Exorcising the Ghost of a Bad Au Pair: Advice?

by cv harquail on August 27, 2008

ghostlytooty102 – Thoughts of her send chills down your spine.
– You see her in your dreams.
– Thumps on the third floor make you think she still lives here.
– You can’t shake the feeling that someone is watching you, criticizing you, maybe even disliking you.

You can’t shake it, because you’re haunted.
Haunted by the Ghost of a Bad Au Pair.

If you’ve never had a ‘bad’ au pair, lucky you. You’ll never know just how long the memories of that bad relationship might trouble you. And, you may never realize just how deeply your approach to a new au pair, as well as your concerns, defenses, and self-confidence, might have been negatively affected.  You may think that other host moms are just making up ‘bad’ Au Pair Ghost stories. But for any of us host moms who have had a ‘bad’ au pair, that ghost can be all too real.

ghost conservatorywoman

I was reflecting recently on my own experience with a ‘bad’ au pair… an otherwise lovely young woman who, for a variety of reasons, wasn’t the right au pair for us. And, I’m wondering, as I start to interview new au pair candidates— How can I keep my experience of this bad relationship from affecting how I evaluate candidates, what I think I can reasonably expect from a new au pair, and how much freedom, responsibility, and emotional energy I feel able to give her?

If you’ve had a ‘bad’ au pair or an unsuccessful au pair relationship, how have you exorcized its ghost? What have you done to start afresh?

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Peg August 28, 2008 at 12:58 pm

Having an au pair, whether they were bad, good, or marginal – always lingers into the next au pair. I think that as you have more and more au pairs, the way you interview and the rules of the family become more refined.

I know that the “ghosts” still can be there. I am experiencing some myself at the moment – but I found that my interviewing of our new au pair has been quite different each year. I really think you can get a good sense of the “person” during the interview process. I have to admit, I hardly look at childcare experience. No matter what, they have likely never spent 45 hours watching children before – so I want to be able to know about the “person” and how they were raised, what their interests are now and why they want to come to a new country. If I’m satisfied with what they are saying, I also see what questions they ask of me. I don’t want any “alarms” to go off. I also now have the benefit of our former au pairs speaking with them. The result of this is two-fold. I have our former au pairs tell me what questions the prospective au pair asked of them – just see anything that might be under the surface. This also enables the prospective au pair to know what it is really like in our family — so that they can make their own informed decision as well.

Our rule book as grown each year. We begin pretty strict and ease up as time goes on.

We are into a new year with a wonderful au pair. I have some ghosts still – and have actually had conversations with my husband saying “wow, what a nice feeling that this or that is not an issue…”. It’s sort of like coming out of a nasty storm cloud.

I worry about the children alot in terms of bad au pairs – so if you think you have one — please, please, please – watch your children to make sure that they are not affected.

Good luck!

cvh August 28, 2008 at 10:00 pm

Peg, what a wise perspective…

… and that suggestion to have your former au pairs talk to the candidate is a great idea. When I get to writing about the interivewing process, I’ll ask you more about that. Management research shows that hiring the right kind of person and then teaching them the skills is more effective than hiring someone who has the skills and hoping that their personality will fit…. so you’re on target with this approach.

I was particularly struck, though, by your metaphor of the ‘nasty storm cloud’. It hits right at the heart of why this one au pair just didn’t work for me. Among other things, but this being the most painful, this young woman made it very clear to everyone in the house when she was in a bad mood, or frustrated, or whatever. Despite the fact that she could sometimes be talkative and friendly, much of the time she carried around with her what I described to my kids as a “heavy atmosphere” — a dark moody cloud.

Ultimately, I just didn’t want to subject my kids to that kind of atmosphere. We try our best to have a warm, optimistic, happy atmosphere in our house– and I want an au pair who can appreciate that and contribute to it, not detract from it.

Melissa September 1, 2008 at 4:31 pm

Wow. I am right there with you now. We are in the process of saying goodbye to a “bad Au Pair” and interview new Au Pairs. It is difficult to not feel that this is in some way a set up for the new girl. We have so much anger, frustration and disappointment as a result of this past experience. It will be difficult to set that aside and not use it as a blueprint for our new experience. I don’t want to be the host mother that is overcritical and over strict. Beginning each new relationship with the hopefulness and freshness it dictates is essential. My husband and I are hoping for some time in-between the two Au Pairs to regroup and relax. Otherwise I do feel that our new Au Pair will be walking into a home laced with negativity and expectations beyond what is realistic. We take solace in the fact that living with others is hard and that chemistry affects us all. It is difficult if not impossible to predict what the relationship will be from paper and phone conversations. We have been fortunate three times and perhaps the fourth was asking too much! Any advice others can provide will be greatly appreciated.

Lisa September 9, 2008 at 5:34 am

We had a really horrible experience with one au pair who, when she left, made a huge scene in front of the kids and then told lies about us. We got threatening phone calls (she has some big and scary boyfriends), so we changed the locks, called the police, talked to a lawyer and went on with our lives. Looking back, I think she knew a lot of people before she came and used the ap visa to get to the US and then went off to do other jobs with friends from her country who were already in the US.

Take time if you can– or you may end up with several weeks anyway. Vent. And give yourself time to get over it– time. I felt really taken advantage of, angry as hell and burned– and I think that I was angry about it on some level for several months, but I did get a new au pair a few weeks later. It seemed best to just get back on the horse.

Most people have at least one bad experience. It is not unusual– and it is such a relief when it is over, don’t forget to feel relieved that you never have to see her again.


cvh September 11, 2008 at 4:11 pm

Hi Melissa & Lisa –

Hopefulness and a sense of a fresh start are critical… and having some space to let it all cool down made a big difference for me. And I can also see why just getting another au pair right away might work too… In the end it is probably dictated more by what you need re: childcare than what you want re: time & space.

Oh, the drama of when the bad au pair leaves… I could write post after post on that one…..

I do wonder whether, when it’s all said and done, that the matching process and all the rest is so imprecise that we can really only go on good first impressions, luck, and a lot of care by us?

Lidi June 9, 2009 at 10:16 am

It’s so cathartic to know that others have experienced the feelings I’m going through now that our first au pair left a few weeks ago. I was very angry, disappointed, frustrated and hurt by her behavior towards me, but especially towards the children. My mother visited with us for a month and witnessed first hand how dour she was and how my older daughter almost seemed afraid of her. She was definitely a “nasty storm cloud”. My mom helped validate my own feelings, those that my husband disregarded. After our au pair left some of my friends shared their own misapprehensions and I wished I’d gotten rid of her months earlier.

All that to say that I thought I was being overly sensitive or abnormal in my feelings, but I’m glad to see that I’m not alone. I will definitely listen to my instincts next time and not doubt myself. Thanks everyone!

I am still “recovering” and definitely feel her ghost, but I’m hopeful she’ll go away soon; especially since our new au pair is arriving soon and I would like to be optimistic that this time it’ll be a rewarding experience.

CV June 9, 2009 at 10:25 am

Lidi, I think that sometimes we get so invested in trying to make it better and also in wishing it were better that it’s hard to step back and say “this is not good enough”. I hope that you find ways to refresh and get back your Host Mom Mojo… let us know what works for you?! cv

Calif Mom June 9, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Our very first AP lasted 3 days (well, we knew at 3 days we were done with her, but were on a trip with her for my hub’s bday) (oh yes, lessons were learned!).

She earned a nickname, Pointy Boots, and echoes the stories above: was working the system to get to her boyfriend. Had no interest or even affection for kids at all, took a book from my oldest kid to read in the car while ignoring the little one, who was admittedly horrible to her because she was absolutely terrified of her (at 2 and a half). Nice, huh?

And then we rematched with a warm sweet girl, who eventually extended. Get back on the horse (yes, CV, dictated by childcare needs, not any kind of emotional readiness–no time for that!) …hope springs eternal! After awhile you can breathe again. But you definitely need patience and faith in humanity.

Reggie June 19, 2009 at 12:16 am

Thank you all for your replies. I just ended my first match after less than a month because our first AP lied about being a smoker and was smoking in the house and claiming the smell was coming from outside. We made it clear that due to medical issues, it was essential we have a non-smoker and she swore she didn’t smoke. She also swore she didn’t smoke every time I asked her about it. My loyal housekeeper found her cigarettes and then there was drama until she left. Now we have an AP room that will need to be scrubbed from top to bottom to get rid of the horrible smell, I have no child care, and have come to realize that, in addition to ignoring most of our house rules, she fed my kids little more than cheese and crackers when I was not around (none of the food I bought for her to feed my kids has been eaten and we are almost out of cheese and saltines). I feel so stupid for trusting her. I am trying to move forward to select a new AP but have been turned down by our top two choices (all in country because I am taking vacation time right now). After reading these posts, I’ve realized I need to take a break from the search and deal with my anger and frustration before I can start a new. Thank you all for sharing your experiences.

