After doing daycare/preschool exclusively for a time (when we only had my daughter), a live-out nanny, and a live-in nanny at various times, we went the au pair route 1 1/2 years ago and couldn't be happier. It's just what our family needs right now. I wish I had known more about it earlier on, since it may have made life easier and richer back then. People may have had different experiences, but here's ours.
We've had two au pairs so far, and both turned out to be great matches for our family. The matching process reminds me a little of residency matching, but without the rank list. You search through au pair profiles, filtering by what's important to your particular family (maybe a strong driver or experience with taking care of multiple children or a particular religion), can read a "personal statement," watch a video they made to tell you more about themselves, scan their letters of recommendation, and their childcare experience. You can select au pairs to interview (via Skype generally) and have a certain amount of time to render a decision whether you want to match with the au pair. The au pair must accept the match as well, and you agree on an arrival date. It was a bit unnerving to select our au pairs, not knowing exactly how it would turn out in the end - would she like living with us? Would we like living with her? How would she be with the kids? Like residency matching, you go a lot by feel of a program and projected fit.
What we didn't anticipate was how much our au pairs would be like family to us. They have launched out on their own, excited to see the US - everything is new. You are their host mom and dad, and it does feel a little like that - parental and guiding, showing them the ropes and helping them have a good experience in a new country. Our au pairs have been from Mexico and Brazil; we've learned about their countries. Last year, I made a Mexican Christmas dinner with our au pair at the time N; this year Brazilian.
N was with us for only 6 months. This is not typical. The contract is for a year. However, N's family needed her back home; a family member was ill so she had to break her end of the contract and our au pair company arranged for us to match with someone new. M, from Brazil, has been with us for almost a year. We love her. The kids love her. She loves being here. She's extended her contract for an additional year (the maximum possible) which is great news. There's a ramp up period of about a month when they first arrive for driving lessons, figuring out routines, roles, etc, so having her want to stay longer is a huge plus. Meanwhile, we keep in touch with N who writes me occasionally and updates me on her career and relationships. She's getting married next year and has invited our family to Mexico for it. It's kind of like a mentor/mentee relationship.
In November, M's mom and her mom's friend came to visit, stay with us and travel. They were here for an entire month. This included a trip for the "Brazilians" as my husband and I nicknamed the trio, to Europe for 9 days and a weekend trip to NYC, but otherwise our house was full of warmth and Portuguese for the remainder. It seems kind of crazy that we had all of these people in our house, but to tell you the truth, it was really nice to have them here. They are such sweet, wonderful people who were the perfect house guests. They made dinner for us all a few nights. We miss them.
An au pair's hours have certain restrictions; they can provide a maximum of 45 hours per week. With our youngest in half-day preschool, this gives us a chance to have a date night each week or coverage on the occasional weekend day I have to work. She picks up the kids from school, drives them to their swim lessons, gets them bathed. We juggle the days and hours when there is an unexpected snow day or sick day. That flexibility has been key. You have to have space for an au pair to have his/her own room and be okay with someone living with you.
I remember one day, during M's first months, she was Skyping with her family in our living room. Her family - her mom, dad, brother, and brother's girlfriend were all there on the screen saying hi to our kids. I looked over at the screen to find all of her family members on the computer screen with their two hands forming the shape of a heart on their chests, and my children mirroring them on our side. I thought: this is such a good thing.
I drove M's mom and her mom's friend to the airport when they left; I hadn't realized the impression we left on them. They vowed that they would start some traditions back home since they enjoyed them so much while they were here: having wine with dinner each night and listening to classical music. And even though they said their thanks solely in Portuguese, I saw in their eyes what they meant.
We started a tradition last year of including N in our Christmas card photo with the family. This year's card has us all sitting on our local high school bleachers, each of the three kids on our laps - me, my husband and M. This will help us remember the years when our family was a little bit bigger. M cried when she saw the card for the first time, to be included. We couldn't imagine it differently.