The au pair alternative

From last week’s Sunday Business Post . . .

The au pair alternative
Sunday, May 09, 2010 – By Alex Meehan

Paying someone to look after your children has always been a challenge for parents, and that challenge became particularly difficult during the boom years when the costs associated with childcare soared.

Despite the downturn, full-time childcare can equal the cost of a mortgage payment each month; for many working parents who have taken a pay cut or seen their hours reduced, that’s a burden that is increasingly hard to shoulder.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that an increasing number of parents are moving away from creches and nannies, and are instead choosing to have their children looked after by an au pair. Sean Kavanagh of the SK Dublin au pair agency has seen demand for his services increase by 30 per cent over the past year, as parents seek to reduce their childcare costs.

‘‘One of our clients told us that he had paid around €28,000 to a creche over the previous couple of years. When his wife’s and his own income was cut badly, he asked them to reduce their fees by 20 per cent. They wouldn’t do it, and so they began to look into an au pair as an alternative,” says Kavanagh.

‘‘Hosting an au pair can be much cheaper than other forms of childcare, but there are also other advantages – for example, if both parents are getting up early for work and leaving the house at 8am, then they don’t have to get the kids out of bed unnaturally early to drop them to a creche on the way,” he says.

According to Kavanagh, an increasing number of young people in countries such as Spain, Italy and France are seeking au pair placements in Ireland. ‘‘There are more au pairs coming here now because there are fewer jobs in Europe,” he says.

‘‘We talk to lots of girls who’ve graduated from school or college and see the job prospects at home as pretty bleak. From their point of view, au pairing can make a lot of sense – they get to take six months or a year out to see a foreign country, while improving their language skills at the same time.

In Spain and Italy in particular, good-quality English is a really valuable skill to have in the workplace.” According to Kavanagh, the basic cost of having an au pair look after your children is €100 a week, payable as pocket money, along with the associated costs of providing food and board for your au pair.

In addition, there are extra fees, up to a maximum of €390, payable to his agency for facilitating the introduction and providing support over the course of the arrangement. He only works with au pairs who are at least 18 years of age.

‘‘That is a lot cheaper than fulltime childcare, but it’s important to realise that they are very different things,” he says.

‘‘In return for their pocket money, an au pair will do a standard 30 hours a week child minding, as well as two nights a week babysitting. Included in the 30 hours are light housekeeping duties such as tidying, vacuuming, helping with housework and preparing light meals for the kids. Families can pay their au pair whatever they like in pocket money, but €100 a week is really the minimum.”

Kavanagh recommends that housework should only make up between one and two hours of an au pair’s duties per day. ‘‘They shouldn’t be expected to scrub bathrooms and toilets – there’s a difference between cleaning a house from top to bottom, and keeping an already clean house tidy,” he says.

While the terminology can vary from agency to agency, there are several different kinds of au pairs available, depending on the host family’s needs. The standard au pair works around 30 hours a week as well as two evenings a week, but is not really a full-time child minder – it is usually expected that one of the child’s parents is around for some of each day to help out.

An ‘au pair minder’ is prepared to work longer hours and take care of a child on their own while both parents are out at work, while an ‘au pair plus’ usually works up to 40 hours and will perform extra duties around the house. It’s possible to recruit all types of au pairs through an agency, or via the internet.

Using the net means parents avoid paying extra fees, but Kavanagh says there is a difference between the services provided.

‘‘We work with 35 agencies around Europe, and the girls we place have been interviewed and vetted in their home countries, so the whole process is more accountable,” he says. ‘‘When we match up au pairs and families, we make sure there is some communication in advance, either over the phone or online, so that everyone gets to know each other a bit. It’s important that everyone involved has a clear idea of what is expected of them.”

According to Kavanagh, it’s not necessary to live in a particularly large house to accommodate an au pair, but host families do need to be able to meet certain basic criteria.

‘‘You don’t need to have a huge amount of space, but you do need to have a spare bedroom or an attic conversion – it’s important for the au pair to have their own space to retreat to,” he says. ‘‘Usually the au pair is working when you’re not there, so they have the house to themselves during the day.

When you come home, they’ll probably be ready to do their own thing, to head out to meet friends or to watch a movie in their room.”

Having a linguistically-challenged 18-year-old move in with you to look after your kids can take a bit of getting used to, and while it’s definitely attractive from a cost perspective, parents who have used au pairs say the key to getting it right lies in creating the right relationship.

‘‘Having an au pair is very different to having a child in childcare or having a full-time child minder – if you’re thinking of switching, you need to realise that it’s a different world altogether,” says Jackie Bennett, who lives in south Co Dublin with her husband Benji and their children Harry, nine, Robbie, three, and one-and-a-half year old Molly. The couple’s other son, Adam, died in 2007 aged four.

‘‘An au pair isn’t an employee, and you can’t really treat them as if they work for you,” she says.

‘‘They’re paid so little that it wouldn’t be fair – they have to be treated as part of the family. They’re not professional childminders, and they’re certainly not cleaners. You also have to remember that there will be a language barrier, and make allowances for that.”

But Bennett is enthusiastic about her experiences with au pairs.

‘‘Anyone with young children will tell you that to have someone mind the kids while you get out for a few hours on your own is fantastic,” she says.

‘‘Being able to do that, and maybe also go out once or twice a week in the evening, even just to go for a walk or to the cinema, adds significantly to your quality of life.

I get out twice a week with my husband and that’s really important for us, particularly since Adam passed on.”

Families considering hosting an au pair may like the idea of the convenience but also baulk at the notion of having to play surrogate parent to a potentially sullen teenager.

While disagreements do occur, in Bennett’s experience it isn’t difficult to work through the issues.

‘‘The key is to remember that they are young, and that you need to be aware of their feelings and moods. If someone is in your house and living with your family, it has to work. If it’s not working then there’s a reason – and it’s either your personality or theirs,” she says.

‘‘We’ve been really lucky, things have mostly always worked out for us, but I think that’s because we put the effort in. When it works, having an au pair can be fantastic.

If they’re a nice person that you get on well with, they can really add to the family.”

Seasoned au pair hosts Derek Ryan and Catriona Coyle agree.

Their two boys, Jack, ten, and Bobby, seven, were cared for by a variety of au pairs over a five-year period.

‘‘Sharing your home can be tricky, and in some ways it can be a bit restrictive. But an awful lot depends on the au pair themselves,” says Derek Ryan. ‘‘Some are in tune with the family and know that if a husband and wife are having a conversation, then maybe it would be a good idea to make themselves scarce. With others, you’d have to send a telegram to let them know.

Essentially, these are big kids themselves who are usually away from home on their own for the first time.

They get homesick, they miss their own food and they struggle with the language.”

Ensuring the au pair feels comfortable in the host family’s home is crucial, according to Ryan. ‘‘If they’re happy and are enjoying being in your house, that will translate to a happier environment for your kids,” he says.

‘‘You can make life easy for yourself by making their space comfortable – put a TV in their bedroom, and maybe internet access, so they can stay in touch with their family and friends on Facebook.

And before they even get on a plane, get on the phone and talk to them. Ask them if they’ve been abroad before, whether they have brothers or sisters, whether they live in the city or in the countryside. Try to gauge if what they think they’re getting into is the same as what you think they’ll be doing, so your expectations aren’t dissimilar.”

Most importantly, don’t approach hiring an au pair as a solely financial solution. ‘‘If you only approach it from the financial perspective, nobody is going to benefit,” says Ryan.

‘‘You’re trusting your most precious assets – your kids – to your au pair, so you want to be totally happy.’

First published on Sunday May 11th 2010 in The Sunday Business Post.

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