Au Pairing in an UnHappy Home

by cv harquail on February 23, 2012

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.

lies ro buck im not there.jpgSome 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.

Dear AuPairMom,

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.5189657900_f90dce2b94_b.jpg

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.

Images: Lies and Empty Dreams AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by ro_buk [I’m not there] on Flickr


Taking a Computer Lunch February 23, 2012 at 8:18 am

When mothers-to-be worrry about how the delivery of their child will go, I tell them, “Don’t worry, that’s the easy part. The hard part is raising them to be people with whom you will actually want to spend time.” I have witnessed plenty of people who have not wanted to parent, and their children are irritating. Kids need boundaries. They want to know what the rules are.

You are living in a broken family, and it sounds – given your communication with the previous au pair – like it has been broken for a long time.You do not have to stay. Yes, you may make the children’s lives better while you are with them, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of your own mental health.

Some families break down at stress points, but if they are otherwise mentally healthy, they recover. I’ll give you a for example – last year The Camel, my beautiful special needs child, had major surgery and ended up on life support for nine days. Both parents, our AP, and one pair of grandparents gave the healthy child the love and support we thought he needed (in shifts) during the time The Camel was hospitalized (it turned out to be a month). It was not enough for him. He fell apart and the stress was more than the family could bear – given that we were already maxed out. However, we are an otherwise healthy family, and over time we have recovered. It has taken several months of hard work, and a realization that as parents, we could actually dig deeper and give more.

If you decide that you must stay with this family, then it is okay to set guidelines for the children’s behavior when they are with you (understanding that your rules will fall apart when the parents are around). It’s okay for you to say, “That behavior might work with your mom and dad, but it’s not going to work with me. When you are with me I expect X.”

eM. February 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm

I was in your shoes once. I was an aupair for a broken family that also treated me like a slave (you are kinda lucky with that) and the kids (9 and 11) used to wet bed and behave like real FIVE-year-olds.

They went into several tantrums as the rows between their mum/dad went further and further.

I knew they loved me as in their good moments they were awesome and we had fun but the fights between their parents were going worse and worse and worse.

I decided to leave when my HM(she got used to make me wake up at strange hours to talk about household duties or just weirdy stuff /(strange hours, 4AM….) put a wet towel on my face just to wake me up (she had me working until 1AM that night so I just had TWO hours of sleep and I was feeling akward as one of the kids was sick and I had the same thing). I almost jumped out of bed totally scared…

But what I mean with all of that is that living in a broken house and keeping your sanity is NOT possible. Yours dont treat you badly (not RLLY badly, I mean, I think they sort do) but mines did and I think that part of that attitude against me was because of the household problems.


German Au-Pair February 23, 2012 at 11:45 pm

I honestly understand why you feel responsible for making a difference in those children’s lives. However, I don’t think you can. If a family is truly broken, without any recognition of the problem, no outsider will be able to fix anything.
Firefighters and other people who serve to save other people only do that until they reach the point where they would harm themselves.
Even though it is very sad that those children have to live like that, you should no make other people’s problems your own. You want to enjoy your time as an au pair and I’m sure there is a family out there that has children that need you to in some way but that will not wreck your own mental health.

JBLV February 26, 2012 at 3:12 am

This is a very difficult answer, and an answer that should be prefaced with the statement that you must follow your own inclinations. My only piece of advice is to sit down with your hostparents (separately) and discuss your concerns. You will probably be able to answer your own question after this.

Former HostMum, now overseas February 28, 2012 at 5:39 am

I feel sorry that you have ended up in this situation for your first experience.
This is not normal in a family. It sounds like this family has had problems for a long time and unfortunately you are not going to fix this.
You are just making yourself miserable. I would immediately talk to your LCC and rematch.
I know there are plenty of families with a lot less drama that would be more than happy to have you as their Au Pair.

Good luck.

This particular Au Pair March 5, 2012 at 9:01 am

Things have, for better terms, gotten much much worse. Not necessarily in the family, but with an immediate family member who has now given me the indicator he would like a relationship of some kind with me. He is 50+ years older.

I will be talking to my host mom tonight. And either figuring this out – or leaving – ASAP!

cv harquail March 6, 2012 at 10:09 am

Thanks for the update– this seems to be going from bad to worse. We wish you the best. cv

Au Pair in Italy March 31, 2012 at 6:04 pm

Don’t talk about it, leave! Run as far away from these people as possible…especially now that there’s a creeper involved. Your situation sounds similar to mine (although without the creeper) and I understand how hard it is to leave when you become attached to children.

I look after two children (ages 7 and 9) and have grown particularly close to the 9 year old who is very disturbed but not beyond helping. When I think about what her life will be like when I leave, my heart breaks a little bit for her because she is in a situation where she cannot win.

