Oct 6th, 2022, 08:00 PM

The Childcare “Cultural Exchange”: Deglamorizing the Au Pair

By Brooke Berger
Image Credit: Unsplash/Laurent Peignault
Luxurious Dream or a Living Nightmare?

The idealistic au-pair scenario of living in Paris, traveling around Europe, all while bonding with a family and building your language skills is just that; an idea, a fairytale. The program's intent is that of a cultural exchange. Generally, young women go to live with families who have young children to provide low cost childcare and English training in exchange for room and board.

The misleading premise that is set for young women hoping for the chance to live abroad is that they will get to live while abroad. If the pursuit of life is happiness, then the idea of being an au pair means one will have time to explore the country one is living in, make friends, and find happiness in the new life they’re leading.

I had a glamorized mental picture of my life in France that involved bonding with three little girls, spending my weekends traveling through Europe, and putting my language abilities to the test. I spent months planning, budgeting, and rereading parenting materials. Many of the posts and blogs I read in preparation of my own exchange adventure mentioned having weekends free, traveling, and bonding with the host family.  There was the odd horror story of rooms being inhabitable, children not bonding well with their au pairs or misbehaving, but overall feedback was positive. 

Amber Kennedy, an au pair I met in Paris before moving abroad, was lucky enough to have a wonderful family. She picked the kids up after school, goûter in hand, rode the metro back, and either played with them or helped them with their homework. She was well compensated, able to take weekend trips, and “felt like one of the family.”

According to AupairWorld, a leading organization that matches au pairs with families, au pairs are generally only paid between €271.50 and €325.80 per month. My contract was for €300, so I felt like I was going to a good situation.

Image Credit: Unsplash/ Emil Kalibradov

I arrived on a bitterly cold November morning, but I still felt a rush of excitement as I cleared customs and made my way to baggage claim at the Orly International Airport in Paris. There were two smiling faces waiting to greet me and welcome me into their family, my new host mom and the oldest of her three children. We grabbed my bags, made our way to the car, and headed off to the historical and sleepy town of Fontainebleau. A few weeks after I arrived the cracks started to show. 

The family had just moved so I excused my late payments. They were stressed, so I excused the yelling matches between the parents. They had three children under the age of three, so I empathized with the late nights. When I started becoming the focus of their displaced aggression, that was when I stopped excusing their behavior. I had been yelled at by both parents, and was expected to pay for and cook meals for the six of us living in the household. According to the  Journal of Research on Women and Gender “au pairs and other domestic servants are hired to do mostly the household chores.” The perception I had of this based on my research was that I would be assisting with light housework, and heavily focus on child care.

The final straw was when I was asked to work 50 hours a week for multiple weeks consecutively, without supplemental pay. I was only contracted  to work 25 hours a week, and to be paid €300 a month. This totals out to three euros an hour, which is next to nothing to live on. In Paris the metro pass is €76 per month which is already a quarter of the au pair’s monthly income. Anyone considering to take that leap should heavily consider all the ways moving in with a family in another country can impact them emotionally, financially, and even physically if they’re working with little ones who need lots of physical exercise and stimulation. 

Photo Credit: Unsplash/Mick Haupt

Anyone considering to take that leap should heavily consider all the ways moving in with a family of strangers can go horribly wrong.  Anna Ferguson, a former nanny and AUP master's student, had an experience where the child she was caring for refused to participate in a soccer game, threw a tantrum, and was asked to leave. 

Upon taking the child home she encouraged him to get some physical activity, and had him play soccer with her. Later the mother forced her to apologize to the child for “forcing him to play soccer.” She tried to communicate with the mother about the incident, but was met with dismissal and degradation.

If the end goal is to explore Europe, learn a new language, and book a flight, brush up with Duolingo, and meet people on the way. Au pairing is very hit or miss. Be careful, you may end up working for people who treat you like a live-in maid.