Finding childcare is one of the most stressful decisions for many parents of young children. Feelings of guilt for leaving their children with a stranger and questions like "Am I doing the right thing?" often plague parents.
Many opt for a live-in caregiver, especially in Silicon Valley where workdays can be long and the hours unpredictable. Daycares have set hours and close for holidays, which may be difficult for parents with variable work schedules. A live-in caregiver can give parents the peace of mind and flexibility they need.
The Au Pair Option
The ability to have a flexible childcare schedule is one of the major perks of hiring an au pair, according to Wendie Karel, area director for AuPairCare, an au pair placement agency serving the Bay Area. Imagine you need to leave for work at 6 a.m. (to beat the horrendous Bay Area traffic, of course) and you also need someone to be home when the kids get home from school at 3 p.m. It can be tough to find a nanny who would be willing to come early in the morning to get the kids and lunches ready for school and also be there in the afternoon to supervise homework.
An au pair could be a great option for this situation. Au pairs typically work up to 45 hours per week, and the exact schedule of those hours is negotiated between the au pair and host family. This is especially helpful for parents who might have a work schedule that changes from week to week. If you have your kids in daycare, typically you pay even when the child might stay home. With an au pair, you could negotiate her taking some weekend childcare hours if you won’t need her to be available on a Monday when you don’t have to work.
Cost is often another big consideration when hiring an au pair, according to Heidi Mispagel, executive vice president of PROaupair. Host families pay an annual contracted rate, which translates to about $8-15 per hour. You would have a tough time finding a daycare or nanny with that rate.
Additionally, you get the benefit of exposing your kids to the global world while in their own home. The au pair program is regulated by the U.S. Department of State as a way to provide cultural exchange between the United States and other countries. Au pairs must be 18 to 26 years old and proficient in English. They are typical female, although that is not a requirement. Au pairs can come from any country with which the United States has a diplomatic relationship. This cultural exchange between the host family and au pair is a big draw for families considering this arrangement.
Did you know that you can even hire an au pair with an occupational or physical therapy degree? This is the specialty of PROaupair, as all of their au pairs have degrees in childcare-related fields such as pediatric nursing, occupational or physical therapy, special needs education and early childhood education and teaching. This is a great option for families with a special needs child.
Mispagel warns parents considering an au pair that they need to get it out of their heads that the au pair is going to be the "perfect Mary Poppins." Parents should go into the relationship thinking about how the partnership between the parents and the au pair can make the household run better, not how the au pair is going to solve all the family problems.
Choosing an au pair agency is the first step in finding a good fit. Parents need to have a good connection with the agency and be comfortable with their process for matching. Mispagel stresses that parents should be up front about their requirements and needs with both the placement agency and potential au pair. Also, don’t make a fast decision. This person will be living under your roof for a year – take time to have multiple Skype discussions before agreeing to the placement.
Au pairs typically make a one-year commitment to a family, but it can be extended by an additional 12 months. Host families provide daily meals as well as a private bedroom; no private bathroom is required. The annual fee paid by the host family provides travel expenses and health insurance. Au pairs also are required to complete six units of educational credits during their stay, and the host family provides an additional stipend of up to $500 for this.
As a host parent herself, Karel finds that the biggest challenge of having an au pair is the turnover.
"The kids have a hard when the au pair leaves, and that can be hard on the family," she says. But many families keep in touch and even go to visit, continuing the relationship.
Some families may want to have the convenience of the au pair relationship but are wary about getting into a yearlong contract. Workaway is a program that allows hosts who are looking for different kinds of help – from childcare to farm chores – to match up with a person looking to provide that help in exchange for free room and board.
Workaway does not do any of the matching – that is up to the two parties, similar to a dating website.
Bay Area mother of three Sharon Khadder has used Workaway on three occasions after having a number of foreign exchange students in her home. She was drawn to Workaway because it offered the same cultural experience for her family, but the "Workawayers" came with the expectation of helping out around the house.
Workaway participants come to the program knowing that they will be expected to help out five hours a day, five days a week in exchange for room and board, with no payment. A private bedroom or bathroom is not required – Workaway just recommends that the living situation be discussed and agreed upon before the exchange starts.
Host families can specify what type of help they are looking for, from childcare duties to folding laundry to meal prep. Khadder says that setting expectations from the beginning is key when hosting someone through Workaway. The more you can be up front about your needs when interviewing a potential boarder (usually done via Skype), the better the chance you have at finding someone who is a good fit.
Those participating in Workaway typically are under 30, and are either taking a gap year, a summer abroad, or just want to spend some time traveling without a big budget.
Khadder’s kids love hosting these students from abroad – it’s like having an older sibling who is always nice to you, she says. Families find it convenient to have someone in the house who can watch some of the kids when you may have to take one to an appointment or event. The length of the arrangements can vary, but typically don’t last more than six months due to visa restrictions.
As with any other situation when you have a stranger staying in your home, challenges can arise when you have a Workaway participant staying with you. One Khadder hadn’t anticipated was the amount of food a 19-year-old boy eats. Asking a lot of questions of your potential Workawayer in advance can help avoid surprises.
BIO: Kate Loweth is the Silicon Valley calendar editor for Bay Area Parent.