I think when most people hear the word “Au Pair,” they picture playing dress-up with little kids, or reading bedtime stories, or sewing rompers from drapes and singing on the hillside.
And I definitely did some of that. (Or tried to, at least. Apparently the French don’t love when you start cutting up their curtains and sing “THE HILLS ARE ALIVE!!!” in their living room. Cultural differences, I guess.) But in reality, the five months I spent Au Pairing in France involved fewer sing-a-longs and more Snapchats like this:
But let’s rewind.
The term “Au Pair” is a French phrase, directly translating to “at par” or equal to. Where and how it was coined is a bit of a mystery, but it’s essentially a way of describing a nanny figure who’s considered to be a part of the family, rather than an employee – an “equal member,” if you will. Generally speaking, families across the world hire Au Pairs from other countries to help introduce their children to a different culture, and – in many cases – a different language. Think modern day governesses and young Mary Poppins with foreign accents.
Pay and hours range wildly from situation to situation, but most Au Pairs have their room and board covered by a family, while also receiving a small weekly stipend and paid language lessons. Some parents will cover an Au Pair’s visa and travel costs, others will bring them along on exotic vacations, and some…well, some keep their purse strings tight and treat their Au Pair like little more than cheap labor. In other words, it’s a gamble – but if you end up in one of the former situations, it can be a pretty sweet deal.
My experience in France fell somewhere in the middle.
My Au Pair family didn’t cover any of my travel costs or visa (which came to about $650 total), I was expected to pay for language lessons myself (which would have cost about €800 over five months, had I chosen to make that investment; instead, I attended free workshops at the local college when possible), and my stipend was set at €80 / week. Financially speaking, this deal fell at the lower end of the spectrum for Au Pair agreements in France. That said, I had my own bedroom, bathroom, and access to all of the Nutella my heart desired … so it definitely wasn’t a bad deal.
But, what inspired to move across the ocean in the first place?
Well, like most of my life choices, my decision to become an Au Pair was fueled by desperation and a dream. After graduating from college and spending a wonderful (but sweaty) summer semester in Paris, Au Pairing had been my Plan B. I’d told myself that if I couldn’t land an office-going, business-card-carrying job in the communications industry, I’d jet back across the Atlantic and spend a year or so improving my French, exploring Paris with small children in Madeline-esque uniforms, and indulging in flaky pastries.
…then I landed a business-card-carrying job in New York, and the possibility of Au Pairing fizzled away. Or it seemed to, at least. But after my second stress-induced trip to the hospital (fun fact: I faint really easily! And throw up a lot when I’m stressed! It’s super cute and charming!), I started to look into making a change. I’d always intended to return to Europe at one point or another, so I decided to apply to grad school in London. And a few months later when I got accepted, I saw a window – an opportunity to take my Au Pair fantasy off the back-burner.
After several weeks (read: months) of searching through sites like AuPairWorld and GreatAuPair, Skyping with a handful of French parents, and eventually finding a family that didn’t quite fit with my original vision (Paris, Madeline uniforms), but seemed like a fun, charming bunch (lots of kids, chickens, a golden retriever)… I moved to Angers – a small city in France’s Loire Valley, surrounded by castles and vineyards – and into a house with three adolescent boys, one four-year-old girl, and a whole lot of laundry.
Having grown up with sisters, living with a bunch of young boys in the French countryside felt foreign in more ways than one. It was different, and funny, and occasionally nerve-wrecking. During my first week, the oldest boy led me into his room, closed the door, and said (in English), “I want to show you my wand.” Then straight-up opened a drawer full of various Harry Potter characters’ wands.
But a couple months in, everything started to shift from humorous to horrifying
Okay, horrifying might be an exaggeration… but, have you ever had a four-year-old try to bite your face? It’s pretty f*cking scary. Basically, I started to unearth some qualities I didn’t love, ranging from racist jokes to a complete lack of empathy. The kids got too curious, too comfortable — rifling through my vacation bag or going through the photos on my phone. Masturbating (to The Flash, of all things) in plain sight. Screaming about their utter dislike of “having to talk to me ever.” Throwing actual kitchen knives at me. (They also really hated showering… I just feel like that’s worth mentioning…).
It quickly became clear that I wasn’t really “equal to” these guys, after all.
Now, I know this all sounds very woe is me. Which it is. I mean, this family gave me a room in their home and a seat at their kitchen table, and my experience wasn’t all bad. I learned a ton about wine, cheese, and the French language. I got the chance to explore bits and pieces of the Loire Valley that I never would have sought out myself. And, when the kids weren’t screaming at me, we actually had a lot of fun (like the night we all had a dance party and played Despacito on repeat). But if you’re considering becoming an Au Pair yourself, just know that it’s very much a “high risk, high reward” scenario. Or hey, who knows, maybe you’ll end up having The Sound of Music experience that I’d been hoping for…
For more information on Au Pairing and what she’s up to now, you can reach or follow Genevieve Wheeler at her: