Can an Au Pair Help An Anorexic Host Mom? Should She Try?

by cv harquail on April 21, 2015

When an au pair notices that the host mom is having some kind of personal problem, should the au pair try to talk with the host mom about it?

When I think about this question in the abstract, my answer is

“Of course! If the au pair cares about the host mm as a person, and they have a human-to-human connection, then if an au pair has a concern she should definitely bring it up.”

Bu then when I think about the actual situations that have been raised on the blog before and the ones I faced myself, my response is quite different.  

I do rather wish that the au pair who was concerned about my soul burning in hell had kept that one to herself.  

One of the hardest things about having an au pair in your house is finding a way to pretend that you have some privacy so that you can save face.  

You know you’re screwing up sometimes, you au pair can see you screwing up sometimes, and maybe it’s better to pretend that we don’t know they can see us? 

And at the same time, haven’t I wanted my au pairs to genuinely care? Haven’t I appreciated when they did?  

Ifau pair problems, host mom you were the host mom here, would you want you au pair to say anything?

Is there anything you could imagine her doing that might help?

Dear AuPairMom – 

I am an au pair for a family of two children and single hostmom. I have been with them for four months now.

I am becoming more and more concerned about my host mom as I assume that she is anorexic. She eats very little, always finds excuses to eat and lost quite a bit of weight since I arrived. She does quite a bit of sport too and she works a lot.

I would like to help her, but I don’t know how to approach her and how to bring up the subject. I read the two posts you have on your website regarding anorexic au pairs, and of course I could just leave and not care but …

We are all very close and I care about them.  

I wish I could do something because I am afraid that my hostmom won’t be able to leave this vicious circle without some support.

I am also afraid her school aged kids might notice her eating habits and adopt similar behaviors themselves. 

Do you have any advice for me what I can do?  



Photo Credit: changed screen name via Compfight cc


FirstTimeHM April 22, 2015 at 10:27 am

That’s a really difficult one.
I’ve seen people die of eating disorders, my cousin being one of them, and I know the frustration and hurt of seeing someone you love slowly die.
The one I know that came out of an eating disorder again was able to do that because of the people she loved and trusted were there for her, they did not spare her, but they took charge and forced her to look at her problems. Her mates couldn’t do that, she wouldn’t have accepted that, it had to be people she loved and trusted for a long time.
At this moment I would contact your LCC, if this isn’t new the last au pair probably mentioned something like this as well. Don’t mention eating disorder, simply mention that your hostmom is working really hard, and probably too hard, she’s even losing weight. This can become an issue so it’s good to have your LCC informed.
As an au pair you’re a role model as well. Simply enjoy your (healthy) food, tell the kids it’s ok to eat as much sandwiches as you like, but to have only one cookie as snack (and as much fruit/veggies as they like as well). Tell them their body needs good food to grow and to be active. Tell them they should never skip breakfast (and model that behaviour).
The only thing you can tell your hostmom is that you’re afraid she’s driving herself too hard, and if you could do something to get some load off of her.
If you know the host grandparents and they have a good relationship with the hostmom, you could drop this with them as well. She’s working so hard and doing so much and losing weight as well….
Whatever you do, don’t self diagnose her with an eating disorder. You’ll drive her away if you say it in her face and as well as she hears you’ve been telling that behind her back.
And don’t force her to eat, that won’t work. The only thing that works is to make a nice meal and don’t talk about food at the table, simply about everything that happened that day and the fun things you’re planning with the kids. That way the meal isn’t only about food but also about being together as a family.

HRHM April 22, 2015 at 11:39 am

As a physician, I would suggest that you not get involved. Unless her condition/behaviors start to effect you directly, you should mind your own business. FWIW, this is the exact same advice I gave regarding having an AP with an eating disorder.

First off, you aren’t really qualified to make the diagnosis. There are lots of reasons that people don’t eat and lots of reasons people lose visible weight. Most of these are not things I would discuss with my AP even if I really liked her. So while you may see her losing what you consider inappropriate weight, it’s not up to you to decide if she has a problem.

Sadly, even in people who DO have a problem with their behavior effecting their health, studies show that when loved ones attempt to help (even if they are told that help is welcome) the result is actually a worsening, not improvement of the behavior and outcomes.

If she has a problem and knows it, your mentioning it will only embaress (and possible anger) her. If she has a problem and is in denial, it will be even worse.

At the end of your letter, you mention leaving. You don’t say (other than worrying about her) what negative impact her eating and weight loss have had on you and your AP year. If she is not buying food for the rest of the house, starving you or the kids, staying in bed all the time because she is ill and fatigued, I get how this would prompt a rematch. If she’s just skipping dinner to go to the gym, as long as she’s within hours requirements, it’s not really your business or your problem.