Just like in your family, there are no boundaries or rules in mine and the kids are rewarded for their bad behaviour. I have tried to set rules but the parents undermine me and only the little girl listens really because she knows that good behaviour brings rewards and that I listen to her. Still, the fact that her brother gets away with murder is a frustration to her and she has massive tantrums multiple times a day as a result. I have tried to teach her how to handle her anger and frustration, but every time I make progress, the parents seem to erase all of my hard work. She tells me that she lives in “the land of crazy” and that she feels powerless. She cries when she thinks about me not being around and says things like “but who will remember that I like the strawberry flavoured snacks…who will I write stories with?” Things that her emotionally absent mother certainly will not do.

Anyway, long story short is that you will never win in this situation, no matter how much you are tempted to try and help these children. In the end I have had to detach myself emotionally from this family. I see what I do as a job, which is a shame because I so wanted it to be a real family experience, but that is what I have had to do to keep my sanity!

Do what you need to do for yourself, remember these are not your children and ultimately there is nothing that you can do if they parents are not on board!

sweetheart April 3, 2012 at 8:57 pm

mm I need to advices first how can I post a topic so you all guys can comment, I mean one like the original post I am “replying”.
Second, I am missing 2 credits of my educational component, my host family paid 200 dollars for the last class I took. they are required to pay 500. I found a class that I really like and the schedule works perfectly for both sides, but my host mom told me today she is not willing to pay the 200 this class cost and well, I not only want to take the class but also is a requirement for me too!!, if I dont complete the AP program so I can have my flight back home and also my deposit!!!

I talked to my lcc and she just told me to try again.. what if it doesnt work, I am so pissed off as I always say yes to everythinhg they expect from me, I do my work and I am super flexible as I dont have friends around and I am most of the time on duty, (even if i am suppossed off)….it is just unfair that when it comes to me there is not flexibility or respect

Taking a Computer Lunch April 4, 2012 at 11:46 am

I would try once again. Ask for an evening meeting when the kids have gone to bed. You should have a contract, which you & your HP signed. One of the elements is the agreement to pay the first $500 of your educational expenses. Quietly and calmly explain to your HP that they signed on to this commitment, and point out that they have only paid $200 toward your educational expenses.

If your HM still refuses, then call a meeting with her and your LCC. It sounds like you have more than the educational expenses to iron out.

NoVA Twin Mom April 4, 2012 at 4:29 pm

I agree with TACL, a meeting is in order – but can I suggest a few things to ask your HM about?

Is her objection to paying for a class in general, or is there something specific about this class she doesn’t want to pay for?

You say it sounds like a really great class and meets at a great time – is there something she knows about the class you don’t? Could she feel the class is overpriced for what you’d be getting – is it a $200 “underwater basket weaving” class? “Underwater basket weaving” is a well-known joke – basically it means you get credit for doing not much of anything.

Another question I have is if perhaps her objection has to do with timing? Twice now I’ve had an au pair come up with requests to pay for a class NOW because otherwise the class will fill – but the au pair knew the expense was coming in advance. Unfortunately, the au pair didn’t realize (and had no way of knowing) that the installment payment to the au pair agency, the mortgage, and a credit card bill or two – so $3000 in charges, not including the ~$200 au pair stipend, gas, utilities, and groceries – were all due that same week.

Which made me groan (silently, I hope) at the thought of having to pay for a class NOW that would have been fine if it could have been paid on my schedule instead. Like, after my next paycheck arrives. (I know some families require that their au pairs pay for the class up front and be reimbursed after completion, something we’ll definitely be considering in the future!) And I don’t even want to consider my reaction if the request had been made while I was trying to make dinner or busy changing a couple of diapers!

So – as TaCL suggests, schedule a meeting when you know HM will be able to talk uninterrupted, but try to figure out what your HM’s “real” objection is during the meeting. If her objection is really to paying for the rest of your educational requirement, then call in the LCC again.

NoVA Twin Mom April 4, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Just to clarify – no, we didn’t pay NOW, but that didn’t change my initial groan! :)

Taking a Computer Lunch April 4, 2012 at 5:52 pm

The reason I suggested calling an evening meeting is that I am frequently blind-sided by APs with questions the minute I arrive home. I know they want to pose their questions while they’re still on the clock, but it makes my head spin. I want to say hello to my kids, find out how the day went, and not be distracted by figuring whether the class is a good thing and the timing works well. (This also works for time off to attend concerts, booking vacation time, heading out of town with friends…) I love my APs, but truly give time to their requests, I need a few minutes to say hello to my kids and get my “home bearings.”

sweetheart April 4, 2012 at 10:40 pm

nop it is not because of the class itself, it is because she said she does not wish to pay anymore for the au pair program requierements.. (honestly, it is not only with my stuff it is with everything has to do with money, not in vain her mother calls her stingy all the time)…It is not about timing either, the class is on saturdays and I am off on weekends (always)…so, it doesnt affect her at all. the class is not full yet and I still have plenty of time to take it, she just does not find fair to pay for my credits…

Taking a Computer Lunch April 5, 2012 at 11:47 am

Then don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Pay for the class, take it, and finish your credits.

Aussie mum August 27, 2012 at 9:09 am

This sounds really hard. Your love isn’t going to fix zero discipline, I think you should rematch for your own sake. You sound like a really caring girl, but if the parents are not backing your attempts to control the kids you have no way of improving things and should look after yourself.

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