Image Credit: Photo by Daniel Watson (Text Overlay: Backpacking Brunette)
This post was originally published March 11, 2015 and was updated April 11, 2018.
My three months as an au pair in Spain changed my life. As a soon-to-be college graduate, I wanted to immerse myself in a different culture. Au pairing abroad was the answer. However, despite my wonderful experience, I’m hesitant to give it my full endorsement. Au pairing is not perfect.
Are you shocked? I knew you would be.
It would be easy to stick to the sunshine and roses side of being an au pair, especially since I had such a positive experience. However, it just wouldn’t be responsible to prattle on about how perfect being an au pair is and just ignoring the horrifying stories I’ve heard from other au pairs.
Want to know more about what it’s REALLY like to be an pair? Check out these posts!
- How I Found an Au Pair Job
- A Day in the Life of an Au Pair
- Why Small-Town Life Benefits Au Pairs
- My Au Pair Visa Woes
While I was in Spain, I met and spent time with many other au pairs. My Spanish class was chock full of them! I quickly learned not everyone was as fortunate in their experience as I was. Even with my wonderful host family, there were a few less than ideal things about the situation.
Before you decide to be an au pair (and definitely before you sign any contracts), you need to know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.
Pros of au pairing
If you want to understand a different culture, a great place to start is with its most basic unit: the family. Because I was living with a Spanish family, I wasn’t just observing Spanish culture. I was living it. My host parents prioritized my cultural education. We attended local festivals. Juan Luis took me cycling in the countryside. Veronica taught me how to make tortilla. I played futbol in the garden with Pablo and Carlos. Outside of helping the boys with their homework, I usually spoke Spanish with the family, which did wonders for my language skills in just a few months. The experience opened my eyes to the different ways households operate and influenced my understanding of parenthood.
Moving abroad is no small thing. As a new college grad, I won’t pretend to have had any idea I knew what I was doing. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which I stepped off the plane in Madrid and was completely on my own. I like to think I would have worked things out, but it’s nice I didn’t have to. When I walked into the arrivals hall, Veronica was waiting for me. In the three months I lived with her family, Veronica was there for whatever I needed. She introduced me to her friends and family, included me in social outings, found me a language school and let me cry on her shoulder when I was homesick. Juan Luis was just as supportive. When he wasn’t working days, we’d eat breakfast together and ride bikes all morning. When I wanted to extend my visa, he drove me all over Madrid and talked to countless government workers in our quest for answers. They never made me feel like an employee. I was family from the start.
After my backpacking trip around Europe, I didn’t have much in the way of travel funds. But, I refused to let that stop me. I wanted to live abroad, and au pairing allowed me to do so. In exchange for getting the boys ready for school in the morning and helping them with their homework after school (approximately two hours of work every weekday), I had free room and board in a beautiful home just outside one of Europe’s most incredible capital cities. That would have been more than enough, but I also received €50 which was sufficient for bus fare and weekends out in the city.
Cons of au pairing
Some au pairs I met (including the one male au pair I encountered) had considerable issues with their host families. In fact, I met several au pairs who were on their second (or even third) host family because the first one (or two) didn’t work out. I read stories about au pairs who left in the middle of the night due to irreconcilable differences with their families. What were those irreconcilable differences? Well, the majority of them had to do with work. Problems ranged from being forced to work six days a week to being expected to cook and clean. In these cases, families “hire” an au pair assuming they’re getting a childcare professional. You don’t hire an au pair. You invite one into your home. It’s supposed to be a cultural exchange for both parties. When it’s not, issues arise.
Living in someone else’s house
I loved my Spanish family, but living in someone else’s house definitely isn’t for everyone. Part of the reason I felt so comfortable was because I had my own space. When I wasn’t working, I was free to spend my time however I wanted. If I wanted to watch TV with the family, I was welcome. If I wanted to Skype with my boyfriend in my room, that was fine too. When my door was shut, my family, including the boys, always knocked before entering. Other au pairs didn’t have it as good. One young German woman I met shared a room with the little girl she looked after. Others had curfews—even on their off days.
Au pair pay varies from country to country and also depends on the responsibilities the au pair is willing to take on. I earned €50 per week, and that seemed pretty standard for Spain. My host family always paid me at the beginning of the month, and the €50 per week never changed regardless of how much I actually worked. However, among the au pairs I talked with, pay was often an issue. Some weren’t paid on time. Others had the amount docked for factors out of their control. Between the schedule and legal status, there are few opportunities for au pairs to make money on the side.
You may also like: 5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Au Pairing
Tips for a good experience
I’m not trying to scare you, but it’s important you get the whole picture. Au pairing is not always perfect. Not every host family is a great one. However, there are steps you can take in order to set yourself up for the best experience possible.
Fill out your profile honestly
You’re going to be moving to a foreign country and relying on your host family to fulfill your basic needs (food and shelter). Your host family is entrusting you with the care of their beloved children. For both parties, it’s vital that the relationship is built on trust. If you don’t want to do housework, say so! If you’ve never worked with kids, say so! Don’t be afraid of not finding a host family if you tell the truth. In my experience, there are no deal breakers.
Communicate your expectations
Tell potential host families exactly why you want to be an au pair and what you hope to get out of the experience. If they’re not interested, they’re not a good host family. For example, if you want to improve your language skills, ask your host parents what hours each day you’ll be able to speak with them and the children in their native language. Before accepting a position, hammer out some concrete details. A contract may seem excessive, but it’s always better to have something in writing to refer back to when issues arise.
Have an open mind
If you’re considering becoming an au pair, you’re an adventurous spirit. Those who seek adventure pursue the unknown. It’s exciting! For better or for worse, your experience will be your own. Still not sure? If you don’t go for it, you’ll never know. Anything beats sitting on the couch and wondering “what if?” Remember: life isn’t going to be exactly like it is at home. But, that’s the whole reason you want to move abroad! Embrace differences
Any questions about au pairing? Feel free to leave a comment or send me a note!
Psst…Don’t foget to pin this post for later!