Looking for an au pair to take care of her two young children while she and her husband were away at work, Sarah Edwards wanted experience, a calm temperament and a philosophy of child care that matched her own.
An au pair is a child-care provider from a different country who lives in the employer’s home and is subject to government restrictions. The role is similar to that of a nanny.
Specifically, the Edwardses wanted an au pair who spoke German.
“I really wanted them to learn the language,” said Edwards, who was born and lived in Germany until age 20, when she left to study at North Dakota State University.
“My husband doesn’t speak German, and I don’t speak it very well either, anymore.”
The Edwardses commute from their Cummings, N.D., home for work — she’s an assistant professor of counseling psychology and community services at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, and her husband, Robert, works for a Fargo, N.D., engineering firm.
“There’s no day care in Cummings,” Sarah Edwards said. Without family members in the area, the couple have found it difficult to find steady child-care providers.
“We had nannies before the au pair, but they were between high school and the next stage of life,” she said. “When they figured out what they wanted to do, they’d leave.”
College students had class schedules the family had to work around, she said. “They couldn’t work full time. They’d leave for another job or to start a career.”
The Edwardses searched for an au pair through EurAupair Intercultural Child Care Programs (www.euraupair.com), an agency that recruits and screens candidates, ages 18 to 26, worldwide for one-year positions.
Some au pairs have their sights set on New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, Edwards said. “We wanted to have an au pair who was OK with living in the country.”
Via Skype and e-mail, she and Robert interviewed five candidates before selecting Melanie Bargfeldt, of northern Germany. She joined their household Nov. 22 to care for Ella, 3, and William, 1.
“I liked them from the first second. There was a connection,” said Bargfeldt.
Being an au pair “is an opportunity to see another part of the world,” she said. “It’s combining two things I like: traveling and child care.” She plans to work for the Edwardses until next November and then spend a month traveling around the United States.
Becoming more proficient in English is one of her reasons for becoming an au pair.
Her schedule may vary week-to-week, but her hours are generally 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. She has the upper level of the house to herself, which includes her own bedroom and bathroom.
By the book regulations
The hiring of au pairs from foreign countries is governed by the State Department. Fourteen accredited agencies have been recognized by the government, based on their adherence to rules on screening, psychological testing, acquiring appropriate visas and making travel arrangements.
The agency provides health insurance coverage for the au pair, who must pass a physical exam to qualify to work.
The Edwardses paid $8,000 upfront to EurAupair and they pay Bargfeldt $195 per week plus free room and board.
The au pair meets once a month with a community counselor, and a 24/7 hot line is staffed by a person who speaks the au pair’s language in the event that problems arise.
Once she qualifies for a North Dakota driver’s license, Bargfeldt will be given use of the family car.
The cost of hiring an au pair is not less expensive than a baby sitter, said Sarah Edwards. But having two children attend a day care in Fargo, where they used to live, would cost nearly as much as what they’re spending on their au pair, she said.
“An au pair can care for up to four kids,” Edwards said. “If you have three children, you would save money, definitely, by hiring an au pair.”
She estimates the family spends $20,000 per year when all the expenses — salary, room and board — are taken into account.
Family rules need to be set
It’s important for families to establish and communicate the rules of the house to an au pair, Edwards said.
“We don’t drink, for example, so no alcohol can be brought into the house,” she said. “We want them to ask first if friends can come in.”
The Edwardses don’t set a curfew for their au pair, although some employers do, she said. “But we do ask that if she is going to go out at night, that she come home in time to get at least 6 hours of sleep in order to not be irritable with the children the next day.”
Anyone considering hiring an au pair “should think about how the family functions,” Edwards said. “It’s a huge adjustment [for the au pair]: there’s culture shock, they’re homesick. You need to provide emotional support.
“You want them to be happy, and I think that’s reflected in the quality of the child care.”
After a few weeks in the United States, Bargfeldt has felt some homesickness, she said, especially “in silent moments in my room or when the kids are napping. It’s kind of hard.”
Her family and boyfriend in Germany were “very supportive” of her decision to work in the United States. They keep connected via Skype and e-mails.