A few years ago, a rewarding new work opportunity came across my desk: an invitation to help build a new foundation focused on helping kids thrive in life through sports. It was perfect for me in every way, except one: it meant a big reduction in our family income. My husband Jon and I sat down with our spreadsheets and carefully examined our expenses to see if we could find a way to live on less. After our mortgage, childcare was our biggest budget line item. Because of my son Keenan’s behavioral disabilities, down-the-street daycare was not an option for us, and for years we had employed a highly skilled in-home nanny. As much as we loved her, I couldn’t take this new career step unless we found a more affordable childcare solution.
“I think it’s time to try an au pair,” Jon suggested. He had used them for childcare for his two girls before he met me, with great success. “Keenan is maturing to the point that I think we could get by with someone with grit and common sense for about half our current cost.”
“I’m not sure this house can handle another person living in it,” I objected. “We’re packed in tight.”
Jon thought for a moment. “We could have the little girls share a room, which would free up some space. They’d love to sleep in bunk beds. Besides, if we found a German au pair, she could expose the kids to a new culture and traditions, and the two of you could speak German when you don’t want the kids to eavesdrop on your conversation.”
“How will we find someone who can handle Keenan and be a good fit for our family by interviewing them across the world?” I asked. “It seems like such a long shot, and once they’re here we’re stuck with them.”
“You can actually get a replacement if it doesn’t work, and the au pair organization helps you find a new one. Skype works great for interviews; let’s just do a few and check it out.”
“But what if we end up with some liberal European who thinks it’s okay to run around in her underwear?”
“Then we’ll pay her extra,” Jon joked.
We contacted the EurAupair organization, and the process started with an in-home interview. Just as we were evaluating the program, they were also evaluating us to make sure we could provide a comfortable home for an au pair. They were a US Department of State designated nonprofit intercultural exchange program, and were extremely organized: they held a family orientation meeting, explained the process for interviewing au pairs from a variety of countries, and provided us with a list of interview questions and a comprehensive handbook to make sure we knew exactly what we were getting into.
Using Skype, we had great conversations with five young women, and lucked out by finding a fit with the sixth. Nico turned out to be everything we needed: an adventurous, determined 21-year-old German woman who was willing to embrace our chaos with open arms. And lucky for us, she could actually yell louder than my son Keenan.
Nico ended up being a huge budget relief at over half the cost of our previous nanny. We essentially monetized our extra bedroom and a share of the bulk meals in exchange for high-quality, personal childcare in our home. But she was so much more than childcare; she was another member of our family. She came along with us on hikes, camping trips, and dinners out. She joined us on our trip to the east coast, and helped with childcare which allowed Jon and I to play some golf, tennis, and have a few nights on the town. Nico fit in beautifully with our family, especially with the kids.
The one small trade-off in reduced childcare costs was the challenge of helping someone from another culture navigate America. These were Nico’s opening lines on a few panicked phone calls I received in the first few months:
“Hi, Kim? It’s Nico. We got to the park okay, but I can’t find the way back home. We’ve been driving around for awhile now, and I’m really not sure where I am; and the road signs are not making sense. Can you give me directions home?”
“Hi, Kim? It’s Nico. I’m downtown by the Science Center with the kids, and we can’t find our car. We parked in a garage, but we’ve been looking for the car for almost an hour and we can’t find it. What should I do?”
“Hi, Kim? It’s Nico. I’m out bike riding, and I think I took a wrong turn and now I can’t find where I am on the map. It’s getting dark. Can someone come get me?”
“Hi, Kim? It’s Nico. I’m up in Vancouver, and I just drove over a parking embankment. The car is not looking so good. What should I do?”
Luckily, despite these small foibles, Nico was very responsible, respectful, neat, and clean, and the kids loved her. She got them playing outside every day and orchestrated amazing art projects. She was afraid of cooking anything other than hard boiled eggs, but that meant the kitchen was spotless each day when I finished work. And she even started preparing the kids for Mother’s Day a week in advance (Jon starts the morning of, if I’m lucky).
Nico was a great sport at putting up with our family foibles, too. Early one morning, my daughter Olivia climbed into bed with us after some nightmares and left our bedroom door open. Jon got out of bed in his underwear and stumbled sleepily toward the door to close it. Sure enough, Nico was just getting up and coming down the hallway. There was a very awkward moment when Jon succeeded in presenting a memorable image of her host father that was something like Tom Cruise’s dance scene in Risky Business. I heard a mumbled “sorry,” and the door closed quickly. Oi! All we needed was for Nico to start having nightmares too…
Luckily, my husband is a master at smoothing over awkward moments. “Olivia,” he said to my daughter the next morning as Nico walked into the kitchen, “If you want to make sure that Nico stays, you need to close the door to our room when dad’s not dressed yet.”
He turned to Nico. “Good morning. How was your sleep, other than your early morning nightmare?” Nico laughed, and all was right with the world.
The best part of our au pair experience has been the wonderful cultural exchange we’ve enjoyed. Nico teaches our children German traditions and German words, shares pictures and stories of her homeland, and even treated us to an authentic home-cooked German meal (courtesy of a friend visiting from Germany).
And as I’m off to work each morning running a foundation dedicated to helping kids thrive in life through sports, I know my own children are receiving wonderful care and a great cultural experience, all in the comfort of our own home.
German Au Pair with Family