Providing childcare in return for cultural experiences
By Drew Schoenster
They are everywhere—huddling together at the local coffee shop in Wilton Center, clustered by the door at restaurants around town, taking a spin class at the Y, and turning up in free English language classes across Fairfield County. If you listen carefully, you will hear their halted English as they try to communicate across different languages. Sometimes one will laugh and groan as they talk about the families with whom they live. Spies among us? Hardly. Wilton is being overrun by au pairs.
Of course, you might be surprised to hear gossip that would rival “Desperate Housewives.” You may hear about the au pair whose friends broke the host family’s expensive car door in the first month on the job. The au pair who became the object of a husband’s affections—he would not stop texting the poor girl even after she was reassigned to a new family. Or the au pair whose charge burned a toy with the bedroom lamp, starting a small fire that brought emergency teams to the house.
Don’t dare call them nannies. They will suddenly speak English with perfect clarity and describe with Websterian accuracy how au pairs differ. They say they are here in America to combine work in child care with a cultural and linguistic exchange. Jean Quinn, deputy director of the American Institute for Foreign Study overseeing Au Pair in America, explains that this cultural exchange is at the heart of the au pair concept; based on the French term meaning equals, it hinges on a reciprocal caring arrangement between the au pair and their host family.
While au pairs come from all over the world, they share the same process. Working through government-sponsored agencies, they undergo extensive screenings and interviews with the agencies and host families prior to placement. After acquiring a J-1 Visa, some agencies also offer them training in America, which includes CPR, First Aid, basic child care, language, and even a driving course. An au pair from Brazil recalled that a police officer came to one of her classes to explain how to handle getting pulled over.
Quinn noted that since 1986, Au Pair in America has assisted 90,000 au pairs in coming to America. All are in their late teens and early twenties; the vast majority of them are women. Most come from Western Europe. One German au pair with a family in town noted that working as an au pair is very popular in Germany. There is even a popular German television show highlighting au pair experiences in America.
While each au pair has different personal reasons for choosing this path, there are common themes. One au pair, who worked here but has been re-matched to a Long Island family, wants to brush up on her English for a job promotion. However, she also wants the opportunity to travel abroad, learn a new culture and experience America for herself. She left a fiancé and job at home, and is not sure she wants to return there after she finishes her year here.
Both Quinn and many au pairs admit that two of the biggest challenges are communication and managing expectations. Communication is often difficult both linguistically and personally, depending on the language skills of the au pair and the host family. Typically, the older, more experienced au pairs have a much better grasp of the nuances of American language and culture.
Expectations regarding financial compensation, hours, responsibilities, and living arrangements are not always in synch on both sides. While au pairs generally earn about $200 a week, receive a free place to live with their host family, and often have access to a car, their situations vary depending on the family. Additionally, some families provide food and additional gas stipends, some don’t. The discrepancies are a consistent source of conflict.
Occasionally, conflicts result in re-matching an au pair with a new family. Despite careful screening and an extensive matching system designed to minimize potential conflicts, lack of personal communication, misunderstanding and personality clashes can result. There are times when re-matching is necessary.
Despite the challenges, a large number of au pairs return for a second year, often with the same family. For many, they build lifelong relationships. Many return to America for school, relationships and work. As one au pair explains, “When you are putting the children to bed at night and they say, ‘I love you more than chocolate!’ you know it’s worth it.”