SKNY April 22, 2015 at 12:05 pm

I agree with all, but I think what she meant was that she wanted HM to LEAVE the behavior, as in improve, and did not mean her rematching or leaving

Mimi April 22, 2015 at 12:16 pm

I read that as in the AP leaving the situation.

HRHM April 22, 2015 at 12:18 pm

“and of course I could just leave and not care but …”

that’s the line I was referring to.

SKNY April 22, 2015 at 1:21 pm

ohhh totally missed that one

WarmStateMomma April 22, 2015 at 1:40 pm

Maybe she meant that at the end of her year, she’d be leaving and the mom could be left behind with a problem the AP wished she could help her overcome during their time together? It seems like they have a pretty caring relationship.

Seattle Mom April 22, 2015 at 1:48 pm

That was my interpretation, though it could be wrong.

WarmStateMomma April 22, 2015 at 12:38 pm


I’m not a doctor, but I’ve had major health issues while hosting an AP. It’s awful to have someone witnessing your private and personal health struggles, especially when they don’t fully understand them. It’s one of those times that hosting and privacy really clash. Regardless of whether she has an eating disorder, your concern is going to feel awful when she realizes you’ve been observing and judging her private behavior in her own home to be of concern to you.

Please respect your HM’s privacy and don’t discuss it unless she brings it up first. Do your best to model healthy habits for the kids and let HM handle her health problems privately. She’s an adult and entitled to make her own decisions about whether and how to seek help.

exaupair April 22, 2015 at 5:29 pm


AuPair Paris April 22, 2015 at 11:54 am

Umm! Horrible situation! But you can’t say or do anything – not unless directly asked, I don’t think. I mean, this is your boss, for one thing… For another, denial is usually quite a heavy part of an eating disorder. You can’t imagine your intervention as like… “I am talking to someone clearly very sick and offering sympathy and support”. That is what you might be offering, but what the sick person is getting is “this person is making unfounded and totally ridiculous accusations, for absolutely no reason at all… And judging my food and eating habits”.

I’m not saying talking to sick people doesn’t become necessary at some point but… I don’t know. Not from an au pair… Not an employee. Eating disorders (and other mental health issues) are in a very weird public/private place. The sick person wants it to be totally private, even if everyone knows about it – and an acknowledgement that it’s noticeable can be crushing. On the other hand, it often is noticeable, and the flipside is that allowing people to believe that it isn’t a problem if no one can tell, isn’t helpful either.

This is one of the very few situations where I’d suggest talking to other people about a problem with the HM, and not the HM herself. The HD, if you think he’s reasonable, or my have noticed yourself… Otherwise are there people from the agency who may have advice? Or are there even helplines for the families and friends of the affected?

Finally, if you decide to stay (it wouldn’t make me leave, without some other impetus. Sickness is sickness is sickness, and lots of people are ill in various ways…) look after the kids! Try and counter any negative attitudes about food and eating and weight that they might be picking up. Take care of themselves and take care of yourself, and don’t lie to your HM, but don’t confront her either…

*I am not a medical professional. I have an unfortunately much higher than average experience of close friends and family with serious eating disorders, so I’m drawing on my own experience with that, but my advice is obviously in no way professional.*

AuPair Paris April 22, 2015 at 11:57 am

Umm, that should read “the HD if you think he’s reasonable or may have noticed himself”. My PSG on this site is terrible. Also, I totally didn’t realise HRHM had posted as a physician. So, the first post is basically expert advice!

HRHM April 22, 2015 at 12:21 pm

She is with a single parent household.
IMHO, talking to HMs ex-husband is a true recipe for disaster and completely out of line unless the kids are in real danger. You could land them in court and a messy custody battle. I’d fire my AP in a heartbeat if I found out she was going to my ex behind my back with any concerns…

Seattle Mom April 22, 2015 at 1:54 pm

I agree that in this case talking to the HD would be inappropriate. But if there is some other trustworthy family member that the AP knows, it might help at least ease her conscience to say something to that person. At the same time, there is still little that family member could do because of all the things HRHM said in her initial comment.

I could see how living with a HM with an illness that you can’t ever mention could be stressful for an AP. If that is the case, I do recommend talking to *someone* trustworthy about it just so that you can wrap your head around it and figure out how to be the best AP in that situation. You might need some support. Or maybe you don’t – I don’t know really, but I can guess that some would. If you do end up talking to someone, please be careful not to talk to someone who will gossip with either other APs or their HF- it really could be devastating if it ever got back to HM or HK. This is potentially dangerous- it might be best to just talk to friends at home if you need support, though they may not fully understand what it’s like to be an AP so they may not be as supportive as fellow APs.

