Half-Full or Half-Empty? Extending the “so-so” au pair

by cv harquail on March 17, 2009

Glass half full, or empty? glass half full .jpeg

We are approaching the time to decide whether to extend with current AP. Because she may have seen me reading this blog on my computer, I want to stay vague but give enough info to generate discussion.

We’ve had several APs, and a few rematches. Two kids, one in kindergarten, one still in elementary. She shares bathroom with kids. We have had problems with ‘princesses’, as Calif Mom puts it, because we have a modest home and we are not neat freaks. We have a regular house cleaner, so it’s not dirty, just not overly-organized. Both parents work out of the home. Current AP has been with us since last summer. She drives kids in a great car.

AP is 23, goes to church most Sundays (we don’t!), very calm and reliable. Great relationship with kids, handles bickering siblings without getting rattled, and stays fair. She is a serious introvert, though, in a family of extroverts. She is not unhappy, but retreats to her room when host comes home and isn’t seen again until the next morning. I am pretty sure she just needs the down time. We took her on a family vacation last year and things went very well.

There are a lot of food issues, from my perspective: We are a family where we sit down to dinner together to eat and talk about our days, but she does not join us. It is not the food, though, because leftovers disappear and she says I cook just like her mom. She says she prefers to keep her big meal during the middle of the day (she is from Latin America). She cannot cook and sad to me, has shown no interest in learning how though I have not given up trying to inspire that in her (we are very good cooks and care a lot about food both nutritionally and politically). I have taught previous APs to cook, so I know I’m not overly intimidating.

I am back to packing my kids’ lunches because she does not put together an adequate amount or balance of food to get them happily through the school day and we’ve had some real problems, though there is ample food on hand. She seems to not know which foods have protein, for example, and attempts to teach haven’t helped with that. I am concerned about her as a role model for my kids on food. Much junk consumed in her room, and erratic consumption (several bananas one day then, half a casserole the next). She is all about convenience food. And white bread! (what is it about APs and white bread? we’ve had this issue with almost all of our APs… I’ve given up and just buy the blasted stuff and make sure my kids get real bread when I’m feeding them.)

On a trip a few months into her stay with us, I took her to the grocery store without kids, I tried to show her what we buy and offered to stock up on what she likes, but she instead asked to go sit in the car — was very amiable — and said she was fine with me buying whatever. In retrospect this reads like a subtle attempt to keep from being tasked with grocery shopping, something which she has plenty of time to do and which would make my life much easier since both parents are under job pressure these days (aren’t we all?). Was this similar to me being consciously incompetent when it comes to fixing the photocopier at work? : )

She is not a great driver. Had an accident on her own time, in our car, which was expensive.

She will only rarely take the dog outside, even if whimpering, and she hasn’t said so, but I can tell she doesn’t really like the dog. She’s pleasant to the dog, but not friendly. We have someone come tend the dog when we go away for a weekend, even if AP stays home.

I’m looking ahead to the summer schedule, and remembering that while she is willing to take the kids to the neighborhood pool and stand in the shallow end, (hot southern summers!) she doesn’t like to swim, so my kids were disappointed that she is not very much “fun” at the pool.

Other issues are more minor, and I think I could improve her performance on these things. Host dad thinks she has it pretty easy and is doing just enough to get by. When she first came to us, for example, she did the dishes every night. I always thanked her profusely for this, trying to cement the behavior, but it has faded. She does the girls’ laundry regularly, and unloads the dishwasher, like cvh’s AP, but doesn’t oversee homework or even get the kids bathed regularly before I get home from work, so all that falls to me while I’m trying to get dinner ready.

I am quite sure that she is intending to extend a second year, since she has said this since the beginning of our time together and because the economy is in the tank in her home country and there aren’t many opportunities for young women there. Because she is an introvert, because she has found friends and a church she really likes here and knows her way around, I don’t think she will want to switch families. Again, she always says she is very happy. Her English is excellent, and she’s getting a lot out of her college classes.

My question for all y’all is whether the above issues are sufficient for thinking about finding a new AP, or should we just stick with ‘good enough’ because she is stable, pleasant, reliable, the kids love her, she knows the routines, there is always a chance that we will end up in rematch with a new AP, and all those transitions really suck, frankly. Should I just get busy “managing her performance” as the HR people say, or is it time to think about switching? Do I risk alienating her if I start tasking her with shopping, or start managing her more clearly, using schedules and checklists, for example? 

