When Melanie Rosen and her husband sat down to consider childcare options for their two children — then aged 1 and 3 — as she prepared to return to work full-time, the situation at first looked bleak.
“It just didn’t make economic sense,” the Charleston, S.C.-based mom says. “Like for so many families in the United States, doing the math of take-home pay versus childcare was not a favorable equation for us.”
According to a study by the Center for American Progress, the average monthly cost for childcare is around $1,300 per child for a childcare center that meets state licensing standards. The cost for infants and toddlers is slightly more due to the lower minimum child-to-adult ratio. At this rate, families with an infant pay nearly $16,000 per year to cover the true cost of childcare.
And it’s not just the cost: Expectant families are advised to tour childcare facilities and put their names on waitlists as early as the first trimester for many desirable programs. These waitlists can be up to 18 months to two years long, in some cases. According to the Center for American Progress, due to inadequate wages and lack of benefits, accounting for some of the long wait times. Those factors can force many parents out of the workforce to take care of children, or — as in Rosen’s case — to get creative.
“We happened to have a spare bedroom in our house,” says Rosen, “so we started down the road to hire an au pair."
The family's first au pair arrived in the summer of 2010. In the 12-plus years since, Rosen has welcomed another child and hired eight au pairs in all. She says the experience has been overwhelmingly positive for her family.
An au pair (which translates to “equal to” in French) is a young person from a foreign country who helps with housework and childcare in exchange for room and board from a host family in their chosen country. Contracts last anywhere from 10 months to one year, and the au pair lives in the family's home for the duration of their contract.
Each agency that pairs families with au pairs have their own set of requirements, and will likely include match processing and program fees that Generally, au pairs must be between 18 and 26 years old, are required to have their own bedroom, receive a small stipend for spending money (Au Pair USA requires a minimum weekly stipend of $197.05), work a certain number of hours per week (usually around 45 hours per week) with time off to rest or travel and be fully integrated into the family’s culture and everyday life. The term au pair extraordinaire, meanwhile, refers to caregivers with more childcare training, typically in the form of a degree or formal education in childcare or two years of experience working full-time in childcare; they receive more compensation as a result.
Depending on the agency, there may also be an education stipend requirement: Au Pair International requires host families to pay per year, toward the cost of six credit hours of coursework. In foreign countries, host families are generally required to pay toward the cost of a language course at a local school or university. Some U.S.-based agencies also charge a program fee, which can range from $5,000 to $10,000, and which covers the services and support provided by the agency, as well as other program costs like international airfare and visa fees. The one-time fee is steep, but luckily it’s valid for the entire time you use the agency, no matter how many au pairs you contract. In return, the family receives help with childcare and housework, and children get to learn about their au pair’s culture, traditions and language.
It works the other way, too, with Americans becoming au pairs and traveling to other countries to care for children and explore the world. Anna Burkett of Orlando, Fla., felt a little stuck trying to figure out what was next for her after graduating from college. “I had a friend who was an au pair in Germany at the time, and that was really appealing to me since I love children and love travel,” she says to Yahoo Life.
Burkett had never traveled outside the U.S. before becoming an au pair, but her parents were supportive of her decision. Using the site AuPairWorld.com, she matched with a family in France’s Loire Valley in February 2021 and began her work as an au pair in August of last year, caring for four children, including a 5-month-old baby. She documented her au pair journey experience on her Instagram account, Anna Goes To France.
“I was able to filter the countries I’d be willing to go to, and I really wanted to go to Europe,” says Burkett. “I had interest from families in Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland and other countries.” Burkett talked to one family in Spain regularly, but because the visa requirements were so stringent after the onset of the pandemic, both parties had to move on.
For Charlotte Kumar of Maitland, Fla., the choice to hire an au pair was more about scheduling than anything else. “My husband and I both worked odd hours,” she says. “We might need to start work at 5 a.m. on a busy week, and that’s not something that would be available from a daycare or that we could ask of a babysitter or nanny. With an au pair, she lives in our home, so she could just wake up with the kids like it’s a normal day while my husband and I are already on our second cup of coffee.”
Both Rosen and Kumar characterize finding their au pairs as similar to online dating. “You put in your criteria and you get matched with candidates,” says Kumar. It took about four months for Kumar and her family to find an au pair the first time, since the visa process takes some time, but they’ve matched and engaged with others more quickly. Rosen has used both AuPairCare and Cultural Care to match with her au pairs who have hailed from Montenegro, France, Brazil, South Africa, Sweden, Argentina and Mexico. Kumar’s family, meanwhile, has hosted au pairs from Brazil, France and Colombia.
One of Rosen’s requirements was that the au pair must have a driver’s license, which caused some issues with one au pair. “We had to rematch with one of our au pairs because she just wasn’t a good driver and we didn’t feel safe having her drive our kids,” she says. “Being able to drive our kids to school and activities was a huge part of why we needed an au pair, so it just didn’t work that she couldn’t deliver.”
Kumar also had some hiccups with her au pairs, including language barriers. With one au pair from Brazil, they spent the first few weeks communicating using Google Translate. “She and I were talking just a few months ago, and she told me that at first she had no idea what I was saying. She just tried to be as happy and friendly as possible," Kumar says. Her family also had two au pairs that were "lovely," but not the right fit. Both were rematched with other families.
While help with childcare was the primary goal in the short term, the long-term benefits for Rosen, Kumar and their families have lasted long after the contracts expired and their au pairs moved on. “The kids have learned about various foods and holiday and birthday traditions that were new to us, among other things. Maybe more importantly for us, though, is that many of these young women truly became like family members to us,” says Rosen.
One of Burkett’s favorite memories was when she cooked Thanksgiving dinner for her host family last year. “Since we lived in the Loire Valley, there are tons of castles everywhere,” she says. “I used to run around in the gardens of these amazing castles playing with the kids, and just be in awe that this was my life. I would tell them that in the U.S. we don’t have anything nearly this old. I just walked around with my mouth hanging open at the beauty of it.”
Kumar also recalls fond memories with her au pairs, including when her first au pair led a Disney princess dance party for her 3-year-old. “My daughter put us all in various princess costumes and turned on Disney music,” she says. “We weren’t all comfortable with each other, but dancing around in princess costumes breaks down those barriers pretty quickly. That was when she became part of our family.”
Those connections have remained strong for Rosen.
“We have maintained contact with most of them, have visited them in their home countries, gotten to meet their families and seen the au pairs become parents to kids of their own,” Rosen says. “Our own family is pretty small, and so knowing that there are now people around the world who know and love my children means more than I can say.”
.Wellness, parenting, body image and more: Get to know the who behind the hoo with Yahoo Life's newsletter. Sign up here.