Men leap the gender divide
Tuesday, July 01, 2003
Au pair agencies recruiting males as caregivers By Dominika IdzkowskiPhoto by Josh Hawkins Nico Scharfe, left, relaxes with Eric, Beth and Tracy Markin
On a Sunday afternoon, Nico Scharfe is driving on Ill. Rte. 53 when 16--year--old Eric starts to scream and kick him from the back seat. That means it's time to get home as quickly as possible—before things get worse.
It's almost 4 p.m. when a hungry Eric storms into the meticulously clean house in Buffalo Grove, yanks off his sneakers and heads toward the fridge. Promptly after, in trots Scharfe, slowly taking off his shoes and placing them neatly next to the door. At 6--foot, 3--inches and 215 pounds, he looks like a professional bodybuilder. But the 23--year--old is an au pair.
Considered an easy way for women all over the world to come to America, a handful of men are now attracted to the job. Nico, who hails from Germany, is one of only about 600 male au pairs working in America, according to Sheila Bauer, director of program development at Cultural Care Au Pair.
But there remains a gender gap in demand, au pair coordinators say. Generally, families feel more comfortable leaving their children with female caregivers, au pair coordinators say. The vast majority of the more than 11,000 au pairs working in America are females between 18 and 19 years old who have just graduated high school. Most have some some childcare experience before they are placed in American families.
There are six national au pair agencies--Cultural Care, AuPairCare, Au Pair in America, Au Pair USA, eurAuPair and goAUPAIR--that allow young adults from foreign countries to live and work in the United States for one year. Designated officially as "cultural exchange" programs under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, the program requires au pairs to work up to 45 hours a week providing childcare and doing light housekeeping for their host families. In return, they get room and board and are paid $139.05 per week.
Au Pair in America is the only one that refuses men as applicants, because "they are difficult to place," agency officials say. Cultural Care and AuPairCare aggressively recruit men. AuPairCare's Chicago area director, Sue Manko, hopes to increase the number of men in the near future.
"Right now, there's a push within our organization trying to place more guys," Manko says. "It's always been extremely successful in the past and I believe families just have to be educated more on the issue. Some of them don't consider it as an option to hire a male au pair until I mention it during our interview."
Men who are au pairs tend to be older--usually early to mid--twenties--which makes them more self--sufficient and independent than women, she says.
"When girls come here as au pairs, they come straight from home, their expectations are different and they can be a little high maintenance," Manko says. "Guys tend to be a little tougher, they know what to expect and they let things slide off their back. Basically, they just don't seem to be such crybabies."
The road to America Scharfe came to the United States after his mandatory community service year in Germany, where he worked at a kindergarten with disabled children, two of whom were autistic. While waiting to see his job counselor in his hometown of Wintzingerode, a tiny village of 600, Scharfe saw a booklet from Cultural Care. Eager to leave Germany behind, he applied immediately.
"They told us from the start that families preferred girls[to] boys, and I always wondered why. I felt just as qualified as a girl, if not more so," Scharfe says.
Although they comprise only about 5 percent of au pairs placed in the United States, au pair recruiters say males are a great fit for families with older boys and for families with special needs children.
"I have many situations where I wished more families with special needs would consider hiring a male au pair," says Nanette Rankin, Scharfe's local childcare coordinator. She is responsible for au pairs living with 31 families in the Chicago area. Scharfe is the only male.
Larry Markin, 46 and a plastics broker with his own company, called Cultural Care specifically looking for a male au pair to care for his two children, Tracy, 14, and Eric, who is autistic. With an older daughter and a son with special needs, the family's options for childcare were limited.
A female au pair could complicate the already tense situation in their house, Markin says. "I tried to visualize my son, at 16, with a female au pair at 18, 19, but it didn't make sense. He has to be helped in the bathroom and with other things a girl might have felt uncomfortable doing," Markin says. The Markins were not only looking for a male who had experience with disabled, autistic children, but also for someone who was calm, conscientious and athletic.
"We go through a long screening and interviewing process, trying to match our families with the right au pairs," Rankin says. "But it's important that both sides are aware of the other personalities and prepared to adjust at the same time."
Cultural Care charges $5,200 for a successful placement. The cost includes travel expenses, insurance and one week of training in New York prior to the au pair beginning to work with a family. Markin estimates total costs, including a year of pay for Scharfe, at close to $13,000 for the year.
The downside While the Markins say that having a male au pair is the right choice for them, other families worry that a male will be less nurturing than a female, or worse, that a male will turn out to be abusive to the kids.
Beth Markin is perplexed over concerns that a male au pair might be less nurturing. "Scharfe is so close with Eric, he's extremely nurturing and very affectionate with him. I couldn't have wished for a better au pair," she says.
And most kids don't object to a male caregiver, Manko says.
"They just want a big brother or a big sister to play and connect with," she says. Manko remembers a family with a male au pair she was taking care of in Wisconsin.
"They had a little boy and a little girl, 7 years old," Manko says, "The parents told me the little girl loved him. Every day at school, she would proudly say: ‘My French boy, Damian, is coming to pick me up!'"
The Markins also faced the abuse question head--on. Larry Markin talked to Tracy and explained the situation. Tracy says Scharfe is polite, respectful and she considers him a brother.
"The way to overcome parents' fear of abuse is to let them know we are screening the applicants as much as humanly possible before we place them," Manko says. "After all, they don't come out here to get in trouble. There is so much at stake for them and it's to their benefit to be at their best behavior," she adds.
But even Beth admits there is one downside to Nico: he eats a lot more than a female au pair would.
"I spend $1,000 on groceries each month; I just went shopping last Friday and there is nothing left to eat in the fridge," Beth laughs. "If this was my biggest concern in this house, then that would be great. I don't care about how much Nico eats. This is his home and he is family. He makes the whole family happy and that's what counts."
An uncertain future "Weekends are tough sometimes," Scharfe admits. On Saturdays, Eric is at school from 9:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. As soon as he comes home, Scharfe has to keep him busy. On Sundays, he is home all day. "The worst days are when I don't know what to do with him. I feel bad toward Beth [Markin] and I try to get him out of the house," he says. In the summer, things are much easier for the two. They can go outside, for a walk or to play on the swing in the backyard.
Larry Markin admits he is astonished with how well Scharfe handles the situation. "I always found it embarrassing to go out to eat or to go swimming with Eric," he says. "I was always the one who could come and go as I pleased. I had a job to go to, but I felt guilty [about] my wife because she was confined to the house."
With Scharfe around and Eric more even--tempered, the situation has changed a lot. "I have the same life," Larry Markin says, "But it just takes so much pressure out of it; his being here defuses the situation, the constant pressure and the battles in our house about who can watch Eric this time."
Scharfe's year will end this summer and the family is anxious about what happens next. "I can't imagine a life without [Nico] anymore," Larry Markin says. "I refuse to think about the worst case scenario right now, which would be him leaving." They are trying to get Scharfe a student VISA so he can stay with them while attending English classes at Loyola University.
Scharfe doesn't want to leave either. With the year drawing to an end, he has grown to love his new life in America. "I feel like part of the family and like Eric's big brother," Scharfe says. "That's why I want to stay. It's not an ordinary life in this house, but it's fulfilling."
Dominika Idzkowski is a student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.