Best Advice from a Special Needs Parent & Seasoned Host Mom

March 04, 2016
Mara and her husband, Pat, a career military officer who serves at the Pentagon, are based in Arlington, Virginia, where they live with their two children, JP (age 13) and Sally Ann (age 11). Mara’s family has hosted au pairs most of the last decade, and she’s supported other host families as both an area director and program advisor.

What first inspired you to host an au pair?

My husband deployed for the first time shortly after 9/11. At this point, we have 10 combat deployments and more than 4 years of separation under our belts - but even in the beginning it was obvious we needed an extra pair of hands. My son JP has special needs: autism, a cleft palate, and a chromosomal deletion that is unique to him. At age 13, he has had more than 26 surgeries already. He functions at a three-year-old level and is still in diapers. I couldn’t even take a shower without someone being there to help. I learned about the au pair program from another military family and we determined it could be the right fit for our family. Now, after almost 10 years, I know it is.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since hosting au pairs?

At the beginning, I didn’t think much about work-life balance for my au pair. Now, it’s a top priority. Working 45 hours a week with two children, one with special needs, can be exhausting. So, every time a new au pair arrives, I make sure I’ve strategically thought through opportunities in the local community that may interest her. It’s hard to find someone dependable to care for a child with special needs, so I make sure my au pair has a good balance inside and outside the home.

What is the best aspect of sharing your home with an au pair?

The best thing is the continuity and flexibility. It is great to be able to change the schedule from week to week, depending upon our needs.

What challenges have you faced when hosting an au pair?

Initially it’s a little difficult having someone else living in your home, but I’ve outgrown that challenge! An open dialogue about each other’s expectations is essential, and allows the au pair to focus on serving the family well and the family to help integrate the au pair. Still, the transition between new au pairs is a challenge, particularly for our son, so we work hard to get the relationship up and running - even before our new au pair arrives. The first month is all about learning – about each other, how someone operates, and expectations. Once it’s flowing, it can be great – you just have to commit to doing the transitions well.

Do you keep in touch with your previous au pairs?

We do keep in contact with each of our au pairs, although we remain closer to a handful than the others. I know some families don’t because they are worried it might hurt their kids to maintain the relationship. Maintaining the au pair relationships has enriched our lives, and some continue to want to help with our family during my husband’s deployment or our moves. But, every situation is clearly different and each family should decide what’s right for them.

As the mom of special needs child, what do you need to do differently when preparing an au pair?

I’m very up front and honest about my child’s needs. I know my son is challenging, so I put everything out on the table. It’s vital to let your au pair know the broad range of what goes on in your home the good times and the bad. I don’t want the au pair to be shocked upon arrival because I wasn’t clear from the beginning about what to expect. It’s not fair to them and it doesn’t help our family

What comes easy to you now?

Helping my au pairs to be comfortable in my home has become easier through experience. I’m more empathetic to their needs and can consider the world through their eyes better than I may have years ago. At the beginning, I only thought about my requirements. But, once I started putting myself in their shoes – simple considerations like whether or not they may be nervous going through my refrigerator or asking me questions - the transition has become much easier.

What is still challenging after all these years?

I never know how my children will respond to my new au pair so the hardest part is the children’s relationship with the au pair. For example, my daughter Sally Ann has been sad the last few weeks because she developed a “best friend” type relationship with our last au pair. We sat down and I told her, I know you miss our last au pair, but right now we need to focus on JP and his needs. You will always be close to our last au pair, but we need to help make our new au pair comfortable too.

How do you manage conflicts when they occur?

I feel strongly that you have to get your issues out immediately. I coach my au pair on this when she arrives to speak up if I’m doing something you don’t agree with and I will do the same. My recommendation is to get it out on the table and discuss ways to solve the problem. I’ve never had a situation where we’ve had to “agree to disagree” in all cases, both parties have been very reasonable.

How important are household rules?

My last au pair was with us for a year and a half and within three months there were no formal rules. On the other hand, we had other au pairs who needed stricter curbs. The last au pair was mature and responsible, so the rules weren’t needed after a while. But, I have had au pairs that needed guidelines and boundaries. There are a lot of temptations. Start with rules, you don’t have to end with them.

What is your number one tip to share with new host parents?

Always back your au pair up in front of the children! Children respect au pairs when parents support the au pair. I’ve seen matches break because the host parent’s didn’t regularly support the au pair’s decisions. The au pair has to be an authority figure within the host family’s guidelines.

What expectations do you have for your au pair, beyond childcare?

Our family has almost no expectations of our au pair outside of work. We think of her as an adult and if she wants to hang out with us, she can come do anything she wants with our family. But I don’t want her to burn out, and we make sure to let her have her space and pick and choose what she wants to do. We also need space as a family. That said, I make dinner each night and tell her that I will always prepare a place for her unless she lets me know otherwise. The dinner table is a great place to build the relationship, and the important message is that she is welcome to spend time with us.

What do you think is the key responsibility of a host family?

I think families will be most successful if they go into hosting as a long-term relationship vs. hiring a temporary employee. Each party will likely invest more. The moment you limit the potential to “business only” it will undermine a potential relationship. Yes, you are hiring your au pair for childcare, but you should treat her almost like a family member – a family member with professional expectations.

Every time I get a new au pair, I pull out my Host Family Handbook.

Mara Work, Host Mom