Having spent one academic year as an au pair, there is a lot I wish I´d have known before I signed up for the job. Here is my list of questions you should ask yourself before deciding if it is right for you:
1) “Do I actually like kids?”
This may seem obvious, but it is probably the most crucial question to consider. As an au pair, you will be spending a lot of time with [usually] very young children. They´re cute at first for sure, but the novelty fades away quite rapidly after they´ve started screaming, or one of their bodily fluids has made its way onto your clothing.
If you´re like me and you really do love working with kids, then you already know this and for you the cuteness will override the nasty stuff. You´ll savour the moments when they say the most adorable silly things. You´ll embrace the goofiness, and find pretending to be a BFG in full characterisation like second nature. As an au pair you have the opportunity to gain new younger siblings, who you´ll love as if they were you´re blood.
But if you´re not into that, then it will neither be good for yourself or for the children to do the job. Yes, it is a super easy way to move abroad, but unless you´re a natural when it comes to niños you are going to hate it.
2) “Am I too old for this?”
The Aupairworld website advises that au pairs be under 27 years old, something I didn´t understand until I became one myself. You´re supposed to be the mature sibling figure, but the older you are the more distance there is and the more you´d become more like a second parent or nanny. That said, if a family has teenagers you need to care for, then obviously being 18 and looking after a 15-year-old won´t have quite the same effect.
Moreover, if you´ve graduated from University or have had a whole career before becoming an au pair, then think twice about if it will really benefit you. Honestly, having just left uni with a lot of work experience already, I don´t think becoming an au pair was the best decision. I ended up getting teaching jobs in my free time because I was both bored and worried that I wasn´t enhancing my career opportunities.
I loved my family, and for that reason alone I didn´t quit after 3 months. Now I work as an Auxiliar de Conversacion, and I wish I´d known about this programme sooner. Not only is it super laid back work, but it is also decently paid, and will be taken seriously by my future employers.
3) “Do I want to live with a family?”
Not all au pair work has to be internal, but the majority is. I didn´t know how much I´d miss simple pleasures like cooking dinner for myself, or spending lazy Sundays on the sofa, until I lost them. In Spain anyway, wealthier families have housekeepers that cook and clean, and although the au pair is given their own room, you never feel totally free like you would if it was really yours.
I didn´t have a curfew (some do), so going out was never a problem, but I had to always ask permission if I ever wanted friends round the house, and as a result never did. I really missed that, and that reason alone had a huge impact on my decision not to au pair for another year. You´re this weird family member/worker living in the house, and you should ask a lot of questions to your prospective family about their dos and don´ts before you take on this position. For example, I thought cooking for myself would be fine, but it turned out that messed up the housekeeper´s schedule and thus I could only rustle something up during the hours she wasn´t there. Unfortunately it turned out her cooking was abysmal, and I lived off yoghurt and cheese sandwiches for my entire stay. It was a sad 10 months for both my waistline, and my taste buds.
You can learn a lot from living with another family, and perhaps if you are younger then it may be really nice, especially if it is your first time away from your own home. I loved my family to pieces, but like my real family, that didn´t automatically mean I wanted to live in their home under their rules. Being 21 and having already moved out of my parent´s house 3 years prior, it was not ideal, and in hindsight I would have preferred to work externally had I known this was an option.
4) “How much do I want to learn a second language?”
I didn’t come to Spain to teach English, I came here to learn Spanish, which is exactly why I opted to be an au pair instead of an English teacher at first. An Au pair is supposed to be a cultural exchange – you help their children learn your language, and in return they help you learn theirs.
I know people who have become fluent within a year through being an au pair, but I was not one of them. How much you pick up a second language totally subjective and varies between families. In my friends and I´s experiences, the families we worked for weren´t really keeping to their side of the deal. They wanted to hit two birds with one stone: get a cheap babysitter weekday afternoons, and bring up their kids bilingual at the same time. You learning their language was not one their priorities on the list.
So if you really want to learn a language, learn from my mistakes and be stern with your host parents. I´d recommend getting written in the contract that they speak to you only in their native tongue. I persevered with classes and studying by myself, but had I not done so I could have easily spent 10 months in Spain and learn little more than Hola ¿Que tal? Yo Tengo 22 años. Since moving into a Spanish-speaking flat share, my Spanish has improved dramatically and I lament at the fact I wasted so much time last year!
5) “Are there other options that I might prefer?”
Honestly, the reason I chose to become and au pair was largely because I was oblivious to the other options I had. I avoided English teaching for the sake of learning Spanish, but had I known that there were some academies who offer you free Spanish classes as part of your contract then that would have been very worthwhile. The programme I am currently on has me working in a school 4 days a week, and I am surrounded by hundreds of little Spanish speakers every day.
As well as teaching English, there are also many Workaways and study abroad programmes. I could have gotten free board and lodging and lived in an awesome hostel for 10 months instead. I would recommend doing some thorough research into what´s out there before signing a contract to au pair. I had a good experience, and I definitely would recommend looking into it, but if you´re a bit older, a bit more experienced, used to being independent and not all that into kids, then it certainly is not for you.
I hope that has helped you a little if you´re confused about whether or not au pairing is right for you. Feel free to comment or email me if you have any questions.