Au pairs and families tell how best to make the relationship work

Parents should be welcoming and fair, but must set ground rules. The girl should be responsible, but should also feel appreciated, says Helen O’Callaghan

Au pairs and families tell how best to make the relationship work

YOU have sifted through CVs, interviewed the candidates on Skype, and finally clicked with an au pair you think will be ideal for your family. But now that she has agreed to live with you, how do you make the best of the working relationship?

Detail is all-important — it can make or break an arrangement, says Julie Kelly, owner of Au Pair Study Agency, which annually handles 600 Irish families a year, 95% of whom want an au pair for a year. “She needs routines, rules, timetables and duties set down clearly from the start. Is her boyfriend allowed to stay over? When is mid-term and school holidays? So she knows she can’t book time off then,” Kelly says.

Dublin-based mum of six, Jen Hogan, writes down house rules, because foreign au pairs often understand written English better than spoken. “I give these at the start, because later it can feel awkward — stuff like, she has to be home by 11pm if she’s working the next day. There’s no smoking in the house and she’s never allowed to drink alcohol if she’s taking care of the kids — if she’s minding them on a Saturday night, she shouldn’t drink during the day,” Hogan says.

But it’s equally important to make your au pair feel welcome. “You have a responsibility to make her feel part of the family, introduce her to the culture and to the local community,” says Kelly. Au pairs have given her feedback on welcomes by families. “They bought her all her toiletries during the first week, they helped her with her student ticket or, on the third week, they gave her €50 extra phone credit.”

Ms Hogan prepares a welcome manual for her au pairs. “It tells where the buses, schools and local amenities are. It gives important phone numbers: ours, my best friend’s — she lives nearby and would be over in a flash if the au pair needed support. I physically bring her to relevant places. I introduce her to other mothers. They’ll all know her — she’ll have met 100 different people, so if one of the kids falls on the way to school, there’s always someone to help her. I make her feel part of the environment — she knows everyone I know.”

Jen Hogan (centre) with her six children, Jamie (8), Luke (6), Chloe (13),

Tobey (1) Zach (4) and Adam (10). Pictures: Maura Hickey and Nick Bradshaw

Irene Heredia, 24, from the Canary Islands, is au-pairing for her second Irish family. “It’s important that you’re made feel comfortable in the house — it won’t be like your own home, but maybe something like staying at your uncle’s. With my first family, I arrived on the Friday to start work on the Monday. On Saturday, the mum invited me to walk into town with her and look in the shops and we got some lunch. She didn’t even know me that well then.”

Parents’ main worry about an au pair is sharing their space with another adult. This can be daunting, says mum-of-three Aisling. “It’s really important to have boundaries. I tell the au pairs how a typical day goes, up to dinner time, when we all eat together. I say that, from around 9.30pm, my husband and I like to be on our own for a glass of wine. If she wants to watch a movie or have a friend over, she’s welcome to do that in the smaller sitting room.”

Parents must impress upon children the need to be respectful towards the au pair. “Explain that when you’re not here, the au pair is in charge and they need to respect that,” says Kelly. It’s not up to the au pair to resolve entrenched behavioural issues. “It can be very difficult for an au pair to understand why a child is acting-out or doesn’t take to her immediately. If there’s conflict, the au pair needs to feel supported by the parents.”

Carmen Avellan, 24, from Valencia, Spain, says her experience with both Irish families for which she worked was “absolutely awesome”. She’s working with nine-month-old twins and a four-year-old in Dublin, and advises families to have a 10-minute daily conversation with their au pair. “They should ask the au pair about herself, if she has had a good day, what her weekend plans are — it might seem silly, but it shows interest. Working with kids all day can be tiring — the au pair might have something valid to say about the children that parents need to hear.”

An au pair needs to know she’s appreciated, says Kelly. “Sometimes, we get feedback, where a family says they’ll be back at 5pm and they’re not back until 7pm.

“The au pair had arranged to meet a friend for coffee and the family don’t even acknowledge they’re late. Whereas, a call to say ‘We’re going to be late, we’ll give you a couple more hours off next week or a couple of extra quid’ can help a lot.”

The key is give-and-take.

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