We just got this lovely email from Jane, helping to remind us of (just) 3 Reasons why au pairs are great!
“Responding to your call for some positive blog posts, I’d like to share with the group some of my experiences that have made the au pair program worth the effort. I’ve had four good experiences and none that ended in rematch.
Like many others, I come to the au pair mom blog when I have a problem or to see that I’m not alone in my frustrations. But in the scheme of things, the problems I have had are on the same scale as the problems I expect I’d have with other child care solutions. Nothing is going to be perfect all the time. So let me share some good stuff!
I’ve learned a lot about German culture over the past few years, and I think my family has taught our au pairs quite a bit about American culture. This exchange does involve a conscious investment of my free time, which is sometimes hard after a full day of meetings and two cranky kids at dinner time.
1. Cultural Exchange over Meals
I cook every night, and while I know this is not possible for everyone, if you can plan a family meal on a regular basis it works wonders for improving your exchange experience. I use easy, inexpensive recipes from magazines like Quick Cooking, or I throw something in a crock pot that can cook all day with little prep time. I make sure my meals never take more than 30-45 minutes total when I get home. We all have to eat, so I’ve learned that this is a good opportunity to get in some socialization at the same time. After dinner, I am pretty much done for the day and want to retreat to my bedroom after the kids are tucked in.
At dinner (which is sometimes just me, the AP, and my kids because hubby works late), we have focused time to talk about our day and ourselves. I make a point to ask about my au pair’s friends and family back home—what are they doing this week, what holidays are being celebrated in their culture right now, how is the weather back home, etc. They enjoy the chance to talk about home—they’ve told me it helps with any homesickness. Some night we’re all tired and no one is talkative—that’s okay. Over time, the interaction really builds a close relationship. It’s also a good time for me to gently reinforce tasks and guidelines that might be slipping.
The fact that I cook has always been a huge plus for my au pairs. Our au pairs have returned the favor on many occasions by cooking our family German meals. My first au pair cooked for us once a week just because she wanted to share with us. We ate things I never knew existed and would have never found in a restaurant. Many of my AP’s friends are depressed by all the fast food and microwaved meals that their families eat. I gently encourage them to offer cooking a traditional meal for their families, or to talk to them about some simple meals they might cook together.
I sometimes invite my au pairs to have a friend over for dinner on the weekend. When my last au pair’s best friend missed having her first Thanksgiving dinner here (long story), we cooked a turkey for a second Thanksgiving and invited both our friends and hers. We did dinner, they did an amazing from-scratch apple strudel. It is one of my best memories of our year with that au pair and her group of friends. Sharing culture through food has been wonderful. I know we will receive a warm reception not only from our past au pairs but also from their friends when we visit Germany one day.
2. Active Listening and Sharing
Getting to know my au pair’s friends has strengthened my relationship with my own au pairs. My last au pair told me how impressed she was that I knew all her friend’s names and could correctly pronounce them (which did take time for some). She knew several host families who did not take the time to learn how to pronounce their own au pair’s name correctly. I ask about their AP friends here—how are they doing, etc, but I try to avoid gossip about other host families. Whenever my au pair tells me a story about something unfair a host family did, I listen and sympathize, but quickly point out that we don’t know the whole story. Letting my au pair talk to me about her friends’ frustrations and experiences gives me a chance to explain a host family’s point of view about certain situations—my au pairs always seem to appreciate getting this perspective.
My first au pair’s best friend had a host family who took very little interest in her—in fairness to them, they had crazy work schedules. I really only talked to her when she would come over Saturday nights when my au pair would “babysit” for date night—(kids were already asleep upstairs), yet I knew more about her than her host family (and we only had a date night once a month). When her parents came from Switzerland during her travel month, they stopped to visit my family, even though her friend, my au pair, had already departed on her own travel month. My husband and I had a unique opportunity to talk with Swiss adults we would have never met otherwise. We now have their address and an intent to visit. It took very little interaction with this nice girl to make a huge impact on her.
3. Sharing Travel Interests
I try to talk with my au pairs a lot about the places I’ve traveled to in the U.S. Since travel is one of the big draws for au pairs to do the program, I try to share as much of my experience with them as possible so they can plan weekend trips and their vacations using insider advice. I frequently ask them about the types of trips they would like to make and make recommendations for local weekend activities that are unique to our area. I forward them links to sites like TravelZoo and Expedia, and let them know when I see cheap airfare for a weekend getaway. All of my au pairs have told me that doing this has shown that I have an active interest in them, and that it really makes them feel at home. It doesn’t take much of my time to shoot them e-mail links when I’m surfing the Internet for my own interests. We don’t have the money to take them on trips ourselves, but we actively help them make their own plans.
At the same time, I’ve been collecting tidbits of information from my au pairs about the overseas places they have traveled to—places I’ve never even heard of before. I’ve seen their pictures and heard stories and have learned more than I’d ever get from a travel book. Now I just need the time and money for a European vacation!
Bonding over food, friends, and travel—these are the things that have transformed my au pair experiences from merely a childcare solution to a great cultural exchange with some lovely young women. It certainly isn’t easy to develop and maintain these relationships, and I’ve certainly felt that one year was enough with some of my au pairs, but overall the rewards of the program have been great.
Hope this helps! Au Pair Mom “Jane”