Over 5 years ago, I moved abroad to Spain. I had graduated from college a few months before and was waitressing for the summer while half-heartedly job-hunting, and figuring out the next steps. Pursuing a career made me feel trapped. I was NOT ready to sign my life away! What really lit me up inside was finding a way to get back to Europe. I had studied abroad in Greece the summer before and was trying to find any way I could to get back there, or really anywhere on the continent. I looked at jobs that needed native English speakers, Master’s programs, Fulbright grants, you name it. A lot of the programs I was researching were on an academic-year basis, and I had found out about them too late and missed the deadline. Not wanting to stick around another year, I looked for a quicker way to get to Europe. Fall was fast approaching and wanderlust had me stir-crazy and impatient.
Finding My Way to Europe
A friend of a friend had just gotten back from a stint in Switzerland as an au pair. I got in contact with her to pick her brain a little, and I was intrigued. Since au pairs are not all that common in the USA, it was a bit of a foreign concept for me, but she made it sound like an easy way to live in Europe without worrying about living expenses.
What is an Au Pair?
As an au pair, you typically live with a family for a set amount of time (ranging usually from a summer to an academic year) and speak exclusively in your native language to their children, so that they’re immersed in it in their home. You work usually 5-7 hours per day (usually weekends are off) and babysit once or twice per week, but this varies depending on the needs of the family. In exchange, your host family provides you with food, accommodation, sometimes a car, and pocket-money to cover additional expenses.
The Pros & Cons of Being an Au Pair
The Pros: Room+board is FREE(!), you have free hours to pursue language study or do as you please, you get to live with a local family and be immersed in the culture, weekends and holidays off to travel (if you’re not a summer au pair), building relationships with your host family, opportunities to meet new people.
The Cons: Depending on your host family, your experience can be either a positive or a negative one. It’s difficult to live with another family that is not your own and adjust to new rules and cultural differences. I’ve heard plenty of au pair horror stories of the families not respecting the work schedule, or asking the au pair to do cooking or cleaning when that wasn’t agreed upon beforehand, and of nightmare children and inconsiderate parents.
How To Avoid Conflicts
It’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll have an issue at one point or another with your family. After all, you’re not only living with people whom you’ve recently met, you’re also expected to follow a new set of rules (which is hard when you’re an independent adult!) It’s never a bad idea to draw up a contract between you and your host family so that expectations are crystal clear, and you can refer back to it if need be.
Also, remember that you’re in their home and to be respectful at all times. This mean do your job well, keep your living quarters tidy, be thoughtful and considerate. Think of this as an opportunity to be an ambassador of your country. This could very well be the first time your host family has met (much less lived!) with someone from your country. Share your traditions with them and make a great impression! They should benefit from the experience just as much as you.
My Experience as an Au Pair in Spain
I found my au pair job via greataupair.com. It’s free for job seekers while the families pay a fee to be able to contact potential au pairs. I was in contact with the family for a month or two; I Skyped with them a few times, and talked to them via e-mail to get a good feel of who they are. They seemed like a nice family and the job sounded pretty easy: I would be taking care of an 8-year-old boy. They were very forthcoming with information about their previous au pairs (I was to be their fourth) which made me feel more at ease because they had done this whole au pair thing before. I was given the contact information of their most recent au pair and sent off an email to get her impressions of living and working with this family.
The email I received back was a glowing account of the family, job and city, so after that, I felt ready to accept their offer. A few weeks later, I was on a plane to Spain to spend the next 8 months in Algeciras, a city I had never heard of until then.
If you’re curious about what a typical day in the life of an au pair is, well, my schedule was the following: I worked an hour in the morning and for about 4-5 hours in the afternoon. I’d wake up around 7:30 and have breakfast with the boy, help him get ready for school and meet his aunt, who would drive him to school. Then, I’d get ready and go to Spanish class from 9am-11am with a couple of other au pairs, whom I had made friends with. After class, we’d usually go to a café to chat before returning home for lunch, which in Spain is around 3pm. After lunch, I’d usually Skype with family back home, or study until I had to take the boy to his afternoon activities (swimming, tennis, etc.) We’d return home around 7, and then I’d help him with his homework until dinnertime at 9pm. After dinner, he’d watch cartoons for a bit, then I’d read to him and he’d go to bed around 10:30. Then, I’d usually go out with friends to a language exchange in the bar below the family’s apartment. On Fridays, I’d babysit him until about 1:30am (we’d always have a pizza party+movie night!) and then I’d go out with friends. Saturdays and Sundays were always reserved for traveling and being with the group of people I’d met in the city.
While my experience was largely a positive one (to this day I still have a great relationship with my host family and we stay in touch) my biggest regret was not researching the city where I’d be living better. I was so excited to go to Spain, that I was happy to go anywhere. I had never been to Spain before moving there, and I knew very little about the country, and even less about Algeciras! Even though I met some amazing people during my time in Algeciras, it was not the romantic, beautiful Spain that I had dreamed of. So do your research!
How to Become an Au Pair and Find a Job
1) First ask yourself the following questions: Where do you want to live? How many kids would you be willing to take care of? Are you more comfortable with older kids or younger kids? What are you non-negotiables? Stick to what you want so you don’t end up disappointed.
3) Skype with potential families and ask LOTS of questions: job duties and expectations, pay, vacation, living situations, what the children are like, if you’ll be able to go to a language school, etc.
4) Ask to be put in touch with former au pairs and ask LOTS of questions. This can be a really important step in helping you figure it if this family is the right match for you. Don’t be afraid to ask the former au pairs the nitty-gritty.
Interested in becoming an au pair? Leave your questions in the comments below and I’ll get back to you!