Being an au pair for a year in Spain was one of the best decisions I have made in my entire life, I genuinely cherish every person, place and memory I have had abroad, but it was not always sunshine and rainbows though and some days were really hard. I essentially moved in with complete strangers after a few Skype talks, got my visa and packed my bags. I didn’t know what to expect, if I would like it or hate it, or even if I could do it for the whole year I promised to stay.
During a time in the world where a lot of misunderstanding about different religions and cultures is present, becoming an au pair has shown me that regardless of the language you speak or what your religion is we all want to: eat good food, listen to good music and be happy. Simple and concise. Immersing yourself into a different culture is the best way to realize how many more commonalities than differences we all have.
I didn’t realize it at the time but deciding to become an au pair was probably a decision I should have thought more about. But well, I didn’t. I couldn’t get a job in the States so the timing was convenient for me. If I told you I have dreamt about being an au pair for years and have a HUGE passion for children, I’d be lying. Totally lying (like pants on fire level-lying). I like kids but I don’t want my own at this point in my life. I think being the cool aunt perpetually would suit me just fine so I could hang out with youngsters but return them at the end of the day (obviously after feeding them copious amounts of candy. Duh.).
I had no idea what I was getting myself into but if it meant I could live abroad again, I did whatever I had to do to make that happen. Not every case is like mine. I got a host family I loved and they loved me, and I really was a ‘big sister.’ I have seen some horror stories with families while I was abroad with families changing their promised salaries, host parents not willing to communicate with au pairs, living situations that were just plain awkward, like adjoining rooms to the host kids’ room (no just no), or wild host kids that couldn’t even be controlled by their parents.
In the Beginning
I found out about becoming an au pair from a university friend who was an au pair in my neighborhood in Spain (shout out to Michelle!) and she knew families that wanted an au pair. Since she helped me connect with my host family everything was very informal, not like if you went through an au pair agency where you would pay for their help to get matched to a family. From what I have seen, an agency is normally stricter with the family contract and it has a more business-y vibe, which could work to your advantage if things with a host family don’t work out well or sticking to the contract is better to clarify and enforce expectations from both an au pair and family.
I had a contract as well (it is required for the visa) and it was followed but my host mom also wanted us both to keep in mind that life does not always adhere to a schedule and set of rules. My point with this is that as an au pair you have the right to speak up if you do not feel comfortable or want to change something, and this contract could back you up with ideal guidelines to follow. However, sometimes there are surprise visits from grandparents or family trips on the weekends so flexibility is important to be sure personal time and family time are both part of a sometimes ever-changing schedule.
Au Pair World is an awesome resource to use to answer questions about what to expect as an au pair, visa questions and requirements based on the country you go to. In addition, Au Pair World is a cheaper version of an agency to connect with potential host families searching for an au pair. Check out the website here.
A Day in the Life
A normal day varies from family to family but generally au pairs help in the morning with breakfasts, getting the kids ready for school, getting the kids to school, going to my Spanish class, maybe picking them up for lunch, making after-school snacks, picking them up after school and helping them with homework. Usually in the evenings, I would be working the most because that is when the kids would be home, we would do homework and spend time with the family.
It takes time to adjust to your routine and only after about 9 months did I become totally, 100% comfortable with my host family. I am pretty quirky when it comes to personal space and free time so adjusting to less personal freedom was difficult for me. For example, what to eat for dinner or when I could go to the store became more limited as my freedoms changed.
After I became accustomed to my schedule with my host family and their expectations, I felt a lot better and was able to do what I wanted because I understood when I could do things. I did miss my unscheduled freedoms though a lot and this pushed me to decide against becoming an au pair again. Since I was 18, I had been independent of living with parents, kids and worked during college, so to be back in that environment again after 7 years was a difficult transition. Reaching this point required a lot of open communication with my host parents and patience for both of us to understand each other (especially during times of language barriers).
Other au pairs have felt their independence has changed so it is not weird reaction to the situation but I would tell anyone who is thinking about being an au pair or is currently an au pair, never feel guilty about have personal time to disconnect and have free time. It is your right to escape every now and again because we all need to recharge.
With this said though I knew my host parents were doing everything they could to make me feel comfortable and for me to enjoy time abroad. They were open to me traveling and spending time with other au pairs and internationals in our city while I spent time with my host parents and host kids. We were trying to find a balance between all of the aspects of being an au pair abroad. Because my host parents put effort in making me feel comfortable and welcome in their home I knew that living with them for a whole year would be a positive, learning experience.
Grandma Au Pair Status
I became an au pair when I was 25 so I was like 105 in au pair years aka the grandma. I liked to call myself the au pair abuela (abuela = grandma in Spanish) because I was quite older than the other au pairs, whose ages range from 18 to 22 usually. But whatever, it is all an experience; regardless of your age you can be an au pair. Hell ya! Go abroad, meet people and see amazing landmarks you see only on TV and read about in history books. I may not want to drink cheap shots all night and listen to techno music for the ENTIRE night (until 7 am here) but I go out to have a good time. I have met so many different people of different backgrounds, personalities and interests that you are bound to find people you will get along with regardless of age. And if you can’t find someone to click with taking walks and jamming out to music is a good second option.
Get out there and go.
So regardless of your age or how many languages you speak, being an au pair tests your patience, understanding and openness to connecting with people of different cultures and expanding your horizons in more ways than you can imagine. I have increased my personal confidence, transformed my global perspective and molded my definition of happiness into how I truly feel, not what I am told what happiness should be as a 26-year-old woman. All of these personal revelations would not have come about if I hadn’t challenged myself and took the risk of being an au pair.
Should you be an au pair? Hell ya, you should. Make it happen.
My advice is: Get out there and go.