With twins on the way and a toddler in tow, working mom Andrea Washington and her husband, Dean, knew they had to find some affordable child care, but traditional nannies and day cares weren't fitting the bill.
A few months before her now 1-year-old twins, Parker and Camden, were born, Washington wrote a post about what she was looking for on the online Naperville Moms Network. Kelly Pilleux, a coordinator for Cultural Care Au Pair, responded and asked if Washington had considered using au pair -- a young foreign person who provides live-in child care for an extended period of time.
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Au pairs are becoming an increasingly popular option for suburban parents, especially those with more than two children, who want an inexpensive caregiver to provide help beyond typical workweek hours.
"Most people kind of think of an au pair as being for the wealthy and that's really not the case," said Karen Relstab, another local coordinator for Cultural Care Au Pair. "The majority of (host families) are just two working parents who need child care."
Relstab said her company provides au pairs for about 500 families in the Chicago area at a rate of $350 per week. The au pairs live in the family's home and typically stay for at least a year, during which they work about 45 hours a week. They receive two weeks paid vacation and get one full weekend off per month. They are also required to take at least six credit hours worth of classes at a local college.
"Not only do (the au pairs) provide child care, but they are to be welcomed into the home as part of the family," Relstab said, adding that they come to America to experience the culture too.
After some research, the Washingtons decided they would give an au pair a shot. They asked for someone mature and responsible and couldn't be happier with the result -- a 25-year-old Chilean au pair who just returned home in October after a year with the family.
"It was such a great fit," Washington said, adding that she was surprised with how emotional she was upon the au pair's departure. "She knew not only how to take care of kids and be responsible, but she also knew how to manage a household."
Washington said besides the cost -- which she believes is saving her about $600 a week compared to other options for all three kids -- she found she liked having her kids taken care of in their own home, instead of in a day care where they would be exposed to illness from other children.
"You really have a lot of control over the environment even though you're not there," she said.
The Adams family of Gurnee and the Hornstein family of Elk Grove Village have been using au pairs for much longer than the Washingtons, and for one additional reason -- they both have special needs children.
Kimberly Hornstein first heard about au pairs from some friends about 10 years ago. She was pregnant with her third child and knew she would need additional help, especially for her now 17-year-old son, Brenen, who has autism.
Since then, they have hosted au pairs from Germany, Colombia and Mexico.
"You get someone who's really part of your family," she said, adding that the au pairs are invited to family celebrations and holiday get-togethers. "It's just nice to have somebody else who genuinely cares about your kids, another responsible party."
Hornstein's au pairs typically work two hours in the morning to get the kids off to school and then between 3 and 8 p.m., along with some weekend hours.
The au pair often spends time taking care of Brenen in the evening, giving Hornstein and her husband a chance to attend their other children's extracurricular activities.
Becky Adams also has an autistic son, along with three other kids. She found her special needs son responds better to a male caregiver.
Their current au pair, Julian Bucker, is a young man from Germany who provides a perfect fit with his extensive experience working with people who have special needs.
Adams said she likes that the au pairs have exposed her kids to a variety of cultures during their childhoods.
Recently, Julian's parents came to visit and cooked the family some traditional German food.
She also appreciates the convenience of having the au pair on hand at the family's home when everyone wakes up in the morning, as they are able to help the kids with getting ready and transportation.
For parents who are having hesitations because they aren't sure if they will like a caregiver living with them, Washington said she imagines it is similar to having an adult child at home.
"They're so ready to socialize," she said. "They're not your dependent. They want to go out to downtown Chicago and take the train and go with girlfriends to dinner."
For more information on Cultural Care Au Pair visit culturalcare.com or call (800) 333-6056.