Photo: Gonzalo Malpartida
When my adoptive house family took me on holiday to the Swiss Alps, where I enjoyed a private chalet, meals by a personal chef, expensive French wines and free snowboarding lessons in return for part-time babysitting, I felt like I was living the good life.
On the other hand, when I found myself carefully scooping soggy poo out of the bath while trying to placate two screaming, dripping children, I wondered what on earth I was doing there.
As an au pair in Amsterdam, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly.
Providing childcare and light housework in return for room, board and a small stipend sounds like a simple arrangement, but with a job that requires you not only to live with foreign strangers in a foreign place but to essentially join their family, there is real potential for conflict and discomfort.
However, with an open mind and enough research, working as an au pair can be extremely rewarding and a great way to immerse yourself in another culture. Here are a few tips for securing a place with a family, and making sure it’s the best place for you.
1. Use all of your resources.
There are two ways to find families seeking live-in help.
One is through an agency that mediates the agreement between a family and an au pair, making the match and dictating the terms of employment. The advantage is the presence of a third party making sure everyone is treated fairly and the initial contract is mutually upheld.
You might have to pay a fee, however, and there is a lack of flexibility for both you and the family. For example, an agency may set the au pair salary much lower than what families who search independently are ready to offer. Agencies in a given country can be found through the International Au Pair Association .
It’s usually possible to find a position without paying to use the sites, but if you’re not having any luck, a nominal fee will give you access to families’ contact information and allow you to be a bit more proactive.
While the networking sites are easy to use and provide hundreds of families to consider, it’s important to bear in mind that no one is making sure that agreements (or au pairs) are respected throughout employment.
It’s up to you to make sure you’re safe and treated fairly.
Au pair literally means “living on equal terms,” which is something to remember when coming to an agreement.
2. Know what you hope to gain from the experience.
It helps to know what you’re looking for before diving head on into photos of smiling families,. Do you want a family that keeps the relationship strictly professional? Or do you want to be treated like a member of the family, tagging along to grandma’s birthday party?
Do you want to spend the year in a lovely country villa with access to the great outdoors or a smaller city home with access to great museums and nightlife?
As you will be living and working in the same house, there aren’t always opportunities to make friends, so be prepared to spend some time on your own and be confident that you’ll be satisfied with the entertainment and leisure activities the location has to offer.
You can make the experience what you want it to be, depending on where you choose to go and with whom you accept a position.
3. Do your research and insist on a contract.
Ask a lot of questions. Don’t be afraid to dig deep and find out what kind of people the family you’re interested in working with are.
Inquire about background, religion, career, and parenting style. Some of these issues may seem awkward to discuss with strangers over Skype, but it’s fair to want to know what you’re getting into. You’d hate to be the only person in the house that tries to discipline the children, for instance.
There are certain employment details that should be outlined in a contract signed by both parties. These include your weekly schedule, all expected daily tasks, room and board, possible flight compensation, vacation time, overtime, and language classes.
It may not be a legal contract, but having the agreement in writing allows you to consult it later in the case of a dispute with the family, be it over taking out the garbage or the agreed employment dates.
Don’t forget to check one or two references, such as a previous au pair or, if you’re their first au pair, a babysitter. You may trust the family, but it’s always a good idea to consult an outside perspective.
4. Be honest about yourself.
To ensure your comfort and theirs, share as much as you can about yourself on your au pair profile or application and in subsequent contact.
Not only is this more likely to land you a job in the first place, but it will prevent surprises on both ends.
My family asked that I cook dinner several evenings a week, so I made sure to mention that my skill level did not go beyond scrambled eggs and spaghetti.
This way they knew what they were getting, and instead of being disappointed, they were glad when I learned how to make a few more things.
5. Trust your instincts.
If you get a bad feeling from a family profile or Skype conversation, listen to it.
But try to have an open mind and remember that the family is taking an even bigger risk than you by inviting a total stranger into their home and giving her (or him) responsibility of their children. If they trust you, chances are that you can trust them.
Want to work abroad but a little wary of the kids? Check out these ten travel jobs within your reach. If you’ve got your heart set on Europe, read up on how to find paying work while traveling in Europe. And don’t forget to figure out how to get an EU work permit.