The Downside of Being an Au Pair

Living with a family in Europe and learning the language over one or two years can be an amazing experience. But unfortunately, many families take advantage of the (mostly) young women who work as au pairs by giving them far more household cleaning duties than they should, or by making them work far more hours than they should. It is a sad fact that some families will try to do this, subtly implying that you must do as they say or the contract will be terminated.

Sometimes things aren’t horrible; they might be simply miserable. If you don’t get along with your host family, the time spent with them is going to seem like an eternity. A friend of mine had this to say about her time with a Swiss family on a one year au pair contract a few years ago:

    “There were two boys that I helped take care of and they were great… when it was just the three of us. But as soon as the parents were home they became whiny and spoiled, and I was suddenly running around catering to their every whim. It just made me count the days until the contract ended.”

Make sure that you do not allow yourself to become little more than a maid and cook for a family.

Be firm on what you consider your duties to be and hold your ground. Building a solid relationship with your host family may take time, and this is an area where a good placement agency can really be of help.

Like any job, particularly with a job requiring you to move, you have to really do some research to make sure that the position is right for you. Don’t be afraid to take a good hard look at both the prospective family themselves and what they are offering. Here are some tips and hints to think about as you are preparing to become an au pair:

  • Be choosy about the family you work for
  • You are going to be living with the family for many, many months. This is not like bad coworkers where you can escape them by going home; you and they ARE home. You do not want to spend the majority of your time hiding in your room. At a minimum, you should actually speak with the prospective family once or twice over the phone before making a decision to have a chance to try and get to know them. That should include speaking to the children as well if they are old enough.

  • Use an agency to find a family
  • If you go through a reputable placement agency to find a family to work for in Europe, and you get into a situation where the family is treating you badly or fires you, the better agencies will find you a new family to work for in the country. A good agency is an excellent insurance policy, and for new au pairs, it is highly recommended that you do find a family through a good agency. That way if something does go wrong, you won’t be stuck in a foreign country with no place to stay.

  • Know the hours you are expected to work
  • While the number of hours you are expected to work should be in your contract with the family, it is helpful to know what time of day you need to take care of the kids. Which evenings will you typically be babysitting? If you do end up working more in one week, will you get extra time off the following week?

  • Know the duties expected of you
  • When specifically during each day are you expected to look after the children? When will you be fixing meals for them? What is going to be your share of the household chores? Will you be expected to help fix the evening meal? Will you be eating the evening meal with the family or on your own?

  • Get everything in writing
  • Contracts are your best friend. Have the contract be as specific as possible. Exactly what ‘light household duties’ are included? Specifically detail the hours you are expected to work both during the day and in the evening. Get in writing the specific two days off that you get each week. The more detailed the contract, the safer you are in terms of it being harder for the family to exploit you.

  • Don’t let the family browbeat you into extra time/duties
  • Despite what the family may tell you, you are not there to iron everyone’s clothes in the morning, make supper every night for the whole family, and to watch the kids the entire weekend. When you are alone and far away from your own support network, it is sometimes very hard to be firm and sure in yourself, especially when you are living in their home. But you need to be clear right from the start about the work and the time you are comfortable with. If you feel that the family is starting to take advantage of you, mention it right away. If nothing changes, simply refuse to do the extra duties. They may get angry, but being a virtual slave for six months is a far worse alternative.

  • Don’t abuse the position
  • So far everything has been about how to safeguard your expectations. But you are there to do a job and the family should be able to expect that you will do that job with a minimum of fuss and not abuse their hospitality. Consideration is a two way street and you should be as helpful and pleasant to the family as they should be to you. Taking advantage of your host family simply ensures a miserable time for everyone and a much worse contract for the next au pair to follow you.

In the end you are staying with a family to help with the children and to do your share of the chores just like any member of the family, not to nursemaid them completely and act as a maid to boot. In return, the host family is there to show you what day to day life and culture is like in their country. They are not there simply to give you a free car to use and free accommodations. If both you and your host family keep the ideals of what an au pair should be in mind, you will have a fantastic, culturally enriching experience in your European home.

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