Finding affordable childcare is challenging, especially for families with irregular schedules.  As an E.R. physician, I work strange hours—my schedule continuously changes.  Even though I don’t work nights anymore, I still work a shift that starts at 6 a.m. and another that ends at 2 a.m., often in the same week.  Evenings, holidays, and weekends all blur together for many healthcare professionals, while society revolves around a Monday through Friday 9 – 5 work week.  This leaves many healthcare workers scrambling for childcare that works with their chaotic schedule.  Many traditional options, such as babysitters, daycare, and after-school programs, do not offer the needed flexibility, while live-in nannies are often cost-prohibitive.  My family has chosen a different path, having participated in the U.S. au pair program since our first child was born in 2013.  Hosting an au pair can be an economical and rewarding way to assist with childcare, but it is not for everyone.  If you have struggled with traditional childcare or have ever considered an au pair, this article is for you.  

What is an Au Pair

     

An au pair is a foreign young person who comes to the U.S. to join an American family and help care for their children.  The au pair program, regulated by the U.S. Department of State (DOS), was founded in 1986 to promote goodwill and cultural exchange.  Currently, 17,500 au pairs from 20+ countries are working in the U.S. on a 1-year variant of the J-1 visa, the same as those given to many international medical residents.  Sixteen au pair agencies are allowed by the DOS to sponsor au pairs.  Agencies work with foreign equivalents to identify qualified applicants while simultaneously finding families to “host” the au pairs.

     Both au pair applicants and the host families must apply, interview, and be selected as part of the program.  If accepted, the host family chooses between available applicants that they feel would be compatible with their family.  There are many applicants to choose from, with diverse cultural backgrounds.  All applicants should be able to speak passable English, but fluency varies.  You conduct video and phone interviews as you vet each other to find the right fit.  This process is known as matching.  Once matched, the au pair will travel to live with the host family for one year.  

     The Department of State has regulations with which au pairs and host families must comply.  The agencies ensure that these regulations are followed and often have their own additional rules.

Au Pair Experience

What an Au Pair Isn’t

     

An au pair is not a servant, a cook, or a housekeeper.  In Brazil, it is common to have a tiny room in your house or apartment where a diarista, or maid, lives during the week, cooking, cleaning, and helping with your children.  My wife’s brother has one.  There are equivalents in many other cultures – I have friends from Mexico and Bolivia who have similar arrangements.  An au pair is not the same.  Per DOS regulations, an au pair may perform household duties only as part of caring for the children.  They may cook for the children while watching them but are not the family’s cook.  You can have them wash the children’s clothes but they cannot do your laundry.  They may clean up after the kids but are not responsible for cleaning the whole house.  If you match with someone who loves to cook and wants to prepare the family dinner because they like it, great.  Otherwise, you are responsible.

     An au pair is not the neighborhood babysitter.  They are not allowed to watch other people’s children, even if they are your extended family.  They are not allowed to work out of other people’s homes.  The hours they can work is limited up to 10 hours daily, so they can’t watch the kids while the parents go away for the weekend.  A list of rules and regulations is below.  It is imperative that you understand and follow them.  

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Rules & Regulations for Your Au Pair

Au Pair must be 18 – 26 years old upon entry to the U.S.

Must have 200 hours of childcare experience with children less than 2 if caring for a child less than 2.

Visa is for 1 year, renewable for 6, 9, or 12 months.

The host family must provide food for the au pair at home, even on days off.

Must have a private bedroom with a window, closet, and a lockable door.

May work up to 45 hours per week and 10 hours per day.

Must receive one weekend off per month and 1.5 contiguous days off per week.

Must receive two weeks of paid vacation time per year.

Au Pair must attend continuing education classes, usually at a community college.

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Host family process

     

To participate in the au pair program, a potential host family must go through one of the 16 registered agencies, which vary in size, process, and geographic location.  Not every agency can accept a host family in every area, as they must have established infrastructure before placing an au pair.  Once a family decides on an agency, they complete an online application.  The family must be U.S. Citizens or have Permanent Resident status to qualify.  The agency will perform a criminal background check.  Single/divorced/widowed applicants are accepted, but au pairs cannot go between houses to couples sharing custody of children.  Once a host family qualifies, the agency will perform an in-home interview, where they will talk with the family and ensure the home meets all regulations.  An au pair must have their own room with a closet, window, and a lockable door, although they do not require a private bathroom.  If the host family passes the interview process, they will connect with a “matching specialist” to assist with the next phase of the process.

Compatibility

     

There are hundreds of au pair applicants, so working with a matching specialist is critical for finding someone with whom your family will be compatible.  You can filter applicants based on age, gender, country of origin, languages spoken, childcare experience, driving skills, dietary restrictions, and religion.  While the vast majority of au pairs are female, the program does allow males to participate.  Once you have set your filters, the agency will suggest applicant profiles for you to view, and you can search on your own as well.  Profiles include a written background, resume, references, and a video introduction.  Once a potential match has been identified, the host family reaches out to the applicant, who can then review the family’s profile.  If both parties agree, the next step is a video chat, which is more conversation than interview.  The conversation continues through email or text until another video chat, including the children, occurs.  This process is open, not exclusive, with both parties often speaking to multiple candidates.  When a match occurs, the host family must wait for the au pair to receive her visa, which can take 6-12 weeks.  