I suppose the only way to know for sure is to start “actively managing” her now, and see what happens, and then I’ll have my answer. but I’d sure appreciate any advice from you wise women! Pitfalls to avoid, approaches that work — all are welcome!

half full paulaloe.jpeg From Anna: I think if you start the selection process for next year early enough, do it very thoroughly, and trust your gut you will find somebody who matches your family better. We are also a family who cares about food and nutrition, and you can really find a kindred soul; for example I came across many au pair candidates who are into healthy lifestyles, or a vegetarians..

You can gave a GREAT year with an au pair, in fact this is how it should be, instead of “scraping by” another year with this one. Ask yourself – if you knew a great au pair was coming for sure, would you be really impatient for your year with the current girl to end? I know I would be , and if you can give the same answer, there is your answer.
You can also register at a different agency, that has a matching process giving more freedom to families, that let you see a lot of candidate dossiers at once, so you can find hopefully exactly what you are looking for in a shorter time.

Besides, an au pair’s job is to make your life easier – she makes yours harder – shifting her responsibilities to you (packing lunches, cooking for kids, bathing kids). Also it doesn’t seem like the kids are in love with her either, or are they?

aaron td.jpeg From Kathy: I have had 7 au pairs. In the beginning, I made myself sick worrying about my AP and spent far too much time trying to make them happy. It never worked.

Then one day I woke up and said that I either needed to find another option or make this work. I really took charge and was very specific about what I wanted done and when. I had the same problem with kids lunches. I wrote instructions for how to make a sandwich – how much meat, cheese, type of bread, mayo, etc. What snacks, fruit, drink, etc. I would then check the first couple of times. If the kids didn’t complain (they are very good at that) then I figured she “got it”.

I have given up with tasks like grocery shopping unless I need one or two items. I found that no matter what I did, they bought the wrong thing and spent far too much money on junk. It was just easier to do my own shopping and get what my family wants to eat. I haven’t found any AP that could cook. Reheat – yes. So when she feeds my kids they can make a salad, chicken nuggest, pizza, hamburger, hot dog, etc. They can also breakfast – cereal, toast, eggs, waffles, etc. Most of the AP can handle that and like to eat it themselves.

I use the communication log daily. I write down what needs to be done each day and have her check it off. Getting homework done, kids bathed, chores, etc are on the list. If it is not done, we talk about it right away or she writes the reason in the book. Sometimes she has a good reason, and then it is fine.

On Friday’s I ask her to write down any groceries she would like or that we need. I have made it clear that I do not buy candy, chips, soda, etc unless it is a special occasion. If they want white bread, fruit, cheese, etc. that is fine. I do buy Nutella for the German au pairs. White bread is cheap. I was tired of waking up all night wondering if she was home. I now have a curfew of 11 p.m. on nights when she works the next day and always an 11 p.m. curfew with the car. If she wants to stay out late over the weekend, it is fine, just not with my car. Since I started taking control, everything has been much better for everyone. The AuPair understands what needs to be done and how and when to do it. Most were never in a rush to do anything. Now they have a timeline. AP knows she can ask for an exception if needed.

bibliogrrl.jpeg From Franzi: Like the other commentors, i also think the AP is not quite doing her job. SHE should pack the lunches (according to your guidelines) and SHE should bath the kids if this is what you want and it is within her working hours. i absolutely don’t understand this.

About the lunches, did you tell her “3 slices of apple, one p-j sandwich, 5 crackers and a cheese stick” (something to that extend) or did you leave it all up to her what to pack and that went completely wrong?

My first host family did not allow me to pack the kids lunches (go figure) whereas the second family showed me what the kids liked and then i packed accordingly. and you learn what they don’t like when it comes back uneaten….again, i don’t understand your au pair. it’s not like this is rocket science. and even if she doesn’t know what are carbs and what is protein, she should have seen one of those food pyramid things that explain what’s good and what not. Usually, these charts are shown during orientation to make sure the APs understand the “servings” idea.

About the dog, i am with your AP. i don’t like dogs but rematched into a family who had a dog because i LOVED the family (apart from the dog). it was ok for me to pet it, and i did take it for a walk sometimes. but it is not an AP responsibility to take care of the dog! most families who are used to dog-lovers never run into a problem like that. but as soon as you have a “not-so-much-dog-lover”, you run into misunderstandings like the one you mentioned. this should be something you should ask during your next matching process

Regarding the matching, i think one year with her is ok, but you should not stick with “getting by” any longer than necessary.

From name withheld just in case Flickr/ Search_1237239640332.jpeg :   Half full or half empty — I was in a similar position to you when it came time to decide whether to extend with our last AP. Things were “good enough” with her, but there were definitely things that I wished were better/different. (Similar to your situation, she was fine with the childcare aspect of the job, which is obviously the main concern, but there were shortcomings in other areas.)

