Rachel is a single mom whose husband unfortunately passed away about seven years ago. She has two daughters, one just turned nine and the other one is about to turn seven. They've been in the Bay area for about six years and her daughters attend the French American School of Silicon Valley. Rachel is a neonatologist, a physician who works in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), she is also a medical school faculty and the medical director of San Jose's Mothers’ Milk Bank.
In this interview Rachel explained how having an au pair can be a good childcare solution for parents of school-aged children with demanding work schedules. We talked about the au pair program: which agencies she used, what the recruitment process is like, what are the requirements for the host families, and what an au pair can or cannot do. Deciding to have an au pair come live in your house can be a little daunting, Rachel shared her experience adapting to this situation and what is available to the au pairs to help them adapt too. If you are considering having an au pair, I hope this interview will be helpful.
Before becoming a mom, were you already working at the NICU?
Rachel - Yes, I had my first daughter when I was a fellow, that's like the second level of training, so I was training in pediatrics and then in neonatology. So, I had finished my residency in pediatrics and was starting my fellowship when I had my first daughter. I had my second daughter at the end of my fellowship.
Working at the NICU means working in shifts, were you afraid that it would be complicated to find childcare because of that?
Yes. So I have a very irregular schedule, I have a lot of night and weekend coverage. I have a specific amount of vacation per year but I can't take it whenever I want. It's determined at the beginning of the academic year and has to take into account my colleagues. So It may or may not match up with school vacations. If I'm lucky it does if I'm not, it doesn’t. So finding help for child care for nights and weekends and also school vacations can sometimes be very challenging.
How did you choose to have an au pair? Did you consider other solutions first? What was your first choice?
There are a couple of different reasons that we went this route. The first reason was we don't need the number of hours per week that tend to work best for a nanny. Most nannies want full-time jobs and because my kids are in school, we don't need too much help during the week, as long as they are not on vacation. The irregularity of my schedule also makes things more difficult. I don't work the same day, every week, or the same hours every day. It's a predetermined schedule of daytime and nighttime, that I know well in advance, but it's very variable from week to week. So, again, that's not a big appeal to most nannies. When they're looking for work, they want to know which hours they're going to work and prefer to work the same hours every week. Especially if you don't have enough hours to provide a full-time position, people will want to find supplemental employment, and if the hours change every week that's very difficult. And then also, most nannies prefer to work during the day so that they can be with their families at night. And it is really for those off hours, the nights and the weekends, that we need help the most.
Another reason for choosing an au pair is the appeal of the cultural exchange. This year, we are fortunate enough to have our first nanny from France, which is great for us because my kids go to a French-American school and I am no longer able to reliably help with homework (I studied French in school but apparently not well enough to do fourth-grade homework.)
Why do you have this cultural appeal? Was it because you traveled a lot before?
No, not necessarily. I think that the root is probably that my mom was an immigrant, she came here from Egypt when she was 15 and I felt like experiencing her culture in addition to American culture enriched our childhood. I think I had, from a young age, an appreciation for how people do things differently and how that difference is wonderful. So I want my children to have the understanding that there is a whole big world out there and there are benefits we gain by appreciating it.
Did you hire an au pair as soon as your first daughter was born?
We did not, because at that point I did need a lot of childcare hours so we used a nanny. We needed a full-time nanny combined with a part-time nanny up until three years ago. Even during the pandemic, with the schooling at home, the number of hours that we needed would have surpassed what was allowed for the au pair program. So it's only since the girls are in school full-time, that we're able to stay within those designated hours.
When you had your first au pair, your daughters were 6 and 4 years old, was it easy for them to adapt to having someone live at home with you?
I think so because even before that, we would have usually the same person, like the night nanny or our daytime nanny, who stays overnight. So it wasn't too much of a stretch.
Can you explain how the Au Pair program works? How do you recruit them?
You must go through an au pair agency to find an au pair. These are companies that are very careful to stay within the Department of State regulations for the au pair program. It's a very well-defined program, it is supposed to be an educational and cultural exchange program and there are a lot of rules in place to make sure that everyone is protected. So you join one or several of these companies, in our case, we joined multiple agencies so that we would have a large pool of candidates to select from, and then you provide information about your family. After that you have the opportunity to sift through profiles of potential au pairs to find what you're looking for, you can organize by arrival date, age, or other characteristics. Then as you go through the profiles, you learn a little bit about them and then you reach out to them and interview them, and then decide if you want to match with them or not.
So you had to go through several agencies? Can you tell us more about them?
I did yes, but I don't think you necessarily have to. For each one that you join, there's a fee, and each one has a slightly different application process, but I felt that to have the largest pool of applicants it made sense to go with more than one agency. I used Cultural Care and AuPairCare. I did not look at Au Pair in America, which is the other big one in this area, mostly because they require that you pay the au pair hourly, which is different than the other two companies that require that you pay a minimum weekly stipend amount set by the US Department of State.
Do au pairs have a maximum number of hours they can work every week? Every month? How does it work?
