Rising childcare waiting lists in Canberra with no immediate solution in sight, is driving families to seek options elsewhere. Nanny agencies and au pair placement services are overloaded and the hunt for a solution to look after precious children is becoming competitive.
Many families are placing unborn children on childcare waiting lists to guarantee a spot, or are putting children in schools that are chosen for their after school care facilities as the primary decision point.
Au pairs are becoming more and more popular as families try to juggle their family commitments with their work.
So what is an au pair and what is the reality of hiring one?
Au pairs are usually unqualified foreign women or men that come to Australia on the 12 month working holiday visa to live with the family and who are looking to explore the country on a gap year. Most are seeking an adventure but want the security of a job over backpacking. It’s different to a Nanny who usually doesn’t live with you, has qualifications and is a professional carer.
Demand for au pairs is increasing as they’re considered cheaper than nannies, a reliable option to have someone in the home, and more accessible than childcare.
However, the reality can be quite different.
Financial services firm AMP and the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM), recently noted that childcare costs have risen 150% in the last decade. It’s not uncommon to cost $75 a day or more for a childcare centre, with a rebate of 50%.
There’s no rebate for au pairs. An au pair is paid weekly pocket money which can range depending on the number of children, experience of the au pair, location of the position, number of hours worked and amenities offered. The average is about $200-$250 per week for 36-40 hours. They’re provided with a room, utilities are covered and it’s expected that food is provided too. Agencies charge about $1,000 per placement.
On paper this looks appealing, however, the real expense is hard to measure as more and more families are competing on price, so the average pocket money is rising, and there’s an emotional cost too.
Au pairs can only stay with a family for 6 months which raises the question of the impact of turnover on children’s wellbeing.
The hunt for au pairs is competitive so families start their search months in advance to find the right person. They then spend a lot of time keeping in touch to make sure the au pair doesn’t change their mind. There’s also the fear of being scooped by another family on money, or a better location.
Once they’re here there’s no enforceable contract to keep au pairs with the family so they’re free to up and leave if they don’t like the house, the dog, the kids, the car or whatever else turns them off. Many are unqualified, young girls who sometimes don’t have the life skills to communicate issues, so sulking or running away seem like perfectly valid options.
Homesickness is a huge issue due to the sheer distance from the most common countries providing au pairs such as Germany, the Netherlands, United States and Britain. Or there are the cases where the au pair and family are both great but somehow it just doesn’t work. The language barrier is too difficult to overcome, there’s not enough ‘chemistry’, routines are too different, food choices clash and it ends in arguments with families being left to take days off work until they find other options, or lose their jobs.
On top of the security of your job, how do you put a dollar figure on conflict in the home?
You can’t. But these are extreme examples. When you have a great au pair it’s an investment that gives over and over again. We’ve had many au pairs and we have six big sisters who will always be considered a part of our family. Our current au pair is fantastic and we never want to let her go. She bonds with our children, she follows our routines, she’s always thanking us for her experience, she’s safety conscious, our friends want to poach her and she’s reliable. Best of all my children love her. The only competition we’re facing at the moment is races down the hallway and Pictionary contests, but once her time is up, the fierce competition for a replacement starts again, along with the uncertainty.
Kylie is a working mum with 3 young children who somehow finds the time to be a junior basketball coach and class rep at her kid’s school. She’s hosted 15 au pairs in 9 years.