After years of volunteering while raising three boys, Debbie found the perfect job to leverage her social work background while allowing her the independence and flexibility she desired.
When did you start to think about charting a new direction for yourself?
As my three kids grew older, when I was in my early 40’s, I wanted to go back to work, but part-time and with a lot of flexibility. I had been doing a lot of volunteering while staying home with my children and planned to continue working on local issues, but was also ready for a new challenge. I knew that I could leverage my Master’s in Social Work and my work experience in social work administration and fundraising; I also recognized that I had gained valuable skills from my more recent volunteer board work: leadership and social skills, as well as knowledge of people and resources in my community.
What is your Next Act? Tell us about what you are doing…
I am a Local Childcare Consultant (LCC) for Cultural Care Au Pair. I manage all the host families and Au Pairs in my suburban Chicago town. I work with about 14 families/Au Pairs right now. I organize and lead a monthly meeting for all my Au Pairs, for social, support, and educational purposes. I touch base with each family once a month, and am available anytime if issues arise.
I also do sales by connecting families in need with my Au Pair company. I screen new families and go to their homes to present the program in detail. I help them figure out their best match and find the best way to ensure a successful experience for their family. When the Au Pair arrives, I go to the home to lead an orientation. In the rare instance when a problem arises, I help mediate a solution or manage a transition.
Why did you choose this Next Act?
I was familiar with Au Pair programs from encountering host families and Au Pairs over the years, so I started asking around about positions. I ended up finding the opening with my company online. It was important that the job be part-time, local or in home, and flexible. I love the hours.
I am learning about foreign cultures, education systems, lifestyles, and traditions.
I also wanted to make sure it would not be isolating but would include social interaction. I have met so many families in my community as well as Au Pairs from a variety of countries. I am learning about foreign cultures, education systems, lifestyles, and traditions. And it’s wonderful to see host families and Au Pairs develop relationships that often last a lifetime, with families attending their former Au Pairs’ weddings and Au Pairs coming back to visit their former host families.
I have also made some great friends among the LLC’s, met many women with a lot in common. Most of them have either changed careers or been at home for a long time when they take on this new job. I get together with the other LLC’s in my area; we contact each other for advice, meet up, and travel to conferences together. We have a lot to talk about, lots of stories and tips to share.
My job is a great way to stick your toe back into the workforce and build up your work experience. You’ll get comfortable with approaching people you don’t know and practice your sales, presentation, and mediation skills. You’ll also learn how to provide informal counsel and support for families (busy moms) and young people (the Au Pairs).
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
It wasn’t very hard as I felt I already had the necessary skills and knew my demographic pretty well. While my company provided online training and phone support, I made it a point to seek out the woman I was replacing. She really helped orient me to my new position.
This was not a big adjustment for my family since it was very part-time and flexible. Plus, my kids were older and ready for more independence. You can choose to get your family involved as much or as little as you wish with the Au Pairs. My older son attended a meeting I hosted at our home, mingled with the young people, and taught them an American card game. I also hosted an Au Pair temporarily once, which was a nice experience for our family.
How do you sell the idea of an Au Pair to a potential client family?
Hosting an Au Pair is great for someone looking for flexible and inexpensive in-home childcare. Au Pairs provide 45 hours per week of childcare and the hours are flexible: The Au Pair can work an hour in the morning and start again at 3pm, or they can work nights and weekends. They drive, do errands, light housekeeping, cooking, etc.
There are male Au Pairs, Au Pairs specifically trained to care for babies, and others experienced with special needs. They work for one year but can extend their stay to two years. While the Au Pair needs to have a separate bedroom, they can share a bathroom. Aside from room and board, the cost (including all agency fees) is about $360 per week. It also provides a great cultural experience for the host family.
It’s important for families to treat their Au Pairs well and I provide a lot of advice in that area. Simple courtesies like: Take a moment to ask your Au Pair about her day or her classes. Inquire about her favorite foods and include them on your shopping list. If your Au Pair loves to work out (as many do), provide information on inexpensive local gyms where she is likely to meet other young people.
Phrase a request as a question, not an edict (“would it be ok if…?). Include the Au Pair in family outings but don’t make this mandatory. If there are things that are easy for you to provide, although not required, that can go a long way toward starting off on the right foot. For example, for an Au Pair coming from a warm climate to Chicago in January, offer an old coat, mittens, and boots for her use.
