Last year I spent ten months living in Australia, eight and a half months of which I was an au pair. The concept of the au pair program is fairly simple and benefits both the family and the au pair involved – the family gets quality child-care at a very reasonable price, and the au pair gets free accommodations/food and a small salary in the city of their choosing.
The program is not just about cheap child care and a free place to live however, (although there are some people who feel this way), it’s about a cultural exchange. A lot of families will hire an au pair who doesn’t speak their native language, so that the au pair may further teach their children the second language in which they are learning. There are also families who are simply interested in their children having some exposure to another culture by way of their au pair.
Most au pairs that I met while in Australia decided to become au pairs because they, first and foremost, wanted to travel abroad and felt that au pairing was a cheap, easy, and safe way to do it. This can all be true, but there also certainly needs to be a love of children and a willingness to work with them everyday, otherwise this program is definitely not for you.
There are lots of pros and cons to being an au pair, and some au pairs get much better treatment than others. So to avoid getting the short end of the stick, here are the most frequently asked questions I get, as well as a few things you should look out for…
How many hours does the family expect you to work?
According to the official Au Pair Program outlined on many of the au pair websites, you should never be expected to work more than 35 hours a week. Now, obviously, if you willingly choose to work more, and that is your arrangement with the family, then that is your prerogative, and if the family is paying you extra money for those hours, by all means. But the family should be paying you extra money for those hours.
I met a German au pair in Melbourne who was working 60-65 hours a week for her family, taking care of four children, and was only being paid $200/week. This shocked me, as my family paid me $250/week for 30-35 hours of work, and most of the other au pairs I knew in Melbourne were also making $200-$250/week for similar hours. She was obviously working way more hours than the average au pair and yet was not being financially compensated for it. She was clearly unhappy, but was too timid to mention anything to her host family. Don’t let this type of situation happen to you. Do your research beforehand and speak up if something doesn’t feel right.
How much do you get paid as an au pair?
Au pairs get paid a weekly salary that varies greatly depending on country and location, as well as hours expected to work. I remember when I was looking into the UK, the average salary was £70-£90/week. When I was looking into going to France, the salary was around €100-€120/week. While in Australia, au pairs typically made between $200-$250/week. Families that only need an au pair 20-25 hours a week will typically pay on the lower end of those scales, whereas families who want the full 35 hours a week will usually pay a bit more.
What type of work schedule would I have as an au pair?
Again, this varies a lot depending on the family. Some families need help during the week, others need help on the weekends. Some need help in the mornings and evenings only (before and after the kids get home from school), thereby leaving you with afternoons off, while other families need you throughout the whole day. Some families will ask that you work six days a week, but only 4-5 hours per day. Others might only need you to work two days a week, but for a full 12-15 hours those days. There are lots of options to choose from if you’re looking for a particular type of schedule. Just make sure to be clear about what type of schedule you prefer upfront and right away, so there is no confusion with the family as to what your needs are. If you don’t communicate your needs they will often be overlooked, and this will ultimately leave you feeling unhappy with your family.
What are your accommodations like?
Once again, this varies greatly depending on the country and even the families own lifestyle within their country. Typically, above anything else, you should expect to have your own bedroom. I’ve never met an au pair who had to share their room with one of their kids, and you should never have to. Some au pairs will also get their own bathroom, while others will have to share theirs with one or all of their kids. Some au pairs even get their own basement apartment or in-law suite, or, in the case of one of my friends in Sydney, even their own pool-house. This is uncommon however, and you should typically expect no more than your own bedroom.
What are my duties as an au pair?
Some families are strictly looking for child-care, while others are looking for you to help out with basic chores, cooking and possibly even cleaning as well. This should all be discussed before you start work with your family, and everything should be agreed upon in advance. With my first family, I was required to only look after the kids and do little else. With my second family, I was required to help cook, do laundry, change the bed sheets, tidy the kitchen, and tidy up after the kids as well. The family also gave me little jobs like organizing the closets, filing system, and storage room, as well as putting items up on Ebay to sell. These “other jobs” were few and far between however, and I never once felt uncomfortable doing them.
