Since moving from San Francisco nine months ago to au pair for two German kids, I’ve gotten to learn a new language, live in another country and work with some of the cutest clients I might ever have. If this sounds like the job for you, here’s what you need to know.
"Au pair" means "equal to" in French and the idea is that you become part of the family, taking on childcare and household duties more like an older sibling.
Host families pay for housing, food, health insurance, part of your German lessons as well as at least €260 in pocket money a month (more about this later).
Depending on where you come from, au pairs must be no older than 26 for non-EU citizens and no older than 30 for EU and EFTA citizens.
You are supposed to know basic German to be an au pair, but proof of enrollment in a German class should suffice to apply for an au pair visa.
You are not supposed to work more than six hours per day, 30 hours per week.
How to do it
The first step, of course, is finding a host family and there are different ways to do this.
Au pair agencies help introduce a potential au pair to a family and sometimes ask for an application fee.
You create a profile for free, describe what kind of situation you are interested in and the site “matches” you with families that fit. I used a free website, but an agency can be helpful to support you if you aren’t getting along with the family or have visa questions.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to make sure you fit in well with the host family before signing a contract. The kids might not really like you at first, but children warm up to new people faster than adults. It’s the parents that you should focus on. If you don’t get along with them, it can make everything much harder.
"It's very important to do your research on the family as you have to be able to live with them," said Berlin au pair Rachel Edler of Bristol, England. "Living with the family can be intense and it can be difficult having to adapt to another family's politics and the way they do things."
Family first, money second
Once you find a family, you need to work out a contract.
You will need this to register as a resident, which in turn allows you to do things like get a bank account and apply for an au pair visa if you are a non-EU citizen.
Going over the contract together to agree on terms and expectations is extremely important.
While Germany has rules to regulate au pair contracts, individual situations can vary greatly. I have met people who work nearly full-time and must do a lot of household chores and others who hardly work 20 hours and never lift a finger to clean. Make sure you understand the exact tasks expected of you, when you have scheduled free time and how to handle vacation time.
Many families will want an au pair to live with them, but others will pay for au pairs to have their own apartments.
Au pairs do not get paid hourly, but instead get “pocket money” of at least €260 per month. This seems quite low for the 20 to 30 hours per week au pairs usually work, but host families are supposed to also cover health insurance, most of your meals as well as contribute toward your German lessons.
What to expect that you won’t expect
It’s a lot of work. A lot. Yes, the hours seem great – you can have the whole day to yourself while the kids are in school, but that also means you might have to work later in the evening and on weekends.
Living with the family means you are constantly around the kids and if you don’t set boundaries, the line between “your time” and “work time” can start to blur as the kids begin to knock on your door.
I once had plans to meet with another au pair friend who was supposed to have the weekends off. Before she was about to leave to meet me, the two-year old boy started screaming without stop and she was stuck watching his older sister while the mum took the boy for a walk. We had wait until the boy had calmed down so that we could meet.
The experience can be as exhausting as it is rewarding and not everyone who gives it a shot would recommend it to others.
'Be prepared to live as an adult child'
“Be prepared to have zero money as an au pair. Be prepared to wake up at the crack of dawn, have awkward breaks during the day, and lose out on social time because parents like to go out at night as well,” said Athina Chavez of Phoenix, Arizona who worked in Berlin as an au pair. “Be prepared to live as an adult child, under the roof of your employer. Be prepared to be treated both as a child (can't take care of your own health insurance) and an adult (huge responsibiltiy.)”
The schedule can be hard to pin down. I worked out a plan with my host family when I first started, but things change when kids get sick and one parent unexpectedly has to go out of town. It can make it hard to plan your week, which is why communicating your own personal schedule is important, too. In general you should always communicate with the host family if you think something should be changed or if things aren’t working out as you had agreed.
Another thing I didn’t expect is that you really do become part of the family. As the term suggests, the au pair is meant to be an equal member of the family.
At first you might feel at a loss as to what your role is – what you’re supposed to be doing exactly, who takes over when a child throws a tantrum – and the parents don’t always know either. With time things get easier and together you start to fall into a certain routine. You start to get better at coping with problems and coming up with solutions.
I knew that being an au pair would teach me more about dealing with children, but what I didn’t expect was that it also taught me a lot about myself.
Below are some useful links that have helped me along the way:
Emma Anderson is currently doing a part time internship with The Local Germany on top of her au pair duties.