Last year, with the due date of our second baby looming, we decided to employ an au pair. I was going to be off work on maternity leave for about a year, but we wanted to keep our two-and-a-half-year-old in nursery (a 30 minute Tube ride away) and the thought of schlepping a toddler and a newborn across London on my own, or the alternative – being at home solo with two small children and their demands to deal with 24/7 – left me quaking. We liked the idea of the flexibility (not to mention free babysitting) that an au pair would bring, and as we had a spare room it seemed worth a go.
We signed up to aupair-world.co.uk, posted a profile of ourselves as a family (Mummy, Daddy, extremely talkative two-and -a-half-year-old), explained that we wanted someone calm, flexible and friendly who could cope with the chaos, and embarked upon a series of online and Skype interviews that led to the arrival of Julie from Holland.
“My house was tidier and I was less stressed… we all cried when she left”
She was wonderful. Within weeks, my mad moments of scrambling (read: lumbering) from work to collect our son from nursery before it closed had disappeared. My house was tidier, and I was less stressed. Julie stayed with us for 10 months and we all cried when she left. Two months later, Elin from Sweden arrived and, so far, so good.
A quick internet search on “au pairs” throws up a myriad of options: advice websites, agencies, discussion forums. Where to start? The process – as we found – can be daunting. After all, you’re basically inviting a stranger to come and live in your home and become part of your family.
Here are our top tips on hiring an au pair:
- Your au pair is not a cheap nanny. Generally speaking, they work between 25 and 35 hours a week, plus a couple of nights’ babysitting, for between £70-£100 in “pocket money”, and are not supposed to be in sole continuous charge of children under two (for more info see below)
- We used aupair-world.co.uk – basically a dating website for families and au pairs where both parties create an online profile. The site offers suggested matches and either party can get in touch. Agencies, meanwhile, put you in touch with candidates that have already been vetted. The BAPAA (British Au Pairs Agencies Association) has a list of members on its website (bapaa.org.uk). Recommendations from friends can work – although remember that if someone is getting rid of their au pair, it may be because there’s been a problem, and if something does go wrong, it could sour a friendship.
- Once you’ve decided on your outlet, draw up a profile of your family for prospective applicants. Be honest about the kind of people you are: if you’re disorganized and never know what you’re going to be up to in the evenings, say so – you’ll want someone who can be flexible and go with the flow rather than a stickler for order. Be open about what you get up to, whether it’s throwing lots of dinner parties or hosting musical soirees once a week. “We’re quite outdoorsy as a family, so we said that we wanted someone who would be into that stuff,” says one friend. “We didn’t want anyone who was just into computers or TV as we don’t really use them in the house. Giving quite a lot of details about us made it easier for the people applying, and we basically only got applications from down to earth country girls, which made the process much easier.”
- Put together as detailed a job description as you can, outlining clearly what your au pair’s responsibilities will be. If you want someone who can step into the breach and look after your children if one of them is sick, say so. If you want someone who doesn’t mind taking on the ironing, put it down. “I think you have to set out the worst case scenario job description, so then you weed out anyone who’s not going to fit with your family and there are no hidden surprises for them,” says Nicola, a mother of two girls who has had several au pairs. Be as specific as you can about what kind of character you want, whether it’s someone who is tidy, musical, good at cooking or flexible.
- Think carefully about what your priorities are. Do you want someone older or younger? How important is their level of English? Do you have any preference as to what country they come from? Do you want them to eat every single meal with you or would you prefer some family time in the evenings now and again? “I’m always a bit wary of girls who say that becoming a family is their absolute most important thing,” says a friend. “I’m quite keen on girls who are independent and want to get out, make friends and explore London. I like to have some time in the evening with my husband, so I don’t always want my au pair there all the time.” It’s also a good idea to make sure they actually like children, and ideally have some experience of working with them, whether it’s regular babysitting or helping on holiday camps. Feel free to be quite exacting at this stage – it might feel a bit prescriptive, but it will narrow down the choice later on.
- If you’re using a DIY website such as aupair-world, set up some Skype interviews with your preferred choices. Check out their body language when they talk to you. Are they interested in meeting your children on Skype? Ask them why they want to be an au pair, and what their life ambition is (one friend had an au pair who told her after two weeks that she had got a job as an air hostess and was leaving immediately). Think about asking for references.
- Once you’ve picked your candidate and offered her (or him) the job, send a basic contract, outlining your expectations, and including a cooling-off period. This will give the person a chance to make sure they really want the job – and an option to get out if they don’t.
- Be prepared to welcome your au pair into your home – collect them from the airport, cook dinner the first night, be as nice as you possibly can, even if the baby has been sick on you, the toddler is whining and all you want to do is dump them with the new help and run. Have mercy. Give the au pair a couple of days to get used to the children and family life before you chuck them in at the deep end. It might be helpful to write up your children’s daily routine, what you want the au pair to do each day, and an idea of hours. Talk about likes and dislikes, explain your boundaries and any disciplinary procedures for the children, outline what you expect them to do in an emergency. It’s a good idea to provide them with a cheap mobile/pay for a basic mobile contract so you can get in touch when they’re with your offspring.
- Keep communicating. Sit down after a couple of weeks and talk about how things are going. Be prepared to raise any issues as you go along if there’s anything that’s bugging you – otherwise you’ll just simmer and be angry (and make their life miserable).
- Try to enjoy the experience. Yes, it may bug you sometimes to have someone living in your home, all the time. Yes, you might get irritated with weird foodstuffs in the fridge, larger than average grocery bills and long blonde hair clogging up the bathroom plughole. But get it right and you might end up with a Julie in your life. We drove all the way to Holland for a weekend to stay with her family over the summer – they welcomed us into their home as we had done with her. It is, hopefully, the start of a lifelong relationship.
What you need to know:
- You don’t legally need a contract, but drawing up a friendly one, including a cooling off period, holiday and holiday pay expectations, sickness procedure etc. is a good idea. The HMRC website recommends sending a signed letter of invitation including details of your au pair’s stay
- Carrying out basic household chores is fine – light housework, laundry, tidying, a bit of cooking, loading and unloading the dishwasher etc. Don’t expect them to be a replacement for your cleaner on top of that
- Most au pairs come to the UK to improve their English – it’s generally acknowledged that you need to give them a few hours off each week to attend language classes
- You need to give au pairs a room of their own, and food as part of the package. You also need to allow them to travel home to see their family during the year
- Weekends are usually off, unless they are given a day off during the week in lieu