By Corrie Pelc
A Cultural Experience
rdana">When Shelly Roberson of [UNKNOWN NODETYPE 7]San Jose found out she was pregnant with twins, she realized she was going to need help. Although her mother-in-law had been their childcare for their 6-year-old son, they knew the twins would be a lot of work.
rdana">“We actually looked into a nanny, but the nanny we were going to hire moved,” Roberson recalls. “We were about three months before I was due to have the babies and I talked to my sister who had an au pair and several of my friends who had had au pairs and we thought we would explore that option.”
rdana">An au pair is a male or female between the ages of 18 and 26 who comes from a foreign country on a cultural exchange visa through the U.S. State Department that allows them to live in the U.S. for one year with a host family. During that time they have to complete six credits at a college-accredited institution. In exchange for the room and board the host family supplies in their home and a weekly stipend, the au pair provides up to 45 hours a week and no more than 10 hours a day of childcare.
rdana">Enter Dale Dubowy, field regional program consultant for the Northern California area and local childcare coordinator in the East Bay for the au pair agency Cultural Care Au Pair,
“To them it’s a great opportunity and it gives them a chance to learn American culture and be part of an American family,” Dubowy explains. “They want to have a good time and see the U.S., but they also realize that this is what’s allowing them to do that, so they’re not going to go after two months this isn’t for me and I’m out of here. They’re very dedicated and very focused.”
For Roberson, that dedication is very important for her family. “They’re not going to be calling in sick on you because they live with you and you can also dictate their hours, which is really good,” she says. “That’s different from a nanny who tells you their hours and they can call in sick or quit.”
And being able to change her au pair’s schedule on a weekly basis was also a selling point for Lauren Herbstman of Los Altos – a single mom who is on her fifth au pair for her 7-year-old son. “It was really the most flexible form of childcare that I could find,” she explains. “Most people probably wouldn’t change their schedule every week, but you do have the ability to make adjustments if your child is sick one day and can’t go to school or if you have something you need to do on a weekend.”
The Selection Process
So just how are these young people from other countries selected to be au pairs?
Krista Rowe, director of au pair agency Au Pair USA, says applicants are screened and interviewed in their home country and must complete a five-page application that includes items such as a police background clearance report, a letter to their prospective host family detailing why they want to be an au pair, proof they graduated from secondary school or the equivalency in their country and a few references. “With their application they have to give two childcare references written by the adult of children they have cared for in some capacity, be it babysitting or working in a nursery or preschool,” Rowe says. “They also have to provide a personal reference as well, just someone vouching for their character.”
And the au pair candidates aren’t the only ones who have to answer lots of questions. According to Dubowy, host families fill out an extensive application that asks them everything from special diet needs to what a typical day in their home is like. The agency also needs to know if families have children under the age of 2. “The State Department requires that if an au pair is going to be watching children under the age of 2 that they’re ‘infant qualified,’ Dubowy explains. “That means they have to have 200 hours minimum of documented infant care. I would say about 55 percent of our families need infant qualified au pairs.”
The au pair agency then attempts to match up host families and au pair candidates through their applications and forwards on the applications of possible matches to the host family to review. “The family reads through the application and if they feel that’s a good fit for the family, they would go ahead and follow up with a phone call to the au pair and would interview them over the phone,” Dubowy details. “The State Department requires that they speak with them on the phone, they’re not just allowed to let us select for them.”
Rowe adds that although most host families and au pairs do a lot of communicating via e-mail, phone contact is very important when it comes to gauging the au pair’s ability to speak English. “While the English is ranked in the interview report it’s very subjective – what I think is a six you may think is an eight,” she explains.
For Roberson, not being able to meet her au pair face-to-face was definitely a concern. “Those are the negative aspects of an au pair that you don’t get to meet them first, whereas when you’re hiring a nanny you could set up a day where you’re interviewing six nannies,” she says. “I think with the au pairs you have to be a little bit more adventuresome to be willing to hire someone without having met them first.”
However, Dubowy advises host families to take notes during the phone interviews so they can go back over them objectively and see if there were any concerns or anything they felt wasn’t a good fit. “But a lot of it is just gut instinct – when you’re talking to someone on the phone you can get a feel for them and you can see how responsive they are and what kinds of questions they ask, if they’re asking about the children and asking about things that are important to your family, so you get a feel for them and can pretty much tell if the compatibility is there,” she adds.
