Part of the family

By Carroll du Chateau

Today’s au pairs are nothing like the saucy minxes seen in movies of the 60s and 70s. They’re hard-working young women paying to see the world as they work, writes Carroll Du Chateau

Au pairs become part of the family. Photo / Thinkstock
Au pairs become part of the family. Photo / Thinkstock

Back in the 1960s my sister, Robyn, then 23, worked as an au pair in Paris. It was her first trip overseas. The idea was to study French at the Sorbonne and pay her way by minding a French family's children.

"It was dreadful," she told us when she arrived home. "On my first job the husband propositioned me. I didn't know what 'j'ai envie de toi' meant at first. But then I found out he was saying, 'I lust for you', so I had to leave."

At the second home, the family would go away for weekends, and "forget" to leave her a key to their flat, so she couldn't make meals.

"I was expected to work from 7am until 7pm except when I had lectures. It was like forced labour. And I had no one to turn to; there was no agency," she recalls. "I ended up stealing food and getting arrested by the gendarmes. But luckily in France stealing food is a 'crime passionel' so they didn't throw me in prison."

Fifty years on, the international au pair business is very different. Regulated at government level in some countries, the service is constructed to safeguard both young au pairs who travel the world and the children in their care.

Take 22-year-old Rebecca Rohner, who travelled from Stuttgart, Germany, to Mt Eden, Auckland, to look after Ailsa and Ian Leach's two preschool children "and see the world".

Au pair Rebecca Rohner with 15-month-old Hamish Leach. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Au pair Rebecca Rohner with 15-month-old Hamish Leach. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Although, just like my sister's trip, it must have taken courage and a sense of adventure to fly halfway round the world when she'd never been on a plane, Rohner's experience was very different.

An agency made her bookings, she flew with other au pairs and she was supported from the moment she arrived until her host family came to take her "home". Because they'd Skyped a couple of times, Ailsa and Ian Leach knew what to do to make her feel comfortable: "Ailsa asked if I wanted a drink of water and she gave me fizzy water. I was so pleased! I like fizzy water in Germany," Rohner says.

She was shown to her sunny room, introduced to the children, and handed the guidelines the Leaches have put together so au pairs know what they expect. It runs to four typed pages, including day-by-day schedules for both boys, expectations around overnight visitors and more.

"We've had au pairs since our first child was 5 months," says Ailsa Leach, "and it's been amazing. Absolutely perfect for us."

Rohner is what her agency, Au Pair Link, terms a "whiz" au pair, meaning she studied preschool education in Germany and is capable of managing and teaching small children on her own. As a whiz, she also gets more money.

Ten months later, only weeks before she returns to Germany, Rohner sits on the floor like a playful big sister, long legs outstretched while 15-month-old Hamish clambers over her, to head determinedly for the cookie cupboard.

"Just one, Hamish," she says, explaining she made meringues with his older brother, Callan, yesterday.

While Hamish periodically yabbers at the cupboard, Rohner does what experienced mothers do: substitutes the meringue with a cracker. He's disappointed but resigned to what's obviously a regular strategy. No tears, no tantrums.

The whole family, Ailsa, Ian and Rebecca, eat with the children at 5.30 and, after dinner, Rebecca is free to go while the parents get the children bathed and ready for bed.

"We make it clear we like that to be our time."

Rohner doesn't have access to a car but bustling Dominion Rd is around the corner.

New Zealand's largest agency, Au Pair Link signs most au pairs from Europe, plus some from America. To qualify for New Zealand holiday working visas, applicants must be aged between 18 and 30. Most are women, but there's a smattering of men. Some are whiz class like Rohner, most are relatively new to childcare.

Au Pair Link times their flights to arrive on Mondays and they go straight into three-day orientation at the airport Holiday Inn.

"There were 23 of us," says Rohner in her now-excellent English. "Most of us were from Germany, just two from France, three from Sweden and some Americans.

We learned about what life is like in New Zealand, how families operate. We also have a first aid course, learn what to do if there's an earthquake or flood. It gave us time to get over the [flight], meet other European au pairs and learn about the way you do things here."

And what was the most different thing about New Zealand life?

"The houses are so cold! In Germany everyone has three layers of glazing on the windows and central heating. Here, most houses are freezing but Ailsa likes me to keep the heat pump at 20."

Overall, she's had two trips to the South Island and, when her host family went to Fiji, she visited Samoa with two other au pairs.