Calif Mom June 19, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Oh Reggie, I’m so sorry you’re going through this — consider this post me taking you for a cuppa coffee. You got a really bad apple. [If it makes you feel any better, Pointy Boots was my very first AP, too. She actually asked me to drive her to the 7-11 “to buy a phone card” and then I found her smoking outside with our dog (it struck me as odd that she would walk the dog, since she didn’t give a hoot about any other living creature). An awful, dark time. I’m a smart person with good instincts for people, but I never saw it coming. When she walked into our home the first time after this hellish trip she literally insulted me to my face with disparaging remarks.]

[BTW, If the smoke smell doesn’t wash off, there is a paint that will do the trick. My sister used it on her whole house. Might be nice to hermetically seal that room anyway, purge her completely!]

The experience of selecting her, anticipating her arrival with such hope, explaining all this to my sensitive and enthusiastic kids with such optimism, and then being so unequivocally wrong about that pick simply rattled me to the core. Hub was fit to be tied, had been skeptical about the whole au pair thing to start with. These were dark days indeed. I give APIA credit — we had an excellent counselor who got us through rematch with good advice. [She didn’t see through Pointy Boots until she got here, either.]

I didn’t have the option of taking a break, but if you can, just enjoy your kids for awhile and lick your wounds. It sounds to me like you need to do something cathartic and start to get your ducks in a row for the next one, but most of all, STOP BLAMING YOURSELF. Of course you feel stupid, but you know what? you’re not! You are absolutely not a bad mother; you are smart to have figured it out quickly instead of lingering for months like I have also done, trying desperately to make it work when we all knew it was doomed. You made the right decision for your family, even though it’s really hard right now and if you’er anything like me, you feel betrayed and unsure of your own ability to judge people’s character and make a good hiring decision. Here’s the thing; we have to trust people in life. Everything would break down if we didn’t. Some people prove unworthy of our trust, but there is no way to predict with absolute certainty which people are liars/cheats/thieves/opportunists/sickos. That’s why those “Study shows how to spot a liar” stories always get a lot of play. When people want to bilk others, they will (be glad you aren’t a Madoff investor!). You are not stupid because of her choices. She is a bad apple.

Luckily, Nature made kids extremely resilient, and they will survive a month of cheese and crackers, even if it’s not ideal. Could have been soda and cheese puffs. You DID stop this before it did damage to your kids. Brava! that’s not stupid, and it takes chutzpah.

I usually tell my kids that figuring out who’s to blame is futile, it doesn’t really matter who did what, just clean up the mess and move on. But for you who have been badly treated, it IS a time for you to indulge in blame! Dump it right smack on that AP’s head. With an additional bop on the heads of the agency folks who push their overseas reps to accept any warm body they can find who has earnest money. And a big whack on the heads of her parents who are losers and didn’t do a better job raising her, along with a smack for most societies in general for not providing better opportunties for young women. Heck, blame Big Tobacco for cynically pushing their addictive, lethal product on young people, building their markets in developing countries! Kick and stomp and growl and throw something heavy, and vow that this will never happen again.

Because really, it won’t. You have been there and lived to tell about it, and you are now forewarned–not to mention forearmed by all the wisdom posted by CV and the commenters on this blog. We have a lot of years of AP experience among us, and we share freely over this electronic fence. The strings that include suggestions for interviewing are nothing short of brilliant, and I intend to put their ideas to use — I vow to be ruthless, focused, skeptical and using skype next time we are interviewing. I am always too nice, too optimistic, and always see the good in people. Normally, these are good traits, but when you’re trying to hire an honorary auntie, a stand-in for you, a person who will become a huge element in your family dynamic, being overly accommodating and just plain nice is not the way to achieve familial harmony. You need to carefully assess your true needs vs “would be nice-es” (since you’re in rematch, I’m assuming that a big factor is whether they are here already). If you need someone who is here now, you will need to look at your other criteria differently than you did when you were picking from a big pool. I’m sorry to say but either you will have to let some things go or just not be in a hurry to find a replacement.

However, don’t let go of the Big Things. Your Big Things will be different from ours, but for example, we let go of swimming and cooking. (Being willing to take the kids to the pool is not negotiable. Actually getting in the pool is not required. Assembling meals is required, being a great cook is not.). It’s really a tough call when they have mediocre driving skills. Many girls get put in rematch b/c of driving standards. If desperate you can hire out driver training for several weeks. We have done this, and frankly, have also had some body damage to the car, but that AP’s assets greatly outweighed the deficits. Remember that there is no perfect, but there absolutely is wonderful, and she is looking for a better fit, too.

