Ready for Life with Mary Poppins?

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For some families, a spoonful of sugar isn’t enough to make the idea of having a nanny palatable. For others, live-in help is the perfect childcare solution. Weigh the pros and cons for yourself.

She’s a great playmate, has a fantastic singing voice, and well, you know, medicine is a little sweeter when she doles it out. What child doesn’t dream of having her own Mary Poppins to keep her blissfully entertained? And what busy parent doesn’t secretly fantasize about having some Poppins-type help around the house? While you might think that nannies are just found in childhood movies or in homes of the rich and famous, in actuality, nannies and au pairs – foreigners who provide childcare and engage in a cultural experience – are working in all sorts of neighborhoods with all kinds of families. Wondering if an in-home care provider is right for your family? Here’s what you need to know.

All About Au Pairs

Au pairs visit from other countries to provide childcare services while getting a chance to improve their English, take college-level classes (completing a certain number of credit hours is a requirement of their stay) and immerse themselves in a different culture. National au pair organizations, such as Cultural Care Au Pair and Au Pair in America, connect women between the ages of 18 and 26 with families seeking flexible in-home child care help. In exchange, the au pair works 45 hours per week (no more than 10 hours per day). All au pairs come to the US on a J1 student visa and thus are required to take college courses while here (at least six credits and the host family usually provides money towards the cost of these courses), says Liz Guay of Cultural Care Au Pair. Until 2004, au pairs could only stay in the U.S. for one year, but a new rule allows them to stay for two, either with their original host family or with another.

Pluses:

Au pair organizations handle the big stuff. Using detailed applications completed by host families and au pair applicants, the au pair organization provides the family with a list of compatible matches. The family then interviews candidates of interest to find the optimal match. All au pairs are screened and must have documented experience caring for young children in order to be considered for the program. While in the U.S., they are required to participate in ongoing child-development training. The host family pays the weekly stipend and some incidentals, but the agency fee covers other expenses, such as health insurance, training, college tuition (for one class), air fare to and from the U.S., and taxes.

You get flexible live-in childcare. Nancy Ackerman’s family in Westfield, Indiana, has had an au pair for three years and can’t imagine life without one. “My husband travels a lot for his job, and I work full-time. It’s reassuring to know that my kids are well taken care of, and I don’t have to worry about arranging emergency care when one of them gets sick, or if I’m running late after work,” Ackerman says. She also likes that she can switch around her au pair’s hours to cover the weekends or evenings if she so chooses.

Affordability. Au pairs are one of the most affordable childcare options available. They earn a weekly stipend of approximately $140, a figure set by the federal government and based on the minimum wage. Factoring in agency fees – which cover things like health insurance, training, and air fare – the weekly cost for having an au pair currently comes out to about $270. And unlike daycare centers, which can charge up to $300 per week per child (and more for infant care), the cost of an au pair is the same regardless of the number of children or their ages.

Minuses:

They live with you. Yes, the positive can also be a negative. Your au pair needs her own room and privacy, so your home must be big enough to accommodate another resident. Living with someone who’s not a member of the family and who comes from a different cultural background can be an adjustment for everyone. If your husband refuses to give up his habit of reading the newspaper in his skivvies each morning, an au pair might not be the best choice for your family.

You need a extra vehicle and insurance. If you want your au pair to drive your children to ball practice, dance lessons, preschool or play dates, she’ll need to obtain a license, have access to a vehicle and be added to your insurance.

Responsibility for another “child.” Because au pairs are relatively young – 18-26 years of age – you sometimes might feel like you are raising a teenager, as well as your own children. “We’ve dealt with speeding tickets, homesickness, staying out too late, fights with boyfriends and minor fender benders,” says Dana Ironside, of Centennial, Colorado, whose family has had an au pair for three years. Ackerman suggests requesting an au pair aged 21 or older to avoid these problems. “They tend to be more responsible,” she says.

Potential for a bad match. Despite everyone’s best efforts, sometimes the relationship between a family and its chosen au pair doesn’t gel. It’s happened twice to Tom Nickol, and one would think that he’d be immune to such difficulty. Nickol serves as the local child care coordinator for Cultural Care Au Pair in Indianapolis. “When a problem arises between a family and their au pair, we develop a strategy for each party to implement to resolve their grievances. If, after an agreed-upon amount of time, the problems still exist, we’ll help the family find a new au pair and move the au pair to another family,” Nickol says.

The News About Nannies

Nannies can either live in or out, and her qualifications and pay are based on experience and education. The average work week for a nanny ranges from 40 to 60 hours. Families are responsible for paying for all nanny benefits, including health insurance, training and taxes. Many of the same positives and negatives that apply to au pairs apply to nannies, as well.

Other Pluses

They’re in it for the long haul. Unlike au pairs who must leave after a year or two, a nanny can help raise your child from diapers to high school graduation. While an au pair is here to help with the kids, she’s also focused on getting the most out of her American experience. A nanny, on the other hand, is more likely to just focus on your family. Janine Vosseler, of Dix Hills, New York, has had the same nanny for her daughter Emma, who’s almost 4, since birth. “Emma has an incredible bond with Joan. I can’t imagine introducing her to another caregiver every year,” says Vosseler.

You can find your own. Businesses such as 4Nannies.com can help you find qualified, screened nannies, but not every nanny lands a job that way. Vosseler tried a few nanny organizations, but wasn’t impressed with the candidates. She hired Joan based on a friend’s recommendation. Because there’s no outside organization to deal with, your nanny can work the hours that you need her to, her workload can include housework, laundry, and cooking, and you’re free to let her go at any time if you’re unhappy with her work.

Minuses

Expense and liability. A nanny’s salary varies based on geographical location, hours worked, and experience, but generally ranges from $300 to $500 per week plus room and board, which means a nanny can sometimes cost more than traditional daycare. In addition, you are responsible for filing employment tax forms, withholding income taxes, and for health care coverage (if that’s part of your agreement). If your nanny were to get injured on the job, you may be responsible for worker’s compensation.

They can leave without notice. If you hire a nanny yourself and the arrangement doesn’t work out, you could find yourself temporarily without any childcare help at all.

Life with Mary Poppins isn’t for everyone, but under the right circumstances, it can be just like in the movies: Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

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