What Being an Au Pair Is Really Like

Updated on January 16, 2019
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Alice grew up in Brunei and Malaysia. After graduation, she decided to take a gap year as an au pair in her dream country: the Netherlands.

What Is an Au Pair?

I am currently living and working in the Netherlands as an au pair. I would like to share some of what I've learned about what an au pair is, what it is not, and what the experience is really like.

An au pair is a young person, usually between the ages of 18 and 30, who travels to a foreign country to live with a host family and have a cultural exchange experience. In exchange for room and board, as well as some spending money, the au pair assists with the family with child-minding and some light housework.

What an Au Pair Is Not

An au pair is not a nanny or a maid. This is an important distinction. An au pair should be treated as a member of the family. She lives and shares meals with the family, and she should be treated with respect by both the parents and the children.

Au pair: From French, literally ‘on equal terms.' The phrase originally... described an arrangement between two parties paid for by the exchange of mutual services.

— Oxford Dictionary

How Much Work?

In the Netherlands, where I'm an au pair, the maximum amount of work is 8 hours per day and 30 hours per week. Other countries may have slightly different rules, though, so it's important to check.

In addition to looking after the children, duties might include cleaning, laundry, cooking, shopping for groceries, and taking care of pets and plants. The specific tasks will depend on your host family.

Will I Have Any Free Time?

As an au pair, you should have two free days per week, as well as one full weekend per month (Friday evening to Sunday evening). The specific schedule depends on the arrangements you make with your host family. During your free time, you can go to meetups and make friends with fellow au pairs, explore your new city and country, and even travel to neighboring countries.

The main purpose of the au pair placement is a cultural exchange.

— Au Pair World

What Being an Au Pair Is Really Like

If you are considering becoming an au pair, you need to understand what it's really like. I will be brutally honest.

You will be living with a family who comes from a different culture—with different beliefs and a different way of living.

  • The host family will almost certainly do things differently than what you are used to.
  • They will be living their normal life, whereas everything will be new to you.
  • You will have to get used to their routine (not the other way around).
  • Conflicts and misunderstandings will inevitably arise as both parties try to understand each other. You will have to step out of your comfort zone and communicate with your host family in order to resolve these issues.
  • You might be cleaning the whole day. Let me just put that out there.
  • The children will take time to get used to you (or like you). You are, after all, a stranger to them. They may be lukewarm or standoffish with you before they eventually acclimate. Soon, they will love you and want to play with you all the time.
  • Your allowance (pocket money) won't be very much, so you might spend your free time at home or at the park—especially if you are like me, and you want to save your money for future travels.
  • You might find that you don't want to do much during your free time because you are exhausted. Kids do wear you out—and so do house chores.
  • You will cry. You will be homesick, missing your loved ones and the food from back home. You may wish you could wake up later than 7 a.m., or you may wish you could erase the mistake you made with the laundry. But you will realize that this is all part of the learning and growing experience—and that you will be okay.
  • You will grow. You will learn to be brave. You will explore the great unknown as you get to know your new host city, travel to nearby countries, and make new friends.

I try to travel monthly. These are some of my travel photos.
I try to travel monthly. These are some of my travel photos.

Ready to Be an Au Pair?

Here are some factors you should consider:

  • Which country? Is there a country you've always wanted to go to, a language you've always wanted to learn, or a culture you've always wanted to explore?
  • How long would you like to be abroad? In the Netherlands, the au pair visa is for exactly one year—no more, no less. The United States, on the other hand, offers au pair visas for one or two years. I have met other au pairs, however, who worked for only 3 months or 6 months. Some of these people were working in other countries, or they were on tourist visas and working under the table (if you are on a tourist visa, typically you are not permitted to work).
  • Children's ages? Personally, I prefer to work with younger children. You should consider which ages you are comfortable with.
  • Experience? Do you have babysitting or childcare experience? I served in my church's nursery for two years, so I did have some experience with children. If you don't have any childcare experience, you may wish to gain some before you apply for an au pair position. Even babysitting for a family member (a nephew or niece, perhaps), could be valuable experience.
  • Goals? It's important to think about what you hope to gain from this once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had many goals before I became an au pair. I wanted to learn about the Dutch way of life, since I'd heard that they are among the happiest people in the world. I also wanted to have the experience of leaving my comfort zone and learning to be okay on my own. And of course, I wanted to explore Europe!

Next Steps

Once you've decided that you'd like to become an au pair, here are some of the steps you will take next.

  1. Find a reputable au pair placement agency. I highly recommend going through an agency because they will provide guidance, protect you if you need legal or other assistance, and help you rematch with another family if necessary. The agency I used is called Au Pair World, and I've provided their link below.
  2. Search for a family. Once you've identified a good agency, begin searching for a family that seems like a good match. Read through the family profiles and send messages to the ones that seem like possibilities.
  3. Ask questions. When a potential match family responds, set up a video call with the whole family and be prepared to ask all of your questions. You should ask about where you will stay, the family's schedule, what their expectations will be in terms of chores and any other special duties, compensation (pocket money and time off), food, and any extra little details. This is your chance to get a feel for the family and where you will be living.
  4. Answer questions. Be prepared to answer lots of questions during the video call, too! The family will be using this as a chance to get a sense of you, and whether you will be a good fit for their family.
  5. Paperwork. After you match, there will be lots of paperwork to complete with the agency.
  6. Pack for the trip of a lifetime. Hooray! Go abroad and have an experience you will never forget.

Good luck!

The Agency I Used

I found my host family through an agency called Au Pair World. This site allows you to sign up for free and then set your preferences about which country you want to travel to, whether you prefer a city or a small town, and which age children you'd like to work with. Then you can search host family profiles. When you find one you like, you can apply directly to that family, or you can wait to hear from a family who is interested in your profile.

By the way, if you are Malaysian, I'm planning to write another article soon about the process of filing your documents to become an au pair from A to Z. My hope is that others will be able to avoid the troubles I went through.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Alice Voo


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