Once a month, we’re going to talk about awesome/weird/adventurous jobs that you (maybe) didn’t even know existed and talk to people who have done them. If you’re sick of your current gig, get to applying! Read previous Job Awesome posts here.
If you were mildly obsessed with Mary Poppins as a child (or you’re just mildly obsessed with children) you might find au pairing to be a nice gig.
Au Pair is just a fancy French term for ‘international nanny.’ Families in both English and non-English speaking countries hire young women from other countries (usually under 27 years old) to tend to the children and home while imparting a bit of their native language and culture to the family. The added bonus, of course, is that you get to live in another country and earn money while you’re doing this.
Au pairing gigs vary greatly from country to country and family to family, so it’s particularly important to speak to your family’s previous au pair and to make sure that everyone’s expectations are clear before you sign a contract or book a ticket.
Francine was an au pair in Finland for a year.
Can you tell us about your specific au pair experience?
I worked with a Finnish family for one year. I lived with them at their home in Espoo, Finland (a 20-minute bus ride from Helsinki). I did housework and laundry in the morning while the kids were at school and then I picked them up from school in the afternoon. Sometimes we’d hang out together, playing random games but usually the older two (11 and 8 at the time) would hang out with their friends. The youngest one (5 at the time) and I hung out the most because I’d pick her up from daycare after lunch everyday. Around 3:30/4:00 I’d begin preparing dinner for the family. It was usually ready around 5:00 and one of the parents would try to arrive home at that time. We’d all eat dinner together. After dinner, I’d head to my private apartment behind the garage, which sounds like a slightly creepy location, but it was a super cute apartment.
Why did you decide to be an au pair?
I always thought being an au pair sounded exotic and exciting. In middle school I saw a Disney channel movie about a French au pair. While in high school I became very interested in other cultures and in college I began thinking of ways to move abroad.
As graduation rolled around, I realized this would be a perfect time to be an au pair. I began browsing au pair websites for possible jobs and reading job descriptions, which helped me develop an understanding of what au pair life would be like.
Even though I knew that being an au pair would probably require cleaning toilets and washing dishes, I still imagined it would be romantic. 19th century novels abound with stories of governesses and nannies, so it seemed old fashioned and unique – two things I’m charmed by. It did end up being rather romantic at times: picking flowers to put under our pillows at Summer Solstice, taking the kids by the night train to the Arctic Circle, watching the sun slowly blaze orange over the frozen tundra.
But it was also rather unromantic, folding piles of clothes, feigning an interest in the Bratz dolls and trying to get three kids to eat a healthy afternoon snack when all they wanted was a bottle of Fanta and a bag of gummy candies. I’m glad there was a little romance and charm, but I also realized that everyday things can be the most charming of all.
Can you tell us about the application process?
There are a number of au pair agencies out there. I didn’t use one, so I don’t know anything about them except that they cost money and seem unnecessary because every au pair I met in Finland didn’t use an agency.
I signed up on greataupair.com, created a profile and listed the country I wanted to work in as ‘everywhere.’ Signing up is free, but you have to pay to for the ability to contact potential employers/families. I didn’t do this because in one day I had 20 emails from families around the world. I began emailing the ones that seemed interesting.
About a week into the process I got an email from a Finnish mom requesting my phone number because she wanted to speak with me. She promptly called me and told me all about their family, what they’d like their au pair to do and the process of getting an au pair visa. She also asked for some references.
I gave her the info of some families I was regularly babysitting for, and she gave me the info of their previous au pair. We each contacted the references. The previous au pair told me how great the parents and the kids were and how amazing Finland was. I talked to Heini (the Finnish mom) a few more times. She asked about my family and if I was worried about moving abroad, probably just trying to see how committed I was to staying and working for a year. After about a week of communication, I was going to Finland!
Heini later told me that she pretty much knew after talking to the me the first time, that I would be their au pair and as corny as it sounds, I felt the exact same thing. People always ask me, ”Weren’t you nervous about moving and living with a strange family in a strange land?” And my answer is always, ”Nope. I just had a good feeling about it.”
How did your host family prepare you for the experience?
