Au Pairing: Expectations versus Reality
Ever thought of becoming an au pair in Spain during your year abroad?
Many of you studying Spanish have probably thought about becoming an au pair in Spain, but perhaps haven’t got much further than that vague thought. Let us try to show you that it really is worth looking into more thoroughly, as what better way can there be to to get abroad and practice your language skills, while experiencing a new country and culture and making a bit of pocket money, than through living with a local family? It is also brilliantly flexible: you can stay with a host family for as long as you decide: anything from 1 month to 2 years if you like, so it can also be a great way of testing the water in a new city, for example, before looking for a job, or a lovely way of using up those long university holidays, quite apart from being a great option for your entire year abroad, if your uni program allows it.
It might sound intimidating at first, but as so many au pairs can attest, being an au pair can be one of the most enriching experiences you will have – really! What’s more, au pairing is good for your future career: quite apart from the real challenges that are involved, the consequent language and intercultural skills, as well as proven international experience, look great on any CV. After all, as Spanish ranks as the world's No. 2 language in terms of how many people speak it as their first language, you can’t be wrong!
What actually is an au pair and what are they expected to do?
As an au pair you become part of a foreign family for a few months or a year, like a temporary big sister or brother who helps to take care of the family’s children and with typical household chores. You are by no means a glorified household cleaner or anything of the sort, but you definitely do have to be open minded and proactive: typical tasks might include getting the kids and and having breakfast, taking them to school or afterschool activities, doing their laundry and tidying up their rooms – with their help! But don’t worry, you will have time off to study and get to know your host city (particularly when you are an au pair for a school year), and indeed your host family, which will often take you away with them at weekends or on holidays. In return, you will be given weekly or monthly pocket money, along with full room and board.
How do I find a host family?
There are lots of ways to find the perfect host family: you could use online agencies like ours, or websites, Facebook or indeed friends and contacts. In many ways though, it is a good idea to use an agency, because they are a great supoort both during the search process, and more importantly, during your actual stay:if you have any problems or issues, they will normally be good at helping you solve them, and mediate between you and the host family if necessary, something which is particularly useful if your language skills aren’t quite yet up to scratch and you feel you cannot communicate well enough with your host family to begin with.
Things to think about before becoming an au pair
1. Take time to look for the right location & host family
You need to do your research: make sure you are absolutely clear about where you want to go – no point spending a year in the countryside if you can’t bear being away from the bright lights. Then take time to find your family: you will need to talk to them via email and Skype, and ideally meet the children too, and have ready a good list of questions about them, and their lifestyle, and what they expect of you, before making a decision. Also, ask the host family for info and photos if possible about your bedroom, surroundings of the house, facilities, academies, etc.
2. Remember that it is also a big decision for the host family too
You may worry about fitting in, or what the experience will be like, but remember that the host family will also be feeling this too. After all, they are bringing you into their family to live in their house and look after their most treasured possessions! The key is to be open minded, relaxed, and ready to get stuck in: the more you put into your relationship with the children, and your host family, the more you will get out of it.
3. Dont worry if the children don’t immediately come running to you, arms wide open...
...this is only normal! Just as it will take you time to get used to your new family, it will take them time to get used to you. Try to be fun and relaxed, make the children laugh, be ready to play and chat with them, and you are sure to win their confidence.
4. Ask your agency or host family for a list of the tasks expected of you, and ideally, an example weekly planner.
This really helps to avoid any misunderstanding, and to know what is expected of you. Agencies are particularly good with this, as they can help you work through this with your host family, as they normally will draft a planner or list up with the host family before you sign your placement contract with them, so you know exactly what’s coming, and also, what free time you have. Of course, once you arrive, you must also try to be flexible, and open to any changes, just as you would with your own family or friends.
5. Sign a contract with your host family
This is always a good idea, as it means that both you and your host family take the placement seriously. Again, an agency can help you particularly with this. It doesn’t mean that if there is an emergency, or if things go really wrong that you cannot terminate the placement, but a contract does protect you and your rights, as well as those of a host family. Remember, as we say above, it is a big deal for the host family, because if say, their au pair doesn’t turn up, a family with two working parents and three children are really left in the lurch, so be sensible, and responsible, before accepting any placement!
6. Will I speak the local language enough?
You may worry that you won’t be speaking the local language, as after all, parents normally look for au pairs to speak to their children in English. However, don’t worry about this: quite apart from speaking to the rest of your host family and their friends in the local language, bear in mind you will have plenty of time to make local friends, even talk to other kids parents in the park! In the end, it is up to you to make the most of your time to put down your computer, shut off Facebook, and integrate yourself as much as possible in the local culture, and practice as much as you can.
7. Will I make any decent pocket money?
If you are looking to make megabucks, au pairing probably shouldn’t be your first choice. The main reason to become an au pair is the wonderful experience of living and breathing a new culture and home, from within the centre of your ‘adoptive’ family, while at the same time, practising your language and intercultural skills. That said, if you actually add up the cost of living, the pocket money you receive isn’t actually that bad, particularly for a school year au pair, who would normally receive around €90-110 per week. After all, food and lodging is fully paid for, as will be, probably, any travel cards/similar that you need to get to the city centre or your school.
A summer au pair normally earns a bit less, but on the flipside, you normally get to visit a number of different places, and probably will find yourself by a pool for a few decent hours playing with the kids. All in all, it really is such an enriching experience that you may well find the pocket money is the last thing on your mind: in our experience, there are a lot of tears shed by both au pairs and host families at the end of their stays!
8. How can I find out more?
The internet as ever, is a treasure trove for hearing about other au pairing experiences, check out Third Year Abroad's au pairing section.