Last year I met a friendly guy named Daniel in a quaint cafe in Oslo, Norway where I loiter daily, drinking coffee and working.
Daniel is Norwegian but had spent a lot of time going to school in Seattle, Washington. It was there that he met his current wife Lenka (at a Norwegian themed bar of all places!).
At that time, they needed to figure out a way to spend time together after Daniel went home to Scandinavia.
Lenka began looking into the possibility of becoming an au pair. Not long after this idea became a reality.
Learning how to become an au pair allowed Lenka to both live, work and travel in Norway which would eventually become her second home.
In this interview, she shares how she did it and advice to help you learn how to become an au pair wherever in the world you want to go.
Note: All of these answers are based on Lenka’s experience as an au pair in Norway. They probably don’t apply to all au pair conditions, contracts and countries. Now to the interview…
What is an au pair?
An Au Pair is, basically, a live-in nanny. However, the biggest difference between a nanny and an au pair is the international aspect; au pairs are hired from another country so it’s also viewed as a cultural experience.
As with any nanny-type position, the specific jobs can be quite different, depending on what the family is looking for. For many, it’s a childcare position but the job could also be elderly care or looking after/assisting disabled persons. The type of work expected should always be laid out before any contract is made.
An au pair position is paid, however, it can (not always) be paid less than a minimum wage salary for that country. The idea is that the au pair is only working part time and that they are receiving the opportunity to experience the country while being boarded and fed.
What advice do you have for somebody who thinks they want to become an au pair?
If you have decided that this job sounds right for you, it’s a good idea to do some research of your own to start.
First, you should decide where you have always wanted to go!
For me, where to go was already decided (My now-husband had just moved back home to Norway and I wanted to find a way to live there legally for a while). I found the task of finding a family a little daunting; I didn’t quite know where to begin. But there are, actually, quite a few resources to help; some more credible than others.
I found my host family on Great Au Pair. I made a profile and started browsing through all the families looking for an au pair. I received a couple offers from families that contacted me first as well.
One thing to keep in mind is that, even though there are MANY legitimate families out there looking for help, there isn’t really a screening process on the website so there could be some creeps as well. Just make sure that you don’t just take a job right away because it was offered.
Once you feel that you have found a couple potential families, try to keep contact with them for a while and ask lots of questions and arrange to talk on the phone. Remember, they are probably just as curious about you as you are about them. If they don’t care to hear about you at all (the stranger they will be entrusting their children to), then there should be a little red flag going up in your head.
I received several sketchy requests before I found a family I felt comfortable pursuing. When I found the family I would eventually work for, I was lucky enough that the mother of the family was traveling to my home-city for business, so we set up a dinner meet before I signed the contract.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you will be living with these people AND working for them, so it’s important to go over the contract with them and not to be shy about things that you don’t like or things that you would like to add; make sure that you agree on the salary and the duties that you will be expected to perform.
Lastly, but certainly not least, try to get a sense for what the family is like.
What is their discipline like?
Will you be able the work well with that age group?
Do they expect you to be a gourmet chef, or just cook light meals here and their?
Will you also be the housekeeper?
It’s a good idea to look at other au pair testimonials to see the good and the bad and help you to know which questions to ask.
How much is the pay/salary?
In regards to salary, I can only speak for Norway as I’m sure it varies from country to country. One thing to remember is that the salary is really more of a stipend. It is meant to provide you pocket money while you are living with the family so that you can go out and experience what the city you are living in has to offer.
The real pay for the job is in food and board. In Norway, there is a minimum that the family MUST pay, and they can decide if they will offer you more in the contract. Make sure you do your research to know what the minimum in your country is so you don’t get fooled!
It’s also a good idea to get a feel for what things cost in that country before you agree on the salary. In Norway, for example, a loaf of bread will cost about $5-6, so you can only imagine what it cost to go to a museum or the movies, etc. If you feel that you should be offered more, make sure you bring that up BEFORE you sign the contract with the host family.
What does it cost to become an au pair?
I didn’t pay for anything accept my plane ticket (and, of course, if you don’t have a passport, you will need to pay for that). There was a fee regarding the application for my “au pair residence permit”, but the family paid for it. You will have to discuss with the family who will pay for what. All in all, however, it really doesn’t cost much to be an au pair!
What are the responsibilities of an au pair?
