Ten things I learnt about being an Au Pair
Charlotte Bindels studied English at the University of Cambridge and spent her year abroad as an au pair in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Here's her advice about excelling at and making the most of the experience.
I au paired for 3 children (1, 6 and 8 years old) for a year in a town just outside Amsterdam.
Working as an au pair is likely to be one of the funniest, most frustrating, tear-inducing and rewarding jobs you ever have. By the end of my year I knew the entire soundtrack to Frozen off by heart (in English and Dutch), had managed to ride a bike carrying me and three children (and a giant inflatable dolphin) and could simultaneously cook dinner, change the baby’s nappy and entertain the other two without breaking a sweat. If you’ve decided that au pairing is for you then I’m here to pass on my sage wisdom from a year living as an adopted big sister/semi-professional back up dancer to an 8-year old girl.
1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions
Remember, Skyping prospective host parents is just as much about you interviewing them as it is about them interviewing you. Granted, you probably shouldn’t open the conversation with a list of demands, but be sure to make time to ask the things that you care about. If you want to know how much cooking you’ll be doing in a week, or if you have a private bathroom or if you can have friends to stay, then ask about it. If you don’t feel comfortable asking these kind of questions in an interview setting then it’s only going to get harder once you’re in the house living with the family. Establish an open relationship with your host parents from the start and it will lead to an easier, and happier, time for everyone.
2. Establish what the rules for overtime are
Living with the people you work for can sometimes make things a little grey when it comes to working hours and overtime. Again, the best plan is to establish the rules for this from the beginning: what counts as working hours and what counts as just being part of the household (i.e. cleaning up after dinner, babysitting on weekends)? Will you ever be asked to work extra hours in a week, such as when the children are on school holidays? If so, how will this be arranged and what will your pay be? Every family and au pair will have different ideas about this so don’t just assume that you’re on the same page. It’s not you being bratty or demanding, it’s about you making sure that you will be treated fairly.
3. Make friends with the old au pair
There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, she (or he!) is vetting you too. It might seem like an innocent email exchange or Skype chat but the likelihood is she’ll be giving her own verdict on you to the host parents. So make a good impression!
It’s also the closest you’ll get to a really honest insight into what the family is like. Some au pairs will be brutally honest about the family’s flaws and any problems they had, others might be a bit more diplomatic about it. So look out for key phrases: if they describe the kids as “a bit of a handful” or the parents as “a little unpredictable” it’s probably worth probing further to find out exactly what they mean. Finally, she will be an invaluable source of advice and support once you take over. She can give you tips on what the kids like doing, how she dealt with any issues that arose or even just tip you off about the best places to go on a night out. I chatted with my host family’s previous au pair all the time and we’re still in contact now.
4. Give yourself time to settle in
One thing people don’t always tell you is that moving to a foreign country can be exhausting! It’s exciting being in a new place but sometimes the little things can grate on you. I think this experience can be even more extreme when you’re au pairing because you’re living in the same house as all that strangeness. Enjoy the newness of it all but don’t feel stupid for missing home, everyone does. Lots of people told me that it takes at least three months for a new country to start to feel like home, it was closer to 5 for me (it could be more or even less for you!). After those five months, everything seemed a little less sparkly and new but it also felt more comfortable and it was good to be the one ‘in the know’.
5. Give the kids time to get used to you
This is especially true if you’re moving in with a family who have had au pairs before you. The kids will probably be missing their old au pair and everything you do will be strange and different for them. Don’t panic if they take a while to warm up to you and don’t feel like you have to force them to like you. The little boy I looked after was really unsure about me to begin with and wouldn’t talk to me. So I was friendly and engaged but I also gave him his space. Then one evening I was sat watching TV and he quietly came and sat on my lap…and we never looked back! This being said, if the problem persists and the children really don’t seem to be interested in you then it’s time to sit down with your host parents and have a chat.
6. Don’t try to be anyone but yourself
It comes with the territory that you will feel like you’re being compared to other au pairs. This is especially true when you are the latest in a line of au pairs. Don’t worry! Of course the previous au pairs will have done things differently to you but you have to find your own way of doing the job. Just focus on bringing your own personality and talents into the role and the family should appreciate you for being you.
7. Take the kids outside
Seriously, it’s a magic cure to most kiddy problems! If you need to keep them amused for 5 hours; if they’re grouchy; if you’re tired or stressed, getting out of the house with them will give everyone a breather. If it’s sunny, go to a play area or do a picnic in the park, if it’s raining, try a museum or visit other au pairs and their children. It means you won’t be the only source of entertainment and the time will soon fly by!
8. Plan your free time
The way au pairing hours work, you’re likely to find yourself with some dead time in the middle of the day. Plan to do things in this time or you will just end up watching endless episodes of ‘Dance Moms’. Go out and explore, practice your language skills or meet new people. The great, and pretty unique, thing about au pair work is that there’s plenty of time to do your own thing and very little taking up your mental energy. You might never have this kind of freedom again, so make the most of it!
9. Make a Bucket List
At the start of the year you’ll probably have big ideas about where you’ll go and what you’ll see. But times goes so quickly when you’re au pairing and suddenly six months have passed and you realise you haven’t done anywhere near as much as you’d hoped. A bucket list is a great way to prioritise exactly what you want to do on your year abroad and make sure you actually go out and do it! Take the time to travel around the country and see the sights, visit neighbouring countries and seek out all those amazing and unique things that make living abroad so great.
10. Find a way to keep the memories
Take photos; keep a scrapbook; write a diary or a blog. The year will go by in such a rush and it’s easy to forget all the amazing things you’ve seen and done. Find some way to make a record of everything you’re doing. I made a scrapbook and included pictures, leaflets, train tickets… anything I could think of! You won’t regret it.