DH and I basically decided to leave it up to “fate” as to whether we’d extend — if she brought it up and asked to extend, we would agree, but if she didn’t say anything, we wouldn’t ask her to extend. Well, she did end up extending for 6 more months, and it was “fine” the whole time.

But if I had it to do over again, I would NOT choose to extend (although that would be an uncomfortable conversation if the AP said she wanted to stay!). The reason I say this is because now with our new AP, I can see the difference between “good enough” (last AP) and FANTASTIC (new AP).

Now that I know how much a “fantastic” AP can not only make your life easier but actually be a wonderful addition (as opposed to a “neutral extra member”) to the family, I will never again settle for “good enough”!!

red.jpeg From Calif mom:

I can see where you are torn. We’ve had 6 APs, one of them fabulous (adored us and our kids, loved swimming, cooked, and drove like a native) and one really great (missing some of those value-adds but fit in well with our family). And then we’ve had the two princesses (rematched at 2 weeks and 3 months, respectively) and a depressive sour puss who left after 4 months or so (we were her third family, and yes, they sent her to another host instead of home). Our favorite two came from rematch. (coincidence?) So I can identify with being worried about ending up in rematch by going back to the AP pool!

We’ve never tasked an AP with grocery duties, but had one who was happy to help when I was crazy at work. She would also cook dinner, unbidden, which was a lovely surprise, again, when things were crazy at work. She felt like family, and still does, and embodied for us more of what the AP experience is marketed as. Since then we’ve gotten a bit more jaded, but still think it’s the best option out there for us, at this stage of parenthood.

My instinct is that you would be better off with a really good match; my heart says that it would be a terribly difficult conversation to tell her you didn’t want to extend.

Maybe the best idea really is to start ‘managing’ the situation and see what happens. A little pressure may cement things one way or the other. That selection process is so nerve-wracking, I’d be inclined eerything in your power to avoid going through it sooner than later, but agree that “settling” isn’t a good solution here. You’re clearly disappointed, and when mama aint’ happy….

{ 29 comments }

Cynthia March 17, 2009 at 5:53 am

I am sorry, and maybe it’s the way it’s been written, but I think you sound a bit unreasonable. I don’t understand why it’s a problem for your au pair to be an introvert – after a day with my own kids, I want to go to my room for downtime! White bread? I like to eat healthy and expect my children to as well, but come on. It’s no au pairs responsibility to take care of the dogs and I don’t think they should be expected to fawn over an animal or care for it. I Quite frankly, maybe you should pay a little more an get a nanny. I feel there are things that are my parental duties, such as buying the groceries, etc. I don’t expect my au pair to do our dishes or bathe my children. If they were in daycare, I’d surely have to do their laundry and bathe them on my own – I’d certainly have to take my dog out, but yes, some au pairs do this and no biggie. I don’t understand why your feelings get hurt about her not wanting to learn to cook and yes, while the lunches are a pain, you could certainly pack the lunches at night yourself. What is bothering me about your post is that there is nothing bad said about the way she treats your children, which would be my first priority, far above these other “household” items. Your first concern should be how she cares for your prize posessions and if there’s a problem with that, then yes, you should not extend her but if she’s an introvert and makes bad lunches, I really think you should look a little deeper.

NY Mom March 17, 2009 at 6:15 am

We extended with an au pair who in the beginning had a great relationship with our children and our family and was quite a dream for the first 6 months. Over time she began to retreat and spend less free time with us then none at all. Over time tasks began to slide off her rader screen. Her relationship with my older child became strained. We extended b/c I didn’t not want my little one to have to rebond with someone new and she had the routine down. Now the relationship is not what it used to be. All of her gripes are expressed in a passive agressive way. Any time an issue has been brought up, she got very melodramatic and acted like an immature teenager. I could no longer tolerate certain behaviors in our home, and expressing them hurt her feelings. If it wasn’t for the bond she and my younger child had formed, I would have not extended. But now, all the headache has made me even count down the number of months we have left. Find a new ap with excitment and enthusiasm, extending sometimes brings the worst out in both parties.

PA Mom March 17, 2009 at 6:42 am

Hmm – they way you wrote the email reminded me of an experience with one of our APs. Same conversations with spouse and same “instincts” and little frustrations. Am glad she didn’t ask to extend because we didn’t think it was a good idea. You usually know what’s work and what’s not. And “better the devil you know” isn’t the best reason to stick with an just ok family relationship. It’s not the work issues you mention that trouble me, but the lack of enthusiam for the AP. Sounds like they bother you because there isn’t enough to balance them on the other side. We’ve had APs who definately lacked on the work side, but who we loved on the personal side and whose relationship with our kids and us balanced the job end. If you aren’t sure – then you’re not really that happy. If it was an engagement, I’d suggest you think harder before walking down the aisle. And don’t sell her short, look for your next AP (you can do it quietly you know and your LCC can be asked not to talk to the AP about it), and then if she wants to extend, likely your LCC and the local matching person can help her find another family right in the area. Then your kids can still see her and she them from time to time, and you can use whatever excuse works best to get through the awkward stage. Just my two cents. There are good matches, great matches (usually just dumb luck) and gee I hope this year ends soon matches. If it was awful you’d be done, but why extend “iffy” and be frustrated with her and yourself. Don’t you both (and your kids) deserve better.

