Wish your kids spoke a second language? Ne t’inquiète pas. Cultural Care Au Pair is bringing international au pairs to Austin.
By Jordan Burnham
The words “cultural exchange” often bring to mind study-abroad programs for students or educational trips abroad, but now they also describe child care.
Au pairs, or international participants who provide host families with child care, differ from traditional nannies because they allow families an opportunity for cultural exchange within the household. According to the Internal Revenue Service, about 12,000 au pairs reside and work within the United States. Approximately 130 work in Austin through Cultural Care Au Pair, a program that matches au pairs to host families in the U.S. Cultural Care is one of 15 au pair programs in the country, all of which are part of the U.S. Department of State’s exchange visitor program.
Au pairs live with their host families and provide as many as 45 hours of child care per week in exchange for a stipend, room and board, transportation and as much as $500 toward their education.
Sophie Moutard, a local child-care consultant for Cultural Care, provides support for host families and au pairs in the Southwest Austin area. Moutard, who is originally from France, moved to Austin four years ago, joining Cultural Care in April 2018. She says her international background allows her to help au pairs adjust to the different cultures of the United States. According to Moutard, a considerable benefit of cultural exchange is the ability for host families and au pairs to augment their language skills.
“A lot of families are very interested that the au pair can, for example, sing songs from their home country to the host children, teach them some words, some part of the language,” Moutard says.
Suzannah Srinivasan and her husband, who were in search of alternative child care, initially decided to host an au pair while living in New York in 2017.
“My husband and I both lived abroad and really enjoy international travel and international cultural exchange,” Srinivasan says. “And so, we really like the idea of balancing both affordable and flexible child care with this cultural-exchange element—and the opportunity to host somebody that is interested in living in the U.S. and getting to experience living with a host family.”
Srinidasan says her au pair, Erika Lorena Pedraza Gonzalez, moved with her from New York to Austin and peruses the city and travels in her free time.
“It’s just been fun for the kids to learn more about the world and other countries and other cultures,” Srinivasan says. “Because I do work internationally, it was really important for me to raise children who really see themselves as citizens of the world.”
Gonzalez says she decided to join the program in order to improve her English through the daily routines of living with a host family. Though she came from a large family in Colombia, Gonzalez says she sees many similarities to American culture.
“I think the one thing we have in common is that most of the people I have met are willing to help as much as they can,” Gonzalez says. “It is the same in Colombia.”
Cultural Care, along with other au pair programs, has received criticism for its compensation of au pairs, which can total approximately $195 per week, amounting to roughly $4.30 per hour. This stipend amount allocates 40 percent of minimum wage as an appropriate fee for room and board. A 2016 study by the think tank New America found the average annual cost of a personal nanny is $28,353, compared with the $10,140 minimum allocated to au pairs.
Srinivasan says families who view the program as an employment situation are less likely to enjoy the program than those who see it as a method of cultural exchange.
“I think it’s also important to really understand that cultural-exchange element,” Srinivasan says. “And that it’s not about bringing somebody that’s an employee into your house.”
Despite criticism and lawsuits, the cultural-exchange program is growing throughout the country.
“It’s booming,” Moutard says. “In my area, for example, I have way more families and we had to hire another [local child-care consultant]in my area because we are adding more families.”
Gonzalez says the program, which she has extended to two years, has been life-changing, allowing her to learn from her host parents about parenting.
“On the other hand, being away and by yourself has been incredible for me as a person,” Gonzalez says. “I have learned a lot about myself and have opened my mind to different cultures and ways of thinking all around the world.”