CUMMINGS, N.D. -- Looking for an au pair to take care of her two young children while she and her husband were away at work, Sarah Edwards wanted experience, a calm temperament and a philosophy of child care that matched her own.
An au pair is a child-care provider from different country who lives in the employer's home and is subject to government restrictions. The role is similar to that of a nanny, Edwards said, but "I think 'nanny' is a broad catch-all term" for hired help that may or may not live with the family.
The Edwards also wanted an au pair who spoke German.
"I really wanted them to learn the language," said Sarah Edwards, who was born and lived in Germany until at age 20 when she left to study at North Dakota State University.
"My husband doesn't speak German, and I don't speak it very well either, anymore."
The Edwards commute from their Cummings home for work -- she's an assistant professor of counseling psychology and community services at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, and her husband Robert works for a Fargo engineering firm.
"There's no day care in Cummings," Sarah Edwards said. Without family members in the area, the couple has found it difficult to find steady child care providers.
"We had nannies before the au pair, but they were between high school and the next stage of life," she said. "When they figured out what they wanted to do, they'd leave."
College students had class schedules the family had to work around, she said. "They couldn't work full time. They'd leave for another job or to start a career."
Choosing an au pair
The Edwards searched for an au pair through EurAupair Intercultural Child Care Programs, an agency that recruits and screens candidates, ages 18 to 26, worldwide for one-year positions.
Some au pairs have their sights set on New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, Edwards said. "We wanted to have an au pair who was OK with living in the country."
Via Skype and email, she and Robert interviewed five candidates before selecting Melanie Bargfeldt, of northern Germany. She joined their household Nov. 22 to care for Ella, 3, and William, 1.
"We asked a lot of questions" during several Skype meetings, Edwards said.
Bargfeldt, the second au pair the Edwards have hired, said, "I liked them from the first second. There was a connection."
Being an au pair "is an opportunity to see another part of the world," she said. "It's combining two things I like: traveling and child care." She plans to work for the Edwards until next November and then spend a month traveling around the U.S.
"I'd like to see Yellowstone Park and nature places, warmer places," she said. California and Florida are destinations she may visit with other au pairs she's met through the agency.
Becoming more proficient in English "is an important part of why I do this," she said.
Jennifer Freimoser, recently completed her one-year contract last month and returned to Germany on Dec. 5.
The family's new au pair sings German songs with the children and reads German books to them, just as Freimoser did, Edwards said.
"Ella has learned some German words and can sing some songs in German," Bargfeldt said. "It's kind of funny; she doesn't really know what she's singing, she's just copying what I sing."
Edwards was impressed with Bargfeldt's child care experience, she said. "She had a practicum experience in a preschool that lasted eight hours each day. I thought that was good."
It was evident in interviews that Bargfeldt had a calm demeanor and would not be easily frazzled, she said. It helped that she came from a rural area of Germany.
"She really likes horses. She's already ridden our horse even though it's freezing," she said.
Even better, Bargfeldt helps with light housekeeping, such as loading and running the dishwasher, a chore that Edwards said she hates.
"So, for me, it's heaven. It really helps."
Easing housework demands means Edwards can spend more time with her children when she returns home from work.
Bargfeldt's schedule may vary week-to-week, but her hours are generally 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. She has the upper level of the house to herself, which includes her own bedroom and bathroom.
The hiring of au pairs from foreign countries is governed by the U.S. Department of State, Edwards said. Fourteen accredited agencies have been recognized by the government based on their adherence to rules on screening, psychological testing, acquiring appropriate visas and making travel arrangements.
The agency also provides health insurance coverage for the au pair, who must pass a physical examination to qualify to work.
The Edwards paid $8,000 upfront to EurAupair and they pay Bargfeldt $195 per week plus free room and board.
The au pair meets once a month with a community counselor and a 24/7 hotline is staffed by a person who speaks the au pair's language in the event that problems arise, Edwards said.
Once she qualifies for a North Dakota driver's license, Bargfeldt will be given use of the family car, Edwards said.
The cost of hiring an au pair is not less expensive than a babysitter, Edwards said. But having two children attend a Fargo day care, where they used to live, would cost nearly as much as what they're spending on their au pair, she said.
"An au pair can care for up to four kids," Edwards said. "If you have three children, you would save money, definitely, by hiring an au pair."
She estimates the family spends about $20,000 per year when all the expenses -- salary, room and board -- are taken into account.
Parents can also avoid the time and hassle of getting the children to day care. They don't need to worry if the children are sick and can't attend day care. In such a case, they don't have to take time off from work to stay home.
And the flexibility of having an in-home caregiver is "really nice," Edwards said.
"Before we had au pairs, we had no date night for two years."
It's important for families to establish and communicate the rules of the house to an au pair, Edwards said.
"We don't drink, for example, so no alcohol can be brought into the house," she said. "We want them to ask first if friends can come in."
The Edwards don't set a curfew for their au pairs, although some employers do, she said. "But we do ask that if she is going to go out at night, that she come home in time to get at least 6 hours of sleep in order to not be irritable with the children the next day."
For the Edwards, the greatest advantage to the children is having one dedicated caregiver, Edwards said. "At the day care (in Fargo), there was caregiver turnover. I think that's hard for kids at that age."
She would like more families to consider hiring an au pair.
"I hope we're going to get more au pairs in the area. It would be fun for families to connect, especially since we have a child care shortage here" which, she said, is particularly acute in Traill County.
Anyone considering hiring an au pair "should think about how the family functions," Edwards said. "It's a huge adjustment (for the au pair): there's culture shock, they're homesick. You need to provide emotional support.
"You want them to be happy, and I think that's reflected in the quality of the child care."
After a few weeks in the U.S., Bargfeldt has felt some homesickness, she said, especially "in silent moments in my room or when the kids are napping ... It's kind of hard."
Her family and boyfriend in Germany were "very supportive" of her decision to work in America. They keep connected via Skype and emails.
Emotions ran deep too when the Edwards' first au pair, to whom the kids had grown close, left the family. It was difficult for her oldest child, Edwards said. "Ella had a lot of questions. She was really sad."
The 1-year-old showed stress differently, she said, refusing to nurse for a day.
But she's been pleased with the way Bargfeldt has "clicked" with her kids, Edwards said, and how quickly she connected with them.
"They warmed up to Melanie much quicker than others. Everything's going very well," Edwards said. "She's a gem."