NjMom March 17, 2009 at 7:15 am

I agree with the person who says that the extension year often does not go as well as the first one, even with a decent AP. Since you have to count on the qualities that are not so attractive getting worse, I would certainly not rematch. This girl doesn’t sound too pleasant to have around.

D March 17, 2009 at 9:42 am

This post as well as others mention grocery shopping. That some believe grocery shopping should be on the host families responsiblity and not the au pair’s. However, as a family we must all pitch in right? Simply going to the car without helping with the “outing” at the grocery store, is really not nice.

These girls are here to learn english. Going to the grocery store is actually a great way to learn English. To me no au pair has to go to the grocery store at all. However, if they wish to have yummy meals…..then you have to be a part of the family as this isn’t a restaurant or B&B your staying at. As McDonalds is down the street & you can go anytime, we don’t mind.

I have my au pair go to the grocery store 2x a month with my 2 year old daughter. Its a great way for my daughter to get out of the house. My au pair is a homebody & would never leave the house if I let her. HA HA So we only have her pick up a few basics. Pop, milk, bread & a few misc items. her list has 15-20 items or less. This isn’t a difficult task by any means. I give her money as well to pick ANYTHING she wants to eat as well as a “thank you” for going. She grumbles about going sometimes, but I don’t feel bad my daughter has a right to get out of the house too. She’s safe riding in a cart, so its an activity for her as well.

Ya walking the dog, is not the au pairs task. Unless your au pair doesn’t mind as some girls love some love animals. Just interview better to find out if the au pair likes dogs. :) That usually helps.

Someone in this line…mentioned “not having the au pair bathe the kids as part of their responsibility” My kids taking a bath during the day is actually fun time and a great activity! This is one of those things the kids love to do really. This is a task that is a win win as its not a task, its a fun thing!

If an au pair can not pack a lunch for kids…. Try giving specific directions for lunch prep and what to fix initially…(giving examples of 5-6 simple meals that don’t require much time) After a while they get the routine. Thats typical. However….if after a long & specific directions they don’t get it. (ie packing lunches) That could be refusal rather than mis-understanding. But be patient & make sure whats going on in that facet.

hmmm…..extend not extend. Tough choice. I would say start a new. :) And learn from mistakes in past. :)

Dawn March 17, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Cynthia, I disagree with your assessment that this Mom is asking or expecting too much. While I do agree that none of the things she’s mentioned sound like significant enough problems to warrant a mid-year *rematch*, I think the analysis should be different for deciding whether to *extend* with an AP who is “okay, but not great.”

I agree with you that the primary concern is how well the AP cares for the children, but it sounds like maybe she’s “okay, not great” in that area as well. (See the pool example — when my kids are home from school all summer, I certainly would want them to be spending time with someone they consider FUN!) Additionally, I can’t speak for all HFs, but one of the reasons we choose to host APs rather than some of the other childcare options was because of the other ways an AP can make our lives easier. Before the AP weekly stipend and the agency fees went up, hosting an AP was by far the most cost-effective form of childcare for our family. That is no longer true. If I just wanted someone to care for my non-school-age child during the workday, I could spend much less on a daycare center or in-home daycare. I choose to spend more on an AP because I value the experience of having a young person from another culture as a part of our family (something that you don’t get as much of if the AP retreats to her room as soon as her “shift” is over), and because of the “extras” I can ask of an AP, like doing the kids’ laundry, helping with homework, and helping the kids keep their rooms clean.

If I were in “Half Full/Half Empty’s” shoes, I wouldn’t rematch before the end of the AP’s year, but I also wouldn’t choose to extend for another 6 months or year. She’s already got “so so.” The next AP will be at least as good (if not, you’d probably rematch), and could potentially be much, much better! Why stick with “so so” when “perfect” might be right on the horizon? (And even if the next AP starts out as “so so,” it’s much easier to set out the kind of guidelines that will help “so so” become “good” or “great” at the beginning of the AP/HF relationship as opposed to midstream. After a year with the family, I’d expect that it would be pretty difficult to “change the rules” on the current AP without her becoming very resentful. Just ask Maya about changing the rules midstream!)