It's 45 hours a week and not more than 10 hours at a time and 1.5 days off per week. These are federal standards, but there are small differences between the agencies in terms of additional restrictions and rules that they have. And in addition to providing childcare, au pairs are required to complete a specified number of educational credits while they are here and the host family is responsible for providing some of the tuition. So they also need time to complete these credits.
You said there is a minimum price that you have to pay the au pair, is it about the same price that you would pay a nanny or is it very different?
It's very different. For AuPairCare and Cultural Care, there is a minimum stipend that you have to pay per week. And then, of course, you provide room and board and access to a cell phone plus access to transportation/insurance as well as a program fee that you pay to the agency. Cultural Care and AuPairCare have a weekly minimum amount that's the same for the whole country, whereas for Au Pair in America, in California, you have to pay a per-hour fee. So the amount they receive in this case can vary from week to week, depending on how much they work that week.
What were your criteria to choose your au pairs?
I was looking for somebody who was mature and who was flexible and dependable, Even though my schedule is sort of set in advance, sometimes there are things that can come up at the last moment. It's the kind of situation where, since there isn't a second parent, I really need to be able to rely on another adult in the household. So that was very important to me and then dependability is also important because if I don't have somebody at home to stay with my kids, then I can't go to work and that can be problematic for “essential personnel”. So the dependability factor was very important. And then, of course, I was looking for somebody who would get along with my kids and who would be supportive of them, but also able to enforce the house rules.
Were you able to meet the candidates with your daughters before making the final decision?
There are two different ways that you can recruit an au pair. You can either recruit an overseas au pair or you can recruit what they call an “extension au pair”, somebody who stays for two years, and does not necessarily want to stay for the second year with the same family. The program can be one or two years, but most au pairs stay for one year. But either way, most of the time they're not in a place geographically where you can meet with them in person before they come live with you. So, most of the interviews are done online. It’s a lot of video calling at first and some email exchanges and that's as good as it gets.
What are the housing accommodations that you need to provide them? Do they need to have their own bedroom and bathroom or other specific areas?
They need to have their own bedroom for sure. We happen to also have a separate bathroom, but it's not a requirement. The big requirement is that they have their own bedroom.
What about the tasks they can perform, can they just take care of the kids or can they also do household chores like cooking or cleaning?
They are only supposed to do child-related tasks. For example, they can't do the household laundry, but theoretically, they can do the children's laundry and help clean up the children's play spaces. But there's also this idea of being a family member or being a good citizen, so if you're all eating dinner together and someone else has made dinner then it's reasonable that they would help clean up. So some of these family member tasks are okay but most tasks should be child-related.
Can an Au pair drive your children?
In our case yes, we needed the au pair to be able to drive, but some don’t drive. For some families having that driver ability is very important so they'll only screen candidates that have driving experience in their home country and can easily get an American driver's license, For other families that's less of a concern because, for example, they live in a place with good public transportation networks.
You said that au pairs usually stay for one year, was it your case each time?
Yes, right now it’s just the way it has worked out. We certainly wouldn't mind if we were lucky enough to have someone stay for a second year. But I also felt like it was more important to bring the right person, even if they were only able to stay for a year than bring somebody who maybe was not as good of a fit for our family but was able to stay two years.
Do you have house rules that you have set for your au pairs?
Yes, I think that there's a large spectrum of the way host families approach rules for au pairs. Some folks will have a very detailed handbook with all of the house rules. We tried to be a little bit less structured because I think an au pair is an adult and it's not necessarily my place to make a bunch of rules for her. We have some rules about who can visit the house and stay overnight, how far can the car go without a discussion, and how many tanks of gas we will supply a month. But most of our rules are about safety and relate to the children like “these are the things that you can and can't do when they are with you”.
Did you find differences between the three au pairs that you had or was it the same experience overall?
No, everybody was a little bit different. Everybody has kind of different strengths and weaknesses and there's always a kind of getting-to-know-you period at the beginning. I think that there have been many differences but at the end of the day, they have all been really lovely people and have taken really great care of my kids. I have only had good experiences so far.
You said your current au pair is from France, where were the previous ones from?
Argentina and El Salvador. Technically, our nanny from El Salvador came to us as a nanny not an au pair. But she had been an au pair before and generally acted as an au pair in our household except without some of the restrictions and the pay structure was a little bit different. Our nanny before her was also a previous au pair and she was from Colombia.
So was it through them that you learned about au pairs or was it a program that you knew about before? Did you know other families who used au pairs?
I was aware of the program but I didn't know a lot about the details, I didn't know how well it would work for our family. I think that our last nanny, before we truly converted to the program, really helped me to feel more comfortable with the idea.
What were your concerns about having an au pair?
I think the idea of agreeing to host somebody for a year and have them live in your house without ever meeting them in person is a little bit disconcerting. It is much easier to make connections via video chat now than it has ever been in the past, but it's still a little bit different and it is a big commitment. You're sending an invitation to them so they will be giving up other plans that they have for the year and you want to make sure that the situation works for both parties. So it feels like a big responsibility to match and say “Okay we're committed to this for the year”.
When the first au pair arrived, did it take a long time for you to become comfortable with this new situation?