Tough one!

AuPair Paris April 22, 2015 at 3:37 pm

Yes, sorry! Missed that one! I was thinking of the help of a supportive husband, not running to tell tales to an ex, of course!

SKNY April 22, 2015 at 1:20 pm

I agree also that the biggest problems of au pairs for me is the lack of privacy.
After I had one of my girls I had post partum depression. Between that, working 10hs day, nursing a baby every 2hs at night, and having a 2yo acting up in jealousy, I was run down and exhausted. Really.
I did my best to keep face when the kids were around and all, and be nice to all… That au pair was our worse one ever, and made sure to always comment on how I looked depressed and ran down. And not in a discreet way. We would be in the dinner table and she would say: “wow, you are tired again?”. the one day I lost with the kids and yelled (other thing I avoid), she came 5 minutes later and asked: “so, are you calm already?”

Seattle Mom April 22, 2015 at 2:06 pm

Yikes, I couldn’t handle living with an AP who said such mean things!

Peachtree Mom April 23, 2015 at 3:33 am

Good grief, talk about kicking somebody when they are down. She sounds terrible. If the situation were not so dire to have some help…her bags would have been on the doorstep (after her 14 days).

SwissAuPair April 23, 2015 at 6:00 am

Maybe she tried to be very nice and was worried about you, but it got lost in translation?
I had the situation that my HM told me that she feels I’m talking in a ironic way to the 3 year old and that I should take his feelings more serious. I did nor really understood what she was talking about. Then we found out that my Swiss-German sounds ironic to her (she is German). When for example “XY” walked into a table and cried i was like “ooooh pooor xy, you see it doesn’t really hurt, you are really such a poor boy”. I was not ironic at all so we had that missunderstanding.

And because of the “are you tired again?”: When my mom was sick over weeks I often came home and asked exactly this question. And when she told me that she actually was tired, I told her to rest in her bedroom and I would do some household chores to help her. If this would have been my HM I would have done exactly the same without wanting to be mean by asking a simple question.

SKNY April 23, 2015 at 8:44 am

This au pair was from my home country and spoke to me in our home language only. This was the au pair who would take the kids to the YMCA childcare and go out shopping, or go to the sauna reading a magazine for HOURS. Was also the one who left the agency without any notice to a family out of the agency. Told this family we abused her in many ways (small community, I learned later), and ended up kicked out of this family house in the middle of a snow storm after many episodes of drama, lies, car crash and a long list…. She stayed 8 weeks with us and 6 with family 2… Last time I heard about her (from au pairs in the area) she was already on family 4…

SwissAuPair April 23, 2015 at 9:00 am

Oh, I see and I absolutely agree that she should not make mean comments like that.

Mimi April 22, 2015 at 2:07 pm

You can’t assume that someone is anorexic based on weight loss, inconsistent food habits and weight loss. There might be other factors at play. My sister (under doctor’s orders because of health issues) recently lost weight to a point where I think she looks emaciated. She is still at a healthy BMI and weight but part of what is odd for me is how different she looks now, even though she wasn’t overweight to begin with. She is having to work very hard to maintain the weight loss because it’s hard to be a skinny pastry chef, especially when you’ve inherited your family’s stout body type (along with Oma’s pastry recipes).

I agree with HRHM’s statement that while you may see her losing what you consider inappropriate weight, it’s not up to you to decide if she has a problem. I do think it’s your business if it starts to affect you or your charges, which we haven’t heard about here. In this case, a response should fit the circumstance of the specific way it’s affecting you. In the meantime, try to be supportive in other ways and model healthy behaviors for the children regardless of this situation.

Au Pair Report Author April 22, 2015 at 2:15 pm

There are some extremely important points made above about respecting a host mom’s privacy. I agree a confrontation may just lead to a denial that would do irreparable damage to the relationship. Because the mom is single, I am wondering if she just doesn’t feel inspired to cook much. What is the “food culture” of the house? Is it all convenience foods and rushed meals or is meal time and food somewhat important? Cooking meals for the family is one of those “gray areas” of the au pair/host family relationship. Of course, au pairs can cook for the kids as a child-related task OR for the whole family as part of being “a member of the family,” but it’s not OK to be forced to have sole responsibility for cooking. Nonetheless, this may be the best way for the au pair to make a positive difference. If she knows what the host mom likes to eat when she does eat, she may want to offer to cook a certain number of times per week–or just make delicious food and offer to share it. As for the kids, I don’t think I’d worry so much at this point unless they are teenage girls who are already worrying too much about how they look. Eating disorders should not be blamed on mothers because we know there are plenty of cultural influences that can send people in this direction regardless of what parents do or say.