I highly recommend trying to find a rematch girl who is nearby, within a day’s drive. Insist on meeting her in person, and progress with the interview in discrete stages. Don’t tell her you want her to come see the house before you have met her — otherwise it will be awkward to pull the plug if you sense right away that she is not the one and you are dying to end the interview. (You can have the counselor break the news to her later that you found a better match, you’re really sorry. This can be heartbreaking, but stand firm! Don’t take someone because they are nice if you know they are not right.) Start on neutral turf like a park, meeting parents only at first, then bringing in the kids to play only after you feel like she’s a ‘maybe’. Then watch how she interacts with them. Don’t hover, just watch. If driving is important, have her take the wheel right then and drive you around for 15 minutes while the kids keep playing. If it progresses well, take her to your house and give her the tour.

After an actual interview in person, you will feel much more comfortable with your decision, which is really important after an ordeal like the one you’ve been through. Rematch girls are also going through an ordeal (without the comfort of having their own beds to sleep in!) and the ones with the spunk to make a new family work will appreciate your position. The good ones will also be asking you honest, perhaps tough or delicate questions to avoid a repeat of their own bad match. I have met girls in person in the rematch process whom I immediately said “no way!” to. I have also rematched with a girl over the phone, and knew the minute I picked her up at the airport she was not going to work long-term. Because of two positive local rematches and that one long-distance rematch that would have been prevented if I had met her in person, I am very hesitant about rematches who are not local. I also know an AP who had problems with this, too.

And, lest I have depressed you completely with the litany of mistakes I’ve made, I will say it yet again: our two favorite APs have both been rematches, and they both extended! I feel we are being rewarded for that one really bad stretch resulting from the bad picks. I have also learned a lot, and have changed how I am approaching this relationship. Not having to worry about next year is wonderful.

Baby steps: take a few days to enjoy your kids and evaluate your criteria and process. Think about what you absolutely need. I agree with what CV said above, that hours of childcare is irrelevant — you can teach skills, you can even teach English (which may be really lousy in a rematch girl b/c she’s under so much stress) but you can’t teach spirit, energy or temperament.

(CV and Dear Readers, apologies for the length of this post. Reggie’s post struck a chord.)

CV June 20, 2009 at 11:38 am

Hi Calif Mom…. wish I’d seen this in time to make it a solo post. Thanks again, as always, for your thoughtful advice.
I continue to be amazed, really, by the wisdom and the generosity of the moms, dads, aps and lccs who share their experience on this site. cv

Reggie June 20, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Calif Mom,

Thank you SO much for taking the time to reply to me in such detail. As much as I want to take the time off, I realized shortly after my post that the realities of being employed full time and not having child care won’t let me take time off. So, after I wrote my post, I had a good cry and got up the next morning and continued to interview AP candidates. I really appreciate your advice and thoughts, particularly on rematch APs. I’ve found a couple who are great and their issues for rematching would not be issues in our family. Hopefully one of them will work out. Wish me luck and thanks again for the virtual cuppa coffee — it was much needed!

IJC June 20, 2009 at 2:34 pm

“along with a smack for most societies in general for not providing better opportunties for young women.” That was a rather patronising comment. Lots of girls from countries with even better oppportunities for women than america choose to become au pairs. If you think that being an au pair is something that women do just because they don’t have the oppportunity to do anything else, I’m not surprised so many HMs on here are having trouble relating to their au pairs. (not to mention the fact of, why would you hire someone to look after your kids who you think doesn’t really want to do it?)

CV June 20, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Gentle down, IJC. Research shows that 3 out of 5 au pairs are motivated to participate in the program because they are either looking for a better economic opportunity, or they are seeking to escape however briefly a difficult family or cultural situation. The number of au pair candidates rises and falls as the economic opportunities in their home countries compare poorly or better to those in the US. Girls who become APs b/c they want a better economic opportunity or a leg up on good jobs when you get back home are not necessarily uninterested in caring for kids, either, which is why they come as au pairs.

Reggie June 22, 2009 at 10:15 am

Hi all. Just posting this for anyone trying to exorcize the ghost of a smoking AP: Febreze rocks! We steam cleaned the carpets, washed all the lines and furniture and were about to repaint when we gave Frebreze a try. The room doesn’t smell like smoke anymore.

We did rematch with a young women who had a tough first month with her first host family. She arrives tomorrow. The issues with the former host family will not be issues in our home and had she not been taken out of the pool a week before we started looking, she would have been on our original interview list. She has specific set of child care skills: experience as a full time caregiver to twins the same age as mine, something we were not able to find (but wanted) during our original search. So, we are pretty excited again, something I didn’t expect to feel.