What challenges do you encounter?
The sales side of things is always uncomfortable, even though I am selling inexpensive childcare, something people really want. Working in my own community, I was worried about “working for” people I might know: I would have to evaluate their home and how they run it, as well as how they treat their Au Pairs.
However, that part has turned out to almost always be fine, especially once I figured out my own style. Even if there are issues between the host family and the Au Pair, I have not experienced people having issues with me personally. Because these are my community members, maybe I try harder to accommodate them and keep everyone happy.
I personally understand the challenges at both ends. With teens of my own, and having hired childcare in the past, I can certainly appreciate the family’s challenges in hosting a young person in their home. And since I did a year abroad at that young age, and was a part-time nanny myself while in college, I can also appreciate the challenges my Au Pairs sometimes experience.
I helped mediate one more chance for the Au Pair. She ended up staying with this family for two years.
I do occasionally have to mediate disputes between a family and their Au Pair. One example was a family with strict rules who wanted their Au Pair, who they really liked, removed from the home after she broke one rule. While the rule was an important one, it did not compromise the kids’ safety. The Au Pair, who also really liked the family, was devastated and apologetic. I talked separately to the host mom and to the Au Pair, got them to calm down and then to sit together and talk to each other. I helped mediate one more chance for the Au Pair. She ended up staying with this family for two years. When the family experienced a crisis during this time, the Au Pair was an important source of strength and support. I know they keep in touch and will visit each other in the future.
There have been times with similar issues where the family did not want to give more chances (with a current Au Pair or to try a new one) and I think they may have missed out on what could have been a great experience. When I feel the Au Pair did something totally inappropriate, or just isn’t going to understand or change, then I work quickly to transition the Au Pair out and to get a new Au Pair in (while giving the former Au Pair the chance to find a new family or go home). Every time I have had this experience, the next Au Pair hired worked out great. So I always encourage trying again.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
Do not discount the skills you have gained from non-work experiences such as parenting, volunteering, friendships, life challenges. This way you don’t have to think of it as starting totally new.
Do not discount the skills you have gained from non-work experiences
A new path does not always have to be a paid position: You can gain a lot of satisfaction from volunteering or from helping a friend. Volunteer work is easy to find and can also help you rebuild your resume, update your skills, and give you references, especially if your ultimate goal is to find a paying job.
Volunteer or get paid work with people in their 30’s or younger; they will help get you up to date with your technology skills and current trends. If you are doing something unique or that requires any marketing skills, you need to learn how to navigate new media.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
Make sure to talk to people in your new field: Reach out to them and do the same for others in return.
Have boundaries for yourself. If you are self-employed, working from home with flexible hours, be careful or you can end up spending hours on the computer or taking phone calls when you are in the middle of something else. Get comfortable not picking up that call; just be organized so you always get back to people quickly. Also set boundaries for your host families and your Au Pairs, being firm with them about program rules.
Find new clients through group emails and social media like Facebook, especially when there are promotions being offered. I’ll also bring materials into local preschools or the park district and host a booth at area family festivals. Don’t limit yourself to your immediate area: Reach out to relatives and friends around the country and ask them to pass along your information to others with young kids.
I get paid a flat fee per family per month, am paid on commission for any new families I bring in and for all home visits (be it an orientation, annual visit, or mediation). I also get to go to my company’s annual conference, all expenses paid, which have been in fun cities like Washington DC, Boston, and Los Angeles. And I can earn points toward more trips the more new families I bring in: This could be to Las Vegas, London (I’m going this spring), or even Thailand. But if you want to make more pay, try to manage more communities or find a way to move up in the company.
Train your host families in how to interview Au Pairs and how to set clear and honest expectations. Ask the right interview questions: Not “do you drive?” but instead “when was the last time you drove and have you driven on highways?” Not “do you know how to cook?” but instead “what types of things do you cook?”
There is generally no wrong way to run your household as long as you are totally honest with your Au Pair during the interview. Don’t say you always sit down to eat as a family, or always eat a home cooked meal, when you do not. The Au Pair may have chosen the family because family time is important to them and they may feel the family doesn’t like them since they stopped sitting down together when the Au Pair arrived (when in reality, this is a busy family, on the go, eating quick meals in shifts).
Check out the International Au Pair Association (IAPA) for more information on Au Pairs and member organizations.
Contact Debbie Seiler Jha at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-835-7419