CT Mom March 17, 2009 at 5:28 pm

My LCC gave me great advice. No matter how good the relationship is, NEVER extend with the same au pair. It almost never works out. She thinks that an au pair extending into a new family is fine, but not extending with the same family. Either the au pair takes advantage of the host family or vice versa (or a combination of the two). She said the relationship changes after extension and it’s just not the same. Our first au pair wanted to extend with us for a full year (which is why my LCC was telling me this). While she was great with our daughter, there were other issues (i.e. she was constantly telling us what other au pairs got as perks and was constantly asking to take the car out of the area, and other things). We explained to her that the LCC doesn’t recommend extending with the same family and she actually agreed (her friend extended with the same family whom she loved, but it didn’t work out). So we moved on to a new au pair who didn’t give us these headaches at all.

Frankly, if she got into an accident with the car (as yours did), that would have been a deal breaker for us, especially if she was mediocre to begin with. Also, I never have the au pair do the food shopping. While she might go to the grocery store to get a couple things that we’ve run out of for the kids (very rarely), that’s not part of their job for us. I do invite her to go grocery shopping so she can tell me what she likes. About the other issues you’re having with her (introvert, not a good swimmer, etc), you should list these as requirements in your application for future au pairs. We’ve always asked for an outgoing personality and good swimmers, so that’s never been an issue for us. Regarding bathing, etc, just write that down in the communication log that “so and so needs a bath today” and if it doesn’t get done, address it with her. I prefer to do baths myself, as that’s time I have with the kids, but that’s just me. We’ve had one au pair who loved to cook and probably cooked 1-2 times per week because she wanted to and our last one cooked maybe 3 times all year, but not everyone loves to cook. As long as they can put together the basics for the kids (breakfast & lunch), that’s fine with us.

Hope this is helpful to you!

NYMom March 17, 2009 at 11:26 pm

We are avid cooks, and wanted an au pair who could cook; however we had an AP that had little knowledge of nutrition (had no interest in learning about it) and also everything she made was ladden with oil or butter or heavy cream, vegtables were peeled and boiled until they were limp and striped of vitamins–not what we normally eat in a healthy American diet. If they can make the basic things for kids and not burn toast or boil pasta that’s enough for me.

Ms. Ivy March 18, 2009 at 12:27 am

I think that rematching might not be a good idea if you don’t change how things are right now. You can’t change the AP’s eating habits, or her temperament. It is not part of her duties to look after your dog, either. So on that regard, just let it go. However, I do think you must clearly define your expectations about what she is to do with the children. Make up a schedule if necessary and have her check off every single thing she has to accomplish that day, again, in terms of the children, to include schoolwork and bathing. If you have to make a list on how to pack the kids’ lunches, so be it. The key here is for her to have a good idea of what is expected of her; which I don’t think you have accomplished so far. If after doing this, she still doesn’t measure up, consider rematching, and definitively, don’t extend. Yes, we are hosts, but the idea of an au pair is to be on ‘equal terms’ after all… it’s not to make your life (or hers, for that matter) more complicated.

Glass Half again, with clarifications and two new questions March 18, 2009 at 10:15 pm

Thank you all for spending the time to react and give me some really valuable perspectives and ideas. You’ve given me a lot to think about. (I also want to clarify some misperceptions.)

I had never heard this idea that extending is a bad idea in general. We extended with our first AP and it only became a problem when she got very close to going home and had classic ‘short timers disease’ made worse because she had fallen in love. Not a big deal at all, and we still are close.

Getting a new AP in the summer is fraught with peril — that’s when they have to work a lot of hours, even though there is the pool. We break up those long weeks with camps, but you can’t have kids in camps all summer long. Our LCC says that August is a huge month for rematches b/c of all that togetherness.

I do want to clarify a few things. our AP is really great with our kids, and does not compare her life with us to what other APs have. In fact, she doesn’t complain about ANYTHING (which makes me nervous, frankly. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop). She is imaginative and fun (just afraid of the deep end), but I do not undervalue that she is able to handle our kids of different ages so well, because that has not always been the case with other APs! So I do not want to kick her to the curb, not at all!

I am not asking her to do ALL of our family’s shopping. We do the bulk of that ourselves. But it would certainly be nice if she would run to the store when we run out of a few simple things in the middle of the week, most of which she consumes as well (juice, bread, milk, cookies).

Nor do I expect her to take on any dog responsibilities! But I feel a little led-on… she knew we have a dog and said she likes them. But really, she doesn’t, or at least has discovered that actually living one is different than she thought it would be, and you can tell, and it’s awkward. Anyone who likes dogs would take pity on one standing in front of you with their legs crossed in the late afternoon, needing to pee. It takes two minutes to take a dog outside to pee. That’s all I’m talking about here.

