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Affordable Childcare: Why We Have an Au Pair

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Recently my husband and I took our two sons and our au pair out to celebrate the end of her two years with our family. A waiter came by and asked our 5-year-old who all of the adults were, and when he identified his au pair as such, the waiter responded in a snooty voice, “Oooh, your au pair?! That’s ‘fancy’ for babysitter.”

Well, not quite, Mr. Smarty Pants. ‘Au pair’ is French for on par or equal to (as in the au pair is like a member of the family)–and for many families, au pairs are actually a great choice for affordable childcare.

When I was growing up in NYC with a single mom and younger brother, we had a string of au pairs, but none of them though as formal a relationship as we have now; we simply had a spare bedroom in our house, and my mom traded room and board for childcare duties.

These guys adore their new French au pair

After the birth of our first son, I hired a part-time babysitter to allow me time for my freelance duties and a bit of time to, um, do something without a child attached to me. But when I went back to work full-time after the birth of our second son, my husband and I crunched the numbers and realized that hiring a full-time nanny or finding an open daycare (good NYC daycares are notorious for their tremendously long waiting lists–like ones that require signing up while you’re still preggers) that offered the hours we needed would really stretch our budget.

When a friend mentioned that she had been using au pairs to help care for her four kids for the past several years, we decided to look into it for ourselves. We hired our first one (from a small Eastern European country) through an agency shortly thereafter, and two years later, we’ve just welcomed our second (from France). If you are in need of childcare, have a spare bedroom, and think you could be cool with a non-family member living in your home, here’s a bit more about au pairs in the U.S.:

Au Pair Information in the US

  • The initial term for an au pair is one year, but families and their au pairs can choose to extend their relationship for 6, 9, or 12 additional months.
  • Au pairs can work up to 45 hours per week, at a maximum of 10 hours per day. In addition to childcare, they can also prepare meals for the kids and perform light household duties, e.g. tidying up after the kids and doing their laundry–not being the family maid.
  • Au pairs must be between 18 and 26 years old when they enter the program.
  • Au pairs are screened and interviewed by agencies, in addition to undergoing comprehensive background checks (although I think the degree to which this happens may vary based on agency and country of origin).
  • Au pairs cost about $7.75 per hour, regardless of the number of children within their care. On average, this is about $350 per week–much less expensive than a full-time nanny (easily $600/week or more in our area). Note: a large chunk of this (about $8,000) is paid directly to the agency before the au pair’s year begins with a family; the family then pays the au pair a weekly stipend of $195.75/week. There is an additional educational allowance of up to $500 that the family must pay for the au pair to take classes during the year.
  • There’s typically a 6- to 10-week lead time between applying and actually receiving an au pair in your home.
  • There are a number of agencies that bring au pairs to the U.S. Personally, we’ve used Au Pair Care for our two au pairs (in large part because we had friends who were happy with that particular agency–and because I really like their easy-to-use online matching system, Family Room), but some of the others include Cultural Care, EurAuPair, Au Pair in America, Au Pair USA/InterExchange, and Go Au Pair. Agency fees vary a bit, as well does geographic coverage, i.e. not all agencies service all areas of the country.
  • Au pairs and their host families must check in with a local representative of the agency at least once a month, as required by the State Department (which governs the au pair system in the U.S.). At least in our case, check-ins for host families are done via phone or email, and au pairs are expected to attend the majority of month meetings for au pairs.
  • And finally, one of my favorite resources for host parents (or potential host parents) is Au Pair Mom, a very active online community for host parents, au pairs, and agency coordinators, run by a several-time host mom.

Have you ever had an au pair or considered having one? Do you have any questions about the matching process or any other part of the relationship? Leave a comment!

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