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Hiring an Au Pair is Not a Simple Task

Is the thought of hiring a Nanny bringing up your worst fears? Are you waking up in the middle of the night worrying about leaving your child with someone who is a complete stranger to you?

There's no question that hiring a Nanny or Au Pair is a serious task, but it need not be a daunting one.

How do parents find and choose a Nanny / Au Pair?

Over the years I've learned that there are three common methods of finding an Au Pair and that no one method is consistently better than the others. The most common and basic method is to call everyone you know and get the word out that you need a Nanny or Au Pair. Most often, parents go online, posting notices on electronic bulletin boards and responding to postings that catch their attention. They call friends, co-workers, neighbors; they attend mothers' groups, talk to other moms at local parenting agencies; they go to the park and talk to Nannies; and many simply stop and ask strangers pushing baby carriages - anyone who seems likely to offer a lead about a "Nanny seeking employment."

Armed with lists and names scratched on pieces of paper or neatly in a file on their PDA's they make calls and hope for the best.

Other parents use what I call the "building block" method of finding a Nanny / Au Pair. They make decisions about key issues before starting, such as experience required, proposed schedule, responsibilities, compensation and their legal responsibilities as an employer. They advertise and pre screen for experience and work history. They check references and go through an interview and trial period before signing a formal contract to hire their selected Nanny. Along the way they ensure she has health/ safety training and a clear criminal and driving record. Inevitably, there are frustrating ups and downs and worries but these building blocks provide stability in a market without stability and the information gathered over time can create a foundation ensuring a worried parent that their nanny / Au Pair is who she says she is and has a "no-harm" history of caring for children.

Then there's the professional search to find a Nanny / Au pair. This is the method used by Nanny - Au pair placement agencies that screen candidates and send portfolios to parents to evaluate, interview and make decisions about. This method is most often used by parents who don't have time to go through the full process and who want reassurance that a candidate has cleared a basic screening regimen. This approach, however, is not as perfect as a parent would expect. Not all placement agencies scrutinize candidates thoroughly and mismatches between parents and Nannies/Au pairs often occur. Parents can receive information on numerous candidates,to meet their expectations.

Regardless of the method a parent uses, there are no guarantees. What if the hopes and expectations you had don't materialize?

Au pairs, Nannies and children create attachment relationships to each other

Jennifer learned from her two Nannies, Maria and Sonia, that the content and quality of these interactions are different because to who each Au Pair / nanny is. Jeree Pawl, Ph.D., former director of the infant Parent Program at the University of California-San Francisco put it quite succinctly when she said, "How you are is as important as what you do."

It matters less where or how parents find their Au Pair. It matters more that they choose someone who they can trust and who fits with their parenting beliefs and attitudes. After all, beliefs and attitudes inform what one does and how one is in a relationship. Our ideas about child rearing are "an amalgam derived from watching our own parents parent, thoughts about how things might be improved upon from the past and culturally driven directives that guide acceptable behavior in a particular culture." These multiple influences on parenting create many different styles of parenting. Well-intentioned adults often disagree about routine and daily care giving events such as what is the proper bedtime or whether the baby should be held all the time. As strong as a parent feels that their style is best, their partner and their Au pair / Nanny may feel equally strong about theirs. What is most important is to know where these differences lie and to talk openly about them. When I began the search for Maria's replacement it seemed daunting to know who would fit.

The Myth of Mary Poppins

My friend's ideal candidate was Mary Poppins — a myth! Over the years I realized that my friend Jennifer is not alone in choosing a Mary Poppins character as her ideal. I wondered why does this mythical character prevail in many parents' minds when they look for an Au pair / Nanny?

As a cultural icon, Mary Poppins represents a parent's wish for an Au Pair / nanny who is nurturing, loving, honest, fun and familiar — someone who'' fits" with their family. Parents want someone who will show up on their doorstep when they need her, who is responsible and reliable, who will stay for as long as they need her, and who will not take over their role as parent or put a dent in their family finances.

With all the magic and myth aside, these are essential components to what makes Mary Poppins the ideal for so many parents. The reality is that parents need someone who is readily available, reliable, knowledgeable and flexible. Parents want to ensure their role is primary both as an employer to their Nanny / Au Pair and as parents to their children. They want someone to stay until they no longer need her and then leave without drama or regrets. They need someone who understands kids and wants to take care of them because they enjoy being with children. And even though most parents want to pay a livable wage to their nanny / Au Pair, they don't want to take money from their child's education fund to do this. Finally, being warm, nurturing, loving and caring with a child is what children need to develop trust, an essential component to developing meaningful relationships with others in their adult life.

