What do you do when your au pair wants so much to be with you and your family that you never get any personal space?
And, what happens when, in your efforts to be kind and generous, you continue to cede important personal space, events, and rituals to incorporate her, making your personal space smaller and smaller?
For me, this whole question of personal space has been the reason for keeping my relationships with au pairs slightly more like employer-employee relationships than my natural friendliness might suggest. I have a high need for privacy and autonomy; so does my husband. We know this and have learned to create formal and informal systems to get our personal space, even with another lovely adult sharing out family space.
Jane, the mom with the situation, has written a long and complete description of her challenge. With Jane’s permission to edit, I’ve tried to separate things into different pieces of the issue, and so the numbered headings are my effort to paraphrase her issue(s). Here we go:
Dear Au Pair Mom — This is my family’s third year in the au pair program, and we have been richly rewarded every year with a great cultural exchange and high-quality child care for our two toddlers, aged two and three. We have gone out of our way to ensure our au pairs feel comfortable in our home, treating them as true family members, and this has paid off tremendously with our au pairs being great participants and contributors to our family life. So what’s the problem, you ask?
1. The Basic Problem
Our current au pair, a 20-year-old girl from Europe, is smothering us to the point where I need to schedule breaks from her company. I feel like I can’t relax in my own home or have any down time with just my husband or the kids. It’s like the scene in Ghostbusters when Dana Barrett tiptoes past her neighbor Louis’s door to avoid interactions, only to have him hear and pounce on her the moment she gets home.
I knew from the interview process that Amy was going to need extra family time with us, as she is an only child and has a very close relationship with her parents. In fact, I was impressed that she was brave enough to leave her home for a whole year. I like having family-oriented au pairs, though, so I figured we’d still have a good balance between her time with us and her time with her friends.
While she has made a good deal of friends during her time with us, she has again and again chosen to spend the bulk of her free time with us rather than with her friends, to the point that I really need some space.
I don’t know how to get some space without seeming rude and ungrateful.
2. On Weekends, the demands on me become too high
Previous au pairs would sleep late on weekends and I would have a lot of quiet time with just our family in the mornings. Amy is up and at ’em at 6:30 a.m. with us, eager to chat with me and hang out with the kids. She goes out with her friends while the kids are taking a nap or we’re doing chores like grocery shopping, and then she’s back for dinner with us every weekend. I like that our au pairs eat a family meal with us every night, but I’m used to them being out with their friends on the weekend while I enjoy a less scheduled day (our work week is extremely scheduled and our au pairs don’t work weekends).
3. She seems very invested in having all our family meals with us.
Before Amy goes out with friends, she always asks when she should be back for dinner. I emphasize that food will always be available to her; she doesn’t need to be home at a set time—but she really wants that sit-down meal with us, even if she has the option of eating out with friends. Saving money isn’t the issue either—she spends pretty freely.
4. Even when we go out to dinner…
It becomes hard on the weekends when I just want to go out with Hubbie and the kids and then have to worry about being back to have dinner on the table or feel conflicted as to whether we should call and invite Amy to join us for dinner out—which gets to be expensive on a frequent basis.
5. When I have friends over
We invite Amy to all our major family gatherings, but when I have friends over for some much needed “adult time,” I feel awkward that she makes a point of staying around to hang out with us, as our conversations are much more generic while we’re in her company.
I’ve tried to make my invitations clear so that she would pick up on the times when we want our friends to ourselves, and I’ve even come out and directly said I need some one-on-one time with my friends/husband/kids before, but nothing really works.
6. She seems to sense that I want to be alone…
If she senses I want to be alone, she just finds other reasons to be around, picking up stuff and offering to do household things that I would do myself. I’m a very conscientious housekeeper, so while in some ways I appreciate the help, in others it drives me a little crazy that she helps me so much, unprompted, just to have a reason to socialize with me.
I have to go to my room and close the door for any privacy.
7. I feel awful complaining abut her, and yet …
When I shared some of my frustrations with my parents they made me feel like a horrible person for being so exclusive. She’s very attentive with the kids, helps out around the house unprompted, and is very thoughtful—but to such an extreme level. I know many host moms would kill to have this problem so I feel even guiltier for feeling so stressed.
I feel awful even saying this–My au pair wants to be around me too much—for who knows what reason, I wonder, as I am so tired after a full day of work and active time with the kids that all I want to do is sleep.
Amy has lots of people back home that she Skypes with, but she does this while I’m putting the boys to bed so that she can come back and talk to me as soon as I’m done.
8. She imposes her preferences and/or we let her influence what we do… too much
She is very opinionated about what we should and shouldn’t do. I guess the biggest problem about having her around so much is that she is so opinionated—from what music we should listen to (we have to skip the kids songs she doesn’t like) to what the kids are doing (the two-year-old better stop eating with his fingers).
9. She corrects kids when she is not on duty and before I do, sometimes even when I would not correct them.
I need an au pair that’s more like an older sibling to the kids when we’re around, not a third parent. I don’t like how inferior she makes me feel by correcting the kids on little things I would let slide.
Even the kids are expressing a need to have a break from her as they want one-on-one Mom and Dad time. Any tips? I know I’m the mature adult here and I do think about how tough it is to be here on your own, but I think we’ve gone above and beyond with being inclusive.
How can I get some of my personal space back?