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Understanding the highs and lows of au pair life

After 18 years of education, many young people want to travel the world. Becoming an au pair is the best way to see the wonders of Earth while maintaining a living — but is it the solution it’s made itself out to be?

Feeling the pressure from the American education system, 19-year-old Edwina Koch set off to become an au pair for a family in Paris. ‘Moving to France seemed like a great way to spend time thinking about what I wanted to do in life,’ she says.

There was also something about the culture and language that called her, she adds, now 27 and still based in the same French city.

Koch, who was born in the Philippines and raised in the US, is the co-founder of YouTube channel and blog Oh Paris, Au Pair, which initially started as a way to promote her co-authored book, How to Become an Au Pair in Paris.

Koch and her co-founder Hannah Watkin are now the proud leaders of a community of young women traveling abroad, supporting each other through their shared challenges.

‘We love promoting the idea of following your dreams, learning languages and discovering new cultures,’ Koch says on their channel’s mission.

While the two of them have endured life changing experiences, those haven’t been entirely positive. Koch says there are a lot of challenges that come with the role that you won’t necessarily consider in the beginning.

‘Such as watching kids,’ she says. ‘Discipling kids and finding the balance between being a friend to your host family while also working for them is extremely difficult.’

Being away from your support system is hard too. Homesickness ‘totally sucks’, Koch says, and it wasn’t until she found her best friend Hanna and a community, that she was able to enjoy her time in Paris.

On top of that, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Koch was forced to live in a little nine-metre-squared room in Paris by herself for three months. No social interaction for all that time was ‘intense to say the least’, she recalls and so she made the decision to move back to the US.

Koch is one of many au pairs across the world who was affected badly by the pandemic. In the US, former president Donald Trump suspended most foreign work visas, leaving some 20,000 au pairs completely displaced.

Kenza Begna, currently an au pair for a family in Fife, Scotland was among those impacted in the UK. The 21-year-old is from Lyon, France and became an au pair because she needed to work on her English and had no idea what to do after her studies came to an end.

‘I’m fully immersed in another country’s family and free time allows me to travel around Scotland with the money I make,’ she says on the perks of her occupation.

But when the coronavirus surfaced, the nurseries closed and she was made to work longer hours, stripping her of the usual freedom of countrywide trips. ‘My life just revolved around the kids, which was hard,’ she adds.

Naomi Omokhua, a 22-year-old from London, was an au pair up until last year. While the pandemic affected her like it did anyone else on the planet, she says that there are pre-existing disadvantages that come with being an au pair.

Omokhua says she went into the profession to ‘escape’ the UK and improve her French. While she was met with weekly pay, free food, beautiful weather, and days off — she also faced pangs of loneliness and racism.

For those facing the same problems, she recommends leaving as soon as possible. ‘It’s not honestly worth your mental health,’ Omokhua adds. But not everyone has experienced the same hardships — one of her friends had an amazing time in Italy. Sometimes, it’s just luck.

In five to 10 years, Omokhua sees herself making successful films in France. Unfortunately for her, the UK left the European Union at the beginning of the year, which has laid down more obstacles than ever before for au pairs.

According to new rules, skilled workers, including nannies, who are from outside the UK, now have to earn a minimum salary of £20,480 a year. But Omokhua says she was making €1.30 an hour, which was €80 (£68) a week. That’s not even a fifth of the minimum wage.

‘Brexit has ruined my life,’ she says. ‘I’ve dreamed of moving to mainland Europe for as long as I can remember but I fear it will be hard now.’

Sophia Gelibter, from Swedish Connection, an agency matching Scandinavians to families in the UK highlights the difficulties that this political departure has created.

‘Since Brexit, no EU au pairs have been able to enter the UK,’ she says. ‘It’s a real blow to many host families across the UK now undergoing a new school year with no childcare.’

And of course, she continues, it’s a real shame for those who have dreamed of moving to the UK for an au pair adventure for years.

Gianna Taccone, the chief executive officer of Euro Placements, an Italian-based recruitment agency for au pairs, is striving to help with this storm of new changes.

From the UK, to South Africa, to Germany and Australia, Taccone finds women and men eager to help children learn from all over the world. When there’s a problem, it’s her job to intervene and find out exactly where things have gone wrong.

Sometimes it’s a cultural difference or a question of homesickness, but other times it’s because the relationship between a family and an au pair is missing something. Either way, it’s up to her to settle things, and ensure that both sides of the relationship are as happy as possible.

Taccone is busier than ever at this time of year, especially now that things are opening up again and she is dealing with the aftermath of Brexit. But she keeps a positive attitude. ‘Getting to know enthusiastic candidates with diverse backgrounds and experiences, and pinpointing their potentials,’ she tells me on her favourite part of the job.

Notwithstanding people like Taccone, however, Begna believes au pairs ‘need to be more recognised’ by both the government and their agencies.

Omokhua says that getting a higher pay is where it should start. ‘€80 a week should be illegal,’ she notes.

Koch says that most problems could begin to be solved with communication.

‘I see so many host families taking advantage of these young au pairs because they know that they are too shy to stick up for themselves and it makes me so mad,’ she adds.

‘Of course, having the confidence to stick up for yourself comes with time and experience and age, but a big point of our channel is to empower au pairs to know they have a voice and that their voice matters.’

For those looking to take the leap and become an au pair, Koch says it’s going to be ‘a year full of challenges, homesickness, and tears’. At the same time, au pairs get friends for life from all over the world, learn a new language, and become more independent than ever before.

While having a community to support you when times get tough is necessary, perhaps the biggest highlight to becoming an au pair is getting to learn so much about yourself.