Regardless of the type of childcare your family chooses for your kid(s), there is always some work involved in maintaining your relationship with the actual caregivers.
With a daycare center, you need to communicate with the staff members and with the administrators on things ranging from schedules to toilet-training strategies. With your mother, mother-in-law or other family member, you have to manage social (power) dynamics of the basic relationships while you try to get things done the way you want them. With nannies and au pairs you need to negotiate everything from care use to playdate arrangements
With every form of childcare, you will intentionally or unintentionally make make some kind of emotional investment in your relationship with the caregiver. At the very least, you’re bonding with them over how damn adorable your kid is. In the best case, you’re creating a partnership with them so that everyone thrives– you thrive, your kids thrive, and your caregiver thrives.
With au pairs, in addition to establishing a relationship around caring for those adorable little(r) people, you have two extra areas where you need to make an emotional investment:
(1) as parents sharing their home with another adult person, and
(2) as grown-ups working with someone who’s still actively growing up.
Au Pairs fall into that weird grey area of being ‘adult’ enough to leave home, to be trusted with the care of children, to drive, and to make important social and financial decision for themselves. They are adult enough to have signed a contract to be an au pair for an entire 12 months.
And, at the same time, au pairs are often having their first experience with living away from home, establishing themselves socially in a brand new group of people, figuring out a new culture/language and sometimes even having their first full-time job, with serious work demands.
About your home
With au pairs sharing a home with us, we have to learn how to manage our privacy, our emotions, and our openness to another person’s social and emotional needs. You have to figure out what you have to offer, and what s/he needs, and what you can give, every day all week long. I don’t know about you, but I am not always ‘on’, or even pleasant, 24/7.
But I have had to learn how to manage that, so that our au pairs can feel welcomed and at home.
You also need to help au pairs learn to live in your house and home. You can’t expect an au pair to know which is your favorite coffee mug, or to realize that you can hear her Skyping at 3 a. m., or to know when to withdraw from the room when your sister calls to talk about your mom. These are things that you have to teach your au pair, gently. And, before you can even teach him or her how to respond, you have to become aware of what bothers you and what you’d prefer.
About her or his adult-ness
Au pairs are usually still at an age where they are going through a lot of emotional and social growing. They don’t have it all figured out, and most of them haven’t figured out how to deal with not having it all figured out. They’re going to do things like get drunk, overspend, stay out overnight, smash up your car, overuse the phone and the interwebz, be clingy, misread your social cues, get homesick, argue with their parents, and break up with their BBB(G)Fs.
And you are going to need to be willing to help them.
That’s part of the deal, of having ‘live in’ childcare, of having an ‘on par family member‘, and joining in a ‘cultural exchange’.
So how do you approach this emotional investment?
I know that each time we’ve had a new au pair, I’ve been aware that I need to start all over again– not just in teaching them our family systems and how we parent around here– but in creating a relationship with our new au pair herself.
This has sometimes been pretty hard for me– I’ve been burned out from the high maintenance au pairs, or irked after the really crappy au pair, or heart-broken at the departures of the wonderful au pairs. I’ve found that I almost start out begrudgingly, because I want to spare myself the work and the disappointment if things don’t go well.
I think that other host parents feel this hesitation too, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of ‘au pair as employee’ or ‘ au pair as family member’.
And this doesn’t even include anything about your kids!
Things I have tried to remember:
Every relationship deserves its investment. You never know what this au pair relationship is going to bring your family. Although any au pair relationship will always be work, and always have some challenges, the chances are that your au pair relationships will bring you enough family happiness that it will be worth it.
We can’t really guard against being hurt or disappointed by an au pair who disappoints us by not making an emotional investment in them, in their well being, and in their learning.
We have to make that investment, right at the start, rather than withholding until they prove they won’t disappoint. Because, you know, if we withhold at the start we make it more likely that they (and we) will fail.
It is especially crushing when an au pair ‘dumps you’, disappears on you, turns out to be a spoiled brat, or for some other reason goes into ‘transition.’ What a colossal waste of time and energy!
It even hurts when she goes home or transitions for reasons that have nothing to do with job performance or your relationship (like when one of our great APs went home early b/c her father died).
When you start to feel weighed down or apprehensive about the emotional energy it takes to have a good au pair relationship,
what do you tell yourself to help yourself rise back up to the challenge?