My 10 months as an Au Pair have ended, and although overall I’d say it was a positive experience, as with any job it did not come without its nuisances and disappointments. Here is my very honest review of those ups and downs, what I think when I look now at the website that first drew me to au pairing in the first place, and my advice for those thinking of giving it a go themselves… Beware, it’s a long’n!

You are, first and foremost, a live-in babysitter. And this, it seems, is what most families are really looking for. In Spain anyway, the culture is to have a lot of help at home. It’s a bizarre culture that took some time getting used to, given that I don’t know a single family who employs a maid to cook and clean for them in 2015! But it is the norm in Spain, and every family I came across had employed help in some shape or form.

An Aupair is a way to have half of the work sorted, for a fraction of the wage. You will babysit their children in the hours they can’t (or don’t want) to be there.The fact you’ll speak English to their children is just a cheeky bonus on the side of insanely cheap childcare. This became clear to me first when I left my first family, and later through discussions with other au pairs and their experiences when they needed time off. My second host Mum told me on more than one occasion how she had tried to convince her sister in-law to get an au pair, because she could save over 500 euro a month on a housekeeper by getting an au pair to do it, because you only need to pay the girl 200 euros a month…

This all fine. There’s nothing wrong with wanting someone to take care of your kids, and why wouldn’t a parent jump at the chance of combining that with the gift of a second language?

We just couldn’t get our head around why a parent would want to be cheap when it came to the care of their children… As an au pair you were (more often than not) left alone with the children; you would feed them, bathe them, and put them to bed; you’d take them to and from school, help them with their homework, and teaching them English on the side. In exchange you’d be given free board, and handed a 50 euro note at the end of each week. Sometimes free board would consist of much as your own  air-conditioned apartment, a swimming pool outside, a monthly travel card, and flights all included. Other times you’d be stuck in the tiny single bedroom, shared bathroom with your host kid’s (without a lock), and  meal times that were so awkward you’d rather snack on cereal bars in your room. Your working day could be as long as 6 hours Monday-Friday and babysitting on the weekend, or as short as just 2 hours and days off whenever you needed.

The pay and working conditions are complicated and don’t add up, so if you’re going to sign up for a year of living as a cheap baby-sitter, squeeze as much as you can out of the “free board & lodging” part of the contract, because at the end of the day that is the only way you can justify the terrible wage. Personally, I think all Au pairs should be paid 100 euros a week minimum in pocket-money, and if the family can’t afford that then you should not make the au pair work any more than 10 hours a week. Interrogate your prospective host family, and get your hours down on paper in a signed contract. If they say you’ll be working X number of hours “more or less”, run a mile. I’ve lost count of the amount of au pairs who told me how their families said they’d only work a few hours a day and never be left on their own with their kids, only to arrive and start working 25 hours a week with the host parents flitting in and out when it suited them. Without your exact hours down on paper, it is unbelievably awkward to try to change them once you’ve moved in there. If they simply don’t know how much they’ll need you, set down an agreed maximum. If there funny about this, then that’s a sure sign you’re going to be overworked, and unless they’re offering big money in exchange for this, it is not worth it!

It is not your job to raise some one else’s child – but when it feels like you spend more time with the kids than the parents do, it’s really hard not to. I brought a system of discipline and rules because it just made my life easier, but unless the parents are going to back you and also adopt the same system, it’s a lost battle. I found it amazing just how different my girls acted around me to how they were around their parents. Kids are always smarter than you think, and they will try to get away with as much as they can. Sometimes at the weekend or during the day I’d hear the girls misbehaving and I’d be tempted to come out and help, but after a while I decided the only time their behaviour was my concern was when they were with me.

For this reason, Au pairing feels more like a trial shift for parenting than a  bit of teaching experience. I gained far more parenting skills over anything else. Teaching kids English through immersion in the comfort of their own home is nothing like being in a classroom, and apart from a few games the two can barely be interlinked. You’ll spend hours upon hours racking your brain with fellow au pairs on they why oh whys your host parents do x instead of y, and taking advice from friends on what to do when your host kid punches your but your host parents don’t see why they need to do anything about it. You’ll also observe all the things your host parents do that are really awesome, and most of all you’ll gain an incredible admiration for working parents and realise just how hard it all is.

Passing on any wisdom you gain to your host parents is an awkward and sometimes best avoided conversation. You really have to pick your moments. There were many, many times I would have loved to just sit my host parents down and tell them everything they were doing “wrong” with their kids. But getting stuck in the middle of a little disagreement between them one evening made me realise just how awkward that is, and how it was not my place to do that. It’s easy to judge someone else’s parenting style when you have the benefit of being able to look in from the outside, and there is no one size fits all approach to parenting. The best thing is to be empathetic, and only concern yourself with their upbringing during your working hours.

If you match with the right family, they really do feel like your second family. I totally underestimated just how close I would get to my host family. The two girls were my little sisters, and my host parents looked out for me as if I was one their own. Sometimes I would be so happy to see them that I’d want to hang out with them out of my contracted hours; other times they’d annoy the hell out of me and I’d be ready to slam my door shut as soon at my watch told me it was 10 o’clock. My host parents were very understanding of this and respected my free time, which meant overall I was very happy living in their home. They were genuinely concerned for my well-being and thankful for all the work I did.

In the end, respect was the most important thing. I wasn’t even paid for the actual au pair hours I worked during the week, but that didn’t matter because I was made to feel appreciated. I say all of this about minimum pay and maximum hours because I had a unique contract and working conditions, but the majority of au pairs I met were not so lucky. As an au pair is not seen as a “real job”, it is veeeery easy for a host family to take advantage of this, which is why I can’t recommend enough only agreeing to move in when everything is laid out clearly in a contract. So, just in case, don’t sign up for more than 6 months, and agree on a fair notice period. I don’t regret doing it for a full academic year – but if I didn´t have such a great host family, I would have left after 6 months. As it is just glorified babysitting, after so much time I felt like there wasn’t much more to gain in terms of my career, but I stayed because I loved the girls and I didn’t want to ditch them half way.

All cons considered, I would still recommend the experience. The job itself isn’t glamorous, but heck, it was a stepping stone into Spain and I have gained a great network of families and students because of it. It’s hard to put into words just how much you learn about yourself when you’re plonked right in the middle of a new family with a totally different culture, education, and set of beliefs to you. You feel horribly exposed and your forced to examine every thing you thought was totally normal to do (I felt weird just for not wearing slippers, or eating cereal with milk for breakfast). Your patience will be tested daily, and you’ll quickly learn that being able to bite your tongue at the appropriate moment is a truly underestimated skill. You’ll get a bizarre opportunity to practice bringing up children which, as much as it often felt I could be doing something better, I’m sure I’ll be very grateful of the experience somewhere down the line…

For more on my Life as an Au Pair, check out my past posts:
Life as an Au Pair ~ When the going got tough and I buggered off.
Life as an Au Pair ~ How I quintupled my income.
Life in Madrid ~ “How’s your Spanish?”.
Au Pair Blog Posts

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