Au Pairs - Everything You Need To Know
Of all things that I’ve found tricky since becoming a parent, nothing has been quite the ball ache, for quite as long as figuring out childcare for the kids. Everyone’s situation is different but unfortunately, childcare in the UK is about as inflexible and expensive as it gets and I’m pretty sure that everyone has struggled with childcare in some shape or form at some point.
Our situation is unique (isn’t everyone’s?) because my husband is a touring musician meaning he can spend a LOT of time away from home. Literally months. Other times, he can be home. For months. (Both situations come with their drawbacks to be honest!) We need our childcare to be flexible and affordable because sometimes we need a LOT and sometimes we don’t need much and as we’re both self-employed with no regular pay checks, we can’t commit to paying for expensive childcare that we might not need.
So, two years ago we decided to try an au pair. We were both nervous about doing it - is it weird having someone in your home? What if it’s a bad fit? Are they qualified enough? There are so many questions so with this blog I’m going to try and answer as many as I can!
Can You Fit An Au Pair In?
Why the au pair option is without doubt the most flexible and cost effective, you do have to be able to give them room and board. You don’t have to provide them with their own bathroom but they do need their own room. If you’re without a spare room, the au pair option is probably out for you. I have heard horror stories of au pairs being made to sleep in the kids room but that’s wrong on all sorts of levels.
Where Do You Find An Au Pair?
We’ve used www.aupairworld.com to find all our au pairs. They’ll charge you for the service -it’s €39.90 for a month - and, if I’m honest, it can be pretty stressful. Imagine Tinder but for au pairs. Au pairs are inundated with requests to join a family and vice versa. My advice? Dedicate 2-3 days to it and if you like the look of an au pair, get a Skype interview booked in immediately.
You can go through an agency - it’s a much more expensive way of doing it - but you have another level of protection in case things don’t work out. They’ll also take care of all the admin which can be extensive, especially if you are hiring an au pair from outside the EU.
What Questions To Ask An Au Pair?
We have a list of questions that we ask all the au pairs we interview. Some are obvious, some are not so obvious. Here’s what we ask:
Tell us about where you live and your family?
This is always good to figuring out their level of English as well as for learning more about them.
Have you worked with children before? Tell us about your experience.
We genuinely don’t mind if they don’t have heaps of experience working with kids. Most of them have got some experience because they know it can help them get a placement. But, we are aware that when you hire an au pair you are not hiring a qualified childcare professional. You are hiring a smart, curious, enthusiastic young adult who will need support and guidance in all sorts of areas (not just childcare).
Do you want to do English Language classes?
Because of the nature of our freelance work, we are unable to offer our au pairs the chance to do language classes. Most of the au pairs we have hired have had a good knowledge of English already and have found simply living in England and existing within the language daily has significantly improved their language skills. If you have a fixed routine and both kids at school, there should be no problem with them doing language classes while the kids are at school but we’re not there yet. If they really need to do English classes then we’re not the family for them.
Do you have a boyfriend?
This is a tricky one but it’s a really important question to ask in my opinion. I tend to avoid hiring an au pair who has a boyfriend at home. Having done so on one occasion, we found she was always distracted, always looking for a chance to go home or for her boyfriend to come and stay. While we have always welcomed our au pairs friends and family to come and stay, having a boyfriend to stay every other weekend was not feasible. On the flip side, I always hope they find a boyfriend while they’re here because then they may want to stay longer!
What are your hobbies?
Most of our au pairs have wanted to be able to use a gym so we’ve provided them with a gym membership while they’ve been with us.
Do you have any food allergies or are you vegetarian/vegan?
My husband is vegetarian so we are all fine with veggies, but a vegan au pair probably wouldn’t fit in very well with our lifestyle.
Have you lived away from your family before?
It’s always important to know this because those that haven’t may need more support. Some au pairs have never had to do their own laundry before, some have never been away from home. That doesn’t rule them out but it’s something to consider if you’re weighing up two possible au pairs. Homesickness can be an issue and I’ve known au pairs return home within a month because they miss their families too much.
Beyond that, other questions often come up naturally and, if it’s a good interview, you’ll find yourself talking and chatting freely about all sorts of things!
What Do You Need To Tell An Au Pair?
In my experience COMMUNICATION IS KING! It really doesn’t matter what your set up or needs are (as long as they fall within the rules for how long an au pair can work etc), as long as you are open and honest. For example, we can’t accommodate English Classes while Bo isn’t in school. For some au pairs that’s a deal breaker, for others it’s fine. Also, we make it clear that hours are not the same every week and can often change at the last minute. We are clear that my husband is away for a lot, so for a significant period of time it will just be one parent around. We are also clear that we are a bit chaotic but fun and kind and looking for someone who’s up for the crazy!
What Do You Pay An Au Pair And How Many Hours Do They Work?
First up, you don’t ‘pay’ an au pair. Technically, you are providing them with room and board and pocket money. We pay our au pairs £95 a week and also provide them with a gym membership if they want. This is negotiable - au pairs can get anything from £70-£140 a week depending on where they are. London wages tend to be higher. If you go through an agency, the wages will also be higher than if you go through a direct site such as www.aupairworld.com.
