Finding childcare that truly meets your needs is no simple task. There are multiple issues – of scheduling, of flexibility, of costs, of trust – that all need to be considered. Especially for families with two working parents where there are periods each day where neither parent can be at home, putting the right mix of childcare into place is a challenge.
With all the choices out there, is an au pair the helping hand you need? I'll admit, I was skeptical at first before my husband and I chose an au pair to help us care for our children. It turned out to be the most amazing experience, and it fits with our busy schedule.
The au pair option
After trying out local day care centers, babysitters and even considering a live-in nanny for our children, a friend suggested looking into an au pair. I had never even heard the term before, so I spent a lot of time on Google researching what au pairs are, what they do, and how to hire one. The idea of a cultural exchange program that doubled as childcare had me excited. As an American, I've always wanted to travel to Europe and beyond, but with two kiddos, it's just not in the cards right now. Having someone bring one of the European countries to us was too exciting to pass up, so we signed up.
Our au pair was a 22-year-old woman named Sofia from Germany and she found her place in our family almost immediately. She spoke excellent English but delighted in teaching my daughters German words while she drove them to and from their activities. She took a lot of the load off us when it came to the children's schedules. The oldest had dance practice three times a week, and I was often scrambling or even taking off work early to make sure I had her there on time. With Sofia, I didn't have to worry and that is such an incredible feeling.
It's important to note that au pairs are not live-in maids, but that didn't stop her from helping out around the house. She'd wash the kid's clothes for me or help me clean up after dinner. She'd even cook us dinner once a month or so, treating us to delicious German food.
My girls were so sad when their big sister had to go back to Germany after her year with us, but she keeps in touch with them and with me to let us know how she's doing. She's even planning a visit in the next year or so — not as an au pair but as a distant part of our family because that is what she became.
Our situation: The cost of an au pair in the USA
For two children, I was paying upwards of $700 a week for daycare — and that's even counting the sibling discount that the center offered because I had two kids in the same facility. Yes, you read that right — I was spending $2,800 a month just to have someone watch my children while my husband and I worked.
Bringing our au pair Sofia to come to stay with us for a year only cost us around $350 a week. Part of that was her weekly stipend, which we provide for things like shopping and travel, and educational expenses, but in general, it was half of what we were paying for traditional child care. And if I'm being honest here, Sofia was worth every single penny. Hiring an au pair was the best decision we've ever made, and we'll likely continue utilizing au pairs until my youngest child is old enough to move out on their own.
Finding childcare that's right for you
Selecting the best child care is not something you should take lightly. You have to find someone you can trust to care for your kids without emptying your bank account. You need to find a balance between your budget and the flexibility of your child care professional.
- Baby-sitters and day care centers aren't as flexible as some of the other options. They often keep strict hours, which means you'll be scrambling to find secondary care if you have to stay late at work or find yourself dealing with another emergency.
- Live-in nannies can be an option, but this is one of the most expensive forms of child care, and they may also keep strict hours to prevent overworking.
- Au pairs have a limited amount of time they can work every week, but their hours are flexible. As long as you're not exceeding the maximum number of work hours, you can ask them to watch your children a little later one night, in exchange for shorter hours another day.
Don't make a hasty decision
No matter what type of child care you decide to use, don't make the decision quickly. It took us close to two years to find the best option for our family — and that ended up being our amazing au pair. Take your time, do your research and tour any appropriate facilities to get a feel for how these professionals care for your children. If you choose an au pair, they'll usually stay with you for a year. However, if there's a conflict or your personalities just don't mesh, you can opt to have the agency send another young woman in hopes that you have better luck.
Keep in mind that no matter what you choose, it should be what's best for your kids. Au pairs can provide an unprecedented level of flexibility you won't find with day care centers, a splash of culture and a better fit for your family's daily life. Our experience with Sofia changed the way I think of child care and I recommend an au pair to all of my friends who have children — and to those that haven't even started their families yet!
About the author:
Jennifer Landis runs the blog Mindfulness Mama. She is a writer, mother of two girls and healthy living blogger based in Central Pennsylvania in the United States. Her blog features "first-hand tips on parenting, managing family finances, quick and tasty recipes, mindfulness tips and everything in between".