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Yes, an Au Pair is just a fancy word for a nanny

Posted by on April 9, 2010 in Parenting, Showcase |

Every parent I know has had to deal with external child care issues at some point. Nearly every family has both parents working either part or full time so finding child care is always an issue.

Soon after the twins were born, Renee and I decided to work with an Au Pair agency for our child care needs. Like many people, we really didn’t know much about Au Pairs – I had always assumed they were for wealthy Wall Street-types on the East Coast.  We had friends in California who had a daughter a few months earlier and they told us about their positive experience with an Au Pair. I was skeptical about the cost – afterall, an Au Pair sounds so fancy, they can’t possibly compete with day care or local babysitters and nannies, can they?

As a matter of fact, they do. I saw down and ran the numbers and figured out that we would save almost $5,000 a year going with the Au Pair program – even including the annual agency fee (which is around $7,000). So on paper, it was an easy decision.

But of course there are other intangibles to consider. For many people, the idea of a stranger living in their home is a serious obstacle. That certainly gave us pause – but given the size and layout of our home, we figured the intrusion would be fairly minimal. We also  liked the idea of participating in a sort of cultural exchange program and thought this exposure would be healthy for the boys. So we joined the program and began the search for our first Au Pair.

For any new parent, the first few months caring for an infant are chaotic and confusing. As parents of twins it was definitely a very challenging time. So we decided to find an Au Pair sooner rather than later – and our search began in February. We soon discovered some of the realities of the Au Pair world – we weren’t searching for a new Au Pair as we were finding the right one and then recruiting her to work for us while living in sleepy Edmonds, Washington. While those of us in the Puget Sound love Seattle, it obviously does not have the same international cache as cities such as New York, Miami and San Francisco.

The search and matching process is actually pretty similar to dating websites. Parents choose from a list of attributes (age, driving experience, country of origin, etc.), submit the information and a list of available candidates is provided. Parents narrow down this list by selecting a group of potential Au Pairs – and promising to contact them either via phone or email. Some of our top candidates politely declined our match offer and we were starting to get depressed (and a little desperate). We found one candidate in Poland who seemed OK – her English was definitely shaky – and we really just wanted anyone who could help at that point. So we matched with her and she arrived a few weeks later.

It was an adjustment getting used to an Au Pair in the home – and Karolina’s weak English made it more challenging. But the process generally went well until she decided to use plentyoffish.com – a free dating site. To make a long story short, she ended up meeting a soldier from Fort Lewis who made us very uncomfortable. He refused to meet us – he would only pick her up in the parking lot of a nearby school. There were many other aspects of their relationship that made us nervous so we mutually decided to part ways after only 5 months. In the Au Pair world, this is known as “re-matching.”  We were back to square one.

We learned lots of lessons with the first experience and we made sure not to repeat them with the new match. We knew that we had to hold out for a candidate who was a close to a perfect match as possible – it doesn’t pay to compromise when you are bringing someone into your home for a year (which is the length of the contract).

We really got lucky with Au Pair number two. Kookai came to us from Thailand – where her childcare experience included working in an orphanage that was run by an American woman (so she was familiar with American-style childcare, nursery rhymes, songs, etc.). She also majored in English in a university in Thailand – so communication was not a problem.  Kookai was a fantastic Au Pair – she bonded with Stone and Ty and genuinely loved them as she care for them. Kookai reinforced our faith in the program and really helped us stabilize our childcare situation. We were sad when her one year contract expired and she elected to leave the program to find a job that would pay more. But we were so impressed with her that we decided our next Au Pair also needed to be from Thailand. That rigidity proved to be a mistake.

Au Pair number three was named Wee. In hindsight, I realize we did not perform the same due diligence with her that we had with Kookai. We basically liked her because she was from Thailand and her childcare experience was pretty solid.