In terms of hours, we ask for 25 hours a week and two nights babysitting. If we don’t use the babysitting, we may use her for 30 hours but that’s very rare. Often, she doesn’t do the full 25 hours, especially if my husband is not touring. There have been weeks where our au pair has covered more hours if necessary and in those instances we’ll either pay her more or reduce her hours the following week.
Our au pairs have often babysat for our friends, if we’re not using them, in order to earn some extra pocket money. We have also paid them to do extra chores - such as a deep clean on the house - if they want extra money.
There are extra things you can offer them to make yourself more attractive as a family e.g. a travel card, a mobile phone etc. but these aren’t expected.
If they fit the following criteria, they don’t have to pay any tax. (Please note: this may all change with Brexit).
An au pair isn’t classed as a worker or an employee if most of the following apply:
they’re here on a cultural exchange programme
they’ve got a signed letter of invitation from the host family that includes details of their stay, for example accommodation, living conditions, approximate working hours, free time, pocket money
they learn about British culture from the host family and share their own culture with them
they have their own private room in the house, provided free of charge
they eat their main meals with the host family, free of charge
they help with light housework and childcare for around 30 hours a week, including a couple of evenings babysitting
they get reasonable pocket money
they can attend English language classes at a local college in their spare time
they’re allowed time to study and can practise their English with the host family
they sometimes go on holiday with the host family and help look after the children
they can travel home to see their family during the year
Who Covers Their Travel To The UK?
If you go through an agency, you will be expected to cover travel. If not, they tend to cover their own travel. Again, this is up for discussion and can be negotiated.
What ‘Jobs’ Is An Au Pair Expected To Do?
Obviously, they have to help look after the children. Beyond that, it’s largely what you agree with them but for us, we keep it strictly to housework relating to the kids. We expect our au pair to keep the kids’ room and playroom tidy (or even better, make the kids tidy their own room!), change / make their beds, keep their bathroom clean and tidy, do their laundry i.e. bring it down and pop it in the washing machine. Someone else might pop it in the dryer (depending on who’s around) and I’ll do any ironing but they’ll take it back upstairs and put it away.
We don’t live within walking distance of Billie’s school, so we need an au pair who can drive. It’s not cheap to insure them but for us it’s a necessary expense. We always make sure they’re comfortable with the car and they have at least 2 years driving experience.
What’s It Like Sharing Your Space With Someone?
Fine. Like everything you get used to it. Here’s the thing to remember: they will want their space as much as you do. When they’re done with the kids, they’ll want to either get out of the house and explore or chill out in their room. We don’t demand that au pairs join us for meals - we’re conscious that they need their own space and time -but we always offer. In our experience, au pairs have rarely wanted to sit with my husband and I in the living room while we watch TV in the evening. They have tended to use their own room and watch their own TV or Skype with family and friends. If we are watching a movie, then we’ll let them know and they’re welcome to join us. If we go out for dinner, we’ll offer to take them, but it’s always left up to them.
I don’t have teenagers, but I imagine it’s a lot like living with the best behaved, most respectful teenager in the world. They spend a lot of time in their rooms or out with their friends (there are loads of Facebook groups for au pairs to meet each other!)
We are also lucky that the au pair has her own room and bathroom on the top floor. The only other room up there is our office so she has her own space away from the kids and we don’t have to share a bathroom. I realise that’s a dream ‘au pair’ situation and I don’t know what it would be like if I had to share a bathroom…but in my experience, any of the cons associated with an au pair tend to be 100% outweighed by the pros.
What If It Doesn’t Work Out?
If you go through an agency, you’ll be covered on that basis whether they want to leave you or vice versa. If you’ve gone direct through a website like www.aupairworld.com then you’ll have to figure it out amicably between you. Our very first one was a disaster. She was American and 26 years old. I thought they were pros: we didn’t have to worry about language classes and she was older and more mature. Turns out she lied to us about having a working visa, was an alcoholic and stole stuff from us. We had taken her on a work trip to Sweden to help us with the kids and while we were there we made the decision to let her go once we returned. I wasn’t relishing having the conversation but fortunately (!) it was taken out of our hands. On our return back to Heathrow, they wouldn’t let her re-enter because of her visa and she was promptly deported. They did let her back to collect her stuff, and because I no longer wanted her in the house, we paid for a hotel for her to stay in by the airport and an uber to get her there. That could have put us off but it taught me a great lesson:
1) Getting a foreign language au pair may seem like a risk but they really want to learn and they have a motivation to stay.
2) I would always rather a younger au pair. It makes the dynamic clearer between you as the host mum (boss) and them. Yes the younger ones need more hand holding at first but the relationship is a really close one - I’ve loved all the girls we’ve had live with us and helped some of them through all sorts of stuff. If they’re older, it’s a very different dynamic that needs to be more boss/employee and that’s not really what an au pair is about.
What If Your Husband Wants To Sleep With The Au Pair?
I kid you not! This was a question I received through instagram. Here’s the thing: if your husband wants to sleep with the au pair you have bigger problems on your hands that whether you need an au pair or not. You can always hire male au pairs - there are some lovely teenage guys wanting to do the same thing and I know that families with boys have often gone for a male au pair and it’s worked out - and I’d hope that your husband probably wouldn’t want to sleep with them. But who am I to judge?
I know that was a long one and if I’ve left anything out just let me know and I’ll try to get back to you!