After the Honeymoon: Seasons of the Au Pair Year

by cv harquail on August 13, 2010

A host mom who prefers to remain anonymous¬† shares her reflections, and helpful questions, about that delicate stage in your Au Pair- Host Family relationships…. those days when it only begins to dawn on you that, with this terrific au pair as well as any other, there will always be challenges…

After the Honeymoon…

The first few weeks with a new au pair can be just wonderful. A lot of work for host parents, as we train, teach to navigate, explain and repeat instructions, all with our fingers crossed–but it’s also just wonderful. There is a super-enthusiastic Honeymoon period when your new au pair arrives. S/he will help wash dishes after dinner, even though s/he doesn’t have to.

Their energy knows no bounds–perhaps because they’ve been scared by the talk of rematch during Orientation?

More often, they are just so happy to finally be here, in your home, getting to know your kids.

slimmer jimmer.jpg

(Aside: If your new au pair isn’t bending over backwards to bond with your kids, figure out how to work with you, and learn her job in your first few weeks together, your antennae should be screaming “Pay Attention! Something Isn’t Right!”)

Summertime being New Au Pair Season¬†(if ever there was one)… Come Fall, the Honeymoon may be starting to fade just a tiny bit.

Eventually, in the midst of the cheerful Good Morning!s and high fives at finding the way back from the bus, or driving through downtown alone by car, you will start to see the particular flaws that you as host parent will be managing the next year. These foibles are undoubtedly different from those you found in the preceding au pair.

You may need to adjust your tactics.

  • Maybe it’s her comfort level with using appliances, or fear of the grocery store. Or her idea of how to do laundry, or skills at packing a diaper bag for the day. But what if it is something a bit more innate, like her judgment in friends, or shyness.

As Host, you then take a deep breath and decide, okay, is this a problem? how big is this really? do I need to do anything about it? and if so, what?

  • Maybe it’s immaturity–(“I never pay for my own drinks” — okay, that would be a red flag! Maybe it’s something like “Well, in OUR country, we never [or we always] [fill in blank].”
  • Maybe it’s lack of exposure to people who are different from her family–(“Oh my! Is this neighborhood safe to go through?” Or a blanket statement about fashion choices of people from different cultures.)
  • Maybe it’s a strong opinion about a parenting subject or health issue (“In my family we never go to the doctor,” proclaimed right after you’ve spent ten minutes explaining how to administer a prescription.)
  • Maybe it’s the cringing–or smirking–while walking behind a gay couple down the sidewalk.

I never want to start out heavy-handed with au pair relationship-building.

I’m just a softie at heart, and I am usually so glad that we made it through the first 2 weeks without a hint of a flameout that I am going to ignore the first little twinge of “Oh, boy, I wish I hadn’t heard her say that in front of the kids…”

How do you as a host parent help a (sheltered) young adult come to value differences?

How can you expand their horizons–without making them feel judged by you?

It’s a delicate task:

If you point out how her last statement could be misinterpreted as racist (if it struck you that way), you risk offending the au pair, making her unable to hear you at all. Or if you tell her that you are relying on western ideas of medicine in this situation, how do you also make sure she doesn’t think that you think she is stupid?

The au pair program offers a young person the opportunity to leave their country for a year and explore the world. Theoretically, the program attracts adventurous, wide-eyed people. But what if that wide-eyed curiosity is tinged with that youthful confidence at having everything figured out, and never trusting anyone over 30? (Remember that feeling?)

  • How can we support cultural sharing with our kids when a slightly older AP finds their peer group (of APs from their country, of course) and never branches out?

  • How can we successfully open an au pair’s eyes beyond their own slightly microscopic views?

  • Is time really the best cure for youth? Is repeated exposure a better approach?What has worked best for you?

{ 28 comments }

HRHM August 13, 2010 at 8:35 am

“youthful confidence at having everything figured out, and never trusting anyone over 30”

WOW! I have had this problem with EVERY AP. It is frustrating to listen to the foolishness they often dish out and keep my mouth shut. But I do, because if I say something, they just think I’m stupid. I’ve learned that the proof is in the pudding, and when they suffer a serious sunburn after rejecting my stupid notion that the sun might be stronger here than at home (“how, it’s the same sun” set to a mocking laugh) I do remind them that I told them so. Over the course of the year, most realize that I tend to actually know what I’m talking about.

When it comes to social/racial/cultural narrowness, we frequently talk frankly about their misconceptions but there is always a 2 way dialogue. It usually starts with me asking about race/religious relations at home and how that affects their feelings here. They have all been not-quite-Eastern Europeans from countries with NO blacks and all raging racists. The first one I couldn’t convince otherwise, the AP2 ended up dating only black guys and AP3 and I had a long discussion of race vs socioeconomic class with regard to how it affects people’s behavior and cultural mores – her jury’s still out. But they all know (it’s in the hh handbook) that in my house, if they are bigots, they keep it to themselves in front of the kids on penalty of rematch (no I’m not kidding)

2boys2girls August 13, 2010 at 11:57 am

“Learning to keep one’s mouth shut” has been the biggest thing I have had to learn. Our policy now is that we give our opinion/advice one time only (on things that are not related to the children and their care) and then let the chips fall where they may. I keep reminding myself that some of these interactions are good practice for when I have a house of four teenagers. So yes, there have been many intense sunburns, being stranded in Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve because “there is no chance everything will be booked!”, repeatedly running out of gas, having money “borrowed” from friends and never paid back…

Should be working August 13, 2010 at 9:22 am

Both APs we’ve had seemed to me incredibly stubborn in their views of things–more than I remember being at that age, but who knows. This kind of stubborn certainty about complex, ambiguous, multifarious things–and even about simple things!–makes me crazy.

With regard to bigotry, it has been interesting. We specifically grill candidates on their tolerance, openness, and okness with our area’s diversity and our friends’ varying sexual orientations and so forth. AP 1 claimed absolute non-bigotry, but when she was here asserted that it was just not healthy for kids to be raised by gay parents. AP 2, who is on the young side, has a romantic fascination with dark-skinned men and Africa in general (never having known any black men nor ever having been to Africa). She strongly believes that “children in Africa are so happy, they are not focused on possessions like we have here”–again, never having been there. I appreciate the non-materialist sentiment, but her stubborn insistence that this is JUST TRUE of Africa (a huge and complex continent!) makes me question her overall judgment.

HRHM, I am dismayed to read that every one of your APs has been stubbornly ignorant. I was hoping that this was just a fluke. It makes ‘building a relationship’ frustrating for me, because relationships for me involve letting oneself be open to being changed by someone else’s ideas.

HRHM August 14, 2010 at 5:53 am

I think there is a large difference between the educational system in the US vs where my first 2 APs came from and so that lack of basic knowledge plays a part in it (colds come from viruses, not wet hair; use tylenol for a fever, vinegar on the feet is not endorsed by the AAP) But even with AP3 who seems to have had a better education, there is a firm unwillingness to take advice until it’s too late. I chalk it up to immaturity and trying to become independant. As long as it doesn’t bring harm to the kids or the family as a whole, I just stand aside unless asked for help.

I will be pleasantly surprised to recieve an AP who isn’t like this. Who knows, maybe the 5th time’s the charm.

Should be working August 14, 2010 at 7:29 am

My husband is from an advanced European country and firmly believes the wet-hair theory too! His father, a physician, also believes this, as did everyone I met there. Some time ago we decided, for harmony’s sake, that European colds come from wet hair and American colds from viruses!

Anna August 14, 2010 at 9:50 pm

I come from a country too where colds can come from wet hair or being out in the cold without proper attire.