When an au pair is selected and comes to the United States, before they arrive at their host family’s home they undergo orientation and training. At Au Pair USA, au pairs attend a weeklong orientation in New York City where they spend an entire day with the American Red Cross learning CPR, first aid and general safety. “And then they spend the rest of the week doing different seminars on child development at different ages and cultural assimilation workshops to help them get into American life a little bit before they go off and join their host family,” Rowe adds.
Once the au pair arrives, Herbstman advises parents to be prepared to spend some time helping the au pair feel comfortable about her new surroundings. “When they get here from a foreign country for the first few weeks they don’t know where the supermarket is and where the bank is, so in the beginning an investment [is needed] in terms of making sure the au pair feels secure and knows her way around, but I think it’s just worth its weight in gold,” she says.
And it is for concerns such as adjusting and other problems that might arise that local coordinators in the host family’s area are available as a support for both the families and their au pairs. “The local coordinator is the person in your area that is always going to be your first contact if there’s ever any issues or problems,” Rowe explains. “The coordinators are responsible for checking in on the families once a month just to make sure everything is going okay and for a meeting with all the au pairs in their group once a month as well.”
But what if a problem does arise between the host family and au pair? According to Dubowy, the local coordinator will then become involved and do mediation where they sit down with the parents and au pair to talk about what’s not working and how the situation could be improved. “Sometimes it works out just by sitting down and talking about it and airing all the concerns and putting it all out on the table so that everyone’s on the same page,” she adds.
And sometimes problems cannot be solved. “With all the careful screening in the world you can still put some people together and they’re just not the right personality match and 99 times out of 100 it’s not that there’s anything wrong with the family or the au pair – it’s just that they’re not the right match for one another,” Rowe says. In that situation the au pair is placed in transition, and the family can either be reassigned a new au pair who also is in transition, or can begin the process of searching outside the U.S. for another au pair.
Making the Most of It
While sometimes problems are inevitable, in order to get the most out of the au pair experience Herbstman advises parents to keep communication open and talk about things rather than getting upset. “Try to put yourself in their shoes – they’re young kids that come over here and are a little bit like fish out of water, so you just need to make sure that you talk about everything in the beginning and continue to maintain a dialogue,” she explains.
“Families need to realize that while this is primarily a childcare arrangement, it is a cultural exchange program and that’s very important that they not lose sight of that,” Rowe adds. “They have to be willing to welcome somebody else’s culture into their house.”
But most of all, says Dubowy, remember that how you treat them will reflect what you get out of the experience. “It’s important to remember that is somebody’s daughter or son and to treat them like you would want your children treated,” she adds. “They are providing a service, but also remember this is a really special time for them as well and I found as a host mom the more I gave, the more they gave. Yes, they’re dedicated to you and they’re going to do what they’re supposed to do, but make it fun for them and that comes back tenfold.”
Au Pair Care – 800-4AUPAIR (428-7247), www.aupaircare.com.
Au Pair in America – 800-928-7247, www.aupairinamerica.com.
Au Pair USA/InterExchange – 800-287-2477, www.aupairusa.org.
s="MsoNormal">Cultural Care Au Pair – 800-333-6056, www.culturalcare.com.
s="MsoNormal">goAUPAIR – 888-AUPAIR1 (287-2471), www.goaupair.com.
s="MsoNormal">International Au Pair Association – www.iapa.org.
s="MsoNormal">The Au Pair A-Z: A Practical Guide to Finding and Keeping the Ideal Au Pair for Your Family, by Ronke Macauley, Alpha Associates, 2002.
s="MsoNormal">Au Pairing Up!: How to Maximize the Rewards and Minimize the Learning Curves of America’s Best Childcare Solution, by Ruth K. Liebermann, Musical Idiot Press, 2001.
s="MsoNormal">The Childcare Source Book: The Complete Guide to Finding and Managing Nannies, Au Pairs, Babysitters, Day Care and Nursery School, by Ellen O. Tauscher and Kathleen Candy, Hungry Minds, 1996.
s="MsoNormal">Nannies, Au Pairs and Babysitters: How to Find and Keep the Right In-Home Childcare for Your Family, by Jerri L. Wolfe, Hearst Books, 2001.