An au pair is a young person from a foreign country who moves in with a family to help with child care and housework. The term “au pair” in French translates to “at par” or “equal to”, meaning that the au pair is treated as a temporary member of the family, rather than as a domestic worker. In addition to a weekly stipend, au pairs typically receive housing and meals.
I have been working as an au pair in Ireland for over six months, and I would recommend it to anyone. Being an au pair is more than a job; it is a life-changing experience. Working as an au pair will broaden your horizons in so many ways. You’ll find where you belong in a new, scary place and it will quickly become your home. You will try new things in your host country. You will grow to love new foods that you never would have imagined trying at home. You will go on wild adventures with new friends who you can’t believe haven’t been in your life all along. You will grow and learn. You will fall in love with a new country, adapt new traditions, become invested in new TV shows, learn about yourself, learn about the world, and change for the better. If that’s not enough to convince you, here are the top 4 reasons you should take that leap and find a job as an au pair:
1. Home away from home
Au pairs typically have weekends off and are free to travel. Becoming an au pair is a great way to base yourself in another part of the world and travel from there. The locations that are accessible to you for weekend getaways will be entirely different than your travel destinations at home, whether you travel and explore within your host country or you decide to travel to neighboring countries.
Many people romanticize the idea of long-term travel and choose to go backpacking in order to maximize possible destinations. While backpacking is an exciting way to travel- new hostels every night, only carrying minimal belongings, always on the move- this form of travel is not for everyone. I, for one, love nothing more than returning to the comfort of my home, my bed, and my clean bathroom after an exhausting trip. As an au pair, I have a place to come home to after my weekend adventures. I have a bed that I’ve grown to love, a bedroom I’ve decorated to suit me, and a bathroom that is clean and never occupied. The feeling of home is a comfort you may overlook when thinking of traveling. Being an au pair gives you the best of both worlds: you get to explore a new part of the world, but you also have a home.
2. Family matters
It is difficult to be away from home and everything you know for an extended period of time. It is significantly easier when that time is spent as a temporary member of a family. By living where you work, you will quickly get to know your family and become comfortable with each other. Families that hire and welcome au pairs into their homes are typically very open to learning about your culture, including you in family activities, and making you feel at home. Your host family will be there to recommend activities and restaurants in the area. They will know other families in the area who also have au pairs, and arrange for you to meet. They will help you grow accustomed to the language and culture shock. They will be your support system during your transition to a new country. They will check on you and take care of you when you are jet lagged, sick, or missing home.
You will grow to love the children like your own. You will spend hours telling stories of home to your host parents. As you are all squished into a car, or sitting together watching a movie, you will often forget that this is not, in fact, your extended family. The lines between work and home are blurred when you are a live-in au pair, but it really aids in creating a sense of home and belonging in a new place. You and your host family will learn a great deal from each other, and create a bond unlike the typical employer/employee relationship.
3. Parent practice
Being an au pair means spending much of your time watching the kids, or acting as a stand-in third parent. You get to observe the parents with their children in all different situations, and then emulate their behavior when you’re in charge. I have affectionately joked that my time as an au pair is my “mommy practice”, but it’s actually very true. Spending my days at home with two young kids, taking care of all their needs as well as the household needs, has given me a whole new understanding of how demanding it is to be a stay-at-home parent. I have always had great respect for parents who stay home to raise their kids, but I never truly understood the amount of effort and work the days require. Raising kids really is as exhausting, busy, and rewarding as a full-time job.
Working as an au pair allows you to get a temporary stint as a parent, without all the messy labor parts. You understand how deeply you can love a child, and how difficult it is to discipline a kid who’s pulling on your heart strings. You realize how quickly you can get used to others’ bodily fluids. You suddenly understand all the cliché things your parents used to say (“Because I said so” escapes my mouth more than I’d like to admit). You know that at the end of the day, if the child is happy, that is all that really matters to you. You’ll learn so much about the demands and rewards of parenthood. Maybe you’ll run home and start a family, or maybe you’ll realize that you need at least ten years before you can handle full-time parenthood.
4. Be more than a tourist
As an au pair, you get to see the truest, most authentic part of a culture: the home life. You see the traditions, the interactions, the subtle differences between your own home life and the home life of your new country. You’ll learn about the daily schedules, the traditional foods, the pop culture, the language, and so much more. You will create a new life in your new home.
As a traveler, you are on the outside looking in. You see the country from hotels, where you stay among other travelers. You see the country the way it is manufactured to be seen by tourists. Au pairs are on the inside; as an au pair you are not a tourist, but a temporary resident of the country. You are off the beaten trail, exploring a new culture from within.
Being far away from home for an extended period of time will change your life. You will be in a new place, where no one knows you, and you can shed your past and start over. Many areas have a network of au pairs that you can easily connect with, on Facebook or at weekly meetings. You will meet people from all over the world whom you have more in common with than you’d ever have thought- you’re all looking to explore the world, you all have crazy “you’ll never believe what my kids did today” stories, and you all just need a beer after a long week. You will also make friends with the locals, and gain an even better understanding of your host country. You’ll hear what rumors they believe about your home country, and you’ll do your best to break the stereotypes (Americans aren’t ALL getting fat and suing McDonalds! I swear!). You’ll learn how other cultures view history, and it will be fascinating to compare what you were taught as kids. You will realize how small your home country is in the grand scheme of the world, and subsequently, how small you are.
All of this sounds awesome! Now what?
If being an au pair sounds like something that you’d enjoy, start looking for opportunities! I used Au Pair World to find my host family, but there are many similar agencies (I know Great Au Pair and Au Pair are also popular sites). You fill out a profile highlighting why you want to be an au pair, what qualifications you have for childcare, what languages you speak, your education and other basic information, how long you would be willing to sign a contract for (au pair jobs are typically 6-18 month commitments), and where you are interested in working (if you’re unsure of where exactly you want to travel, enter all possible countries and you can narrow it down later). The site will then show you families that match your criteria, and you can view their profiles. If you are interested, you can start a conversation with them.
These websites are a great way to get in contact with families, and to see the possibilities that are open to you all over the world. It may seem daunting to move across the world to live with a family you met online, so do all the research you can (and don’t watch ‘Taken’ the day before leaving, it will not do good things for your nerves!). Ask for references (former au pairs are a great source of information), ask to video chat with the whole family, ask for pictures, ask to be Facebook friends. Do whatever you need to do to feel comfortable and confident that this family is right for you. It is a big commitment, and you don’t want to rush into a decision.
Once you’ve done your research and found the perfect family, get ready for the experience of a lifetime!