I decided in my early teens that once I had my A-Levels, I would be an Au Pair in California. I wanted a Spanish-speaking family because I already spoke English. Once I had made that decision, my grades improved dramatically and the determination to make my dream come true helped me pull through all of my exams (particularly maths … ergh… ). When the time finally came, my agency was unable to find me a Spanish-speaking family in the States, so I had a choice. Which dream do I make a reality? Live in the US for a year or learn Spanish? The decision I finally made after 6 months of waiting for a suitable family in the States was truly life changing in so many ways. I decided to go to Spain and learn a language I had always loved. I found another agency, which placed me in Las Palmas, the capital of the Canary Islands. I was thrilled. Growing up, I had only ever been on two foreign holidays, so Gran Canaria sounded like an exotic paradise to me.
Three years after my first Au Pair experience and a little more mature, I decided to do it again and went to the South of Sweden to look after three blond munchkins there.
I did not know this at the time, but these two experiences have taught me so much and I would not change a thing if I could. Was au pair life a picnic? No! Definitely not! But after a few weeks away, I found ways of coping. Now, in the middle of my career and in my 30’s, I am realising just what a huge positive impact these months have had on my life today. If I’d had this perspective back then, things would have been a lot easier.
That’s why I decided to put together a list of the main au pair conclusions I have drawn from my own experiences and those of my friends. Whether you are an au pair who is currently having a tough time or considering to start an international childcare adventure, I hope these will help you deal with questions and problems. Please, please comment or e-mail me with any questions or additional thoughts. I would love to be your ‘someone who talk to’.
EDIT – Since sharing this article, many of you have sent me private messages. I am SO happy you are finding my advice helpful and I have decided to create a YouTube channel. It will be a place for all of us to interact (Au Pairs as well as host families), share our experiences as well as practical au pair tips and tricks. It is a brand new channel and I would be grateful if you became my first few subscribers. Find my channel here.
1 – Use an Au Pair Agency
If you are a very young girl considering her first Au Pair adventure abroad, I will thoroughly recommend doing so via an agency. There are free alternatives like networking websites out there which can be great once you have more experience.
I had just turned 18 when I was planning my first au pair adventure and I craved the safety net of an agency. I decided to go with a small Austrian company called Au Pair 4 You and never regretted this choice. They found a family that matched my criteria fairly quickly and when things got difficult, my main contact Sonja received a tearful phone call from a pay phone in Las Palmas. She was very good at calming me down and fixing things for me. More about this in tip 8.
My point is that when I really needed my agency, they were there for me and enabled me to have a second chance at au pair life in Gran Canaria.
2 – Choose Carefully
Let’s not kid ourselves – going abroad alone at a young age with little or no understanding of the local language is challenging. For most of us it will be the first time away from our family and everything we are used to.
You need to make sure you feel as comfortable as possible with the family of your choice.
It’s important to not let yourself be blinded by money. A fancy house or access to a car are NOT things that will console you in a moment of loneliness. If you have some knowledge of the local language, speak to prospective host families a few times to ensure you have a connection. Don’t just rely only on pretty photographs – a beautiful Christmas card picture will not tell you anything about the dynamics of the family. Think about your basic, everyday (bad) habits and find a family that understands and respects them.
I appreciate these things might not be possible when you don’t speak the family’s language before going (this was the case for me), but the bottom line is: make a list of priorities and listen to your heart. If you have a funny feeling in your stomach about a family from the start, don’t be afraid to pass. And while the richest family might not be the best one for your needs, always make sure you have your own room when you’re abroad. Every au pair needs somewhere to go to, close the door and be alone at times.
Also make sure you choose an arrangement where you look after the children when the parents aren’t at home. It is extremely difficult to win a child’s love and trust when being with Mummy is the alternative. You will end up feeling pretty redundant most of the time. The child will demand for Mom to do everything related to him or her and you will end up asking yourself how exactly you are contributing to this setup. Also remember that children are performers. Both of ‘my’ toddlers were superstars at showing their disgust for me when Mom was home. One liked to insist I do not touch his stroller, let alone push it. The other loved to lock me out of the room, proclaiming ‘You cannot come in here’. While this was heartbreaking, it was a different story as soon as Mom had gone to work. Suddenly, I was not so bad and I even received the occasional kiss and declaration of love.