We’ve had a wonderful nanny, and we’ve had wonderful AP relationships, too. I prefer APs because when it’s great, they are really a part of your family, and less of an employee. We really do like exchanging cultures and I personally love mentoring these young women as they figure out who they are and what’s important to them. i have lived with fabulous, and now we are trying to decide if not-fabulous-but-certainly-not-awful-either is okay.

Of course it is okay that she is an introvert! And of course I want to hide from kids, and have been known to flee on occasion! But this characteristic does have ramifications, an important one of which is our ability to have spontaneous conversations — when the kids aren’t listening, lest I undermine her authority — about things like lunches. We can’t have those low-key conversations like you would have with an employee in the office kitchen, say, because she is never around. The inability to communicate casually is hard for me, becauase I am sensitive to her feeling criticized (maybe I’m being too sensitive…). I don’t want to “call a meeting” about things all the time. I don’t like feeling heavy-handed. Maybe that’s a mistake. And her introversion means that she usually does not join us when we go do fun things on the weekend, which feels like a shame and is a little hard to not take personally. I don’t want her to work then, but i thought she would want to experience the U.S.

I’m a really nice host mom who goes out of her way to look out for her APs. I share accessories so they don’t have to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise need. I give her money for transit to church, and extra spending cash. I brought her with us on a fabulous vacation and didn’t call it ‘vacation’ time for her. I spent a LOT of time helping her enroll in college (our LCC leaves them to their own devices) and I found a cheap book for her class. I let her use my clothing and pharmacy discount cards, etc. So I don’t think I’m “unreasonable”. I am, however, a bit disappointed.

People may not agree with me about white bread or think it is important, but entertain this for just a moment: my kids have always enjoyed wholegrain, organic breads from local bakers. Once your kids start going to school, you no longer control 100 percent of their diet, so we like to keep things as healthy as possible when we’re feeding them (I’m happy to share studies with you about the pesticide load in kids according to diet). Don’t get me wrong; we are not total zealots, in fact i took everyone for 7-11 slurpees after school earlier in the week as a treat. But when the AP will ONLY eat soft square white bread, I have limited options: if I insist my kids don’t eat it, I create a ‘forbidden fruit’ situation. If I don’t buy it for her, that’s not treating her well. If I let the kids eat it and just throw in the towel as Cynthia suggests, I am not modeling healthy eating or a commitment to our family’s values, even when it’s hard, which is something we try to teach our kids. If you can’t get over the idea of it being about white bread, fill in something else that you don’t approve of and see if you can understand what I’m talking about. Surely there must be something that you don’t want your kids to have, and I bet you have good reasons for it.

NEW QUESTIONS:

What do people think about using email for daily instructions? Our AP is big on email and I have sometimes sent a reminder or such that way because I can send an email when I think about something and she can pick it up when it is convenient for her (and I know she isn’t driving!).

One other factor which is embarrassing, frankly, and which people haven’t mentioned at all is the difficulty in recruiting APs when you don’t have a huge or pristine home. We live in an extremely safe suburb, with lots of McMansions. Our place is more of a candidate for a teardown. (We choose to work in nonprofits.) The AP gets the biggest and best bedroom with great light (not a basement) and shares a bath with the kids. We are convinced that the reason for an earlier rematch is that our house isn’t fancy, and we are not neat freaks. Our family has a lot of fun, and does a lot of interesting things together, but spending the weekends organizing our stuff is just not a priority. Again, our AP does have a fabulous car to drive the kids around in and use of it on the weekends. So just recruiting a new AP is not as easy for us. Has anyone else dealt with that? I know there are others of us out there because my LCC and other sitters say we are nowhere near the “worst” house they have seen!
: )

Thank you again to everyone who has responded! I am actually more hopeful that we can “manage for performance” and see some improvement. I think I’ll just have to move slowly on that, and not drop a new handbook on her out of the blue.

anonymous mom March 18, 2009 at 10:50 pm

Dear HalfFull,

I will comment on difficulty in recruiting au pairs and your assets..
I think we are worse off than you but haven’t had difficulties recruiting au pairs because of where and how we live. Nobody said no to us; I went with my gut and looked for personal compatibility.
We live in a townhouse, the au pair shares a shower with the kids (she has her own half-bath) and has a TINY bedroom in a walkout basement (well, I guess the plus side is privacy). The rest of the basement is under my hubby’s control, who is very messy. She doesn’t have her own car either – she uses one of ours when she needs to.
I think you should stop feeling bad about it. A GREAT au pair will look for a great family, which it seems that you are!