Truth is somewhere in between. In those countries, they usually overdress kids (by american standards), so they are not so adapted to being cold. When the body’s resources are weakened by having to fight the chill, it can indirectly make one more susceptible to getting sick…. In fact, there is a whole belief in “forging” one’s body and making it healthier and stronger by rubbing oneself with cold water every morning… but this is a system of specifically training the body.

So americans, because they sit on the floor (drafty!), don’t wear hats always in cold weather from childhood, they are already “forged” and by definition are healthier. So for them wet hair is nothing; for somebody more coddled physically from childhood, it could be a hit to their immune system, and cause them to be more susceptible to illness.

theGermanGirl-FutureAP August 16, 2010 at 11:13 am

I don’t know about you guys but I did get a cold once or twice from walking around with wet hair in winter…that happened. I don’t know how but it did. ;)

MommyMia August 14, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Love this! I’ll share with DH at dinner tonight – he can use a good laugh after having had his car totalled this month by current AP. But I must draw the line at a recent “folk remedy” offered by the APs mom to put drops of warm milk in one’s ear to clear the congestion (she had had a sore throat for several days prior). I offered some Similisan (homeopathic) earache drops, which were rejected because they were unknown.

HRHM August 15, 2010 at 12:04 am

Oddly enough, there is actually a scientific explanation for the the milk in the ear thing. It is the lactic acid. But it only works for external ear infections/irritations and vinegar works better and faster than milk (stronger acid but still safe) Also warm compresses can help relieve inner ear congestion by allowing the eustachian tubes to open and drain fluid.

MommyMia August 16, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Who knew, HRHM? Thanks for sharing this! But I think I’d have trouble diagnosing whether it’s inner or outer ear (except maybe for myself, based on prior experience).
My mom always had us lie down on a heating pad or would warm our pillow with an iron if we were on vacation; I actually did have our AP use a heating pad as well, but it only helped temporarily.

Taking a Computer Lunch August 13, 2010 at 9:28 am

I think the AP relationship is the same as any other relationship, there is give and take. No one is perfect. I do think, however, that the AP year does have cycles – first everything is about the family, and then the AP develops friendships and does more activities independently, and then at the end, there is a huge strain because after a really emotionally intense year or two, the AP must say goodbye to it all. It takes a huge effort, as a HP, to be the rock, the person who calls attention for the need to work and the understanding that the AP needs time to say goodbye to friends, because the AP’s only prior experience (usually) is leaving home to come to the US.

For me, as a HP, the toughest time of the year is the first and last month. The first month because after having an independent AP, I forget how much APs need to be part of the family when they arrive and I’ve become disused to it. Also, I need to remember to have patience, that everything is new and to slow down and explain. And then last month, when the AP is on emotional tenterhooks.

Anna August 13, 2010 at 10:12 am

Out of 4 years, for 3 we’ve had young women whom I truly admired (and still admire) as people. They were mature, wholesome, tolerant, respectful of every kind of people, interesting to talk to.

I truly had no hints of problems described above. I felt very easy talking to them and sharing my views, and in general we shared a worldview. We didn’t share the same religion, but that didn’t matter.

Each had qualities or abilities that awed me and that were worthy of admiration. AP1 was strong in character, able to work on her emotions and keep herself happy all the time (and help all her friends to do that – she was sought out by everyone as a friend); and ironclad will (she was a former college athlete, and when arrived set out to lose some weight; she went to the gym every night and left 20 lbs lighter – she was a tall girl).

AP3 was extremely intelligent knew and there was nothing I shared that was new to her (health, nutrition, books….); instantly likeable by everyone she met. No matter what irky or upset mood I was in in the morning (I was pregnant the year she was with us), her smile in the morning dissipated any clouds coming her – and everybody’s – way from me, instantly LOL. She was truly a pleasure just to have in the home!

AP4 (current one) amazes me in her people’s skills – she is truly a genius in it, and in her ability to multitask – she is capable of handling my 3 young kids at the same time, and I suspect many more too… That’s in addition to being to having a kick-ass sense of humor and an ability to love my kids and find them truly adorable and funny, and enjoying talking about them with me. She truly knows kids, understands them and their stages, and doesn’t get upset or take it personally if they misbehave. She has lots of experience with kids and an inclination for that, and it shows – not just shows, shines! When she is a mother herself, I envy her children, LOL.