The responsibilities of an au pair are quite varied. Just make sure you know in advance what will be expected of you!
In my contract it was emphasized that my main duties would be to watch the families two girls (ages 6 & 9). The parents took care of getting them to school before work and the afternoons were my job. I started working around 12-1pm: I would do some housecleaning, walk to the grocery store and plan for dinner while they were at school/work until about 3pm when I would walk to pick up the youngest from school and/or take her to her activities (the oldest walked herself home, but I had contact with her to make sure she arrived at the right time).
When we were home, I helped to make sure that all the homework was done while I made dinner (I made dinner almost all weeknights). If there was a soccer practice, etc. I made sure that they had everything ready to go. Every Tuesday, I was expected to work into the evening as well and put the kids to bed. That was pretty much it! I had the weekends/mornings and late evenings to myself to do as I wished.
Do you need to be able to drive?
As far as driving, that depends a lot on where the family lives. I was right in a little neighborhood, close to everything, so we walked pretty much everywhere. I was given the option to use the car on occasion, but I made it very clear that I wasn’t very comfortable driving in an unknown city, so they never forced me to drive anywhere.
I imagine if you are an au pair in a more rural area that you would have to be able to drive more. In my search for a family, I noticed that some offered to loan a car to their au pair to use for work activities and for personal use as well. If you have any requirements regarding a car (or, as in my case, restrictions) make sure you say in advance. Either way, it’s a good idea to ask what their driving expectations are in the beginning, if any, and to check what the rules are regarding using an international driving license in that specific country.
Can au pairs travel and explore the country?
Traveling while you are an au pair can be tricky if the family is depending on you for daily work because that means that they need you there. However, there are usually some national requirements as far as personal vacation time for au pairs. You can’t just leave on a spur of the moment trip for a week but, in my case, if I planned far in advance, it wasn’t a problem to go away for a few days. To a certain extent, this depends on how understanding/flexible your host family is.
There are also many families who go on vacations, in the summer for example, and let you decide if you want to go with them and work a little or use your vacation days to do something else alone. It is important that you hash out vacation days in the contract. Even if you don’t plan on traveling too much, I guarantee that you will want some time off every once in a while!!
As an au pair, do you have your own bedroom?
In Norway, at least, it is a requirement that an au pair has their own room. Always good to double check with the family before hand though. Here is another good reason to know what rights au pairs have in the country you are looking into, and to know what responsibilities the families have.
How do you select a family to work for?
I sort of touched on this in question #2 but in trying to pick a family to work for, it’s most important that you feel that you are compatible with them and their lifestyle.
A lot of time in a families profile they will say a little about what type of people they are or what they like to do in their free time. If for example you hate the outdoors and the family goes on weekly hiking excursions, it may not be the best fit. Sure it seems obvious, but it would be easy to convince yourself that you could be ok with it but, in reality, you would probably get tired of the job quite quickly! If you are someone who loves the outdoors and wants to share your love with the children and take them out regularly, don’t choose a family with children who like to be inside.
It can be tempting to take one of the first jobs that comes your way just because you are so anxious to get going. However, I guarantee you will be happier in the long run if you take time to pick the right family for you.
Also, before you even start looking at family profiles, do some soul-searching to figure out what you want from this experience. A few good questions to consider:
Is this a means to see the world?
Are you really looking to just earn some money and work as much as you can (there is usually a limit as to how many hours per week you are allowed to work)?
Do you have family/friends in this country that you will want to spend a lot of time with outside of work?
Just make sure you know what you want, that way you don’t end up just taking whatever comes your way without asking all the right questions for your situation.
Can you meet other au pairs/make friends easily?
It can be difficult to meet other people as an au pair because you spend most of your time with the kids. However, depending on the place you are working, it is possible to meet other au pairs just through your daily routine. In respect to friends, I was a bit lucky because my boyfriend had all his friends here in Oslo so I met people through them. While I was working, I crossed paths with other au pairs sometimes while picking the kids up from school or taking them to other activities. In Norway, it is a requirement that the host family offer to pay for language classes if the au pair chooses to take them. So, I met several people through those classes as well. In your free time, you can do what you wish, and it can be a good idea to find other activities in the area to meet people near you.
*Lenka is currently living in Norway with he husband Daniel and working on a children’s book.