"I have three weeks' holiday over 10 months, then I have every weekend and most evenings free. My best friend visited me in February for three months. I went to Rangitoto with Hamish ..."

Ailsa Leach heads productivity management for Telecom. A former au pair herself, she hadn't wanted to go back to work until Callan, her baby, was a year old so, when the pressure went on, she looked at au pair agencies and decided to go with Au Pair Link.

"They've the most professional information and processes available," she says. "I had strict guidelines. We needed someone kindergarten-trained, who'd already looked after children. Our first au pair, Christine, 22, stayed a year, and Lea changed her flights so she could look after Callan when I had our second baby."

Only one didn't work out.

"She was Swedish, 18, and not ready for such a big life change."

Leach contacted the agency on Thursday and interviewed three girls on Saturday.

"I only had to have one week off work."

She lists the advantages of au pairs as flexibility, reliability and more.

"Because we leave at 7 in the mornings, we can leave the children sleeping, rather than waking them for daycare. And if we get caught in traffic at night it's not like worrying that the daycare will close its doors if we're 15 minutes late."

Au pair schemes are popular in Europe, America, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand.

Swedish-born Cecilia Robinson, who worked as an au pair in America during her early 20s, started Au Pair Link six years ago "to help working mums" then got to experience it herself a few years later.

Thomas, now 1 year old, had a German au pair first, "now we have a Swedish au pair arriving. We want her to speak to him in Swedish. That way he'll be able to talk to his grandparents."

Other mums are taking up the system, too. Since Robinson's husband, James, joined in 2010, the company has increased by 600 per cent in placed au pairs. They expect to place 1000 this year.

Their Parnell office buzzes with employees, six of whom match au pairs with families. Au pairs go through in-depth interviews, medical tests, child care references, character references and police checks.

Other employees inspect properties and interview families before accepting them on to their books.

They use the working Holiday Visa Application Scheme, which New Zealand shares with Sweden, Germany, the United States, France and Britain. One of Au Pair Link's initiatives was to become a Home-Based Early Childhood Education provider, delivering the Early Childhood Curriculum through home-based au pairs.

To qualify, preschool au pairs undergo support and instruction from APL's 23 locally qualified early childhood teachers who visit their homes, monitor the development and learning progress of enrolled children and provide educational equipment and support.

As Robinson says, "The government subsidy makes it extremely affordable for families. It's not for the rich at all. In fact, 10 per cent of our clients are Winz customers."

They also provide specially trained au pairs to work with children with special needs.

Financially, it works well. Au pairs pay around €2255 ($3684) to their agency, which covers flights, insurances, the orientation course and APL's educational support scheme.

In return for 30 to 45 hours of childcare, host families pay au pairs between $200 and $320 a week, depending on the number and age of children and the au pair's qualifications.

They don't do housework, but are responsible for washing and ironing the children's clothes, keeping their rooms and bathroom clean and tidy and usually cooking the children's and their own meals.

APL au pairs must also have two consecutive days off a week and a full weekend every month.

City-based au pairs are not expected to drive, but the 25 per cent who go to rural homes must have access to a vehicle.

Meanwhile, New Zealand au pairs are heading to Europe. "We've got heaps of girls in Paris now," says Robinson, "and they're having a blast!"

Andrea Jacobson returned to work full-time when her youngest child, Lucy, was 2 months from starting school. "With three children, I couldn't go for a university student. I really had to get reliable after-school care," she says. "Holiday programmes are expensive and the children get exhausted. I liked the idea of an au pair. There were lots round us, and we had a spare room. It was very economic really. I was spending $50 a week on babysitters anyway."

Au pair Pia Helzel with her charges, Lucy, Ella and Max Jacobson. Lucy was hard to win over at first.
Au pair Pia Helzel with her charges, Lucy, Ella and Max Jacobson. Lucy was hard to win over at first.

Their first au pair, Pia Helzel, 19, also from Germany, came through Dream Au Pairs.

"I spoke to an acquaintance who was on to her third au pair and found out how it worked," says Jacobson. "We Skyped Pia a couple of times and decided to have her for six months. I was worried about this person sitting with us after dinner at night watching TV, but it didn't happen. After a few days she was visiting friends or Skyping in her room.

You definitely have to have wireless for them."

They did their own orientation programme.

