All in the family (just someone else's): Child care as vocation has quirks and perks

All in the family (just someone else's): Child care as vocation has quirks and perks

January 13th, 2014 by Barry Courter in Life Entertainment

Julia Koschulla moved from her native Germany to become an au pair in the United States.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Au Pair Rules

An au pair must:

• Be proficient in spoken English;

• Have a secondary school graduate or equivalent;

• Be between 18 and 26 years old;

• Must pass a physical exam;

• Be personally interviewed, in English, by an organizational representative who shall prepare a report of the interview to give the host family;

• Pass a background investigation that includes verification of school, three, non-family related personal and employment references, a criminal background check or its recognized equivalent and a personality profile.

Source: U.S. State Department

Family Rules

An au pair's host family must:

• Provide a private bedroom, meals and a weekly salary of at least $195.75;

• Limit working hours to 45 hours per week, and no more than 10 hours in one day;

• Limit household responsibilities to those related to child care, Including meal preparation, laundry and room clean-up;

• Give 1 1/2 days off per week, at least one full weekend off each month and two weeks of paid vacation;

• Ensure that another adult is home at all times if there is an infant under 3 months old in the home;

• Offer transportation so the au pair can attend monthly au pair gatherings and meetings and educational classes.

Source: U.S. State Department

Julia Koschulla knew when she was in high school back in Germany that she wanted to attend college, but she had no idea what field she might pursue.

During her junior year, someone suggested she look into becoming an au pair - a person from another country who works for and lives with a U.S. family. A year later, after contracting with an au pair agency, she was in Alpharetta, Ga., living with a new family and caring for a 6-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy.

A short while later, the family moved to Rome, Ga., and asked Koschulla, now 23, to move with them. When her two-year term with the au pair agency ended, she chose to stay on with the family and is still with them in Rome. She says the job has been rewarding, a learning experience and a tremendous opportunity.

"I like several aspects of doing this," she says. "I don't live by myself. I have a family. I know the routine, which I like because I know what to expect. I like kids, but not 20 or 30 at the same time. And, while I do like the schedule, I also like being spontaneous and this allows that."

Unlike a nanny or a baby-sitter you use on a regular basis, au pairs are governed by the U.S. Department of State and subject to government restrictions. There are 15 accredited agencies in the United States that screen applicants and help acquire visas, match au pairs with families and make travel arrangements, according to the State Department.

The agencies have received the State Department OK by sticking to rules on screening, psychological testing, acquiring appropriate visas and making travel arrangements. The agencies also provide health insurance coverage for the au pair, who must pass a physical examination to qualify to work.

Among the federal rules, an au pair must be paid no less than $195.75 a week, be given a private bedroom, work no more than 45 hours a week and have two weeks of paid vacation a year.

When applying to become an au pair, Koschulla says she had several options for finding a host family. Au pairs, for example, can indicate a preference regarding family size and type, location and whether they can and will work with a child with special needs.

Koschulla says that, while she was in Atlanta, there was a cluster of other au pairs with whom she met regularly to discuss issues related to the job. They also provided a social outlet away from her host family.

Although she lost the connection with other au pairs when she moved with the family to Rome, she has since found new friends and new social outlets, including learning about American sports other than the more familiar soccer.

"I'm not set in my ways or hard to get along with, but (moving to Rome) did make it hard to find new friends," she says. "I didn't have other au pairs around to lunch with, so I would often do things on my own, but eventually I got into other sports and found new places and things fell into place."

Koschulla is currently studying criminal justice at Dalton State College and hopes one day to be a detective. She is not likely to be an au pair for another family, she says.

"Overall, it's been a good experience," she says. 'I think I've grown on a lot of levels, but you are taking care of someone else's kids. Some weeks are mixed. I'd like to eventually see what living on my own is like."

You don't have to be an au pair, however, to provide full-time, individual care for children.

Robin Eiselstein, 43, is caring for an 8-year-old boy whose parents both work in Chattanooga. She is responsible for getting him ready for and to school each day and for his after-school care. She also is on duty when the parents have evening or weekend obligations.

Eiselstein arrives at the family's home at 7:30 a.m. each morning to get the boy ready for school and making sure he gets there. She then helps with household chores such as laundry and has a few hours to herself before picking the boy up from school and staying with him until the parents get home from work.

She says she likes the job because of its routine and its flexibility.

"It's a good position that gives me some freedom during the day to do other things while he is at school," she says.

When the two are together, Eiselstein says she works to strike a balance between scheduling things she wants or needs to do with things the young boy is interested in or that he might need to do, such as sporting events.

"He enjoys getting out and doing stuff but also staying home and playing with his electronics. He is into electronic toys and games, but he likes paint-your-own pottery and things like that.

"It's balanced, and it has to be."

For Sheila O'Keefe, working as a nanny in New York City had its challenges, mostly related to dealing with parents. But it also had major perks, like spending her summer in the Hamptons, a group of uppercrust towns on the northern end of Long Island. She's worked for three different families, often caring for children with emotional issues or disabilities.

It was work she was good at, and it was rewarding, she says, but dealing with the parents was not always as rosy.

"I worked for three different families and all of them were ridiculously wealthy and eccentric," she says. "The good thing with all of them was that I adored the kids. The parents were eccentric and kooky."

O'Keefe, 44, grew up in Chattanooga but has lived in New York for almost two decades. After 15 years in the skin-care industry, she lost her job three years ago and was offered the opportunity to be a nanny for a 6-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl. The family had three other older children who were either away at boarding school or in college.

Her second stint as a nanny involved afternoon care for a 14-year-old boy with mental challenges and her last gig was spent caring for a 9-year-old girl.

"That was the most hands-on and the one where I was closest to being a true kind of nanny that traveled with the family," she says.

Last spring, during the school year, O'Keefe took care of the young girl at the mother's primary residence, a $9 million apartment on the upper east side of Manhattan.

"Some of these apartments are five times bigger than my parent's house in Chattanooga," she says.

She spent this past summer caring for the girl at the mother's second home in the Hamptons.

"I enjoyed it. It was gorgeous with a beautiful house and swimming pool near the beach. The girl was sweet and easy to care for. I would take her to camps and we got along very well. When the family went on vacation, I had the house for 10 days so my brother and his family came up."

Many au pairs and even full-time nannies receive perks such as travel, although the trip is often a working vacation, and sometimes room and board, so the actual pay can vary a great deal. O'Keefe says, for example, she made about $150 a day but that she was given added duties that were not talked about ahead of time after she took the job. If she takes on another childcare position, O'Keefe says she would be more diligent upfront about defining her exact duties in the family and the pay.

"I was too much of a wimp and wouldn't confront them if something came up," O'Keefe says, adding that she was reluctant to say things to the parents like: "Oh, you were supposed to be here at 7 and you came home at 10 and I had plans."

Koschulla says she has not had such challenges, partly because many of those issues, as well as things like disciplining the child, were discussed in advance.

"You have to know your boundaries and hope they know their boundaries," she says.

Koschulla says she is allowed to use the family car for personal use within limits, but she knows of fellow au pairs who are not. She has her own living space with a private bathroom in the family's basement, which she calls her "paradise" or "oasis."

Flexibility works both ways when it comes to being a child-care provider. Plans can get changed in an instant, and part of the job is being able to adapt.

"Things can change rapidly," Eiselstein says. "If he is sick or has to be out of school and you weren't planning on having him with you all day, you have to be able to make changes accordingly."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.