I also have an introvert au pair who disappears into her room after her shift and only appears in the morning when her time with kids starts. We have a set weekly meeting. Our agency actually requires it. I start it with asking her about her questions, concerns, complaints, what kids did this week, then you can praise her for something well done, then address your concerns.

Maya March 19, 2009 at 1:08 am

Glass half, I totally hear you on the white bread issue. I am fighting the same battle right now and in fact posted about it today on the ‘Need some advice’ thread. I completely understand why this is so important to you. I am fighting the spongy white squares in my house as well.

As for the modesty of your house, I wouldn’t worry about it. If an AP does not want to stay with you after she sees your house just because you don’t have marble staircases and granite kitchen, then you don’t want that AP anyway.

My house is old and is the perpetual state of repair (we got a handyman special when we bought this past summer). If I can live in it, and my children can live in it, then my AP will be able to live in it as well. And we are far from being neat freaks. But, my AP has a huge space in the basement with her own private full bath and a walk out to the back yard. It is not a particularly immaculate space but it is in the same condition as the rest of the rooms in my house, so it is not like I stuck her down there in the worst room in the house. She does half of my full size basement to herself though, so it is a big space.

Calif mom March 19, 2009 at 2:18 am

I agree — you sound like a fun family, and there are plenty of girls who would be comfortable with your arrangements. We don’t have a palace, either (I’m wondering how many APs are affected by host families’ financial problems!) You should probably make generous use of photos when you are matching, even if you are embarrassed, because it’s better to set realistic expectations than to have someone arrive, flip out, and then want to rematch!

And weekly meetings might be just the thing to help you adjust your expectations of your AP, without doing something so drastic that she starts to get grumpy.

My hunch is that if she really is as introverted as all that, but isn’t asking for anythning or talking enviously about what others have, she may honestly be happy (can you believe it?). Because you say she does well with all your kids, that’s a really good sign. My kids always start acting weird when there’s a problem they aren’t telling me about, including when it comes to APs… Since she needs the downtime, let her have it but schedule a regular meeting. And by all means, start emailing — could be the perfect solution.

Jeana March 19, 2009 at 6:36 am

Written instructions have been very effective with our aupairs. I am an ESL teacher, and I have found that some of my students who have had an excellent education score higher on the written component of testing, than on the listening and speaking component. For a typical ELL student, this would be surprising, as the social language is usually stronger than the academic language. I have found that my aupairs understand more when I write the information, and if there are special instructions for the day I write the information, or e-mail it to her. I have a daily written plan, that keeps changing, as my children become responsible for more tasks in our home, and their schedules change. Most of our aupairs have used the electronic translators, and this has been helpful, too.

I send aupairs I’m considering a copy of our family book by e-mail so they’ll know our routines and my expectations. I’m a single, adoptive mom, and work full-time as a teacher. Our lives are much different than many of the families in our cluster. I make sure that potential aupairs understand that most aupairs in our cluster have access to a car, and our aupair will not. We have a lot of laughs with our aupairs, looking for opportunities to take photos of them with really snazzy cars. I have learned to send a final e-mail to potential aupairs reminding them of anything that I perceive as a “negative” about matching with our family. I also communicate that what we lack in terms of awesome vacations and cars, we make up with our attention and support for our aupairs.
Jeana

Glass Half March 19, 2009 at 9:49 am

Jeana — thank you! I will take this as actual data that emails may be a useful tool. I am hopeful that some small changes on my part will reduce some of my disappointment in her performance. Maybe she really does not understand as much as I think she does when I am giving verbal instructions. I guess we all tend to forget this when they have been here for awhile and have such good English. It’s a complex language, after all.

My book had all these instructions, but the routines have changed along with the kids, and she probably has no idea which ones are now irrelevant and which ones I really do want done. Perhaps I have been expecting her to be a mind reader, because a previous AP just picked up on so much on her own. thanks again

MomLulu March 24, 2009 at 8:08 pm

I don’t think it is a good idea to extend with an au pair that is “just” so-so. In this scenario the only advantage would be that you save some money. But if your au pair is not doing already what you need her to do what makes you believe that will change in the second year? Unless you don’t mind supervising everything she does for another year.

I am surprised to hear an LCC would say never extend. That is a horrible thing to say. If your au pair becomes family’s best friend why in the world would not want her to stay longer? I know I would. It is the so-so extensions that usually don’t work out because people are not extending for “right” reasons – they are not honest with themselves and are hoping for something that cannot be. I believe this is true to having a new au pair too. If you don’t love the cultural exchange idea, an au pair will have a very hard time filling up your expectations (I guess this is more in general, than to host mom asking here).