"My mother taught her to cook things the children liked - teriyaki chicken, fried rice, wiener schnitzel, roast chicken. I showed her where Max and Ella needed to go after school. Having GPS in the car was essential because her other job was driving the children to their multitude of activities.

"We never used her in the morning so she started doing 35 hours for us, working 2.30pm until 7, but after Lucy started school she only did 22 hours' work and I 'banked' the rest and used it during the school hols. Our deal included one free babysit a week. Including all tax it cost us $240 per week. She got $150 of that - and she was able to claim some tax back."

The best thing? "She got the children to put their toys away, cooked for them every night and ate with them. It was great coming home from work and the house was tidy."

For Pia, the hardest parts were learning to drive on the left, and winning over Lucy.

"I could be honest with Andrea," says Pia. "It's just so important to be able to answer truthfully when she asked me 'how was your day?'."

It took a month for the stubborn little girl to accept her. "We had heaps of conversations, lots of effort," says Pia, "but by the time I left, she was the one who cried most."

"People who tell me their au pair didn't work out don't seem to realise they have to be treated as a family member," says Jacobson. "They think the ideal set-up is a granny flat but in the house is better, otherwise the au pairs get too lonely." Pia came to dinners with grandparents and weekends at family beach houses and went camping, too.

It's not surprising Pia wanted to stay on and enrolled in stage one politics and law at the University of Auckland."I felt my family would help me always and try and get me out of any bad situation. I trusted them. I had a lovely big room at the top of the house and Andrea said, 'It's fine to have friends to stay', which was great.

"When I turned 20 Andrea gave me a party. She gave me vodka! You know I stayed the whole 12 months of my visa and she gave me another huge party at the end. I'd recommend it to anyone."

Despite the success, Jacobson insists she wouldn't leave an au pair with early preschoolers all week while she worked. And she's not convinced by training systems for those in sole charge of preschoolers.

"I just don't think they have the life skills. Pia felt she didn't have the skills to look after children all day."

Their new au pair, Nadja, arrived a few weeks ago. She's 18 and working through Au Pair Link.

The Jacobsons are critical of APL's paperwork.

"First they sent the forms for a pre-school family. Then they didn't give us a basic contract for Nadja and me to sign, a weekly logbook to chart her hours or the forms outlining what is and isn't acceptable for an au pair/host family. On the other hand, they do far more to support the au pairs when they arrive. Pia didn't have an orientation programme with Dream Au Pairs."

German newcomer Vivien Zum Beck, 23, arrived at her "home" in Ellerslie just five weeks ago. She's happy with her two small charges, Finlay, 5, and Liberty (Libby) 2. Part of a large, extended family and a role entailing plenty of babysitting, plus working at a kindergarten, she's confident and aware of her responsibilities.

"You do have to be careful. I do have to keep my eye on them. But I'm so lucky. My biggest worry is that I've heard many girls gain weight here."

Her host mother, Laura, had encouraged Vivien to develop a Skype friendship with Finlay. "It was a really good idea. At first he thought his last au pair had to go because of me, so when I arrived he knew I was coming and was pleased to see me. As soon as I got out of the car he said, 'I can show you my room!'

"Children love you fast. I'm happy because my children are little sunshines, very, very friendly. I love the people here, too. They're way more open. You can make friends very easily. When I have friends over I need to tell Laura - I don't ask because it's my house, too. They're really relaxed about TV and Laura's such a good cook. She doesn't use as much fat and cooks with less calories than I do."

As with all APL au pairs in the Early Childhood Scheme, Vivien has a project manager who visits regularly. She also runs a communication book logging a monthly attendance sheet and daily journal: what Libby did, ate, played with.

And there, in her sunny room with french doors to the garden, beside the bookshelf containing Of Course I Love You, Now Go To Your Room by Diane Levy ("I wanted to understand how Laura raises her children") are the bottles of water. "I don't like your [tap] water. It tastes of chlorine," she says. "So when Laura said, 'is there something you want?' I said, 'water, please'."

Which makes me think of my poor sister Robyn who, in the 1960s, didn't always get food - let alone bottled water.

History of au pairs

• The au pair concept originated in France around 1840, when poor but well-born young women were employed to mind children in return for board and meals. Au pairs were considered socially "on a par" with the family, rather than servants.

• After World War II the idea took off among the middle classes. Girls had to earn a living and the concept of minding children, often in foreign countries, in return for bed and board, a small wage and time off to travel and study gained wide appeal.

- NZ Herald

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