     After the au pair arrives, an agency representative will perform an in-home orientation for the family.  The host family will make a weekly schedule for the au pair, which can change weekly based on the family’s needs but must follow the DOS regulations.  This flexibility is one of the primary benefits of having an au pair.

Au Pair Applicant Process

     

While I doubt anyone reading this will apply to become an au pair, it is important to look at the process from all vantage points.  The candidate provides an application, resume, and references to a local affiliate of a U.S. agency.  The agency performs a background check and a health screening on the applicant.  If qualified, the applicant creates a profile and a video introduction for host families to view.  Once the applicant matches with a family, she can apply for a visa.  If the visa is approved, the au pair will undergo online training.  Some agencies require CPR and basic first aid certification as well.  Most companies will fly the au pairs from their own country to the U.S. for in-person training for up to one week before traveling to their final destination.  Once at the host family’s home, the au pair will participate in the orientation meeting and must meet with a representative from the agency called a LCC (local community counselor) monthly.    

     Once an au pair has finished the year, she can extend with the same family (at the family’s request), match with another family for a second year, or go home.  An au pair can only stay for a maximum of two years on their version of the J-1 visa.  

Rematch 

     

The process above describes an au pair coming from her home country, but there is another way to match.  The rematch process places in-country au pairs with host families.  An in-country au pair can be someone moving to a new family for a second year or someone who didn’t finish an entire year.  Au pairs may choose to relocate for their second year for various reasons, many of which have nothing to do with their relationship with the host family.  Many simply want a different cultural experience.  A year in a small town in Colorado will be very different from a year in Manhattan or New Orleans.  The au pair can re-enter the match process as an in-country applicant.  A host family benefits from an in-country au pair as they already have a Visa, the wait time is usually less, and the applicant already has experience with another American family.  The drawbacks include that they have no option for another year with the second family and that they may have picked up unwelcome habits during their first year.

     If the host family and au pair do not get along for any reason, the agency mediates the situation.  If it becomes untenable, the au pair can choose to either go back to her home country or enter rematch.  The au pair has a short period (1 week – 1 month) to find a new host family, or she must return home.  If a family in a less desirable geographic location is having a difficult time finding a match, a rematch may be a good option.  The downside is that the au pair will have less than one year available.

Personal Experience

     

Although never an au pair herself, my wife worked for an agency as a Regional Director for 3 1/2 years before our marriage.  When we found out she was pregnant, she started looking around for an agency that would bring an au pair to our area.  Unfortunately, none existed.  Undeterred, she contacted an agency, worked with them to create the required local infrastructure, recruited other host families, and started working for the agency as an LCC.  We were the first family in our area to host an au pair, and that local market still has a thriving au pair program ten years later.  

Our Au Pairs

     

Our first au pair was from China.  She was a rematch and stayed with us for the remainder of her second year.  We had a wonderful experience, finding her intelligent, reliable, responsible, and playful with our children.  After her year ended, we sponsored her on a student visa while she studied at a local college.  After receiving her master’s degree in accounting, she remained legally in the U.S. to work and still lives here today.  We think of her as part of our family, often spending holidays together.  

     Over the years, we have had nine au pairs join our family, with mostly positive results.  There were two that didn’t work out well and went into rematch, one after five days and the other after five months.  There were not any major concerns, just personality conflicts.  Several of them genuinely integrated into our family, while others always remained a little more distant.  For us, the program has been a wonderful addition to our lives and the lives of our children.  We enjoy the cultural aspect of the program, teaching the au pairs about our lives here in the U.S. while learning about their lives.  Our children feel like they have a connection to China, Germany, and Brazil.

Au Pair 2

Financial Considerations 

    

 Application fees are variable from agency to agency and range from $0 – $100.  The agency’s placement fee varies but is typically around $10,000 annually.  This includes an international flight for the au pair from their home country to your city and back.  The fee also includes standard traveler’s health insurance.  While the payment varies by agency, the host family must pay the au pair $200-250 per week (depending on the agency) for 52 weeks, which includes two weeks of paid vacation time.  The family must additionally provide up to $500 for continuing education classes and provide room and board.  If the family wants the au pair to travel with them, they must pay for accommodations.  This adds up to $21,000 – $23,600 per year, not including room & board.  The food budget will vary, depending on what your family eats, how much the au pair eats, and how often you eat out (you must pay for the au pair if they accompany you to a restaurant).  Assume $200 – 400 per month, which brings the total to $23,400 – $28,400 per year.  At 45 hours per week, this works out to $10.00 – $12.14 per hour paid by the host family.   