I am happy they chose to spend the year with us and proud to know them and have a relationship with them.

MommyMia August 14, 2010 at 9:55 pm

You’ve been truly blessed by the AP Fairy with your matches, I believe! Seriously, though, I think one factor may be YOUR positive, attitude and outlook on life, which is surely influencing all these lucky APs and will impact their future, although they may not realize it just yet! I hope they realize how lucky they are to be/have been with your family.

Dorsi August 14, 2010 at 10:43 am

I remember an argument I had with my HD when I was an exchange student (and 16 years old). I explained, knowing everything, that Judaism is a religion and has nothing to do with ethnicity/race and the only thing that makes Jew different from any other person is what they believe. I was very confident in my opinion, because I knew everything — even though I was raised in an area of the States where there were few Jews, I had never met any of them, and had certainly never heard of the Zionism, Secular Jews, etc.

It is hard to remember how confident and naive one used to be. This must be good preparation for having a teenager, no?

anonmom August 14, 2010 at 11:02 pm

Ah- the seasons of the au pair year! As we come to the end of another au pair year, I am reminded again of the cyclical nature of the AP year!

The beginning: everything is new, exciting, and generally the AP is anxious and excited to put forth her best efforts, etc to please the host family. It also requires a great deal of energy and time on my part in acclimating them to their new environment- the streets, how things work, waiting on line at social security office, at the bank. And, the au pairs generally hang around the family more- in the beginning.

Then, as the newness wears off, the AP becomes bolder in her opinions and social life. Meeting new friends, going to the gym more, or getting involved in more activities. Generally, more independent. Life moves along somewhat smoothly. Except, of course for the usual glitches of a young woman who thinks she knows more than you, like the examples above with the sunscreen, or making the appropriate arrangements in advance for travel or activities. Yes, the silent “I told you so’s”

As the seasons change, the AP changes, too. One of my AP’s- the one out of 6 who had the least amount of ability in caring for my 3 children- especially the one with some special issues- sat my husband and I down to tell us how we can better raise her. I can tell you how well that went over with my husband and I, sitting at the table with a 19 year old, notes and all, telling us what we were doing wrong and how we should really handle her. This was the same au pair I came home to one day while she was in a near shoving match with a 7 year old. I walked in the house and saw her run from her room crying and she went running out the door. Yep- she knew better how to handle our child!

The last quarter of the AP year- this is the one where the AP realizes she does not have much time left, and decides she has to do everything and see everything she did not do earlier. Perhaps it is taking advantage of going places she could have gone with us when we asked her to, but she was not interested at the time (and we would have paid for her when she was with the family) now suddenly, she has to go there with some friends. Or, the best- the END of the YEAR- what house rules??? “you mean I really have to be home before working?? I have to tell you where I am with the car?” “Oh, I could not get to the laundry today”- daily! And, the general lack of care- knowing they will be leaving, and how would anyone rematch the last 2 months anyway. :)

So, knowing that there are cycles to our AP year, we have generally given the approach that when an AP is resolute about something, we may talk about it, but then keep quiet. The AP may, in due time, realize that her notions were incorrect, or that maybe my husband and I know a little something! It is like a knowing silence that is shared between us. We do try and educate and enlighten our AP’s, but only if they are receptive to learning.

Calif Mom August 15, 2010 at 12:45 pm

My big concern is about comments around our girls about what strangers are wearing, or how heavy they are. Yes, there is an obesity epidemic. Yes, that young woman from a different socio-economic class is wearing something I would never let our kids wear. AND at the same time, she has every right to. AND she probably has a better body-image than the thinner people who are staring at her. AND while I don’t want my girls obsessing over looks and clothes, I do want them to brush their hair before they go to school.