HRHM April 22, 2015 at 3:17 pm

Yes, the development of eating disorders has little to nothing to do with external cues from Moms and a whole lot to do with kids themselves feeling otherwise out of control. This can manifest in families where there is no other member with disordered eating at all. It’s more often seen in kids who are under tremendous pressure due to academics, intense sports or other high expectations, or where family life is chaotic (nasty divorce going on, severe substance abuse, etc)

AuPair Paris April 22, 2015 at 3:40 pm

I’d still worry about the kids getting unhealthy messages about eating though? Eating disorders are another issue, but over-exposure diet culture, and obsessive calory counting is not good for kids, regardless of whether it comes from an eating disorder or just from typical societal pressure..? I wouldn’t worry about kids “growing up to be anorexic”. But I hate the idea of kids growing up to obsess over food, and dislike their bodies – totally separate from it actually being a mental illness.

WarmStateMomma April 22, 2015 at 4:54 pm

“Healthy eating” is a subjective concept that varies by culture and it’s a closely guarded *parenting decision* in my household. For context, my APs come from a culture where bacon is considered a health food (b/c of the high fat content!) and nutritional deficiencies are so common that people don’t even know they have them (example – they think pineapples cause canker sores and don’t realize it’s the acidic juice that just aggravates nutritional deficiencies).

AuPair Paris April 22, 2015 at 5:33 pm

Mmm, I’m sure lots of cultures have different diets and ways of regarding food. But I would say that I don’t think obsession with calories, dieting, and body hatred is healthy for anyone. Certainly, some cultures will have better ways of dealing with these issues than others, or even fewer incidences, perhaps. But I suppose I’m not talking about healthy eating, so much as healthy thinking – and food/body image obsession is not a healthy way to think, for anyone. In my opinion.

Eating disorders are complicated. They are serious mental illness, triggered by lots of different things – desire for control being the most frequently cited… I know perfectly well that anorexia isn’t about “wanting to be thin” – but unfortunately it manifests in that way, and is still an unhealthy message to send. I suppose having grown up with a mother who dieted a lot (with no eating disorder – just typical western attitude towards women’s weight), and having grown up *knowing* deep down, without ever having been told, that I would be *worthless* if I was fat, means that I take those messages really seriously. It’s not at all the same thing as an eating disorder, and having a parent with an eating disorder is not the only cause for those kinds of messages. There are millions. But I do think that they’re unhealthy and should be minimised, all the same.

WarmStateMomma April 23, 2015 at 8:50 am

AP Paris – maybe I should be more worried about hosting APs from China! A woman’s looks and weight seem to be way more important there than in the US (some office job descriptions even specify that the applicant must be attractive) and I wonder sometimes what messages the APs unintentionally transmit. Two of the 3 APs we hosted looked as if they grew up undernourished because their bone structures were so thin – and they still worried that their weight might exceed 45 kilos. They just looked frail. (I don’t diet and I’ve been wearing size 0 since 8 weeks after having baby 2, so this isn’t a overweight-woman-jealous-of-a-skinny-one thing.) Our new AP runs marathons, looks strong, and has a big appetite – such a great example for my eagle-eyed toddler!

AuPair Paris April 23, 2015 at 9:56 am

I think it’s hard to find a young woman who isn’t to some degree obsessed with weight – from anywhere! I have heard that in China the criticism of fat-ness is much more overt though… But mentioning it around children makes me uncomfortable. It’s not possible to protect them from the awareness of it, but I guess I think at least home should be a safe space from it all. It took me SO long to come to terms with my own (healthy, but not very *skinny*) weight… And to feel like I could eat like a normal, healthy human being without a ton of guilt. (Not even mentioning the occasional junky snack.)

Thing is, it’s SO acceptable for women to talk about diets and their weight and to put themselves down all the time… One of my friends who is in the later stages of recovery from anorexia, said that one of the hardest things with regard to the recovery (aside from dealing with the underlying issues), was realising that you were trying to develop a “normal”, “healthy” attitude towards food and weight, in a society that valorises and publicises an *unhealthy* attitude. That is, to hold the normal view is not the same as holding a healthy one! Which is a struggle for anyone, but particularly for someone in recovery, looking for reasons to continue in denial…

If I had kids and were looking for an au pair, I’d probably screen for a healthy attitude towards this stuff, but I appreciate that HP have a ton of stuff to screen for as it is – and it could be just too much!