Calif Mom, thanks again for sharing your experiences. You really helped me get back in action and gave me some great advice for finding a new AP. Fingers crossed that this second experience is good for all of us including our new AP!

Calif Mom June 22, 2009 at 4:31 pm

Reggie– Great news! Your update a lousy Monday much happier. Thanks for sharing, and I’ll keep fingers crossed for a couple of smooth weeks, when you will finally be able to exhale again.

IJC– my saying that many societies don’t offer young women better opportunities is in no way meant to sound patronizing (that is SO not my thing). Sorry if it came across that way. Just because someone seeks opportunity does not mean they are bad. Let’s say that I would like a better job — when you read that do you also think that I do not want to be a mom? Life is not that simple. We can want more than one thing, or want one thing for more than one reason. That does not make someone bad.

I was speaking from my own experience with our au pairs and their friends, most of whose careers–and lifetime income–will benefit greatly from their immersion experience in the states, perfecting their English. It does not mean I think they were not also fabulous caregivers or delightful people.

The decision to be an au pair–like the decision to be a host family–is complex. I would guess that many former au pairs go into teaching or providing childcare when they return home, both of which are very difficult, very important careers. I bet some go into international finance, as well. There is a wide diversity of au pair motivations, skills, backgrounds.

Sadly, there is also a big chunk of the world where women do not have great opportunities. In the U.S., Equal Pay Day — the point at which a woman’s salary finally catches up to a man’s earnings from the previous year — was April 28th. We all have a long way to go. I won’t throw you under the bus if you won’t throw us there, too, okay? ;-)

The hosts (and counselors, and APs) who post here sometimes do have big problems, and are spending time here on the blog in order to get ideas for improving them. This site is all about making things better. I think the tagline is “one host family at a time….” Thanks, CV! :-)

Kay July 20, 2009 at 6:28 am

We have been a host family for 5 years with 3 going on four bad aupairs. So we are going onto aupair number 9. All of the comments sound all too familiar. We seem to get the crafty manipulative ones. Who will tell you whatever they want you to hear- you think it is the truth and within a few days of them being at your home, you find that they lied about everything. They give you the silent treatment and act like children when they should be acting like adults. Our first aupair was very scary- she stepped on my son’s hand with stilletto boots in the middle of a party with all my friends and family. She said, “I have no time for this.” She was mean and vindictive (self-admitted) and nasty to my daughter. Because of the lack of support from our LCC and we were new to the program- we were stuck with her for 3 months. I would go to work shaking. I had moved to a new are with no friends or family for more than 2 hours of driving away. Her “damage” to the family lasted for 6 months with emotional issues with my daughter who was 4 at the time. Second bad aupair was a neglected and sexually abused aupair who had a lot of mommy issues and projected her issue to me. She still tries to contact me because she says I was more a mother to her than her own. The third- super bad driver otherwise great girl. This last one is a piece of work. She is well educated- but acts like a child. Lied about what she liked and didn’t like. She is an extension aupair so she had lived in the USA for 1 year. We had flown her to our house on our expense to see if the situation would work out for her. She acted all excited and happy and said how great everything was. When I go to pick her up- she acted cold to me and the kids. Withdrew onto her computer at all times. Said she was coming with us- we waited for her then at the last minute- decided that she wasn’t going to join us. Which is her choice, but once we bought her a ticket to an amusement park the night before. She cancelled the very next morning. So she stuck us with a ticket. I let her know that next time she did that she would be paying me back. We just signed the transition paperwork- she cited that she was homesick. When in reality- she is a party girl who misses her friends. But what gets me about the program is that there should be an avenue to “kick” the girls out of the house on a more timely basis. So because she couldn’t be honest before I picked her up- I am stuck with her for 4 weeks. The two weeks she was here and the 2 more weeks of transition. On top of it all… I don’t think it is fair that she posted 10 hours after I pick her up that she missed her friends and deliberately decided that she was going to be a pest to us. Needless to say she didn’t know that I can read and understand her language as well. It is hard for me to decide to continue to participate in this program there should be more laws protecting the host family.

Reggie July 21, 2009 at 10:43 am

I’ve been really surprised to hear that so many matches are bad — both from the perspectives of the host families and the APs. Kay, I am really sorry that you’ve had such bad apples and hope that the ones in between have been good.

Just a short update on us. We’ve had our re-match girl for about a month and are so happy we have her. She is a delightful person, great with the kids, and goes above and beyond on a daily basis. Now I just have to figure out how to make sure that our future APs are like her and not the smoker!

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