3 – Be Open & Honest
When it’s time to have your first proper chat with the family, I would advice you to share a few things about yourself that will avoid misunderstandings further down the line. For example, after I had given my family my guest presents, I explained that sometimes I like being on my own and that just because I don’t spend a lot of evenings with them doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy their company. I also made clear that I am used to keeping the door to my room closed and that this doesn’t mean people aren’t welcome to join me.
I appreciate these things may be hard to express in a foreign language, so I encourage you to write them up before you leave or gesticulate when certain situations arise for the first time.
4 – Speak the Language from Day One
Your arrival and first encounter with the family will no doubt be one of the most nerve wrecking moments of your life. The last thing you will feel like doing is attempt to speak a foreign language that makes it difficult to express your emotions. My advice is: DO! If you’re like me, the aim of this experience is to go back home speaking fluently. Once you start deviating from it because English is more comfortable, it will be difficult to switch back to local language. I made this mistake when I first arrived in Sweden. Nervous and insecure about my basic Swedish, I started speaking English and wasted half of my 3-month stay not properly absorbing the very language I had come here for. It also required a lot of courage making the switch back to Swedish so close to my departure. I announced to host mom Anette ‘Jag förstår inte längre engelska’ (I no longer understand English).
Instead, both yourself and the family should be patient at the start and use gestures and drawings when words don’t come easy. Once you join a local language class you will find that’s what they do, too – teach in target language from day one. Just make sure you have your dictionary ready and remember that it will get easier. Vocabulary you had to learn the hard way will stay with you forever. I will always remember the moments of happiness I had on Gran Canaria when I realised that I suddenly understood every word of the Spanish Shakira songs that had been a part of my life for so long.
5 – Take it One Day at a Time
When I first arrived on Gran Canaria I really struggled. I felt very lost in a place that was more foreign to me than I had expected. ‘My’ child found it hard to warm to me and it was difficult to connect to his mom Isabel because my Spanish was very limited. On my first day it was so bad that I could not eat at all and I decided to quit all this madness and look for flights back home. When I woke up the next morning, I decided to hold off a little bit longer in order to avoid any rushed decisions. Before I knew it, the first week had passed. I was counting the days and knew the exact number I had left before I was meant to return home 6 months later. However, I also knew that I could leave at any time. I had really come here to learn Spanish and every single day spent here would be beneficial to that goal. At the same time I reminded myself that I had chosen this and that no one was forcing me to stay. So I made a pact with myself: I would be proud of myself for every day I didn’t go home. I would not allow myself be daunted by the prospect of the next 175 days, but rather think only 24 hours ahead at any time. After all, I was not a prisoner here. I had chosen to come and I could choose to leave. Just not today. Maybe tomorrow, but not today. Once I had adopted this mentality of not overthinking the length of my stay, things became a lot easier.
6 – Go to language classes
Even if you can communicate in local language from day one, local language classes will give your skills the final polish. They also give you something besides child care to put your mind to. The most important argument I can give you for attending classes is that they are a great place to socialise. You will usually be joined by an exciting mixtures of adventurers from all corners of the world. I met Yin here, a new resident, who had come from South Korea. On my farewell dinner, he and his wife inspired us to join them at a Korean restaurant. These encounters with people from the opposite end of the world will broaden your horizons and stay with you forever.
7 – Meet other Au Pairs
Especially in the beginning, it will be very tiring to be surrounded by a foreign language all day long and sometimes, the inability to express yourself will be extremely frustrating. There will be many situations that leave you unsure what to do and it is important to remember that all of this is normal. You are only a young girl, not used to running a household – especially not someone else’s who does not speak your language. Your new friends from your language class might be helpful, but nothing will be a greater support system than other au pairs in the area. Quite often, agencies will provide a list with names and phone numbers. Otherwise, you can maybe check with your language school.
I am not usually inclined to seek contact with other Germans when I am abroad, but the friendships I formed during this time were on another level from anything I had encountered before. I made lifelong friends here, because our time together was intense. We shared all the same problems and worries and we were always there for each other. You will often think that surely no one will understand certain scenarios you find yourself in. It is the best feeling when one of your friends has encountered the exact same situation and you can ‘compare notes’. And let’s be honest, sometimes hearing their stories will also remind you that your set up is not so bad.
