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Parents Squeeze Into Tight Space to Find Room for Live-in Au Pairs

By Emily Frost | February 12, 2013 6:26am

UPPER WEST SIDE — Busy mom Micol Molinari sometimes fantasizes about walling off her master bedroom to separate it from the mountain of plastic toys, binkies and other items that build up each day around her two sets of twins.

Her bedroom in her Upper West Side apartment has a changing table in the place of an armoire, and two large cribs jut out of a corner where a writing desk or armchair might sit.

But she willingly sacrificed her grown-up oasis moving her 10-month-old twins Naomi and Dan into the bedroom — in order to give their au pair a room of her own.

The Molinaris are part of a growing population of New York City parents who are bending over backwards to find room for a live-in foreign caregiver, an au pair, despite the fact that the New York City real estate market means space is at a premium.

Foreign au pairs are a tantalizing alternative to exorbitant nanny fees, but they come with a few federally mandated requirements: They must have a separate room, must work no more than 45 hours a week and must be paid a small stipend, which works out to a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

With nanny or babysitter fees running upwards of $30 an hour, many parents say hiring a live-in au pair is worth it. New York State has more than 1,800 foreign au pairs, according to federal records.

"I realized I had to have more help and the only help that makes sense is to have a live-in," said Molinari, who works full-time at an Italian kitchen cabinet company. "It was the only thing we could afford."

To find room for their Swedish au pair Elin Nilsson, 20, the Molinaris moved their 10-month-old twins into their bedroom, and gave another bedroom to their first set of twins, 2 1/2-year-olds Channah and Eli. Nilsson moved into a much smaller third bedroom.

The family thought about moving to a bigger apartment, but said it wasn't worth giving up proximity to Zabar's, River Run playground, Barnes and Noble and the subway.

The Molinaris found their au pair through the company Cultural Care Au Pair and discovered that unlike with a full-time nanny, Nilsson was on hand whenever she was needed, but Molinari didn't have to pay her for the hours when her children were out of the house or napping.

Instead, Nilsson works 45 hours a week in bits and pieces, like early mornings and evenings or afternoons and weekends and spends the rest of her time exploring the city and taking classes at Columbia University.

Tanya Lindin, a consultant for Cultural Care, which she said is the largest au pair company in the United States, said the affordability of au pairs is making them increasingly popular. 

Parents of preschool or school-age kids "need that flexible type of help," she said. "And a lot of nannies are really difficult to find who will work part-time. The nannies don’t want that. The au pairs come in very handy," she said.

Lindin said that word of mouth from parents who've had a positive experience with the program is helping the concept take root. 

"As a company, definitely we’ve had a growth [in the past couple of years]," she said. The highest concentration of au pairs is on the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side, where there are a lot of families, she said, but there are also au pairs spread out in Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens. 

Lindin said Manhattan parents are accustomed to having kids with shared bedrooms — and added that closets start to look like appealing alternative bedrooms when the idea of an au pair comes into the equation. 

"It’s so much simpler in the [spacious] suburbs. Here in Manhattan, it’s definitely more creative," Lindin said.

Even without an extra bedroom, Manhattan families are inventive about making room for au pairs.

When Meri Treitler was pregnant with her third child, the West Village mom decided to forfeit a baby room and give it to the au pair — moving her new son's sleeping space to the living room.

The switch made her walk on eggshells in her three-bedroom home — stopping her from using the living room at night to watch TV or relax during the yearlong stint when her son Ezra, now 4 years old, slept in the space.

"You had to be quiet when you walked by," said Treitler, adding that having a door to close off the area helped her family function more normally in the other part of the apartment. 

Now, all three children, Jake, 7, Ella, 5, and Ezra, 4, share one small bedroom, with a bunk bed and a twin bed. 

"I think [their] sharing a room is totally worth it," said Treitler. "I don't think that in life that they can forever share a room."

But for now, it seems to work, said Treitler, in part because "we're not here that much," and "they fall asleep somewhere else [in the house] and then we put them in their beds." 

Treitler, a local fitness trainer, and her husband Craig, a financial advisor, sometimes talk about converting an overstuffed closet into a bedroom, but, she said, "you'd need a contractor in there before someone could live there. It would be a lot of money."

She said the rearranging is all worth it because her au pair Dora Freitas, 23, from Brazil, not only makes their life more convenient, she's also much more affordable than most other forms of reliable childcare.

"A nanny for three kids for 45 hours a week — we'd probably pay three times as much," she said. 

"I don't have to worry about getting a babysitter. They're not that easy to get and they're a ton of money for three kids," Treitler said. 

Once, when Freitas wasn't free, Treitler called all over trying to find a sitter. The one that was available asked for $30 an hour, "and she thought she was giving me a deal," Treitler said.