Like Sarah did several years ago, I mentioned our foray in having an au pair. We had had one from South Korea last summer, a relationship which ended pretty miserably. Despite our efforts to have fair and adjusted expectations of a young woman, age 20, from a culture with no nanny or babysitting culture, we were disappointed, frustrated, and fertig. Translation: stick a fork in us, DONE.
We naively made the initial compromises because we wanted a native Korean speaker who could teach our children Korean by building a loving relationship through regular contact with them. Unfortunately, unwittingly, we over-compromised as the young woman in question didn’t seem to have any real childcare experience, despite what we were lead (or wanted) to believe. It got to a point where the only expected responsibility she was able to fulfill was tidying the kitchen. Looking after more than one of my three children quickly put her out of her depth and some real safety issues came to surface (e.g., kids playing with her medication and her not telling us immediately about it). And although she was brave enough to become an au pair, she didn’t have enough courage to ride the local bus (which is a loop) to her language class alone. On top of that, even though she was a German major and we had interviewed and corresponded in German, she could only manage if I spoke (my rusty) Korean with her. Believe me, after that exhausting initial first month of Korean only, I switched us to German! No matter what language I spoke with her though, I always had a sinking feeling that we were not on the same page.
It was a rough two months of hoping against hope, investing a lot of time in drafting detailed weekly plans and finally riding out the requisite notice period of two weeks which left us so demoralized that I wasn’t sure if I could ever try having an au pair again. Lucky for us, an angel appeared in our Aupairworld.net inbox in the way of Aneta, a young woman from Poland, who had all the experience we could ever hope for: substantive experience working with children after working in a Kindergarten for half a year, wherewithal from studying and working in various countries on her own, and the ability to easily communicate with us all in English (German would have been just as fine for us). She even exceeded our expectations by having a preference to small cities, bringing an insistence to cook regularly for the family and a love for Korean food!
Aneta is now an essential part of our family, and the two experiences we’ve had this summer with both au pairs has confirmed what we were expecting: When it works, having an au pair is a win-win for all: the kids, the au pair and the parents. When it doesn’t work, it is hell. I believe that there is a good match out there for most families who have a willingness to be patient with this hybrid of situations. By nature of how the program is set up, the au pair is part exchange student, part nanny.
In Germany, it is pretty straightforward to have an au pair so long as you are in some way a German-speaking household and you have children under the age of 18 in your household. The go to site for all things au pair is the aforementioned Au Pair World site. You will find there the short list of requirements to know if your family qualifies or not. Germany pays on the lower end of the au pair payscale in the EU but the stipends are all in the same ballpark. What you are expected to provide for the au pair are:
- a private room,
- a monthly stipend of 260 euros,
- a 50 euro contribution per month towards German language classes if s/he comes from a non-EU country, and
- insurance which covers health and liability. (We pay about 40 euros per month for this.)
All of this is laid out in the au pair contract which all au pairs and families are required to have. You will need this contract for the Anmeldung (registration) and getting any extra municipality-based benefits such as a discount or discount card at the VHS, library and other city resources.
If your au pair is coming from a non-EU country, you will also have to send an invitation letter in addition to the contract in order for her (I’m using only female pronouns but of course men can be au pairs too as Sarah can attest) to start the visa application process at the local German embassy. (Templates can be found in both German and English on the Au Pair World site.) You should calculate at least six weeks for the waiting period till the visa is likely to be issued. Note that the au pair has to demonstrate some basic German language skills in order to receive her initial 90-day visa, but this is only at the A1 level. Once your non-EU Au Pair is here, you need to register her at the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners’ office) and bring her to the Health Office (Gesundheitsamt) to get an exam and X-Ray done to show that she does not have tuberculosis. Needless to say, it is easier and less costly to have an au pair from an EU country. We have experienced both.
Some further tips I can give you in the selection process is to first have your expectations in check. How much patience or time will you have to work with limited language abilities? What about other cultural differences such as loading a dishwasher or riding a bus alone? Will you be willing to help her find the right doctor she needs and bring her there or do you expect her to be more self-sufficient. I think part of the deal is to be ready to help as the host parents regardless of her competence, but you should know your limits and be upfront about them. Probably of utmost importance to me is the ease of communication, and I don’t just mean language skills. Do you two connect? Do you like her? Do you “get” one another?
I received lots of applications from seemingly nice girls who wrote on their profiles that they loved children, nothing that told me much about their actual competence. Since this is a far more intimate relationship than just having an occasional babysitter in the house, you do need to find out more. She will be a constant influence, even if she’s not on duty so to speak. Get to the nitty gritty. If she says that she eats everything, ask her what her favorite foods are and look out for a long list of “won’t eats.” Ask her what is usually in her grocery basket to look for compatibilities or incompatibilities. If she eats only organic and so do you, great! If she can’t live without Diet Coke and you have a soda ban in your house, then that’s a flag.
How does she set boundaries with the kids? Has she ever had to do so? My kids fall in the usually well-behaved/normal spectrum, but with our au pair from Korea, they were heathens knowing that there were no real limits being set or kept under the au pair’s watch. We all paid the price for it. As a result, our kids weren’t listening to us either and our stress levels – trying not to shout at the kids and trying not be snippy under stress with the au pair – rose. During the screening process the second time around, I also noted that if the candidate started to squirm because of my pointed questions, I was happy to let her squirm away. After our disastrous first experience, it was clear to me that there was no room for mediocre or maybes in our house.
I asked our au pair Aneta for her thoughts on how to make a successful match. She agreed that you have to make sure that expectations are aligned.
- Clarify what “being responsible for the kids” means and be specific about possible scenarios. Surprisingly, not all families do this.
- She also pointed out that the job is not truly 30 hours per week. If you are living with a family, you are not going to not help if the two-year old child in front of you needs help getting his coat on just because you are off duty.
- Sundays are typical free days for au pairs, and it should be a pleasure for everyone when the au pair joins the family on the Sunday walk or an outing to a neighboring cloister.
- Also check for lifestyle compatibilities. If the prospective family describes itself as sporty and outdoors, will it be a problem if you, the au pair, has no interest in doing sports and rather stay inside?
- Finally, don’t let money be the dictating factors. Sure the stipend (which some families raise) and added benefits (like being in a city you are dying to live in) are part of the equation, but finding a compatible family is the most important factor to au pair happiness.
As she put it, you have to want to spend time together because no matter what, you will be spending a lot of time together.
In Germany, there are support networks for au pairs. Often, the local Rathaus will have a contact person who organizes activities for the au pairs or can assist them out of sticky situations. Ask on her behalf or search the city’s website. There are also a number of national helplines that will turn up in an “au pair hotline deutschland” search. If the match just isn’t going well, don’t be burdened by guilt that she or he will have to immediately go back to the home country. More likely, the au pair will typically rematch much more easily than you will find a new au pair. The fact that she has a visa already and is already in the country are attractive factors for many potential employers. The bottom line should be deciding on what’s best for your family. From my own experience, the bad behavior of the kids reflects the bad match and creates two stressed and frustrated parents. As long as you have made a good faith effort, the situation should not be sustained for the sake of a misguided sense of obligation.
If you are going to do it, jump in with a big heart and open mind, but don’t just hope for the best. Take the time to find the right person for your family, and I’m convinced that you will find the best match.