According to Wikipedia, an au pair is ‘a domestic assistant from a foreign country working for, and living as part of, a host family. Typically, au pairs take on a share of the family’s responsibility for childcare as well as some housework, and receive a monetary allowance for personal use’. This means it is not a full time job, nor an extended holiday, but somewhere inbetween, which has the potential to be quite confusing, but the best of both worlds!
The arrangements shared by host families and au pairs vary greatly between and within countries around the world. That is to say, two au pairs in Australia will have wholly different experiences to au pairs in France, but may also have wildly different experiences to each other.
In Europe, au pairing is heavily regulated by laws, which protect both parties entering the relationship. Some au pairs may play more traditional roles within their host family than their counterparts in the US or Australia. Germany for example, views au pairing very much as a cultural experience, during which au pairs are expected to undertake language study, and are not expected to spend more than 6 hours working per day. With laws in place specific to this job, the expectations of a host family tend to be more standardised, and for an au pair searching for a host family, it is easier to know what to look out for.
In contrast, Australia offers no regulation for au pairs. This offers lots of freedom for many but can also mean that the expectations of different host families can be wide ranging. I personally know of au pairs in Australia who were working full time as a live in nanny might, despite having no childcare qualifications. Another point of interest is that since Australia is an extremely popular backpacking destination, many people enter into short term au pair arrangements as an easy way to earn money and have a place to live, which can in some situations be unstable or land both parties in sticky situations, particularly when they have not spent time discussing their expectations.
To an au pair looking for a host family, I would wholeheartedly recommend using the AuPairWorld website. This company provide what is essentially a social network platform, and by creating an au pair profile, you can use a search filter to look for a host family that interests you. To make yourself appeal to host families, you should try to help them get to know you, by telling them how you spend your free time among other things. It can be tricky to know how much or how little to add to your profile, and remember that although you want to show your personality, you need to maintain a degree of professionalism. So simply think about what you would think appropriate if you were a parent! On my profile, I used a few smiley photos of me in different places and wrote about my interests, hobbies, what I wanted from the au pair experience and what I was like as a person. One of the great things about AuPairWorld is that the more regularly you log onto their site, the higher you begin to appear in their search results.
For host families, I would recommend being clear and concise about what you want from your future au pair. Again, it is a tricky balancing act between providing so much information that an au pair becomes intimidated, or making the profile so business-like, that you seem cold or impatient. Personally, I viewed several profiles where the family gushed about the past 10 incredible au pairs they’d had or gave too much intimate information about their children, which was fairly off putting. Try to consider the type of profile which seems open and will feel encouraging to a potential au pair.
Talking by Skype is the most effective way to assess the compatibility of an au pair and host family. Although some people are nervous in this situation and some children very overexcited, this is usually a very accurate representation of each party. With my first host family, I loved our first Skype call and wanted to move in with them as soon as possible. With another potential family, the kid climbed all over their parents and yelled for most of the duration, so alarm bells rang for me. The more communication between an au pair and a host family, the better, as it helps to align your expectations and smooth out the moving in process.
AuPairWorld provides plenty of information on how to go about making arrangements for an au pair and is really helpful. Facebook groups are also really useful in gauging what it might be like to au pair in that city. Sydney, for instance, is teeming with au pairs, perhaps because Australia is so flexible and au pairs are such a popular choice of childcare among families there. Through Facebook groups I was able to meet so many au pairs from across the globe, yet found the same tools led to nothing when I worked in Berlin.
It is really impossible to fully know what it will be like in your au pair job but in some ways I do think that more can be at stake for the families, who place so much trust in a person who is new to their lives and to whom they open their world. At times I was too focused on myself and how well I thought I was coping with the responsibility and expectations of me, yet with time I also came to appreciate how challenging it is for the host family to adjust to you and to have you in their life.
The best thing you can do, is start researching and planning early, take all challenges and set backs in your stride and be prepared for things to go wrong. After all, it’s meant to be an adventure and you won’t gain half as much if it all goes to plan!