26 October, 2014

Reasons Not to Become an Au Pair

Well, the day has finally arrived: I'm free from Au pairing! Yesterday I moved out of my host family's house and today I'm enjoying my new-found freedom by jetting off to Amsterdam to start a four-city tour of Western Europe with Lindsay. I've been counting the days until I'm done Au pairing for months now, and I was totally prepared to write a scathing review of the whole institution of Au pairing and live-in hired help (hence the title of this post), and then something funny happened. As my days with my host family drew to a close and I spent more time with them the last few days before my departure, I started to get preemptively nostalgic. The things that had bothered me didn't seem as important, I wanted to savor my last days and hours with them, and I generally started feeling more friendly towards the whole idea of what I had spent the last 14 months of my life doing. Funny how nostalgia works.

Don't get me wrong, I'm still going to write about why you shouldn't become an Au pair. There are plenty of arguments in favor of that position and they deserve some decent air time. However, there are also positive things about the whole experience that shouldn't be understated, and there have been positive outcomes for me that I probably wouldn't have been able to achieve otherwise. I'll start with the reasons against, and to lead off I'll show you some of my rantings from a few weeks ago:

"Here's what being an Au pair did: it wore down my spirit. I'm sick of living in someone else's house with someone else's rules, feeding and cleaning up after someone else's kids. I'm sick of not having control of my own life, of not being able to have friends or my boyfriend over at the house, of feeling like I have to tiptoe around the house when other people are home because it feels like I don't really live here. Despite what anyone says, an Au pair is hired help, and living with one's bosses is really not an ideal living situation for optimal mental health. All I want in life right now is to have my own space. A place where I can do what I want, come and go as I please without having to explain myself to anyone, and have guests over anytime I want. I want to cook what I want to cook, not what I know two teenage girls will like to eat or what my host mom happened to buy at the grocery store. I want to buy my own groceries! It's amazing how things like that that are probably a chore for most people sound like absolute heaven to me. 

"So, my advice to anyone who is thinking about becoming an Au pair: don't. Especially if you are already feeling antsy about living in someone else's house, i.e., with parents, because that feeling will not get better. Not only will you still be in someone else's space, most likely feeling like you are getting in the way, you will also end up doing most of the housework, if the family you end up working for doesn't already have a cleaning woman (and maybe even if they do). I would only advise embarking on an Au pair year under certain conditions, specifically if you can find a family that will house you separately in your own apartment or rented room unconnected to their home (there are families out there who throw money around like that. If you absolutely have to be an Au pair, it's worth looking into. Next door could be acceptable, but even that's pushing it). Find out specifically what their ground rules are before you accept an offer and make sure you will be able to comfortably abide by them. When I accepted my family's offer I was so excited to have a job in Germany that I, after ascertaining that they were nice people, basically agreed with all of their expectations without comment or complaint. It's mostly been fine, but the big problem I have is that they do not allow Maxim (or any other friends) to come over to see me. Ever. That means I have to make the effort (effort in this case means a 20 minute bike ride each way) EVERY. SINGLE. TIME I want to see him. He's come to my neighborhood a few times but even on those occasions I have to leave my house and bike to some third location to see him, and of course it's not as nice or convenient to have to stay outside in the grass the whole time. This is really the sticking point for me and a large part of the reason why I feel such a crushing lack of control over my life. I know it's not my space when I can't have the people I want in it. 

"Also important to keep in mind when considering any Au pair position: since it's not a typical 9 to 5 job the host parents can arbitrarily decide when you have to work and can change their minds at the drop of a hat. Several times I was told at 5 or 6pm that I had to stay until 8 or even later, which meant it was often hard for me to make plans in the evening or some days to even leave the house at all. Make sure you get a clear idea of when you will be working, how consistent your schedule will be and how often you might be expected to work outside of your 'normal' hours."

Those are my rants and ramblings from a point a few weeks ago when I was particularly frustrated with my living situation (if I remember correctly, I had just left Maxim curled up in his nice warm bed and biked home 20 minutes in the rain). Besides some unfriendly language that I've subsequently edited out, I stand by everything I wrote that day. It is all true and those points should all be kept in mind when considering a job as an Au pair. 

However, there are also undoubtedly positive things about being an Au pair. If you get a nice, friendly (and hopefully not too rich) family like I did, you get a cultural and language immersion experience that can't be beat. As long as the family is welcoming to their Au pair, you get the support of your new "family" members who can help you adjust to a new culture, go with you to visa appointments, act as a vital social connection when you are still friendless, and, most importantly for me, provide an unbeatable opportunity to practice the new language you are learning (if you are Au pairing in a country that speaks a language you don't know/if you are bothering to learn the language in the first place; some Au pairs don't, which works in Germany because of the high percentage of people who speak English as a second or third language). I considered myself fluent in German in less than a year, something that never would have happened if I hadn't had the opportunity, and somewhat of a necessity, to speak German on a daily basis with the girls. However, a caveat: many people who hire English-speaking Au pairs do so because they want the Au pairs to speak only English with their children. There are entire Au pair agencies dedicated to placing Au pairs with such families. If you are serious about learning the language of your host country, I would advise finding a family that is willing to have you speak the host country's language with the children. Even if you do speak English with the children, there are still opportunities to practice your language skills, but I believe speaking with the children is the best practice you can get. 

I hope I've managed to provide a balanced account of the pros and cons of Au pairing. Au pairing is not for everyone, but for some people it can be the best way to experience a new culture. A key way to tell whether it will work for you is this: if you are planning to become an Au pair because you want to “get out on your own,” Au pairing may not be your best option. As mentioned in my above rant, Au pairing requires living in someone else’s house with someone else’s rules, something that I, as a 24 year old who has never lived on my own and is dying to do so, have been having trouble with. If you identify with that description, I advise that you look elsewhere for international employment/exploration opportunities. If not, wade into the Au pair placement process with caution, and I wish you the best of luck (really! You're gonna need it!). 

(I hope all the formatting and stuff works out ok, I'm writing this on my iPhone in a Starbucks in Amsterdam. More about my travels coming soon!)

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