Our culture has double standards–lots of them! When our au pairs have said things that seem narrow-minded or ignorant in front of our kids, I usually use it as an opportunity to open a conversation about the double standards. Because it *does* make a difference!

PerfectHost Mom August 16, 2010 at 12:10 am

Nip that in the bud. Whenever one of our APs has made any sort of judgmental comment about someone’s physique or appearance, I immediately have a conversation to single out the comment and clarify that it is not acceptable. I basically couch it as a cultrual issue . . . . “wow – interesting – it must be different in your country, but in the US, it is considered quite impolite/tactless to make such comments – this must be a big cultrual difference! You wouldn’t want people to think you have bad manners.” I realize it is rarely cultural, but it gets the point across and I don’t want my daughter to hear comments like that. It’s hard enough to raise girls in this culture.

Calif Mom August 16, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Funny, I have to have these conversations with certain relatives, too.

We have noticed the certain self-righteousness of some au pairs; I think it’s most often about maturity and exposure. The younger the au pair, the more likely these comments have been.

Perfect HM — that’s so gutsy! I’m not sure I could dish that out to a new AP. But you’re right that it needs to be addressed, because I think it does confuse my preteen.

EuroGirl August 25, 2010 at 1:54 pm

The trouble with that is that in many European countries it is not so common to see obese people and can be genuinely shocking. I was shocked by the size of some people in the UK and although I would never comment to them, there’s definitely a chance I might say to a friend or a family member that I was surprised to see someone so overweight. No, I know it isn’t nice of me, but you have to account for the fact that sometimes people are genuinely not intending to hurt feelings by commenting on something that they find strange or unusual.

I think maybe you should speak to them and say something like “Unfortunately a lot of people here have a different lifestyle than where you come from and you will see many more overweight people”, rather than calling her ignorant. Of course one has to be subtle about such things in front of children but that’s not the same as blatant racism or ignorance – how a person is dressed or their lifestyle leading to obesity is their own choice and not on a par with the other topics raised here like homophobia. Personally if I had children I would want them to be aware that poor eating habits and lack of excersise does not end prettily. The host families I have worked for also took this line and were far more crtitcal than I was of people who did not take care of themselves.

MommyMia August 25, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Ah, but to play devil’s advocate, EuroGirl, not everyone who is obese has made bad lifestyle choices! Sometimes there is an underlying medical problem, so genetics may also play a role. Also, some very thin people have medical problems, too (anorexia, bulimia, chemotherapy, etc.) or might desire a heavier weight, but cannot attain it. Just be sensitive when you’re discussing with children, and definitely encourage good eating habits and exercise to keep fit, but don’t always judge a book by its cover. Just as the disability of a person using a handicapped parking space may not be visible to the naked eye (emphysema, heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome).

NewAPMama August 25, 2010 at 4:46 pm

It’s funny though, how most European countries do not have the same underlying “medical” conditions that cause obesity. I just finished my thesis regarding obesity and its’ causes, and medical conditions are a very small percentage in comparison to lifestyle. However, having said that, I do agree that an aupair needs to use good judgement when discussing these things with children. They are very impressionable.

HRHM August 26, 2010 at 10:12 am

I actually address the obesity epidemic in my HH handbook. Having traveled a bit, I realize that you DO NOT (yet) see the degree of obesity that we commonly have in the US, elsewhere. And it is a shock for APs. (Imagine going to a new country and seeing 30% of people missing a leg, you would be shocked too)

It’s fine for them to express surpise to me, but they need to understand that making general insensitive comments in front of the person of interest or in front of my kids, is just rude. There’s a difference between legitimate interest and discussion and just being plain mean.

EuroGirl August 28, 2010 at 2:07 pm

I’m not saying it okay to be cruel about overweight people but I don’t think it’s comparable to racism or homophobia, both of which I would consider an extremely serious problem and I would not want racist or homophobic people around my children if I had some. The issue with overweight people is more about “how to be sensitive to an issue you haven’t met before” than a prejudice in my opinion.

