Several times a year we get an email from an au pair who is trapped in an unhappy host family home. The family might be recovering from some tragedy– the loss of a parent, a scary illness, money problems. The parents might be estranged or divorcing, or there might be issues with alcohol abuse and verbal abuse. Host parents can be downright mean, moody and depressive, or all-but-absent.
Whatever the reason for the family’s unhappiness, an unhappy home is a bad place to be an au pair.
Some au pairs are able to manage being in an unhappy home.
- They can detach emotionally or simply hold their breath while they’re on duty.
- They can re-craft their responsibilities so that they make themselves the source of brightness for the host kids.
- They can become actively involved as a positive force for helping the family pain heal. And,
- They can get caught up in the drama and add to it themselves.
It all depends.
What do we advise these au pairs?
When I put myself in the shoes of these au pairs, I usually want to tell them to rematch. I don’t thing that most 19 to 24 year old’s have the ability to protect themselves from the collateral damage that they can experience in an unhappy home. Unless the cause of the problem is something that is healing or can heal, I think au pairs should cut their losses.
But, when I put myself in the shoes of the host child(ren), I want to tell the au pair to stay. if the au pair has a good relationship with the kids, if s/he can indeed be a buffer or a positive force, then I hope s/he can find a way to stay so that the emotional damage to the children is mitigated by the support of a kind caregiver.
First stop for unhappy Au Pairs? The LCC
This is the kind of issue, too, where the burden and maybe blame falls to the LCC and/or the agency. After all, they are supposed to vet each host family to make sure that these are emotionally and physically safe environments ofr au pairs. of course, host parents can and do hide their problems from LCCs, and problems can crop up after families are in the program. Still, the first place an au pair should go is to his or her LCC. The LCC should help the au pair evaluate the situation, and get him or her into rematch if that’s warranted.
Still I wonder — How/
Can we help au pairs inthese situations to make a good decision to stay or go?
What should they consider?
Below, is a long, thoughtful email that we received from an au pair in an unhappy host home.
If you have some suggestions for her, please do share these in the comments.
I don’t know where to turn, and I hope you can help. I have been with my host family for almost two months. While I was lucky and able to meet the family (excluding the father) prior to my start date, I of course only saw the family and the children at their best!
First, let me preference this by saying, I really REALLY do like this family. They have been kind, welcoming and I think for the most part the transition to living with them full time has been mostly smooth (obviously there were little things here and there but I will blame them on jet lag and they had nothing to do with the children).
Ok, so here is my problem. I have agreed to be with the family until June. However, there have been a lot of issues ( not involving me) within the family that have made me continually stressed and worried. Let me preference this by saying I work minimal hours – three days a week for four hours each day and two days a week 8 hours, and weekends off. I never go out on the weeknights as I don’t want to disturb the family by coming in when they are asleep and I feel for the most part we have had a very good give and take relationship.
1. The children. I of course fell in love with them from almost the minute I met them. I truly LOVE children. However, they are extremely spoiled, scream when they do not get exactly what they want and can be extremely abusive to each other. One of them has these fits of rage so violent that I have to take the little one and put her in my room until the elder calms down. Luckily the elder one is very slight as I would worry about my own safety should she be bigger. The parents give in to them 100% of the time. Last night they refused to eat dinner.
Instead of being made by the parents to eat dinner they were offered treat cakes and watched spongebob. This is not the first time this has happened. Sugar is used as bribe and a way to make them “calm” down (we are talking spoonfuls of sugar in their tea, and maybe 3 snack cakes BEFORE dinner with some chocolate milk thrown in there for good measure). They don’t want to do homework? Ok, later. (which ends up being 9pm – and the little one is 6). If we are playing in the girls room and the mom enters and they don’t want her there they scream “LEEEEEAVEEE” (in their language) and she leaves – no questions asked. There are no rules here. Mostly I try to love them and provide SOME structure for them, however, without the parents support I can do nothing. (And disciplining them – like timeout – is a no go as they will run to their parents who will let them watch a movie or feed them some more sugar)
2. This is my true worry and concern: the parents (the children are a product of their parents actions and it is not the children’s fault that they cannot cope with this tense and unstructured home – I just try to pour on the love). The parents are continually arguing and bickering and there is no consistency between them. They will undermine each other right there in front of the children. They ignore each other and often completely ignore the children (even after being out of town for days and days they will not say hello to the kids, etc., the kids watch tv from 7pm until bedtime and no one ever talks to them during this time…). When the whole family is home together there is this tension in the air, and if I can feel it, I know the children can feel it.
As I mentioned my hours are really easy, lately, however, they will casually bring up “oh we are both out of town on Saturday”- implying that I will need to work on Saturday too (why can’t they just say “X we will need you on Saturday, is that ok?”). I feel that we are a family of sorts and so I try to be really flexible – I’m not going to say NO way- but I don’t understand why they can’t be more comfortable just asking me. I have stayed in contact with the old Au Pair and she didn’t have any where to escape to on the weekends (I leave late Friday night and return Sunday night or Monday am. It helps me to be excited about the upcoming week) so I wonder if they are just assuming that I should be around?
This is not a happy home. I am not a child. I am in my mid twenties and come from a loving home with guidelines. Of course my parents fought (we were after all a regular family!) however, it was never like this – I knew my parents ultimately loved each other.
Part of me worries that for my mental health I need to unmatch with this family – the other part feels that I’m greatly needed by this family. (Their previous Au Pair said it was the most trying time in her life and it brought her closer to God). I cannot abandon them. I feel for the parents and the children. I don’t want to disrupt the children’s lives anymore by leaving them. And, sometimes, in these rare moments things are ok (its always when the parents aren’t together… and we are enjoying a moment solo with one of the parents).
I am so lost. I feel like I’ve almost been brought into the house to be a buffer, so that the parents don’t have to be alone with each other. If I try to have a more open communication with the mom she always says “Don’t worry, don’t worry.” BUT I AM WORRIED! These are her children’s lives (and mine!). I am witnessing a family falling apart and the kids being left to their own way to medicate themselves: sugar and tv.
Any advice would be greatly appreciated.