Mary Poppins for the modern age: Local families culturally connect through au pair exchange

courtesy of cultural care Au Pair and the Vallaeys Family
Laurene Bristot of France, above, serves as au pair for the Vallaeys family of Los Altos.

With newborn twin sons, Alaleh Nouri’s career as executive for a medical device company and her husband Bahman’s work as an interventional cardiologist, the Nouris had a lot on their plate - but Bahman had one further worry: "We’ll probably have to buy a TV."

Would Isabel, the family’s new au pair, arriving from Mexico shortly after their sons were born, find the Los Altos Hills family’s television-free lifestyle boring? How much would they need to change their habits and home to accommodate her preferences?

"It’s definitely a bit nerve-racking," Alaleh Nouri said, "because you have somebody who’s going to live with you, but also work for you - but also be a part of the family."

As for the TV?

"She doesn’t care at all," Nouri said of Isabel. "She hasn’t complained once."

The Nouris were matched with Isabel Gonzalez through Cultural Care Au Pair, a national agency that connects au pairs from overseas with American host families. In exchange for room and board in the family home and a weekly stipend, au pairs provide infant and toddler child care on a flexible schedule. In their off hours, they are free to explore American culture, take classes, improve their English skills and travel in their new host country.


Cultural exchange

Los Altos residents Helen and Frederick Vallaeys knew early on that they wanted an au pair for their two children, now ages 1 and 3.

"I wanted to brush up on my French," Helen Vallaeys said.

And having been an exchange student herself as a teenager, she knew the value of immersing oneself in a new culture by living with a host family.

The Vallaeys were matched with Laurene Bristot of France, who, after finishing her studies in accounting, sought new experiences before settling down.

"If I’m going straight to work, I might never go to a different country," Bristot said of her thinking at the time.

That desire for new experiences has been amply rewarded, Bristot said. In her nearly two years as the Vallaeys’ au pair, she has traveled all over California, to the Grand Canyon, Seattle, Hawaii, New York and Chicago, and joined the Vallaeyses on a family vacation to Mexico.

Her experiences right here in Los Altos have been rewarding in their own way, too: She has become fluent in English, eaten her first s’more and, most importantly, bonded with her host family.

"With the kids, I feel like a big sister," Bristot said. "I really love them."

And though it’s been hard not to see her own mother for more than a year and a half, she said she feels "like I’m really at home" as a member of the Vallaeys family.

Gonzalez, who trained as a chemical engineer in Mexico, had always planned to take English classes while in Los Altos, but she discovered another unexpected learning opportunity.

"The most incredible thing that I never imagined before is that I’ve learned some words in Farsi," she said, from listening to the multilingual Nouri family’s conversations.

State Department program

The Au Pair Program, governed by the U.S. Department of State, is classified as a cultural exchange rather than a strictly employment-based guest-worker arrangement. Au pairs enter the country on a J-1 visa, provide child care for a maximum of 45 hours per week, and are expected to take classes and be offered opportunities for cultural enrichment during their stays with their host families.

The au pair stipend, currently approximately $200 per week, is set at the federal level, as are many of the other technicalities.

Of course, it is ultimately a human program composed of individuals, so not everything goes right all the time. In fact, on a national level, the Au Pair Program as a whole currently faces a class action lawsuit filed by a group of former au pairs who claim that the setup unfairly circumvents minimum wage laws. It remains to be seen whether the program’s existing regulations will be altered by the controversy.

The on-the-ground work of vetting au pairs for suitability, matching them with host families and ensuring that everyone is happy with the arrangement is conducted by private agencies like Cultural Care Au Pair.

Julie Grabscheid, a local consultant for Cultural Care, said the screening process is stringent.

"Less than 20 percent of those interested actually make it" into the program, Grabscheid said.

Potential au pairs are screened for child care experience, character references, personality attributes and English proficiency.

The host families are in for some scrutiny as well. In addition to a home visit and criminal background check, Grabscheid ensures that parents understand the reciprocal nature of cultural exchange.

"It would not be for somebody who sees it only as an employer-employee or one-sided relationship," she said. "The au pair is choosing to have a family support."

According to Grabscheid, someone who only wants the au pair to work and then doesn’t want to see them in their off-time would not be well suited to the program.

"Think of it as a cousin that you’ve never met who’s coming to live with you," she added.

One idea Grabscheid cited as a misperception, however, is the notion that hosting an au pair demands Von Trapp-family levels of wealth.

"In the Bay Area, we have everything from small homes to mansions," she said. "Space doesn’t matter, amenities don’t matter. Your kindness, your warmth - that matters."

A warm relationship

Helen Vallaeys said Bristot’s presence in the household has been meaningful not only for the children, who view their au pair as "a second mom," but also for her relationship with her husband.

Having flexible child care grants you, she said, "a few hours on the weekend when you’re not just mom or dad. It’s not just date nights. As a person, you’re much more balanced and less stressed."

The Vallaeyses’ appreciation for Bristot led them to nominate her for the International Au Pair of the Year Award, bestowed annually by the International Au Pair Association.

"She has gone above and beyond," Vallaeys said.

Alaleh Nouri, who described Gonzalez as "patient, kind, gentle and organized," said her au pair has become part of the family.

"We have great conversations over dinner," Nouri said, "and we make a point of always sitting down as a family with Isabel."

Vallaeys and Nouri both cited the give-and-take relationship between au pair and host family as critical to a successful match.

"We’ve gotten out of the program what we put in," Nouri said, adding that the time the family has put into spending time with Isabel they’ve gotten back in kindness to their children. "The best part has been seeing someone join our family who has the same love and care for these boys that we do." O

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