Varying Financial Considerations

     

Other monetary considerations vary by situation.  Transportation is an issue if you live in the suburbs but not in a city with easy access to public transportation.  You may need to allot extra money for train fare, Uber rides, or provide access to an automobile.  We purchased a used car for our au pair to drive as we have three children in various after-school activities and need help with transportation.  Therefore, we covered insurance as well as gasoline and maintenance for the car.  We also provide a mobile phone plan as we do not have a home phone.  Finally, we fully accept the au pair as part of our family, including her in everything we do, such as school activities, movies, amusement parks, dining out, and travel.  These items are not mandatory and increase the cost, but the investment is worth the improved experience for us, our children, and the au pair.  We likely spend an additional $5,000 minimum on these items per year.  

Is An Au Pair Right For Your Family? 

Do you need full-time childcare? 

As demonstrated above, the au pair program can be an economical means of childcare.  However, the math changes if you do not need full-time help.  If you only need someone 20 hours per week, you would pay $22.50 – $27.31 per hour.  This is not unreasonable, but you may be able to find a nanny for this amount without them living in your house.  We typically schedule our au pair around 40 hours a week and find the cost and the other benefits of the program to be worth it.     

 Do you need flexible hours to help with your family?  

Being an E.R. doctor, I am not a morning person.  Our au pair helps my wife get our three children ready before school, assuring they have breakfast, brush their teeth, and have their lunches packed.  She helps us with the kids’ after-school snacks, when my wife and I are not available to drive them to events, and when three kids need to go to three different places simultaneously.  She is also available if we would like a date night.  Finally, we schedule her to work more when I am out of town working.  It would be difficult to hire a nanny to work these non-traditional hours, which is why an au pair is ideal for us. 

Are you comfortable with someone living in your house? 

This is the primary concern that my wife heard during her time working for au pair agencies.  You must be willing to share your home and your family.  You don’t have to be perfect; no one is, but you must be open to sharing your family’s imperfections with a stranger.  Any concerns I had with having someone in our house dissipated quickly once we started the program.  I’ve grown very comfortable with an extra person around, but I grew up with four humans, a cat, and a dog in an 800 sq ft house.  I understand everyone is different when it comes to shared space.  

Are you prepared to truly welcome someone into your family? 

An au pair works for you but should not be treated like an employee (although you should treat your employees well).  You are a host or a sponsor.  I like to think of them as my wife’s cousin or a close friend’s daughter.  I feel responsible for their safety and well-being while they are in my house, their own family an ocean away.  We include them in everything we do, from vacations to dining out, sporting events, and holidays.  They eat dinner with us every night and tuck my children into bed when I work.  I think of them and treat them as part of our family.   

Is cultural exchange important to you? 

My wife is from Brazil, we met in Germany, and we both speak multiple languages.  Multiculturalism is an integral part of our lives.  We have hosted au pairs from China, Germany, and Brazil and have enjoyed exposing our children to these varied cultures.  Most of our au pairs have been Brazilian and have spoken to our children in Portuguese, helping them grow up with the language.  If these experiences matter to your family, the program might be for you.  

Further Considerations

     

After years of experience with administration and participation in the program, here are some considerations before choosing an au pair.  The screening process is essential, as you must match with someone that fits into your life.  Don’t choose a 21-year-old whose profile pictures are all about partying if you need someone in the mornings and weekends.  Consider where you live.  No young international traveler wants to stay at home in a rural area or remote suburb.  If you are near a city, they are going to want to be in the city.  Ensure you have a car for them or reliable public transportation that they can afford.  

     Try to imagine what it would be like to be a young adult in a foreign country living at a stranger’s house.  You would want to be included.  You would want to get out of the house and explore the area and meet people your own age, make friends, and maybe find someone to date.  No one wants to sit at home all the time, so help them avoid feeling homesick.  In short, just be a reasonable human being who thinks about others as well as yourself.    

Au Pair 3

Conclusion

     

Au Pair means at par or equal to in French, not servant or employee.  You are living in the same house, forming a year-long relationship, and must share two common goals – taking great care of your children and providing a rewarding cultural experience for the au pair.  If all parties are aligned with these goals and treat each other with respect, patience, flexibility, and kindness, the experience can be quite harmonious.  Just before writing these lines, I was having a pop-a-shot basketball tournament with our au pair and two of my children in our garage.  Everyone was laughing and having a great time.  As with all relationships, you get what you give.  

     While the program may not be the cheapest childcare option, I believe it provides the best value for your money.  Participating in this program has been wonderful for our family.  With three children, you sometimes feel outnumbered, but with an au pair, we have found a way to even the teams.  If you can honestly answer yes to all the questions above, the program may be suitable for your family.  I’m happy to answer any additional questions you may have.  You can reach me by leaving a comment below or emailing me directly.   For additional information you can also visit the following two websites: Au Pair Care and Culture Care.