So many young girls have toyed with the possibility of becoming an au pair during their gap year, and why not? It’s a great way to experience another culture, explore a new country, and possibly learn a new language. But the amount of au pair nightmares that I’ve heard have greatly outweighed the amount of successful au pair stories. Being an au pair is one of the most difficult and scary experiences I have ever went through, and the reason I’m writing about it now is because I have witnessed a situation during the past two weeks that has unfortunately brought back memories, along with strong emotions. Multiple memories and emotions that I experienced in France almost ten years ago. It’s one of the most negative bouts of deja vu that I have ever felt.
Most people think that just beginning an au pair experience is the most difficult part, and that it can only get better from that point onwards. It takes an extremely brave person to choose to au pair – the moment when you get off of the plane and realize that there’s a stranger waiting at the Arrivals gate for you is one of the scariest moments you’ll have. You don’t know if that strange man actually has a family waiting at home. You don’t know if he’s taking you to a safe place or not. You don’t know what to expect. Lucky for me, the first family I worked for treated me very well. However, they were looking for someone to teach their children English and since I was only 18, had never had any teaching experience, and was there to learn French, the family said it would be best for us to part ways. I still keep in touch with this family and I’ve gone to visit a couple of times, and know that they are a genuinely nice family because I have never once felt uncomfortable with them.
The next family that I moved in with had amazing kids, and that was really the only reason I stayed. However, that feeling of “walking on eggshells” never disappeared during the entire time I was there. The mom was on maternity leave but I was the one who got the kids up, made them breakfast, brushed their hair and teeth, got them dressed, took them to school, picked them up from school, kept them entertained before dinner, gave them baths, etc. The parents said I wouldn’t have anything to do with the baby, which was fine since I had no experience with babies. However, as the time went on, I found myself having to look after the baby more and more often. Not only that, but when the mom would go grocery shopping and asked me to look after the baby, she’d come home and ask if the baby was awake or asleep. If I said asleep, she wouldn’t count the time towards my hours because I wasn’t “doing any work.” I found myself starting to lie by saying the baby was awake, so I wouldn’t be cheated out of my time. I was only scheduled 25 hours per week but it wasn’t a regular schedule. I was basically on call 24 hours per day, 6 days per week. I’d have to wait in my room until I was called on and then the mom would ask me to do something (play with the kids, cut up vegetables, set the table for dinner, etc.) and then count it towards my hours. And I’d find myself walking away with 60 Euro every week. Essentially, I was making 2.40 every hour. And a Coca-Cola at our local cafe cost 3.30. My friends and I would joke that it took an hour and a half of hard-earned work just to have a cold coke, and we’d learn how to make that coke last for hours while we all vented about our own au pair experiences.
I had started to spend so much time with the kids that one day, the little boy ended up continuously yelling for “mom” and even though the mom answered, “yes” every time, I looked over and realized that the boy was looking straight at me. That was when my time with the kids greatly diminished and then my housework time greatly increased, even though they already hired a weekly housecleaner. I’ll never forget having to polish their chandelier and the handles of their armoires with a toothbrush, having to scrape and wash all of the bird crap off of the kids’ playhouse outside, having to take out everything in the fridge and freezer and wipe it all out, along with all of the cupboards. The feeling of relief when I finally felt like I knew what I was doing never came. I constantly had to be thinking three steps ahead of the mom, trying to predict what she would want me to do in order to avoid getting in trouble for not doing it. I put up with everything because I felt like I didn’t have any other choice. Many times, I was made to feel like I was stupid or incapable. I got in trouble because the little boy’s pants weren’t done up tight enough so the bottoms got all dirty because they were dragging on the ground at school. I got in HUGE trouble because the baby had a hair wrapped around her finger and I hadn’t noticed. I also got in HUGE trouble because the mom had noticed that I didn’t vacuum behind the toy chest. I STILL remember that lecture ten years ago – with her yelling at me at the dinner table, asking if I thought she was stupid, that they do SO much for me and they’re letting me have my sister come over and this is how I repay them. I didn’t know enough French to stick up for myself, plus I was too scared to say anything because I didn’t want to end up being homeless in a random country with nowhere to go. I’ll never forget when my mom came to visit and we came home one evening only to find the dad on the couch. He said that my mom would have to leave because it was “too stressful” having her there, so my mom had to pack up her stuff and leave the next morning. Or when I went back to visit them last June and I had forgotten most of my French and sat there listening to the parents talking, while the dad said, “She’s so stupid” and the mom said, “She just doesn’t understand.” I had felt like the smallest person in the world during my eight months there. I felt worthless, stupid, and I truly think the family was surprised that I’d be going to university afterwards. Many girls feel trapped because they’ve signed a contract and they feel like they aren’t allowed to leave (which is how I felt). If it weren’t for the kids being so great, I likely wouldn’t have survived.
It’s a huge thing for an 18-year-old girl to have her first experience in a new country alone! But unfortunately, au pairs don’t have any support or protection to help them during difficult situations. For some reason, many families take advantage of these innocent girls. Believe me, I hate confrontation so I would do anything and everything in order to avoid the mom getting mad at me (which is why that family was never able to find another au pair that they were happy with). But for some reason, many of these families have expectations that they don’t share with the au pair and then when the au pair fails to meet these unsaid expectations, the family continues to be disappointed. I do want to mention that it wasn’t horrible all the time for me. Sometimes, the mom would be like a friend to me – she would ask me about my day, want to look through the new clothes that I bought, or tell me stories about her past. But most of the time, I wouldn’t know if I should expect the happy mom or the mad mom, and it was a very difficult situation to live around. I would never feel comfortable going downstairs to get a glass of water when the mom or dad were watching tv in the living room, and I found myself counting down how many days I had left until I was finished my time. All of these feelings have resurfaced during the past few days so during the next few posts, I will be sharing more about why this has happened. I think that more girls have to be educated about what to expect when taking an au pairing job, because the harsh reality isn’t shared often enough. Not all au pair experiences are the same – some are really positive. But I think it’s important for young girls to realize that there are many more options when moving to a new country.