Now that we have two children, the cheapest form of childcare has changed. Double daycare didn’t sound appealing, so we did the math and decided that an au pair was cheapest (see tables below). Jeff’s family used au pairs and were happy with the arrangement. So we’re planning to go ahead with that this coming year.
Au pairs have a connotation of being something only posh people have, perhaps because having live-in help seems like having servants. But the state department is very clear about them not working extra hours or taking on housework beyond what’s child-related, and they’re supposed to be like a family member (“au pair” literally meaning “on par” or “on equal terms” with the family). Jeff’s sister was an au pair and it was something I considered after college, so it’s not as if it’s a one-way stream either.
Cultural exchange. The whole reason au pairs don’t make minimum wage is that they are technically having a cultural experience rather than being employees. If you’d like to expose your children to another language and hang out with someone from another country, this might be a nice way to do it. Caveats: the kids I see with Spanish-speaking au pairs or nannies seem to understand Spanish but don’t speak it themselves (they respond in English). Jeff’s father said they preferred au pairs who spoke English as a first language because it made communication easier. I also think childrearing methods vary quite a bit by culture, and there are some cultures that seem pretty low-interaction, which is not what I would want.
Flexibility: An au pair works up to 45 hours a week, and you can schedule the hours anytime during the week (with a max of 10 hours/day and with at least one weekend a month fully off). Because we both travel for work, the ability to have someone watch our children at odd hours as we’re coming and going from the airport sounds good.
You can also have your au pair travel with you (so if I were at a conference for a week, I could potentially bring the kids and the au pair, which would certainly be nicer than being away from my baby for that long. But the cost of extra airfare and lodging means we’ll probably use this very sparingly).
You also don’t have to cram your child into a daycare’s timeframes: no need to drag them out of bed in time for you to leave for work, or to keep them awake or make them lie down because that’s the group schedule. There’s no panic if they’re not potty trained and won’t be allowed into the three-year-old classroom.
Sick days: An au pair doesn’t work when they’re sick, but they can work when the kids are sick. (With a daycare, the kid can’t be there when they’re sick or for 24 hours afterward.) Since little kids get sick more often than adults, we expect this will mean we miss less work caring for a sick child. Also, snow days, which we have a reasonable number of in Boston.
No commute: having care in our own home is huge for us. When we took Lily to daycare every day, it added about 90 minutes to our days (because you have to manage a child’s commute in addition to your own).
Less stress for children: At home, young children’s level of cortisol (a stress hormone) peaks in the morning and falls throughout the day. At daycare, many children’s levels rise again during the middle of the day. (Caveat: I couldn’t find out whether in-home care with a non-family caregiver matches the home pattern or the daycare pattern, but I’m assuming it’s closer to being home with your family on a weekend.) It’s not clear that this has any long-term effects, but it seems plausible to me that it does.
Socialization: It takes extra effort to get socialization for the children because they’re not already in a group setting. For a baby or young toddler, I don’t think this is a problem, but for older kids you could potentially be looking at the cost of preschool on top of an au pair. But I think it’s possible to supplement with visits to library story hours, play groups, etc. Certainly most children throughout humanity have been reared primarily in their own (extended) families rather than in a classroom-type setting.
Privacy: An extra person in your household brings more possibility of conflict and awkwardness.
Inexperience: I know 19-year-olds can be clueless, because I cringe at some of the mistakes I made at that age working in daycares or as a babysitter.
Year-long schedule: If you end up with someone who’s a bad fit for your family, you’re kind of stuck unless you want to pay the fee to re-match. Also if you no longer need childcare (say one parent is unemployed for a few months) you’re still paying for it. But this is true in the better daycares, too.
Unpredictability: The au pair can decide to buy a flight home any time (edit January 2017: ours did this with less than a week’s notice). Young adults who have never lived away from home before are not known for their consistency. There are also factors beyond their control: their visa application could be delayed. They could have a family emergency and need to return home. Trump has mentioned getting rid of the J-1 visa that au pairs use, so who knows whether he’ll follow through on that.
A daycare could also close or lose its license, particularly if it’s a home daycare that relies on a single person, but I’m guessing it’s less likely.
Housing: You need an extra bedroom. If you have the flexibility to rent a larger space this may be fine, but for people who own condos or houses it may not work. In our case, it was possible to build an extra bedroom, which we’re happy to do because we’d like to have a spare room after we’re done having au pairs.
Transportation: If the au pair will need to drive, adding them to your car insurance (and getting another car, as some families do) would add extra cost. In our case, we’re near the subway and don’t own a car, so the transportation cost is just a public transit pass.
Monthly costs in Boston area using public transit:
|Au pair stipend and agency fees:
||$770 (based on renting a four-bedroom vs. a three-bedroom apartment in my neighborhood)
|Utilities (including cell phone):
|Misc spending (museum admissions, public transit pass, etc.):
Daycare (this varies a lot but is based on the daycare Lily went to)
|Infant in daycare with sibling discount
|Toddler in daycare
|$20/hour (more if withholding tax and social security), 45 hours/week
|Food, museum passes, etc.