I think shortly after she arrived, it was all fine. It was mostly the anticipation leading up to that that was stressful. When we actually met her in person for the first time I was like “Oh, this will be okay”. What complicated the situation is that we were emerging out of the pandemic and there were still certain rules and restrictions and there were lots of different approaches from family to family and state to state. Different countries in general had very different approaches, so it was kind of hard to know if our expectations would be the same and if our ideas about what's safe would line up with each other, but it was fine.
So your first au pair arrived during the pandemic, was it a factor in taking an au pair, or did you make the decision before?
The very first year of the pandemic we still had a nanny and it was a live-in nanny at that point. She was similar to an au pair in that she had graduated from high school, so she was on the young side and not really sure what her next steps were going to be educationally, so she took a gap year and decided to nanny. She was from the Midwest, she came out to the West Coast, she had no local family and it was hard to gauge her personality from our conversations before she had come. That was actually a tough year. That was not a great situation for us, but at the same time, because she was already here when the pandemic hit, we had reliable childcare for the rest of the year. At that point, with the girls staying home, we could not have an au pair because the hours were excessive, so it wasn't until the pandemic started getting a little bit better and the girls went back to school, that having an au pair became an option for us.
Is it easy to have continuity between au pairs? Were you able to have a new au pair start right after the previous one left in order to not be without childcare for too long?
It has been okay so far, but it is also very stressful because it is a very tight time window and when they arrive, they need a couple of days to get settled and get oriented and they can't be responsible to work during that time. Depending on my schedule, we have to figure out a way to make sure that I'm not scheduled to work at that time. Also, the idea that maybe this time we won't find the right person is very stressful.
Does the process of recruiting an au pair take a long time, between the moment you start to look at candidates and the moment they arrive?
Yes, definitely. This year we were hoping for an August arrival, and I believe we started looking in April. We identified an au pair fairly quickly, it only took a couple of weeks. But after you make that match, there are still a lot of things that need to happen behind the scenes. The host family doesn't have too much responsibility until the au pair arrives but the agency needs to get them a visa and arrange for their travel. During that time we were able to stay in touch, which was nice, but there is a big lag between you saying yes and when she actually arrives.
Did you face the situation of choosing someone who was not able to come due to their visa application being rejected or other issues?
That has not happened to us, but I know that it has happened to other families. There are specific countries, that are more or less likely to be denied, but for people coming from European countries, it's not really an issue. I think for Thailand and China, for example, it can be very unreliable whether or not those visa applications will get approved.
Have your au pairs always managed to adapt easily? Was it hard for them to discover their new environment or the American culture?
So far so good. I think because most of the folks that we hosted up until now had already been in the United States before coming to us, at least for some time, it made it easier for them. I think, as far as I know, things have been fine for our au pairs. For the last two years, our au pairs have arrived over the summer when the kids are out of school, so we tried to do a lot of stuff together in the first couple of weeks that they're here, like taking them with us when we go hiking or to the beach, that kind of thing. It gets a little bit trickier once school starts because then everybody sort of goes their respective way and it's a little harder to do stuff together as a family.
The other thing that I think is very helpful, is that the au pairs have a local representative from the au pair agency, who is like a group leader for them in the area. When a new au pair arrives, they will reach out to them and introduce them to the group of other au pairs and they have monthly meetings. I think very quickly, the au pairs will connect with other people who may share language or culture with them and so right from the start they'll have some friends. And because many of them are in the same phase of life, it helps them to connect with each other. Often, the other au pairs in the group will have already been here for a month or two (not every au pair comes at the same time of year) so they can share their experience and pass on information to the newly arrived au pairs.
Do you keep in touch with your au pairs once they leave? Do your daughters miss them?
Yes, we do. My daughters definitely miss them and they still talk about them all the time. I think, for some families, the transition from one au pair to another can be very hard, which is why some families will look specifically for au pairs who can stay for two years. But for better or worse I feel like my girls don't seem to mind the change too much, they kind of look forward to welcoming a new friend as opposed to saying goodbye to an old friend. So it's been fine for us so far.
If you were to meet other families that were considering au pairs, do you have any tips or advice to share?
I think it really depends on what they're looking for and what they need. There are a lot of hidden costs and restrictions of the program that people may not realize, but in the end, having an au pair tends to be very worthwhile to a lot of families. I think that the idea of someone living with you, you have to decide if it is something that you're willing to do or not, because it does change things in your household. But at the same time, there are so many good things that the program can foster in your family.
There are a lot of Facebook groups for families who have au pairs, which can be really helpful in getting familiar with the program before actually committing. A lot of what I have learned about the program actually came from a group of physician moms with au pairs. I think there is a lot of wisdom to be gleaned from other people who have done it before us and a lot of things that you would not necessarily consider otherwise. Getting a lot of people's experience can be really helpful to make a decision. And even once you've made the decision and you are in it, as things come up or if you have questions, it's nice to have that sounding board to discuss with.
Do you think you will continue to have au pairs for a long time? What is your plan?
I think we will continue to have au pairs probably until my oldest child can drive. This is what I'm planning at this point, but we'll see.