Why au pairs make more sense for some families

A live-in foreigner providing childcare might seem ludicrous to some, but a few northwest Philadelphia moms are finding that au pairs can provide better one-on-one childcare and are actually much cheaper.

Jill Shapiro, Cultural Care Au Pair coordinator for Northwest Philadelphia, says au pairs can be more economical compared to the alternatives — nannies and daycares.

“It costs $300 a week and doesn’t matter how many kids you have,” she said of au pairs, who are required to work 45 hours a week. “As an example in my life, I work part time…and the hours I do work, I have a babysitter come twice a week for 15 hours a week. It costs me $240 a week.”

Oftentimes, Shapiro said, employing an au pair is cheaper than sending a child — or multiple children — to daycare. Not only can babysitters be costly, but daycares in the city prove to be even more expensive. Shapiro estimates daycare costs about $1,000 monthly per child. And nannies could be anywhere from part-time employees to a full-time employee with a $25,000 salary.

Although au pairs tend to be one of the cheaper forms of childcare, Shapiro said she doesn’t think too many families know that.

“Not everybody knows about [au pairs] because I think I’d have a much bigger group,” Shapiro said, who currently works with 16 families—eight of which live in Mt. Airy.

But she said despite the cost there are a few qualities of au pairs that might be a deal breaker for some families: they are foreign, young adults in their early 20s that live with the family.

“You have to have a special kind of family and a special kind of home,” she said.

But Sylvie Gallier Howard, who lives in Germantown and is on her second au pair, said that although she thinks most people can’t get past a stranger living with them, she finds it ideal for her.

“They’re a young adult, but they’re your employee too,” said Howard. “I wouldn’t say everyone should do it and it’s the best option for everyone, but I think it’s a really great program.”

Howard said the best benefit to her childcare choice for her two children — Demetrius, 4, and Bahari, 1 — is flexibility.

Howard is an independent consultant and averages four days of work each week. While her husband has a set schedule, Sylvie sets her own and sometimes has to work evenings and weekends.

“Every week I set the au pair’s schedule,” she said. “The au pair situation is so practical. There’s no commute and they’re good backup if [ one of my kids] gets sick.”

Besides price and flexibility, Howard said the other reason she chose au pairs was because she wants her children to be bilingual and experience other cultures.

Howard’s first au pair, who was from Columbia, arrived August 2010 and her current au pair is from Mexico. Her children, she said, only speak Spanish with her and the au pairs.

“I learned through my own experience how much language opens your world to other things,” she said, adding she studied international relations in Ecuador. “I’m going to give my kids this gift because it’s the best time to learn it, it’s the easiest time to learn it.”

Marisol Suarez — Howard’s first au pair — said she’s also found that being an pair is mutually beneficial.

Suarez came as an au pair from Columbia in hopes that her English will make her a more marketable employee once she finishes her degree in computer science.

Suarez said she heard about being an au pair in 2009, and decided life as a live-in nanny would give her the best possible education in English.

“I think it’s cheaper and easier to take this way to learn English,” she said. “[Speaking English allows for] more opportunities for work, and it’s good for your career.”

As part of the program, Suarez was also required to take six credits of college courses, which she used toward her degree.

Howard said with the au pair’s classes and 45-hour limit to the work week require good communication to ensure both ends mutally benefit they way they’re supposed to.

As far as drawbacks to the program, Howard said she’s only got one complaint: “you learn there’s a lot of money that goes to the agency [and] there’s a part of me that wishes more of that could go to the au pair.”

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