If you love kids (or can at least tolerate them, like me), being an au pair is a great way live abroad and experience a new culture. I first considered becoming an au pair post-graduation. I love living in abroad, and this was an affordable way to immerse myself in another country. But after graduation, I found a job, and since long-term employment was the more rational choice, I decided to put my au pair dreams on hold. Long story short, the job didn't end up working out, so I went back to plan A!
So what is an au pair? I joke that I'm just a "glorified babysitter", but it's a little more than that. In addition to your typical childcare duties, I help my kids improve their English. In exchange, my accommodation and meals are taken cared of, and I also earn a small monthly allowance. An au pair not a maid or a nanny to be taken advantage of. They are supposed to be like a member of the family.
If being an au pair sounds like something you're interested in, here are a few things to consider:
1. Save up money
Being an au pair is definitely not a money-making gig, and it's almost impossible to save your wages. The average pay for an au pair in Europe ranges from €300-400 a month. I earned €300 a month, which converts to about $90 USD a week. You may earn more or less depending on the city and the amount of hours you work.
While you don't have to pay for accommodations or groceries, you'll have budget for transportation costs, traveling on the weekends, eating out, shopping, and a monthly cellphone plan. Trust me, €70 a week can disappear in a blink of an eye if you're not careful! I was also required to take a language course, which of course, I had to pay for. Be prepared to shell out some money before you even start, like paying a fee to the au pair agency and your airfare.
Back home, I had a lot more self control when it came to spending money. But it's so easy to blow through your pocket money in a foreign country, especially when you want to travel every weekend (or in my case, eat an inordinate amount of gelato), so my biggest advice is to SAVE UP.
2. Learn the language of where you're going
Learning a bit of Italian before I started as an au pair was one of the best decisions I made. Because my kids are not proficient in English, it helped a lot in communicating with them. I also don't live in a big tourist destination, so often times I have to speak Italian if I want to communicate with the locals.
3. Trust your gut when interviewing with potential host families
It's ok to turn down a host family because you don't feel like they're the right fit for you. It's also important to make sure you know exactly what is expected of you in terms of your schedule and what you're required to do. Your role as an au pair is NOT to be a maid. While you'll be required to do some chores and light house cleaning, you're mostly supposed to interact with the children and teach them English.
Country, city, and distance from the city center are all very important factors to consider. If your family lives on the outside of a big city, take into account the amount of time it takes on public transportation to reach the center and the cost. Living 30 minutes from Milan might not sound bad until you find out it takes an hour on the bus and the nearest stop is a 20 minute walk. A good location is everything!
I was very lucky in finding a family who lived in the city center of Bergamo. Originally, I was supposed to work in Lecco, a small city in northern Italy close to Lake Como. During one of my free weekends, I took a day trip to Lecco, and realized it was a blessing that I didn't end up there. While it was a pretty city surrounded by the mountains and lake, there was not much to do or see. If I had to live there for 3 months, I would've absolutely died of boredom.
5. Know how long you're willing to au pair for
At first, I really wanted to live and work in Italy for at least half a year. But getting a long stay visa didn't seem feasible, so I settled on 3 months. This turned out to be for the best because I'm itching to go home after 2 and half months. Imagine how homesick I'd be if I had another 3 months here!
If you've never been away from your family and friends for an extended amount of time, 3 months in a foreign country can feel like a lifetime. Consider testing it out for a month or two and then apply for a longer contract afterwards. It would be unfair to your host family if you sign up for 6 months but decide to leave after 3.
6. Have a side project
Whether it's attending a language course, having a secondary job, or cultivating a new hobby, it's important to keep busy and be productive. My kids are in school from 8 to 5 most days, which leaves me with a lot of free time. I also don't live in a huge city where there's a ton of things to do, and it's not possible for me to travel all the time due to scheduling and financial reasons. After a while, it's really easy to get apathetic and even Netflix binging turns unbearably boring. So most days, I force myself to go on long walks around the city or hang out in a bookshop to catch up on some reading. I also attend an Italian course three times a week to help pass the time.
7. Kids are tough
I kind of had it in my head that things were going to go like the Sound of Music - the kids were going to be angels, and we'd frolic in the fields while singing some catchy tune. In reality, it was mostly dealing with temper tantrums while trying not to throw a fit myself. There will be good and bad days, and it's not always easy. But the good days make it all worth, so don't give up!
8. It can get lonely
Depending on where you end up, there won't necessarily be other au pairs for you to connect with. Not being fluent in the language and being a foreigner can also make it hard to meet people. I was lucky enough to have met another American au pair, and we had the best adventures (shoutout to Bitzy!). But after she left, I mostly hung out alone or with my host family.
Be prepared for the loneliness - it's hard, but remember that you chose to become an au pair for a reason :)
**Tip: trying looking for people who want to meet up on Couchsurfing.
9. You will get homesick
It's inevitable, and it sucks, which is why it's important to...(see number 6)
10. It doesn't always work out
I feel so incredibly lucky to have found such a wonderful family who have treated me better than I could have imagined. They have really given me an amazing au pair experience that I won't ever forget.
Unfortunately, not everyone leaves with a good experience. I've heard stories from fellow au pairs who after spending a week with their family, had to find another host family because things weren't working out. In another instance, I had au pair friend, also working in Bergamo, who decided to return home after a month because ultimately, she and her family were not a good fit for each other.
Because of this, it's safer to go through an agency, especially if you're inexperienced with the process. If things go wrong, you can always relocated and be matched with a better family.
For more information, check out Celtic Childcare - I had a great experience using them!