(I can’t seem to get off my soapbox… And it’s not even the subject of the post!)

SKNY April 23, 2015 at 10:57 am

It is hard. I am not as fortunate and am actively “dieting”. Still, I have 4 daughters (one is 18) and the words “fat”, “diet”, and “weight” (or similars) are not allowed in the house.

WarmStateMomma April 23, 2015 at 11:48 am


It’s just dumb luck in my case, but we don’t discuss weight or physical beauty in front of the toddler. While we want her to develop healthy eating habits, it’s even more important to us that she be shielded from body image obsessions as long as possible because we think that bring more unhappiness than junky food (which can definitely bring a smile). I have all the same body image woes that most American women have…it’s tough to discard those issues once you’ve picked them up.

From what I’ve heard secondhand and observed myself, Chinese are quite blunt (offensive in our culture) about looks, disfigurements, etc.

I have “lost” more than one of my daughter’s Chinese books that contained offensive content. Usually it’s due to violence but stories about princesses who don’t do anything but obey and be pretty tend to get “lost” as well.

Host Mom in the City April 22, 2015 at 3:24 pm

As a former anorexic and also a host mom that had one of the worst years of my life right under my au pair’s nose, I would strongly recommend unfortunately that the au pair in this situation not say anything to the host mom. Anorexia comes with strong denial and the host mom will most likely not respond to the inquiry in a positive manner regardless of whether it’s true or not. It’s also possible that it’s not anorexia and that there is something else going on with the host mom. You just don’t know, and in these cases, it’s better to focus on what you can do to help the situation within the context of your current role.

Certainly, if the food culture of the household or the stress of the family gets to a point where it’s affecting the au pair’s health, then he or she needs to leave the family. You are your own priority first and foremost no matter how much you love the mom or the kids. But assuming that isn’t happening, the au pair can most assist by supporting the children through what sounds like a difficult time. Perhaps reading something about children and divorce would be beneficial in thinking through what they might be dealing with. Again, this is a lot to ask of an au pair, and the au pair needs to first and foremost be sure that her own health and enjoyment of her year isn’t being sacrificed. There are some big issues that are simply not appropriate to expect an au pair to take on.

As I mentioned, we had a significant event occur while our second au pair was living with us that I could easily describe as the worst event of my life. I actually found out later that my au pair knew what had happened, but I still am so so thankful to her for just going about her business, recognizing that it was a private issue, and letting me believe I had some privacy. That’s an important skill when you’re living in such close quarters with other people.

DC Metro Mom April 22, 2015 at 3:25 pm

I am definitely siding with HRHM on this. Obviously, she has the clinical expertise. One symptom may have a variety of reasons behind it, some benign some not. However, you are not in a position to have specific knowledge. You are also not her friend or family, just not in a place to have the type of (a) knowledge base of her or (b) relationship of trust an candor that would allow for this type of conversation. Just because she hasn’t discussed any issues with YOU doesn’t mean that she hasn’t with anyone.

Do not go to a co-parent about this at this point. If there is any contention, this could lead to disaster. This would also violate a trust that just could not be repaired. She is trusting you very precious people. Don’t do anything that would demonstrate that that trust is misplaced or disrespected. And don’t assume that any ex-spouse will be completely altruistic. I have worked in enough trauma centers, and even cancer centers, to tell you about the digging that was done before HIPAA (yes, I know that I just aged myself).

And whatever you do, do not bring up any concerns, at this point, about your concern of the kids picking this stuff up. She does not need guilt and, again, you have no ability to really know what is going on.

hOstCDmom April 22, 2015 at 4:33 pm

one way to look at this is, if the HM had a physical illness, and needed extra support, what would you do (as a kind person, which you sound like you are AP)? You would be supportive, try to help the house run smoothly, and fill in gaps where you see them. While the difference is that there probably wouldn’t be the same trepidation about talking about the illness, nonetheless, you wouldn’t necessarily try to counsel the HM about her cancer, or lupus, or multiple sclerosis etc. You would try to be kind and supportive to the HM through your actions, and to the HK. I would suggest you do the same here. You don’t have the full picture about what is going on with the HM, but you perceive that something is going on that might mean she is not well – be it anorexia or otherwise. You don’t need the details to be a supportive, kind person to her. And she can appreciate you and your actions without ever discussing what is going on with her (if anything is). So be it cancer or anorexia, you couldn’t solve her health issue, but you can be part of a supportive fabric of people and resources in her life without ever needing to know or discuss the details.

HRHM April 22, 2015 at 5:17 pm


momo4 April 22, 2015 at 9:55 pm

+1. And well said.

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