La vie d’une fille au pair
Becoming “une fille au pair” in France is a life-changing experience, even if somewhat overromanticized at times. Apparitions of Parisian adventures and long nights sipping wine under the twinkling Eiffel Tower often cause the realities of hours spent babysitting, frustrations of the inability to communicate, and strained employee/employer relationships to get lost in the dusty corners of our imaginations. Not that the experience isn’t incredible and completely worthwhile, just that the ideal vision of a yearlong Parisian vacation entails more than a few inaccuracies.
The problem lies in the small print. Sometimes wandering the dreamy streets of Paris means getting hopelessly lost for hours until you finally stumble on the Arc de Triomphe when you thought you were heading towards Sacré Cœur, and sightseeing is synonymous with wandering at a snail’s pace amongst throngs of tourists in the pouring rain. Experiencing a new culture means accidentally ordering raw meat for dinner and realizing your tenth-grade French class has been misleading because your morning regimen never seems to work its way into actual conversations. Another thing, unfortunately, is that sometimes employers seem to confuse “au pair” with “housekeeper.”
Definition: au pair
In French, au pair is translated as “on equal terms.” You may be called an au pair, nanny, babysitter, personal assistant or something similar. Usually it’s a job held by a traditional college age (18-30) and American readers may be surprised to know that internationally, anyway, young men work commonly as au pairs.
Home life for an au pair varies from family to family and some situations are definitely more alluring than others. It is rare, but not unheard of, for a family to pay the plane fare of the au pair, which sometimes (but definitely not always) may mean that they are a little too desperate to entice some naive young girl to help them wrangle their little monsters—I mean, children.
How to find an international au pair job
There are many agencies specifically created to match au pairs with families who need them, and the nice thing about that is the involvement of a third party in case something goes awry. If applying from North America, though, it may be simpler to search free websites designed for this purpose. You create a profile, then browse profiles of families and let them know if you are interested. If they accept your interest, their contact information becomes available and you can begin exchanging emails to see if the situation is agreeable. References are not always included on these sites and it’s advisable to ask for them as well as offer your own.
An au pair’s duties
You can never be entirely sure of what to expect so make sure your job description is very clear. If a family requests “light housework” ask specifically what that entails—you don’t want to end up spending extra hours every day mopping the floor and doing all the family’s laundry (true story). By contract, the working hours of an au pair cannot exceed 30 hours a week. A typical day consists of preparing the children in the morning and entertaining them after school (which ends at 6 p.m. in France) until bedtime.
Salary and length of employment
Payment ranges from 70-100€ a week plus room and board, which is often paid in cash or into a French bank account that can be set up for the stay of the au pair. Most au pair jobs start in September and continue through the end of June, but there are always families looking throughout the year for someone who meets their own specific needs. Some arrangements last just two summer months and others may continue for two entire years or more. Most au pairs arrive not knowing too much of the language and leave speaking functionally, depending upon how much or little of the language they are required to speak in the home. Many families are interested in English-speaking au pairs who can help their children gain a more natural grasp of the language.
Applying for international work papers
Getting your French visa is the most challenging part of the process, so it’s important to set to work ASAP to attain it. European citizens won’t need one, but the North American French consulates can be a bit grumpy about having to process such applications and will hold even the smallest typo against you.
Adapting to another family’s house rules
When you agree to accept employment from a family, you must understand that you’ll be living in their home, under their (sometimes watchful) eyes; you must conform to their daily lives and enforce rules they have deemed fit for their children. Even the most experienced childcare worker has to operate under the parents’ rule, which may mean passing toddlers walking alongside their mother while you push a stroller carrying a perfectly capable five-year-old because his mom says “he gets too tired to walk.” Some children are complete angels you’ll be happy to wake up to every morning; others may have never heard the word “no” before and will seemingly do their best to make you miserable. Usually, though, even the most trying children have moments of adorability.
What happens when au pair and family don’t fit well together?
If you accept a job and it is obviously a terrible fit, it is okay to remove yourself from the situation as long as it’s done respectfully. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of an au pair packing her bags and taking off while the family is out; some say they had no idea she was unhappy. All parties begin the process a bit apprehensively so proper communication is vital.
Define professional and personal boundaries
Developing a relationship with the children is important as you’ll likely see them more than anyone else during your stay; but you also need to clearly define your relationship with your “house parents.” Some au pairs want to be adopted into the family while others prefer more professional boundaries. A balance between the two is most productive at allowing you to feel comfortable in your new home while still maintaining your independence.
Build a social network with other au pairs
Most au pairs connect to each other through their French classes or friends of families who also have au pairs. Thanks to social networking, there are also groups on Facebook and such to get in touch with other newcomers. These are the people who will star in your memories and make the experience unforgettable. The Internet is a wonderful thing to keep in touch with friends and family, but when a touch of homesickness trickles in, a group of good friends is the best defense—not to mention a good place to vent all your au pair frustrations.
Being an au pair can be an enriching experience
The au pair experience definitely includes many challenges, but the memories gained, the lasting friendships acquired, the culture tasted, and the knowledge that you’ve had an impact on some cute—probably spoiled, but still cute—kids is enough to make this life-changing journey one of the most cherished souvenirs of your life.
PHOTO CREDITS: Flickr photos published per Creative Commons 3.0 license: Nanny with map ©Layla Mohamed; Ballerina ©Lou Ect; Actual au pair ad ©Almondbury Au pair & Nanny Agency
Stephanie Dayle just wrapped her au pair assignment in France with a family she’ll always remember fondly. This is her first story published by BonjourParis.
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