And medical conditions have been proven to contribute to obesity – but that would not account for half so many cases as are seen in the US nor would it account for such extreme cases.

Of course your au pair should be sensitive dealing with that issue, particularly in front of kids, but I don’t think it’s comparable as a problem to an au pair who was racist or homophobic.

AuPairInHolland June 30, 2011 at 6:38 am

I have a friend from Norway who just ISN’T used to seeing black people. Once she said to a friend of mine “Wow, you really look black”, because my friend has an afro and likes to accessorize with african stuff.
I was MORTIFIED and quickly said something else so they wouldn’t be uncomfortable.
She’s constantly doing such remarks about people’s weight, choice of clothing and ethnical backgrounds. I know she doesn’t mean harm and she’s just saying out loud what she thinks, and she doesn’t think it’s offensive, but it sounds REALLY bad.
These cultural shocks

NorAupair July 3, 2011 at 11:38 am

I’m originated from Norway from my mothers side,high up in the North.Through years I traveled a lot all the way from Oslo to the South ,along the West Coast etc,and now it’s my 2nd year as an au pair in Norway.I don’t know where your friend lives, but in Norway it’s not uncommon to see Africans or Pakistanis etc. Of course they aren’t a big number as in other countries, but still..And I don’t want to be offensive but what it means ”wow,you look black”?And you see also over weighted people, or chubby people and so on. I really don’t get it,and it makes me sad if not angry. I think we need to respect each other differences.

As for the au pairs seasons. From my experiences (I have been many times an au pair, and back home nanny and music/dance teacher) it only gets better and better.I never had any of the above attitudes, even when I was younger.It’s really disheartening to see your AP acting like that the last month,when you (referring to all HM) did so many efforts to make her year abroad a great one.

In my humble opinion, relationships getting stronger and better as time passes, it is a continuous ”give-receive”, that makes our lives truly rich. And being an au pair it’s not only a job to live abroad.It’s so much more than that, and it’s an honour to be accepted as a true family member in a family. Of course I had a bitter experience once with a family once (really bad HF), but it only made me stronger,maybe more cautious when in the matching process,but generally it just added to my experiences.

momto2 August 15, 2010 at 7:24 pm

Our extension AP had some ups and downs the second year as well, but what made it easier was that the she was already so ingrained into our family, that we found ourselves more tolerant and forgiving. She definitely got more comfortable, and made some choices that we don’t think she would have made during her first year……(choices of friends/significant others, etc, social outings, etc.,). Oddly, it wasn’t harder to say goodbye, b/c by the end of the second year, we knew it was time for her to go and move on with her life. At 27 years of age, and with a college degree, she was too old to be living in our basement any longer. The last couple of months of the extension year were challenging from the standpoint of getting the AP to hold the kids accountable. We could see that she was trying to make sure the kids would be fond of her after she left, and she did not want to give out any consequences.

Emily August 23, 2010 at 1:24 pm

These are really interesting to read! I love hearing about the differences in culture. I think it’s normal to assume your way is the right way, but I think it’s important to remember that these girls probably have similar feelings about their host families! Maybe there is more you can learn from them?

alaaupair October 5, 2010 at 11:44 am

After reading all of this, I feel like, as a person coming to a foreign country, one should be opened minded about what they see and to keep judgement to themselves, if you don’t understand something, ask, but don’t judge because you weren’t raised a certain way or have never seen so much of something. Also something that may come into play here is the way someone says something can easily get lost in translation, it is obvious when an individual is being off-putting or rude, but when they blatantly do not understand something, I believe it is in the HM or HD best interest to correct and teach, and it seems to me that the women on this page are generally open minded and that’s what they are doing, I would hate to be discovering a new culture with a family that think’s im ignorant, which I am not, thankfully so. It gives me hope that I will match with a new family that are as happy as I am to meet someone new, to teach and represent each place they come from!

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