My Finnish mom, Heini, was awesome at taking me through the process of moving to Finland. She was also very clear about what I’d be doing during my working hours. I was the family’s third American au pair, so she knew the application steps for the Finnish visa.(Since then I’ve learned that many European countries have au pair visas as well as stipulations about how much an au pair should be paid, how many hours she should work and what type of extra things need to be provided, usually language classes and housing.) Heini also put me in touch with their previous au pair and talking to her also helped me prepare for au pair life. She gave me tips not only about taking care of the kids, but tips about adjusting to life in Finland.
Can you tell us about an average day in the life of an au pair?
I started work early, although the exact time depended on the parents’ schedules. I helped get the kids ready for school. Once the house was quiet, I cleaned the house and did laundry. Then I made some lunch.
After that, I went to pick up the 5 year old from preschool. Sometimes we’d walk to the nearby beach, sometimes we went to the library or to the indoor swimming pool. We regularly went ice skating. Some days we’d make cookies, draw pictures, play with her toys, etc.
When the older kids came home, I’d make sure they did their homework before they headed off to play with their friends. Eventually I’d cook dinner. After dinner, I would do various things. Sometimes I’d ride my bike to the library or I’d go to Finnish language class.
Eventually, I had some close friends and I’d often take the bus into Helsinki to meet up with them. We’d go to bars, cafes or concerts. My weekends were free, I usually ended up hanging out with my Dutch friend, who was also an au pair. I also made some friends with some students at the University of Helsinki, they ended up showing me flea markets and all the best clubs for dancing. I also went on a few weekend trips; it was possible to take a short ferry ride to Tallinn, Estonia and a longer ferry ride to Stockholm.
How much money did you make as an au pair?
I don’t even remember the specific number! I know it wasn’t much, but it was enough to go out and to take a few trips to other European countries. It does seem that families will try to go beyond the required pay: they might pay for your round trip flight if you complete your contract, etc. Families provide their au pairs with room and board (it’s probably required by most countries). The room part can vary. I had a private apartment, but some of my au pair friends had a room and bathroom of their own in the house. So if you have a preference in housing, just look for families that offer what you want. My family made sure I never went hungry, Heini was constantly encouraging me to take snacks to my apartment.
Different families will ask you to do different things. My family didn’t like cooking, so they asked me to do it, but my friend’s family enjoyed cooking so the parents would do it. If you have a preference about what you want to do around the house, just look for families that want a similar thing.
What were the biggest challenges about your au pair experience?
I didn’t really have any challenges. I was very lucky that my family and I fit well together. They were flexible and I was flexible. But I’ve heard a number of horror stories from other au pairs: rude parents who take advantage of you and children who don’t listen and au pairs who don’t adapt.
What were the biggest benefits?
I have another family. I still keep in touch with them and I feel a swelling of love when I think about the five of them. They made sure that I became a part of their family. They took me to celebrate Christmas with their family in Northern Finland and they welcomed my family when they came to visit in the summer. Not only do I have another family that I love; I have another home. That tiny section of the world became my home. I made life long friends, rode my bike along the sea and figured out where to buy fabulous vintage clothes.
What did you take away from your experience?
It’s hard being a fake mom. When I started being an au pair I thought it would be fairly easy, love would just flow from me and I’d be patient and kind all the time. Wrong. I loved and still love those kids, but it was tough sometimes. I lost my patience with the kids and overreacted. I thought that being an au pair would make me excited about having kids myself, but in actually made me reconsider my desire to have children, in a good way. I realized that parenthood is a huge responsibility and one I’m not going to embark on until I know I’m ready.
After college, most of my friends got ‘real’ jobs, but I moved to a foreign country. It always seemed slightly scary to move to a new country, but I did it. While I didn’t begin my climb up the corporate ladder, I started off my adult life by achieving something on my own and making a dream come true. It helped me form one of my strongest opinions about life and travel. It seems scary to move to a new place, but do it once and you’ll realize it’s not scary! Friendships will form anywhere in the world.
Who would be a good fit for au pair work?
You must be extremely flexible and patient. You’re moving to a new country and into the home of a family. This family is from a different culture with different ways of doing things. The family is trusting you to take care of their kids. You will need to be patient. You will need a huge amount of flexibility to deal with the new situations and different ways of life. Basically, you need an open heart. – open to learning new things and open to a new way of life.
Any useful resources that you can recommend?
When you start communicating with a family, ask if you can get in touch with their previous au pair. They’ll probably be able to tell you about what to expect. Hopefully, they’ll even be able to tell you some cool places to check out, how to get around, etc.Resources!