By KIRSTEN LEVINGSTON
For Montclair Local
Kirsten Levingston moved to Montclair in 2008. She works in the city and writes on the side. In “Welcome to Montclair” she explores the quirks of this special town. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Huffington Post and Baristanet.
When I was a kid, my grandmother or the woman down the street from my grandmother took care of my brother and me while our parents worked. When my own children were young, our babysitter came to our Brooklyn apartment each morning to care for them. After moving to Montclair another childcare option and term entered my lexicon: “au pair.”
Perhaps you have hosted an au pair or known a Montclair family that has hosted one, a young person from another country who lives with a U.S. family and studies for up to two years, and in exchange spends about 40 hours a week taking care of children and helping out around the house. For a young person from another country, Montclair must be an attractive place, what with all this town offers and New York City just 12 miles down the road.
My husband and I discussed going the au pair route after our train home from work was delayed one too many times, making us late retrieving our kids from summer camp.
Child pickup time is dimensionally different than regular time. Arriving at 5:45 p.m. for a 5:30 pickup feels like arriving for a party the day after it happened. Having live-in child care would relieve the stress of getting home on time for pickups or to relieve a baby sitter. We also liked the idea of being part of a “cultural exchange”— learning about another person’s country, while they learned about ours.
The combined expenses for an au pair: the weekly stipend, fee to the au pair agency, spare bedroom, and some other expenses, were less than our Brooklyn child care costs.
But I was uneasy.
What would it be like having a stranger living in my home? Let’s face it, the idea of having any kind of “live-in” help seems a bit pretentious. Back when we had a babysitter people sometimes referred to her as our “nanny”; even that made me bristle. I’m a Black woman with roots in the South. My relatives were (and are) the industrious and hardworking women who, often because of limited opportunities, lived in and cared for White children and families, sacrificing autonomy, and time with their own children and families. The thought of having people living and working in my home triggered a complicated mix of the personal, social and political concerns.
After a bit of hand wringing and introspection, our scale tipped in favor of hosting. People choosing the au pair program would be unencumbered (theoretically), and seeking out this adventure. For us, having someone who would get our kids to and from their destinations on time, and having an adult close by — just in case — would provide peace of mind. Since 2008 we’ve hosted three au pairs, one from Brazil and two from Colombia. Our final au pair (now on a student visa) continues to live with us as she completes her studies.
One of the secrets of our hosting success is that WE — our au pairs and my family — jointly shaped the terms of the relationship so we all got what we needed out of the arrangement.
Still, if I had it to do over again I would do some things differently. Our au pairs told us that the agency coordinators assigned to help them navigate au pair life were often unavailable to provide support or advice. To build that community I would have introduced myself to other host families, encouraged our au pair to host get-togethers, and set up a Montclair Facebook or Whatsapp group to stay connected.
If I had to do it over, I’d also pay our au pair more. The au pair agency recommended we pay about $200 per week, far below minimum wage, and provide room and board. That’s what we did. But class action lawsuit filed on behalf of 100,000 au pairs against 15 agencies changes that. Though the agencies deny wrongdoing, this year a $65.5 million fund was created and invited people who served as au pairs between 2009 and 2018 — and received the recommended $200 stipend amount — to make claims for additional compensation.
Our au pairs, and 99,997 like them, came to this country to work and learn, and ended up improving the situation for au pairs for those who come after them. They got more than they bargained for, and, gratefully, so did we.