Adorable French kids. Free room and board. A surrogate French family to help you improve your French. Plenty of free time for strolling through French parks.
Being an au pair in France doesn't sound half bad, right?
Au pairing can be an attractive option for foreigners looking for a way to live in France, become immersed in the culture, and hopefully move past a high school level of French.
Many foreign au pairs in France are expected to live with (or very near) their host families. In return for picking up the kids from school and taking care of them for a few hours before the parents get home, the au pair usually gets a free place to live, food, a transportation pass, and some “pocket money.”
Before you jump at the chance to snag this dream gig, take a look at what some nannies in France have to say about the ups and downs of the job.
The worst things about being an au pair in France…
Even if you find yourself with plenty of free time, you'll soon realize that the meagre salary might not quite cut it. The minimum salary for au pairs in France is only about €80 per week. Some families will pay more; many don't.
“The pay wasn't amazing - more like pocket money,” one Australian au pair told the Local. “So I learnt to live in Paris on a shoestring budget.”
If you're living in a small town it might be doable, but in a larger city, museum and theater tickets, drinks, and meals out with friends quickly add up. If you want to be able to afford going out and taking weekend trips to explore other parts of France, a second job might be necessary.
The extra work
Photo: Nicola Albertini/Flickr
“Light cleaning”, often part of the au pair's job description, can mean different things to different people.
To some families, that means cleaning up after yourself and helping to keep the child(ren)'s room(s) tidy. To others, it means deep-cleaning the entire house, doing the grocery shopping, the laundry, the ironing, and cooking and serving dinner to the whole family while making yourself invisible and never looking anybody in the eye. All while looking after the children at the same time, of course…
Some au pairs find themselves with a whole host of complaints when their family or the agency has seemed to completely misrepresent their situation and their expectations.
“I went through an agency that advertised its jobs as "English tutoring" but it's actually just babysitting,“ said an English au pair in Paris.
One au pair said of her host family: “They claimed to live in the town of Chartres, France, but they actually they live about a 40 minute walk from the centre of town/shops/civilization.”
“Secondly, although food and meals are meant to be part of your pay, the dinners were almost nonexistent and there was very rarely food in the house to even make lunch.”
Versions of these complaints are common on au pair internet forums, which often tend to double as support groups.
Witnessing family drama
Whether it's sitting by awkwardly while your host parents bicker or even being asked to keep the secret of one parent having an affair, there are bound to be some times when you feel a bit too involved with the family.
One English woman told The Local: "While au-pairing, I walked in on the mother of the children I was looking after in a quite compromising position with a man who wasn't her husband. He ran away naked, but not before I spotted him.
"These meetings continued while her husband was away on business, which made me feel horrible for the children," she added.
Being an au pair for a couple going through a divorce is not a pleasant experience.
Lack of independence
If you have a live-in situation, be prepared to feel like you're never really off-duty. So stumbling in the door at 4:00 a.m. will probably not be an option. And your day off might not feel like relaxing leisure time if the children can come into your room (without knocking) at any hour of the day and interrupt your Netflix binge.
Photo: Hammonton Photography/Flickr
One au pair in central Paris told The Local that her misunderstanding of French food culture has got her into trouble.
“I am American and I know the stereotypes about fat, unhealthy Americans, but I don't think I fall into that category,” she said. “However, while feeding the girls one night, I accidentally gave them a pot of food that was also supposed to feed their parents when they returned from work.
It really didn't look like that much food. But of course 'the American nounou overfed the children'.”
Not being able to be the perfect nanny
One au pair had this guilty confession to make: “I was a responsible and caring nanny and I would say the only 'bad thing' I have done was arrive hungover to babysit and have to drink a lot of their Nespresso coffees to stay awake, and then encourage the kids to watch a video or amuse themselves while I napped on the couch.”
Au pairs everywhere can probably relate to that one.
But there are plenty of positives...
But it's not all bad. To keep things fair, let's take a look at some of the best things about being an au pair in France…
English speaking nannies are a hot commodity in France
The number one pro of searching for an au pair job in France as an English-speaker is that you'll have virtually limitless options. These days, there are always families searching for English speakers to look after their children in the hope that some of your native language abilities will rub off on them.
Ample free time
Photo: Gonzalo Díaz Fornaro/Flickr
Most au pairs have manageable hours, as the kids are in school for a lot of the day.
“The free time during the day, weekends, and holidays gave me the opportunity to babysit or do other household helping jobs for extra cash,” said one Australian nanny.
Even with various extra jobs, you should still have plenty of time to take full advantage of France's endless cultural and historical sites.
If you have au pair visa status then you'll probably be taking some French classes, unless you decide your time is better spent exploring your new French city and conducting a thorough investigation of French pastries.
But even just speaking French to your host family and French friends will improve your language skills more quickly than would ever be possible living in your home country.
All-expenses paid holidays
Photo: Paul Appleton/Flickr
Some lucky nannies benefit from extra perks while on the job.
An Australian who worked as an au pair and occasional babysitter in France for four years said she was able to go to a “fancy Swiss ski resort and was treated to private ski-lessons all expenses paid, just in exchange for helping their grandparents with the kids.”
An American au pair said: “It didn't feel like work at at all but more of an extended vacation featuring whirlwind love affairs, French lessons at an overpriced private school, and excursions to various cities around France, which the family not only allowed but encouraged despite being with them for such a short amount of time.”
So be sure to ask potential host families what they do on holidays.
Getting a glimpse into French family life
One American au pair in Paris thinks getting a sneak peek into the life of a French family is one of the most intriguing parts of the job.
“I get to see their fridge, see how the kids eat, how they eat it, and the rules around food,” she told The Local.
Getting a glimpse into not only the daily life and habits of a French family, but also their holiday traditions, is a definite reward in this line of work.
Photo: Nicola Davies/Flickr
Whether you adore spending time with children or you or you were a bit apprehensive about the whole au pair thing, you might actually get a bit attached to them without even realizing it. You might go away on holiday for a week, so happy to be away from the tiny humans. But after a day or two you'll say, “Merde. I miss those little monsters” and text the parents to send you a photo. (Or maybe you won't miss them at all. That's fine too.)
Realizing you've made a difference
If you're a native English speaker, there's a good chance you'll be teaching the kids some English, if not speaking to them in English 100 percent of the time.
When your child says something like, “Je like tes shoes” you'll be thrilled. (And not just because your shoes are indeed very chic.) Franglais is progress, and before you know it they'll be stringing together entire sentences in English.
That satisfaction might be enough to make you forget about that time you were peed on.
So, if you're still set on becoming a nanny in France…
Photo: Ed Yourdan/Flickr
“My advice to any foreigners looking to work as a nanny in France - choose wisely,” advises an experienced nanny. “Find a family with an interesting sounding life, home and kids and ask a lot of questions. Ask to meet the existing nanny, or speak with them on the phone to find out what the kids and parents are like.
And don't lie about your experience… I found my jobs on Craigslist but there are always the horror stories and you have to be very careful. If in doubt, go through a reputable agency.”
By Katie Warren
A version of this article was published in April this year.