Some families ask their au pairs to run errands like grocery shopping and picking up the dry-cleaning, and others may require you to actually clean the whole house like a cleaner would (I don’t agree with this unless your being paid extra, however). What you are comfortable doing and not doing is your own choice, and you need to communicate this with your family right away to avoid being taken advantage of.
Should my family be paying for my flight?
A lot of potential au pairs ask this question, and my answer is always no. It’s never expected that your family should pay for your return airfare. I’ve heard a few stories of families wanting to chip in a bit and help their au pair out with this expense, but that usually comes at the end of the arrangement when you’ve been working for them for a long time and they really like you. This almost never happens however, and the au pair bares the full cost of their own flights.
However, there are other “perks” an au pair might get that vary greatly depending on the family. Some families provide their au pair with a car and all associated expenses paid for it, while others don’t. Again, this should not be expected from the family, but is a welcome gesture. Other families will throw in deals to sweeten the arrangement for the au pair if they can’t quite afford to pay the au pair the typical salary. For example, a woman in Australia contacted me and offered me $150/week to take care of her two boys for 30 hours/week, this was a bit on the low side as far as average salaries went in Australia, but to even things out a bit she threw in a free gym membership (as she was a personal trainer), as well as the use of a mobile. Since the cost of gym memberships and phone bills can add up quickly, this would’ve made for a nice deal for an interested au pair.
Other “perks” au pairs can enjoy simply revolve around the house the au pair is living in. A friend of mine in Melbourne was working for a wealthy family who lived right on the beach and had their own pool and spa/jacuzzi. My friend was welcome to use their facilities whenever she wanted, and spent a lot of summer days lounging by the pool when she wasn’t working.
Where should I au pair?
This is completely about personal preference. What country would you like to live in? Would you want to live in a large city, a smaller town or out in the rural country? What area of the country do you want to live in? What climate do you like? All of these can factor into your decision. For me, I knew I wanted to be in a major city, to make for easy travelling on weekends and time-off. I had also narrowed my search down to four countries; The UK, France, Australia and New Zealand. The reason why I ended up in Melbourne was simply because I found my perfect family there.
How do I meet other au pairs once I arrive at my new home?
I was alerted to a Facebook group called Au Pair In Melbourne weeks before I arrived in Melbourne. Luckily, I was able to spend those weeks before I arrived finding other au pairs who already lived in or were shortly moving to the neighbourhood I was going to be living in. During my ten months in Melbourne, I used this Facebook page frequently to meet other au pairs. Some of those meetings ended up being nothing more than a meeting, while other meetings turned into friendships that lasted many months (I still keep in touch with two au pair friends I had in Melbourne over a year later). If the city you live in doesn’t have a Facebook group similar to this for au pairs (which many of them do, you just have to search for them), consider making your own group. Also, you can use the au pair website you used to search for families to connect with other au pairs – I used Au Pair World, which is a free website, to search for my family, or you can use the agency you went through to meet other au pairs. As well, some au pairs decide to work other jobs in which they can meet new people. As with anything, once you know someone it becomes a lot easier to meet other people, as they introduce you to their friends who then introduce you to their friends and so on.
In summary, when I was filtering through emails from potential au pair families, there were always a few main things I looked for; Location, Schedule and Hours Expected to Work, Accommodations, Number of Kids, and Salary. There were a few things I was sure of that I wanted (and didn’t want), and once those ducks fell in a row, I was free to suss out the personality of the family and our compatibility level. I choose to do it this way because I knew that no matter how much I loved the family, if I was unhappy with the location I was living in or how much they were paying me, I knew I would never be fully happy with my experience there. However, if I knew I was happy with the basics like accommodations and schedule, etc. AND I was happy with the family, then I would truly have a wonderful experience.
I would also recommend filling out a basic schedule with the family before you start work. What does your typically day look like? When do you work and what time do you have off? What are the duties expected of you? This way you have a very good idea of what your life will be like with your family before you even get there.
You can read Part Two of my Au Pair series here.
Have you ever au paired before? What tips do you have for others?