his host family’s children, who became like his little brothers.
“The main commitment for an au pair is to be with the family and children and influence them in your cultural way,” said Otto. “Because au pairs are living with the family, they are willing to do and take on more than someone else might want to commit.”
Holland’s host family aspired to treat her like a niece, including her in the family, expecting her to contribute to the household, but also connecting her with new friends and encouraging her to explore the region.
“Most [au pairs] are doing it for the international experience,” said Holland. “My hosts really understood that, stuck to our schedule and gave me time off for travel.”
Choosing an au pair
Using an au pair placement agency ensures all parties have been vetted and receive support throughout the process. Holland jokes that au pair web sites can feel like dating sites, with both the au pairs and families creating profiles detailing their interests, the au pairs’ experience and the families’ needs.
“If you want someone to tutor your child in science, you can find an au pair with a science background,” said Mullins. “If you want a strong swimmer who can teach safety and training during the summer, or someone who is athletic, experience with certain age kids, you want your kids to learn a specific language, we can guide families through that selection process.”
Eldridge interviewed multiple candidates, and then conducted several interviews with the au pairs she was seriously considering. Via Skype, Eldridge showed Castillo around the house, walked her through their daily routine and had her speak with the children. Eldridge advocates preparing interview questions based off the family’s key requirements for the au pair, considering things like whether the au pair will need to drive your children to school.
“Instead of asking ‘can you drive?’ ask specific questions like ‘How far do you drive?, Do you drive on the highway?, How did you get your license?,’” said Eldridge.
When it comes to childcare experience, ask what activities the au pair participated in with children, how many children they were responsible for, what ages they have worked with and whether they cared for children alone or with other caregivers.
“Make sure your needs are something they can handle and are willing to do,” said Eldridge.
Otto said parties should talk upwards of 20 times during the selection process to ensure the family is getting a consistent picture of the au pair’s personality and abilities. On both sides, maintaining open communication and setting clear expectations from the beginning help the relationship get off on the right foot. Holland’s host family even offered to FaceTime her parents to give them peace of mind as their daughter traveled across the world to live.
“I knew Belinda [host mom] would respect boundaries and give me time off, I knew the chores and hours she needed from me,” said Holland.
Eldridge found her initial misgivings about a virtual stranger traveling around the world to live in her home unwarranted.
“I worried about if we didn’t get along or she didn’t like us,” said Eldridge. “But it hasn’t been an issue at all. She loves to hang out with us, but she’s very independent, too.”
Making the best of the experience Otto cautions that culture and language shock can be overwhelming for au pairs initially. When the Eldridge family was Skyping or emailing with Castillo prior to her arrival, she could take more time to reply and translate.
“Even though she had been studying English, it was a shock to only hear English, and we were talking so fast,” said Eldridge. “You have to speak slowly and give them time to think through what you’ve said.”
Many au pair agencies offer free English classes to help them adjust and continue to improve their skills, and meet new friends. Otto’s first few months in Oklahoma City felt fun and adventurous, but then homesickness set in. His host family’s understanding and prompting to get to know the city made all the difference for him, and Eldridge has taken the same approach, ensuring Castillo is communicating regularly with her family back home and suggesting activities.
“Homesickness is very real and I have told her from the beginning she’s so brave to come all the way here by herself,” said Eldridge. “Having commitments like the gym or church have helped.”
Holland’s host family encouraged her to travel and make new friends.
“For everyone to be happy, the au pair needs to have free time and get whatever they are expecting out of experience,” said Holland.
Holland and Otto know au pairs and families who had negative experiences, but both believe it often boiled down to poor communication. Because au pairs live with the family, it can be easy to take advantage of their time, even unintentionally. “I have friends who worked for families that agreed to 30 hours [a week] that turned into 40 and 50 hours,” said Holland.
“I think families often don’t even realize what they’re asking, but a lot of people that happened to don’t ever speak up.”
Mullins helps families and au pairs communicate with each other, which can be awkward in a shared living space, conversing a minimum of once a month but available every day for support and to answer questions. Mullins often witnesses relationships continue long after the au pair experience is complete.
“We have au pairs who fly back to America for host children’s weddings 10 years later, or host families who go to Germany to visit their au pair and stay in the family home,” said Mullins. “It’s a continued connection you don’t get elsewhere.”
For Otto, his time in Oklahoma City as an au pair became permanent when his host family sponsored him for a student visa and then paid for his college education at the University of Central Oklahoma. Through friendships encouraged by his host family, he met his future wife while volunteering at the City Rescue Mission, and they were married in December 2017. Though he hasn’t lived with his host family in over 18 months, he still sees them regularly.
“I’ve become part of their lives and their kids’ story,” said Otto.