A pair of au pairs: two students recount their unique summer job experience and why others should follow suit

Photo: Fliss Martin-Daly
Photo: Fliss Martin-Daly
Photo: Fliss Martin-Daly

Over the summer, we all try and earn a bit of extra cash. Whether through waitressing, temping, babysitting- anything, really, to give us that little bit of extra savings. But how about something a bit different? If you want an advertisement for the brilliance of au-pairing, you need look no further than Heather Watson and Fliss Martin-Daly, who both spent a few months as au pairs the summer before their years abroad. Now third-year language students, they reflect back on their experience.

Both girls are full of praise for the job. Ms Martin-Daly says: “It works for everyone, because it doesn’t require any prior experience or even any special skills!” While speaking the local language is not a requirement, both agreed that they would recommend the gig as a way of learning a language through total immersion. So what does being an au-pair actually consist of, and how does one go about getting the job?

Well, obviously it depends on the family you are with – the difference in experience for the two girls demonstrates that, but the overall structure is pretty much the same. Both used the website aupairworld.com to register and get in contact with prospective families. For Ms Watson, this meant receiving over a hundred applications overnight once she had created her profile. Once you have chosen your family, you either e-mail or Skype to get to know them. If both parties agree that it is a good match, the job is set.

Arriving at the family’s home can be a bit daunting, as both girls can attest. Ms Watson says: “You’re in a car, with a woman you do not know, and two children you do not know, driving to a destination you do not know!” Things can get a bit lonely at the start, too, and Ms Martin-Daly admits to feeling isolated when she first started. She was located on an island near La Rochelle in France, which was quite small, and the extended family of the people she was with very large. But once you have the opportunity to grow in confidence, the experience is great fun, and both became very attached to their families.

For Ms Watson, the most rewarding element was seeing the development of the children to whom she was teaching English. By the end of the summer, she even had one of the younger children, a three-year-old boy, speaking English, which was incredibly satisfying. For Ms Martin-Daly, it was more of a personal reward, having grown in confidence over the summer. As she puts it: “Going from three months earlier from the shy person I had been before, the difference was phenomenal.” Ms Watson agrees that one of the job’s biggest selling points is as a confidence boost. Having never travelled alone before, she went on to live alone during her year abroad in Italy. Thanks to her time as an au pair, she became much more independent, which no doubt stemmed in part from the responsibility she had for the children she looked after.

However, like all jobs, there were challenges to overcome. Ms Martin-Daly admits that it was “emotionally and physically quite draining,” and both agree that children are a 24/7 occupation that leaves very little time for oneself. Ms Watson even describes how the youngest of the children she was looking after, a two-year old boy, slept in her bed sometimes. “I’d wake up with him singing in my ear at like half- six,” she says. “You have to get used to the child-life!”

Equally, both say that the end of the summer was hard. “Leaving was quite difficult because obviously you form a achments, and it was quite sad to leave at the end,” says Ms Martin-Daly. In fact, both of them have been back to visit their families, a testament to their positive experiences. For Ms Watson, the attachment was especially intense. She admits she cried for “about two weeks” after she left because she missed them so much. However, she also adds that the job was demanding, with long days and little sleep. She actually developed tonsillitis, which she attributes to being overworked.

Both agreed that this is not necessarily a job for those looking to earn a lot of money, but rather is one that is much more about the experience. Payment changes depending on the family, although supposedly there is a rule in place to prevent au pairs from earning less than minimum wage. Both girls earned around 70 Euros a week, which might not sound like much. However, all food, accommodation and travel were paid for, which meant that neither had much on which to spend money.

Ms Watson suggests working at summer camps, which she did last summer following her year abroad, as a better way to earn money. Through the Bridge Association, she taught cooking at a summer camp, earning more than double what she had as an au pair. In terms of involvement, this is the job she would recommend for those who do not want to be too heavily installed in family life. However, she preferred being an au pair. Hearing about her experience, it is no wonder why.

Unfortunately, both Ms Watson and Ms Martin-Daly confess that it is not exactly the ideal job for men. “[The families] want a replacement mother,” explains Ms Watson, which she believes is the reason why most au pairs are women. Although, Ms Martin-Daly points out that many families, especially those with older sons, might actually prefer to have a male au pair.

So if you are looking for a confidence boost, a bit of independence and some foreign language skills to enhance your CV, this could be your dream job. Most important, of course, is a love for working with children and a clear understanding of the demands of the job. Both Ms Watson and Ms Martin-Daly say that working as an au pair is now a back-up plan, whether for future summers or as a postgraduate starter job. Hearing about their experiences and how fond their memories are, I will definitely be considering working as an au pair in the future.


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