When I signed on to work as an au-pair for the family for one of my students, I had no idea what the task actually entailed. I went in pretty much blind, and simply hoping for the best. Although I came out the other end relatively unscathed, I cannot in good conscience say that it is an experience that I would repeat any time soon. For context, I'd like to state that my au-pair experiences in Spain are not a measuring stick for the entire continent; however, my aim is to provide a bit of perspective for those contemplating the au-pair route especially during summer holidays. Here are 10 questions to ask yourself before becoming an au-pair in Europe.
How many children will I be responsible for?
Let's be honest, some people will try their best to take a mile when you've only offered an inch or two... max. You're an au-pair, not running a small daycare service. Ask how many kids will be under your watch, then think about what you'd feel most comfortable with? 1? 2? 5?
Do I know the family / kids well?
There's going to be an adjustment period, naturally, when the children may or may not act out because of the presence of a new and unfamiliar authority figure. Do you have rapport with the family and children? Are you prepared to be the "new guy / girl" on the team, and what that may entail?
What ages do I feel most comfortable taking care of?
You'd be surprised! Some families will happily hand over their 9 month old baby if it means heading back to work, making a deadline, or more sleep. Now imagine, you've got a one year old baby, a seven year old and a teenager to look after. What activities will you plan that encompass all of their needs and interests? Are you up for the challenge?
Is it a live-in or live-out position?
If it's live-out, factor in things such as negotiating a higher salary and transportation. Most families (read: families with money to hire an au pair) either live in the city center or in the suburbs away from it all. How much time will you spend getting there everyday? 2 hours? Measure the pros and cons. If it's live-in... that's a whole other set of questions... stay tuned.
Live-In: Where will I stay?
If you're accustomed to a certain level of privacy and autonomy, this may not be the best option. Some families may offer you a small apartment or guest house, while others simply asume you'll sleep in the room next to, or even with the child (depending on the age). Will you have your own bathroom? Do they provide the essentials like sheets, towels, toilet paper? These are questions to clarify before saying "sign me up!"
Live-In: What are the hours?
Lines get blurry when you work and live with your boss. You will see your employer from the time you wake up until you go to bed. It's intense especially if you're used to having clear and defined lines separating work from home. Make sure you establish your hours with the family ahead of time including any days off or possible emergency days (mom and dad date nights, long nights at work, etc.) Just because you live there doesn't mean you're on call 24-hours a day!
What are my responsibilities?
Chef? English teacher? Math tutor? Chauffeur? Maid? Babysitter? Communication is key in a situation where so many of these tasks overlap. Are you just responsible for making breakfast? Or heating up lunch? Are you expected to do laundry, or take them to and from summer camp? Ask. And don't be afraid to negotiate.
Is there a contract?
I highly recommend either going through a company or having a contract drawn to protect your rights. If they fire you, how much notice will they give you? Can you leave earlier than the agreed upon date? If so, what are the consequences? I've heard of girls being thrown out with a week's notice, and nowhere to go. I've also heard of families threatening to tamper with visas and immigration because girls wanted to leave early. Know your rights, and speak up for yourself.
Is there travel involved?
Many families go on holiday during the summer months, oftentimes to their vacation houses. Do you feel comfortable throwing in yet another variable? I know you're thinking: but it's a free trip! Okay, but planes, trains, possibly a new language, grandparents; there are numerous factors to consider! Think of your safety and sanity first.
Are you ready to be "the help"?
While some families will embrace you, and welcome you into theirs, others will treat you as a hired employee. My former family laid my weekly pay right next to their cleaning ladies' on a table near the door. There's no difference except that her domain was the house, and mine was the children! There were often power struggles because you know "Mommy can fire you!" When taking the kids to the pool, or the market I often nodded sympathetically at the other tired (read: peeved) brown and black faces and also young and energetic faces because I knew we were all in it together: the immigrants and the youth!
My Personal Experience:
I'm glad that I tried it; however, I'll never voluntarily do it again. I often felt conflicted because of the dichotomy around me: older immigrant women who I know have children of their own to look after; but can't, and 19 year olds who "just love babies" but mostly want to stay in Europe for the summer. It wasn't my jam. From a cultural standpoint, I saw many troubling things. Read: My grandmother would never, ever let me get away with a quarter of what those children were trying to pull. As a Black woman, I often felt judged by the other moms and needing to validate my presence, which was extremely frustrating. My kids would often report concerns that the other suburban moms expressed about my being there. I get it, I'm Black, my hair is big, and my resting face is not yours. I wanted to wear a sign around my neck saying: "I'm American, I speak English, I have an advanced degree, this is only temporary!" Then I realized that my job is to pass out these fruit snacks, not fight microaggressions and educate adults on how not to be racist. It wasn't in my job description to make them feel comfortable; however, as a result, I spent a really awkward and I'll go as far as to say horrible two months trying to turn a blind eye and pretending like things were okay. It was draining both emotionally and mentally; however, that's just one example of how an au pair situation can turn out.
What was your experience? Tell us below!
Danni, Community + Content Director at Las Morenas de España, is a twenty-something, Chicago native currently residing in Madrid. Lover of language, words, and travel, she's managed to combine all of her passions through her work. In her free time, you can find her exploring the winding streets of Madrid, hunting down good flight deals, planning her next adventure and writing & researching for LMDES. Danni loves spicy food, natural hair, music and of course, her wonderful life partner. If you need to find her, she’s the girl with huge hair and her face buried in her Kindle.