You will forever remember the moments you spend with your friends on these rare days off or evenings out. In these precious hours, you will forget all about poop incidents and how you felt inadequate that morning because you forgot to do something you were asked to do. In these precious hours, you will simply enjoy being young and abroad, in the safety of your group. For the first time in my life, I had a group of friends and we shared our experiences every step of the way. One of them, Katrin, remains one of my best friends more than a decade later. We may not see each other all the time, but we do have a habit of following each other around the globe. She visited me in Sweden in 2006 and I went to see her in Madrid in 2009. She is also the one who got Nigel and myself into travel blogging when she asked us to write for Bravofly, the online travel agency she now works for.
8 – Consider Changing Families
About three months into my stay on Gran Canaria, after countless conversations with my friends, I realised that Isabel and I were not meant to live together. Neither of us was happy. My three-year-old boss still saved any moments of tenderness for when nobody was there to witness them (‘Malta? Te Yeyo!’).
The relationships I had built with other au pairs on the island gave me the courage not to pack up and quit. I decided to find another family instead. After that tearful phone call with my agency, I felt reassured that everything would be okay and that a new beginning was just around the corner. The agency would be taking care of finding a new home for me and a new au pair for Isabel. I also discussed with them an appropriate ‘notice period’, as I know Isabel depended on me and I did not want to leave her hanging.
The conversation I had to have with her that evening was probably the most difficult one of my life to date. Obviously, Isabel was not happy about what I had to say. Who would be? It felt as though I was ‘rejecting’ her and her child. The next 24 hours were not great. Surprisingly, my final weeks in the house were probably the easiest ones. It felt as though the weight had been lifted off both of our shoulders. Isabel and I suddenly became much friendlier. I will always remember one particular belter of a day we had, cleaning the kitchen cupboards together. Once I had moved out, we continued seeing each other occasionally and we still remain friendly today.
If things remain bad at the house you are staying at, it might be worth considering changing families. It doesn’t mean that either party are bad people. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that you cannot become friends. It just means that maybe you are not compatible living together. Always remember that having an au pair requires a pretty extraordinary relationship. Essentially, you will be their roomie, parenting partner and eldest child, all at the same time. And you might not even speak their language. If your family is not used to having au pairs, they might find themselves unable to cope with the intensity of it all. A lot of things will remain unsaid on both sides and sometimes frustrations just bottle up to the point where a bit of distance is better for both parties.
Now that you have settled into the country a bit more, speak the language a bit better and have the support of your friends, your new beginning with another family will be a lot easier.
9 – Pretend You’re a Tourist
Remember why you wanted to come here as an au pair? Remember the excitement you felt at seeing photos of this place? Remember how all your friends back home are jealous of you right now? Well, guess what: It’s time to make the best of it! Every once in a while, grab your friends or your camera, forget about the stresses of au pair life and just pretend you are on holiday! See your surroundings through the eyes of a tourist and just enjoy the experience!
10 – Think of the bigger Picture
Number 10 is a biggie that was impossible for me to appreciate at the time. Now, over a decade later and in the middle of my career, I can fully understand the ways in which being an au pair has enriched my life. Speaking Spanish fluently opened the doors to my degree in International Business. Speaking Swedish as well as German and English just put the cherry on top and now makes my CV stand out from many, many others. Had I made the decision to quit when things were tough at the start, my life would have gone down an entirely different path. I would not have the career I have and I would not have met Katrin or Nigel. I also learned a lot about myself while abroad. Being an au pair launched my adult life and made me appreciate my family and my home more than ever.
Be proud of yourself for doing this! Always remember that you are not doing it for anyone but yourself and that, if you just pull through, you will not regret it.
EDIT: Since sharing this article, many of you have sent me private messages. I am SO happy you are finding my advice helpful and I have decided to create a YouTube channel. It will be a place for all of us to interact (Au Pairs as well as host families), share our experiences as well as practical au pair tips and tricks. It is a brand new channel and I would be grateful if you became my first few subscribers. Find my channel here.
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