Getting an Au-pair – A Cultural (and Literal) Education

Getting an au pair can be a fantastic, entertaining and relatively inexpensive idea. But listen to the advice of others and prepare assiduously to avoid a load of potential problems.

Maybe I’m being a bit of a princess since my husband moved abroad to work, but I don’t think that I can manage a very full time job, two children, housework and all of the other mum stuff without some help. I looked into lots of different options, and finding an au pair seemed like the perfect solution.

In the UK you can invite an au pair to stay in your home on a cultural exchange. The au pair usually helps you with your children for 25 to 30 hours a week and perhaps with some basic housework. In return you provide accommodation, meals and some ‘pocket money’ each week – usually about £70 or £80.

To find my first au pair I contacted a reputable agency and paid a fairly hefty fee to bring over a French 23 year old girl. We interviewed her on Skype and she seemed really friendly but quite shy. Her English was very basic but we were assured that it was of an ‘intermediate’ level and that she would become more confident when she got to know us. We weren’t overly worried as we all speak a bit of French and thought that we’d improve our language skills as a result of the exchange.

This was clearly a mistake….

The French girl hardly spoke any English and we spent a week communicating via Google Translate. When I mentioned to her that it seemed particularly hard for her to communicate with my two year old she suggested calling her boyfriend in Tahiti to translate each time that she needed to speak to him. Hmmmm.

She came out of her room every morning with a see-through top on and my children tried to avoid looking at her nipples.

She refused to cook anything, she wouldn’t eat at all unless I made the food and served it to her. She wouldn’t clean or iron and after venturing out twice and declaring it was bloody freezing in this country she also refused to go outside.

I made dinner one night and put it all out on the table and she used the loo which adjoins our dining room – with the door open! Then she told me that she would need pudding. I offered yoghurt or ice-cream and she said “I want cake after each meal”. I’m not sure whether something was lost in translation but it was allez vous for this au pair I’m afraid.

Since then we’ve had some great (and some not so great) experiences and we are learning new lessons every day. My current au pair is a lovely Spanish 18 year old who is close to my daughter’s age and will hopefully keep her entertained for the long summer holiday. Apart from microwaving a metal container last week she’s getting on really well.

Here are my suggestions for avoiding nipples, agoraphobia, unhappy children and unhappy au pairs:

  • If you can’t meet your potential au pair in person, hold a virtual interview on Skype or FaceTime. Have a list of questions prepared and trust your instinct.
  • See if there is a local Facebook group of au pairs. This is how I found my most recent au pair and we avoided a big agency fee.
  • Take up references and check dates.
  • Explain as much as possible about your family and what you hope that your au pair will do for your children during their stay.
  • Check that they are happy to help out with housework and discuss any specific jobs that you’d like them to do.
  • Talk about your pets, the room that they will be sleeping in and the bathroom arrangements.
  • Find out whether they will be able to cook simple meals for the children.
  • Talk about any childcare or first aid experience that they have.
  • Be clear about how much pocket money you will provide and when you will hand it out.

Once you’ve found the right au pair:

  • Make them a booklet explaining everything. You can include maps, useful telephone numbers, household routines, how you’re planning to organise the household washing, the children’s like and dislikes and maybe some simple recipes (none of my au pairs have had any cooking experience at all). This will mean that the au pair can go through it and look up any words that they don’t understand in their own time.
  • Put a light-hearted list of household rules on a chalk board in a communal area: offer to wash-up after others have cooked, close the door when you use the loo, keep the loo seat down and so on.
  • Keep a diary or chalkboard of what everybody is doing each day so that the au pair can keep checking it and won’t be confused.
  • Give your newly arrived au pair an induction to your home, include where everything is, how to use appliances and where all of the food and drink is kept. I also write this stuff into the booklet.
  • Find lots of activities for the au pair to do with the children.
  • Find things for the au pair to do to meet other young people. Your au pair might want to join a language school in which case they will meet lots of potential friends. But many au pairs can’t afford expensive tuition fees and so you’ll need to be more creative.
  • Explain what to do in an emergency and how to call for emergency services. Write this information into your booklet too.
  • Be patient, take time to settle your au pair in and lastly, make sure that you know the difference between an au pair and a nanny.

Close up of old English dictionary page with word au pair

Adobe stock 110239231


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Hi Bec, where did you find your au pair on Facebook? I’m a native English Teacher who is constantly asked for leads on being an au pair. I care a great deal about my students and don’t want them to waste their parent’s hard earned money on agency fees. I also don’t want to set them up to fail! Any suggestions warmly welcomed!


    1. Bec says:

      Hi Maggie, I found out about a local group of au-pairs from a friend and posted details of the vacancy on that group’s Facebook page. I had quite a few replies and took on somebody as a result. I have paid agency fees before but found this method to be just as successful and I was able to interview the candidate in exactly the same way as I would have through an agency. Bec 🙂


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