Where to Start

At the outset, you register with one or more of the agencies online, filling out an extensive application that includes photos, essays, what the au pair’s responsibilities are, and references for your family.  A note about agencies: they vary widely, and I’ve heard different people exalt and trash the same agency.  They’re required to have a local coordinator in your area who is going to help you through the process, but it’s worth asking how many au pairs they have in your area.  An agency with a robust presence will make it easier for your au pair to acclimate and meet friends, and they’ll also be more capable of handling any problems that may arise.  One au pair coordinator told me that having a robust local presence should be one of the most important considerations, because they’ll have a deeper pool to pull a new au pair from.  Different agencies have different reach into sourcing countries, so if you have a specific country in mind, ask about the agency’s pool of candidates there and whether they have a staff person on the ground in that country.  It doesn’t hurt to register with several (as long as you aren’t paying registration fees, which you can usually get waived) and just look for a candidate that feels right to you.

There is a huge variation among the 15 agencies: some have a couple hundred au pairs, and some have many thousands.  They’re not transparent about their size, so there isn’t an easy way to gauge how deep their candidate pool is other than to start browsing it.  Some offer “name brand” healthcare policies, some have different interpretations of what “a day and a half off” means, and the application information they furnish differs (some show you results of a personality assessment, or include specific details about when a reference was checked and what that person said).

It is an arduous process, and because the applications differ based on the agency, you may find yourself having to re-write essays to fit into the parameters of their individual application.  It took me days, and I was using a friend’s essays as a starting point and editing them to fit our family.

Meanwhile, the au pair candidates are doing the same thing, compiling an in-depth profile that you’ll be able to review, including all of their experience with children, detailed information on their preferences, a personality test, and often a video (which some candidates have professionally edited into a montage).  And when I say in-depth, I really mean it: it would typically take me 15 minutes minimum to read an au pair’s full application.

But it makes sense that there would be that many hoops and hurdles when trying to find the right match with an au pair: this is a person who is traveling across the globe to work with your family, and you’re opening your home to her.  You’re making this selection based on a couple Skype sessions; there isn’t an opportunity to gauge your chemistry in person, see how she handles your baby, or assess the other “small but telling details” that one mother told me she paid attention to while interviewing a nanny.

The whole experience is kind of like online dating: you invest time and energy perfecting your own profile, and then you scroll through hundreds of other people’s profiles trying to gauge who might be a good match for you.  You can filter candidates by language spoken, years of experience, driving ability – even swimming proficiency.  When you land on someone who looks interesting, you send them a message in system, and then potentially set up some time to talk via Skype.

At the outset, I found it exhilarating to see how many options were out there, but soon, that excitement waned and I found myself overwhelmed, frustrated, and disheartened (again, kind of like online dating).  I did a few Skype interviews and completely failed to connect with the person on the other end of the line; the conversations were awkward and stilted, and in many cases, we simply weren’t able to communicate because of the language barrier.  I wound up relying on my very, very weak high school Spanish to ask questions like, “Tiene un novio?” because “Do you have a boyfriend?” just wasn’t getting through.

And then, to continue dragging out this metaphor, I found myself a matchmaker.  I heard from another parent about a local au pair coordinator who was very hands on and very experienced: she’d meet with families to learn about them and what they were looking for, then send parents a handful of profiles that she thought would be a good fit for them.

Having a sounding board who really understood the mechanics of an au pair/family relationship gave me much-needed clarity on what I was really looking for – and how to find it.  She steered me toward the personality test section of the application, so I could immediately gauge whether a candidate was proactive, independent, and confident (all things I wanted), and she also gave me a basic education on the vast cultural differences you can see country to country.  Many veer toward stereotypes, but understanding how families operate in other countries (like in Latin countries, where girls tend to live at home until they get married) is crucially important.  Once she pointed it out, I realized I didn’t want to hire someone who had always had her mother around to take care of her.  On the other side of the coin, hiring a Scandinavian who has lived in her own apartment for several years might present problems for a family that wants to impose structure and rules, like a curfew.  Au pair agencies tend to pull from a handful of countries in different regions: lots of Thai and Chinese, but not many au pairs from Vietnam or India; lots of candidates from Brazil and Colombia, but few from Venezuela or Chile.  Because of that deep exposure to those cultures and countries – and placing hundreds if not thousands of au pairs with families – they’ve identified patterns in the types of personalities that match well (or don’t).

I also developed a couple of my own litmus tests: I wanted candidates who seemed to have “real” childcare experience (as opposed to 100 hours in the company of a niece or nephew), and I also used the “Are you willing to live with a same-sex couple?” question as a screen.  The latter isn’t the right filter for everyone; for me, it wasn’t about the ideology behind it, but it signaled to me open-mindedness.  I initially looked for grammar and punctuation, but soon realized that many au pairs have someone fluent in English edit their profiles for them.  Susan Danziger, an entrepreneur who has employed a dozen au pairs since her first child was born, told me that she wouldn’t bother with any profiles that didn’t have a video.  She felt like creating one was a signal that the candidate was committed and invested in the process. 

Tereza Nemessanyi likened the process to “getting a mail order bride.”  She explained that good-on-paper and good-in-person can be a wide chasm – particularly when it comes to video.  She hired an au pair from Germany whose “application and video were outright poetic,” she told me.  “It pushed all the right buttons,” but she was gone within a week.  The video montage, which showed her smiling with lots of kids, masked the fact that she had zero interest in children.

And not everyone you like is going to want to be with you; it’s not something personal or an indication on how appealing you are as a family.  Tereza explained, “There’s a strain of au pairs from Western Europe whose American Dream calls specifically for families in California.”  (I definitely found this was the case in my own search.)

Even if you find the right candidate immediately, it can still take months for her to arrive if she is coming from her home country.  She’ll need to apply for and secure a visa, and then go through the agency’s weeklong training program in the U.S.  You can also seek out in-country au pairs, who are either looking to extend their program or weren’t the right fit for their host family.  (When matching with a candidate who is in what’s called “transition,” dig deep to understand why it didn’t work out with her previous host family.)  There’s a lot of what I call “hurry up and wait” in the process: from the first time we saw our au pair’s application to her accepting our offer was only eight days, but we then we had to wait six weeks for her to arrive.

Another thing to consider: there are “seasons” for au pairs, in which there’s a big push of applications, and those differ country by country.  Find out when there’s a natural influx of applications, and try and time your hiring to coincide with one of those stretches.  Otherwise, the applicant pool can be pretty shallow, and because you’re on a 12-month cycle with au pairs, you’ll be in that dry season every year.