Wee did not work out very well though. Her English was much weaker than Kookai’s so communication was again a challenge. And while she performed her childcare duties, she wasn’t nearly as engaged in them as Kookai had been. In short, this was a job for her and an opportunity to live and work in the US. The biggest obstacle however, was Wee’s driving. Quite simply she was horrible. Both Renee and I took her out to practice driving on numerous occasions and were appalled at her lack of driving skills. There was simply no way we could allow her to drive the boys around – so we wouldn’t endorse her getting her Washington Driver’s License. Wee had planned a trip to Thailand as part of her vacation in April, 2008. The night before she was scheduled to leave she sent me email (from her bedroom) telling me she was quitting the program and staying in Thailand. Although we had lined up child care for the following week (for her vacation) we were in full scrambling mode as we again needed to find another full time Au Pair to the void.

Fortunately, we found another Au Pair within days. Monica had been originally matched with a family outside of Atlanta and it did not go well for her. The family didn’t allow her to drive their car and they lived in a rural area so public transportation wasn’t an option. She had moved out and was living with the local Au Pair coordinator looking for another family for a rematch. She and Renee spoke on the phone and Renee decided she was the right fit. By Friday Monica arrived and our childcare crisis was diminished.

Monica was from Brazil and her personality could not be more different from Wee (who was very shy, quiet and reserved). Monica was outgoing, fun and flamboyant in a very South American way. She fit in quickly and easily and we enjoyed a very strong relationship – so much so she extended her Au Pair commitment and stayed with us an extra 6 months. Thanks to Facebook and Skype, we remain close to her and have been able to showcase the boys via webcam on a few occasions.

Her extension was scheduled to end in September, 2009 so by June we began the process of looking for her replacement. Because of Stone’s developmental issues and the ages of the twins, we thought it was a good time to look at hiring what the program calls an “Au Pair Extraordinaire.” These are young women who have specific educational training and experience. We thought that having someone who had been a teacher taking care of the boys would help the developmental process – so we pursued this avenue (even with the added cost). This led us to Katja, who was a Kindergarten/preschool teacher in Germany. Based on her experience with children, we thought she would be a perfect fit.

Katja’s educational experience was evident immediately. She developed daily schedules for the boys and began engaging Ty in educational games. She also tried to get them involved in arts and crafts projects. On the surface, everything seemed fine. We  noticed that she seemed extremely homesick for her family but didn’t think much about it – we tried our best to make her feel part of our family (especially during the holidays). And then without warning, she informed Renee and I on a Friday night after work (March 5th) that she was leaving the program and returning to Germany in 2 weeks. She said she wasn’t comfortable in the program and with us and just wanted to go home. We tried to talk to her about her decision but it seemed her mind was set. We asked her to reconsider over the weekend and talk to us again on Sunday night and she agreed to do so. However, Sunday night came and went and she never appeared. It was clear her mind was indeed set. Monday morning I confirmed her departure with her and we were again off on a search for a new Au Pair – this time with 2 weeks to find help (either short or long term).

Renee remembered that Monica had a friend in the Au Pair program who was living in Fort Lewis (she met and married a soldier based there – and this actually led to her being removed as an Au Pair as the agency only allows single women). Karol was already familiar with Stone and Ty (and Edmonds) as she used to have weekly play dates with Monica and the twins. Because her husband is in Iraq, she did not have any other obligations and agreed to help us on a temporary basis until a new permanent Au Pair could be found. Karol was the perfect temp Au Pair and was a real lifesaver during that time. This of course bought us critical time so we wouldn’t feel rushed to find a new Au Pair – but we still found one after only 3 days.

This brings us up to date. We matched with Juliana in early March and arranged to have her arrive here in the US this week. Like Monica, Juliana is also from Brazil. She studied journalism and marketing in her university and actually worked for 3M in marketing for a year before deciding to join the Au Pair program. After attending orientation in Connecticut Monday through Thursday, she flew to Seattle last night and arrived safely (though very tired) at 9:30 pm.

Today I got to introduce Juliana to Stone and Ty and the four of us spent the afternoon checking out Edmonds, Shoreline and parts of North Seattle (I had to show her Green Lake Starbucks!). The boys already like her and she seems very much at ease in her new environment. Renee and I both can already tell that she’s going to be an excellent Au Pair and member of our family.

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