Au Pairs Give Edina Families More than Child Care

Au pairs give Edina families more than child care.
Fai plays with Prior (left) and Mason Schultes on the swingset in their backyard.

In the popular imagination, hiring an au pair is often considered an extravagance, a thing of fantasy. Think Mary Poppins. Think Maria von Trapp. However, the realities of modern American life—dual careers, scheduled activities, volunteering and other community commitments and a competitive education climate that emphasizes a child’s earliest experiences—make bringing an au pair into the home a surprisingly practical and affordable solution for some Edina families.  A few years ago, when they discovered they would be having twin boys, Edina residents Kristin Schultes and her husband, Ben, wondered how they could afford to raise a family. After all, the average cost of center-based daycare in Minnesota hovers around $1,000 per month per child. For infants, the costs are even higher. “We looked at one place that would have cost us $48,000 per year,” says Kristin Schultes, who works as the vice president and chief financial officer for a local mechanical contractor.When they learned the cost of hiring an au pair, and that it was the same regardless of the number of children, the decision was simple. “It seemed like a bad choice not to do it,” Schultes says. “Also, the idea of having the children be in our own home, even while we were away, was really great.” Fai, 27, who hails from Phitsanulok, Thailand, is the Schultes’ fifth au pair—a testament to how well the arrangement has worked for them.Kelsey and Pete Brown, the Schultes’ neighbors, are currently hosting their second au pair, Angie, 20, from Albersloh, Germany. “Having an au pair allows us to be more present with our kids,” says Kelsey Brown. “When I’m here, I’m here, instead of running around doing laundry or cleaning. They get the best of me."The concept of the au pair originated in Europe after the second World War, when more and more young middle-class women were expected to earn a living. In an effort to remove stigma attached to performing work that would previously have been performed by household servants, the term “au pair,” meaning “at par” or “equal to” was adopted.This concept compelled both families and the women they hired to think of the arrangement as one of equal exchange—a comfortable place to live and a small stipend in exchange for attending to the children and taking care of light household duties. Both the term and the spirit of the arrangement have carried over to the present day.Au pairs come to the United States via an agency approved by the State Department. They must be between the ages of 18 and 26. Although there is no gender requirement, most au pairs are still women. The State Department grants au pairs a J-1 visa—a special visa for people in the country on a cultural exchange—for one year, with the option of extending the visa by 6 months, 9 months or a year. In addition to their work for the families, au pairs are required to take six academic credits at a post-secondary school.Both the Browns and the Schultes found their au pairs through Au Pair Care, an agency that matches families across the country with au pairs from more than 40 countries around the world.Julie McMahon, the Au Pair Care’s area director for Minneapolis, explains that au pairs pitch their skills and talents on the agency’s website, where host families-to-be can search profiles.“It can be a little like online dating,” she says.Once the families find someone in whom they are interested, they have the opportunity to interview the potential au pair, via Skype, and make their decision. “It’s a little crazy,” Brown says. “But we’ve been lucky.”For both the au pairs and the family, the cultural exchange aspect is at least as important as the tasks the au pair does for the family. Au pairs bring a foreign language and culture into the home, and the children can’t help but soak it up.Case in point: during parent-teacher conferences, the Schultes’ were told by one of their boys’ teachers, that when he was asked to count to 10—a skill he had mastered long ago—he spoke instead in what the teacher perceived to be gibberish. It turned out, Prior had named colors in Thai that their au pair Fai had taught him.Besides the obvious differences that an au pair can bring into the home, they also contribute different energy, attitude, style and interests. For example, the Schultes’ refrigerator door is currently adorned with a snowman whose parts are cut from construction paper. “I never, never would have thought of that,” says Schultes. “I’m not creative or crafty like that.”“They aren’t just people that walk in for the day. There is a deep connection that can happen. It’s an entirely different level of care.”The benefit is mutual. In Edina, and in Minnesota at large, au pairs find a home much different than their own. While many disembark from the airplane knowing little about this place, most become true believers in the concept of “Minnesota nice.”“People are so nice and helpful here,” Fai says. “When you are walking down the street, everyone is saying ‘Hi. Hi. Hi. Hi.’ It’s definitely not like that at home.”