The challenge for parents, whether using the basic, building block or professional method of finding a Nanny / Au pair, is how to choose a stranger who has all the ideal traits of Mary Poppins while recognizing that the market comprises a vast assortment of women, many of whom have these skills and many more who don't. Parents are further challenged by the reality that their Mary Poppins can come in a variety of packages. What if the Nanny / Au Pair has the essentials but also several tattoos and body piercings? What if she is a Filipino or a Latino woman and English is not her first language? What if she acts like their mother or mother-in-law? What if on the outside she appears to be a "least desirable" candidate while on the inside she really is the ideal candidate?

Family dynamics also change so that what seemed the perfect Nanny / Au pair at one time is less desirable at another. Parents of a newborn may want someone who is nurturing and warm toward their baby but then find they need someone better skilled at setting limits when the toddler years arrive. Also, some families face unusual challenges at certain times in their family life. Parents going through a divorce, a mom undergoing chemotherapy or parents with a special needs child require a Nanny / Au pair with certain characteristics and skills. Parents who have chosen a certain family style, whether a single mother of newborn twins, a gay/ Lesbian couple, a stay-at-home mom or a family with a fully-staffed household - each require something different from their Nanny / Au pair.

And then there are mismatches between Nannies/ Au Pairs and children. In the 1950's Drs. Stella Chase and Alexander Thomas wanted to answer the question parents had asked themselves for generations — how is it that each of my children are born with different characteristics? While one may be happiest sitting quietly reading a book, the other is happiest running wildly around the house. Over the years Drs. Chase and Thomas gathered significant data isolating certain characteristics which tend to develop during infancy and endure overtime. These characteristics are now commonly known as temperamental traits.

Recognizing who you are as parents and who your child is - this is the crucial link to finding a Nanny - Au pair who fits.

Changing demographics: the role of women

What seems to have evaded discourse in the public/private debate about childcare is just how difficult this is for parents to do. Asking a stranger to care the most important person in a parent's life can be frightening. It's of the most difficult and important decisions a parent will make.

In part the Mary Poppins ideal represents a parent's wish that someone will come into their life immediately and make everything right—because they know consciously (or unconsciously) just how difficult and complex this particular decision is.

This decision, particularly for a mother, is one that digs deeply into her psychological core. It can seem that a piece of herself is tightly woven into the fabric of who her child is - and the wish to care for her child so closely woven into the fabric of who she is - that giving that up to another comes as a tremendous loss. At the same time, the wish to be disconnected — and have the freedom her "old self" had — can be equally compelling. The resulting conflict about what she wants and the fear of losing either can be destabilising. It can be so unsettling that the decision to hire anyone as a caregiver for their child can be put off until the last minute, with mothers expecting that Mary Poppins will indeed miraculously appear on their doorstep and make everything right."

Why are mothers so conflicted about hiring a Nanny / Au pair? The changing demographics in women's work and family lives over the past forty years provide compelling clues. Since 1967 there has been a 300% increase in the number of women in the workforce who have children less than three years old, and a 98% increase in the number of women in the workforce with children less than six years old.

In 2006, a majority of the women in the workforce with the children less than three years of age were most likely raised by a stay - at - home mum!

When these women face the option to either continue their work or to stay home to care for their children, they can find it very difficult to imagine how to mother differently than their mothers and what the outcome would be if they did. The guilt and worry these mothers feel can be intense and poignant. Is this what they want to do? Are they missing out on the most important years? Are they causing harm to their child? What is the outcome? While research indicates that children in non-maternal quality care arrangements do well in the areas of social, emotional and cognitive development, these worries remain.

The modern-day parent is setting a new paradigm for how to parent — and this involves a fair amount of risk regarding outcome. It also involves a fair amount of loss - the loss of "maternal identity'" and how mothers may have imagined they would raise healthy, well-adjusted and happy children.

And then there's the family budget to consider. Apart from sticker shock at the $18-20 per hour market rates prevalent in 2008 for Nannies and with few government or employer sponsored childcare subsidies.

It's vital that parents recognize the importance of the relationships parents, Nannies/ Au pairs and children create with each other and that parenting values, attitudes, and care giving styles form the basis for meaningful, working relationships. After all, hiring a Nanny or Au pair is one of the most important decisions a parent will make.



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