Managing an Au Pair

A good agency is going to handhold you through the entire au pair process, from finding the right match, to welcoming her into your home and integrating her into your family, to maintaining open lines of communication – right down to mediating any potential disagreements or misunderstandings.  Remember, though, as in nearly any situation: you’re the only one who is 100% looking out for you.  An agency is protecting their own interests, and those may only sometimes be aligned with yours.

Our local coordinator sent me her template household manual (in all of its 16-page glory), which I tailored for our family.  She came to our house and did a welcome orientation meeting, taking the lead on explaining parent-y things like, “Even though marijuana is legal in Colorado, it isn’t legal for you because you’re here as part of a federal program.”

Putting those house rules in writing at the outset can help avoid some painful misunderstandings later on.  In addition to covering basics like the hours she’s working, what types of things the children like to eat, and ideas for activities, you’ll want to get specific about guidelines for visitors to your home.  Au pairs usually develop very close relationships with other au pairs, and they spend a lot of their off-hours together.  One mother underscored, “These are the au pairs that you did not pick in the selection process, and they have no social responsibility to you.”  She continued, “Your own au pair may barely know them, too.”  She told me a story of a friend who had an expensive purse stolen by an au pair who attended a party at her home while she was out of town.  Having ground rules about meeting anyone before he or she spend time in your home or about how many guests your au pair can have at one time can help mitigate these issues. 

Driving can be a sticky point: first, you need to be comfortable with your au pair driving your children, and second, you need to be comfortable turning the car over to your au pair so she can, for instance, go to a movie with another au pair.  One seasoned au pair host advised hiring a driving instructor when she first arrives to conduct a driving assessment (though you position it to the au pair as a lesson to show her the rules of the road in the U.S.).  An objective check like that can give you confidence in her driving ability – or signal to you that she’ll need on-ramping time before she should drive the kids.  It’s also a worthwhile investment given the other advice I heard about factoring in the cost of a totaled car to your overall au pair costs.  (Another driving-related pro-tip: don’t let her take the car out on her last night in town.  Just drive her wherever she’s going and pay for a taxi home.)

Regular check-ins without the kids around are as important in your home life as they are in your professional life with employees who report to you.  You need to proactively assess what’s working and what’s not, offer constructive feedback about her performance, and give her an opportunity to voice any of her concerns.  Julie Dye, a coordinator for Cultural Care Au Pair, recommends doing these weekly after the baby or children are in bed. 

Several of the mothers I spoke with advocated “kicking your au pair out of the house to make friends.”  One veteran au pair host insisted, “It is the salve to homesickness.”  In many cases, the agencies will host social gatherings, but you can also request introductions to other families in the area with children the same age so you can arrange playdates for the au pairs.

But I think what’s most important to know is that a “bad” match (whether that’s because the au pair isn’t as capable as you had expected, because you’re facing communications problems, or simply because she’s homesick) isn’t irreparable.  A hands-on agency will pull that au pair from your home and find an alternative placement (both for her and you), and you should speak up if you feel like it isn’t working out.  One mom told me, with regret, “I always figured I could stick it out for a year, but I didn’t realize how long that can feel like when you’re in a bad relationship.”