Every morning and evening I am thankful for our au pair, S.
She arrived in January 2013 to take care of our son, who was 8 months old at the time. S was trained to be an au pair in a foreign run orphanage for handicapped and other abandoned children and orphans in Zhengzhou, China. She arrived just as I was finishing my maternity leave and about to go back to my job as a geology professor. She is about to finish her year with us and is extending for another 6 months, thankfully giving us continuous and stable childcare until our second child is born in early July.
Our son has developed a deep bond with S over the year that she has been living with our family. She speaks only Chinese to him, which he now understands fluently. As a side benefit, my Chinese is better than it has been in years. One of our son’s first three words (and the only words he said for about 4 months) was Jiejie, or older sister, which is what he calls S.
When he hears her coming back from her morning run, he lights up and calls “Jiejie”, turning towards the door to look at her. She is very excited to teach him new skills, so she has taught him to drink from a regular cup (he never used a sippy cup) and to use a spoon. Away from meal time, she has taught him to pat his tummy, clap his hands, stick out his tongue, and spin in circles. All these commands he understands only in Chinese. My husband has learned a little Chinese so that he can give our son these prompts too.
In speaking to our son only in Chinese and often using Chinese with me, she has sacrificed some of her chance to practice English and has made an effort to fully immerse herself in the college community of our town to make up for the decreased English practice at home. We live in a small town with no other au pairs and S has taken advantage of a wide variety of academic and non academic courses as a way to make friends, practice English, and enhance herself as a person.
She came to the US with a college degree and an insatiable thirst for more knowledge. The first semester she was here she took ESL classes 3-4 nights a week, audited a 4-credit academic course on teaching foreign languages, and took classes in Korean and swing dancing. She loves to dance and also learned to contra dance and blues dance with the students. During her limited free time from all these scheduled activities, she started to tutor a local high school student and a Chinese-American elementary school student in Chinese. During fall semester her tutoring jobs continued and the elementary class grew to three students, all with at least one Chinese parent. Her second semester she continued with swing dancing and ESL (one night a week) and added tango, a class on ancient Chinese history (which she had not learned much of in China), and a class on inequality in access to education. She is studying to take the TOEFL and plans to apply to graduate school in early childhood education with a focus on Montessori programs.
S and I talk extensively about issues on her mind, including differences in parenting between the US and China and what she will do after finishing her time as an au pair. She is worried that if she goes back to China and marries and has a child there, her future mother in law will not approve of the westernized child-care practices she learned in the US. But she is also concerned that if she stays in the US, she will be lonely and miss her family. She is still navigating the balance between her home culture and the culture, and particularly views on child rearing, that she has learned while in the US.
I have to travel a bit for my job and I never hesitate to plan trips that will have me away for a few days during the week because I know that S can keep things in order while I am gone. My husband works long hours and when I am out of town S has to work 10 hour days and be responsible for feeding our son three meals and getting him ready for bed at night. Even on regular work days (9 hours), she will often work past the time that I get home because she wants to make sure that the kitchen is cleaned up for us at the end of the day.
S often is busy in the evening so she doesn’t eat dinner with us much, but she cooks delicious Chinese food on Saturday evenings and sometimes makes us noodles for lunch on the weekends. Over the summer she made lunch for me every day as a way of thanking me for making her part of our family. It was awesome to come home to hot meals every day. When I got pregnant this fall and was really sick and tired, she started making us a salad when she made her own salad for dinner each night.
Finally, S has been so supportive of non-traditional parenting practices and things I try. We never spoon fed our son, so giving him meals was a complete mess when he was 8 months old. She had to bring him to my office to nurse daily the first semester I was back at work. We tried (unsuccessfully) to do elimination communication and early potty training. She would ask me about my logic behind things and go along with whatever guidelines I gave her. When she doesn’t agree with me, we talk through the best strategy for whatever I am trying to accomplish.
Our house is a better place for having S living with us. I was very worried about being a working mom, having had few role models of working mothers in my life, and I think that if it weren’t for S, it would be much harder for me to be a working mother. As a final note, I am writing this essay from China, where I am conducting field work, and S is doing an excellent job taking care of our son while I am away.