Thinking of becoming an au pair? Read this first
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Before I give you a straight up answer, (Yes you should become an au pair), let me tell you about some of the pretty amazing experiences I had - and some of the not so great ones of other au pairs I met along the way.
How much you enjoy your experience as an Au pair generally depends on how lucky you get with your host family. So choose carefully.
I was lucky to arrive in Milan to a lovely family whom I met online. They wanted more of an older friend for their ten-year-old son than a nanny, which I was more than happy to be. Having picked me up from the airport (where I cluelessly arrived with no international credit to call anyone... duhh), they immediately did all they could to chill me out with glass after glass of Prosecco.
This effort to help me settle in continued for weeks in a wonderfully Italian way (mostly food offerings) - needless to say I was convinced I had won the host family jackpot.
Unbelievably it was not just me who felt this way - almost all of the au pairs I met had very positive experiences.
Unusually for an au pair I was given my own apartment just below my host family's. On reflection it was this privacy and separation from the family which allowed me to relax far more than I would have been able to as a 'live-in' au pair (living in the family's home).
Unlike some of my friends I didn't have to worry about staying out too late. I could return home at any hour without waking anyone up, but I also had the option to spend meal times as one of the family - which was the best of both worlds, and also helped my tight budget.
Cue; Photos of us partying like Italians and returning home past the sex shop at 7am...
However, there were other families hosting my au pair friends who held more of a 'value for money' mentality, using au pairs solely for cheap childcare. This is not what au pairing is founded on; the French word 'au pair' means 'an equal'. It's easy for an over-worked au pair to forget this and fear appearing ungrateful whilst living under the family's roof, but it is essential that you speak with your host family if you are unhappy with your workload or feel you're not being treated as 'an equal'.
Amongst the au pairs there was always a new host family 'horror' story. One au pair was left to clean up a smashed bottle whilst blood poured from her hands. Someone's host dad had got slightly too flirty after a couple drinks (yes, gossiping about host families makes up 50% of au pair conversations).
However the majority of negative stories that au pairs so love to tell involve over worked au pairs who are expected to work all hours with no days off.
Fortunately there is a way around becoming an unhappy and over-worked au pair....
1. Be picky about who you work for
2. Demand a Skype/Facetime interview
Generally a Skype interview is a great way to get an essence of how the family works together - if possible ask to meet the children as how they behave is an indicator as to how much of a challenge you are undertaking.
3. Does the family seem genuinely interested in getting to know you as 'an equal'?
4. Choose the right location - check the Foreign Office website for travel warnings, no-go areas, advice on local customs and vaccinations.
And if it all that fails and you are stuck with horrible hosts... don't be afraid to make the decision to leave your host family if they are negatively affecting you and do not make an effort to include you in their lives. There is always the option to find another host family who will appreciate you whilst you are out there. It can be done, and what's more you can meet the prospective new family in person to ensure they are genuinely kind people before you decide to change.
Overall there will always be positives and negatives in every au pair experience. Whether you end up looking after naughty children or wonderfully thoughtful ones, the key is to find a host family who want an au pair for the right reasons. The right family will want you to form caring relationships with their children, not just act as staff. They will be interested in getting to know you as a person and learning from your culture as you are immersed in theirs.
Although it may be tempting to go for the family offering you the biggest salary and the city centre apartment you will find that the real joys of becoming an au pair are from the relationships you form with the family and the fellow au pairs you will meet along the way.