Good luck and like someone else stated. You know you will have a so-so AP if you extend, but you may have it much better. Just take your time interviewing. That is a key. Lots of questions, debates and photos :)

Calif Mom March 24, 2009 at 11:03 pm

I think “loving the cultural exchange idea” is not enough — and I don’t think it’s fair to say that what is wrong with Half Full’s situation is just because of “loving the cultural exchange idea”. I don’t quite understand what you mean by that, Lulu. An au pair who is not a good fit is not a good fit.

On other idea, though — what about extending but not for a full year? That might be a good middle ground.

Daniele March 26, 2009 at 7:28 pm

I think it´s very interesting the use of the word “princess” for some kind of au pairs. It´s funny because I totally agree with it. Before my departure to my Host Family´s house, I have been researching au pairs websites and see what they have to say about the families and there expectation before they become an au pair. I realized there are lots of girls who think they are taking vacations on United States instead of going to work and study and know about the culture and have a great experience abroad. I think it´s very important for the Family indentify these girls before MAtch.

About the Host Mom problem issue here, I think that it´s really wierd the way her Au PAir reacts to situations that are so nice, like going to the Grocery stores with host mom. It´s something I would love to do with my host mom when I get there. Maybe you should have a serious conversation with your au pair and ask her why does she act this way. Maybe that´s just her personality. Also if she doesn´t ask to live with you for another year it means she doesn´t like you that much. I guess the better thing to do is to have a conversation with her. Even because, in my opinion, if you didn´t like her at all you woudn´ t think about a new year with her living at your home.

cvh March 27, 2009 at 12:34 am

Hi Daniele- it always helps to get some support from the au pair side of the relationship! There is a bit of a problem with the difference between what some girls expect being an au pair will be like and what the job/situation actually requires. We’ll do a post on this soon!

NADS April 1, 2009 at 6:32 am

j

NADS April 1, 2009 at 6:40 am

hi i am currently on my 2nd year as an aupair with a very nice family. they always invite me with them and ask if i need things. with regards to your aupair just not showing interest in cooking and grocery shopping, its normal most of the aupairs i met do not do any of those things. i do it because i was raised to always help and pitch in if it is needed. i mean i do dishes if my familiy leaves things from their breakfast or put things away if they are left out. i spend extra time with the kids, go to the movies or swimming or play games in my spare time. there are days were i sit in my room and do my own thing but i mean theres nothing wrong with that. i mean we work to and need a little rest. most families expect a bit to much when getting an aupair. i think you should let your aupair know everything about your family and what you need them to do. not all aupairs are the same and are willing to lend an extra hand when needed. i was with another family before and i did so much for them but they took it for granted and never thanked me or always pitched up home late and i was stuck with the kids, which i didnt mind but atleast they could have called to let me know.

its good to be straight forward about what you want and ask the aupair if she is ok with that. remember all cultures are different and we are all raised differently.

take care all

Lidi April 15, 2009 at 1:37 am

We’re half way through our year with our first au pair. The relationship with the au pair has been sometimes tense and I’m very disappointed with our experience. I expected that someone who would apply to be an au pair would actually enjoy children and want to explore a new culture. I’ve traveled all over the world and lived with host families and I was excited to share our culture and family with a young woman much like I had been welcomed. Unfortunately our au pair is more excited by shopping, watching TV and not leaving her room when she’s not working. She also seems resentful, unappreciative and moody. She’s publicly bashed me on facebook, but she won’t communicate what she’s unhappy about it to my face.

Reading others’ comments doesn’t give me much hope that the next one will be better. If I could convince my husband the logistical hassle of taking two children to daycare would be worth the trouble, I would rather go that route. I also hoped a live-in nanny would make life a little easier, not harder by causing roommate-type drama. I think she’s good with my girls, but certainly not great, which is what I had expected.

I was on the fence about extending, mainly because I thought, “maybe it’s not really that bad” and overrall she’s good with the girls. But after reading everyone else’s postings, and this blog, I feel like I’ll be better prepared when we interview the next candidates and that things will be different from the on-set. I hate to think that being “too nice” was a negative, but our au pair seems to take any of our extra gestures for granted. I don’t want to generalize that all au pair are wanna-be princesses, but it certainly sounds that way from these posts. Please tell me there are good host/au pair relationships!

Anna April 15, 2009 at 2:51 am

Lidi,
our first au pair was great! Ideal! Perfect!
Second one we rematched, and the one who came from a rematch has problems too. Now our third girl will be from a country that the first one came from (actually from the same city too, Sao Paulo, Brazil) and I now know what to look for. There was a great thread on matching here, but if you want to talk you can email me for more details. I think our third girl (who hasn’t arrived yet) will also be fabulous.

Ann April 15, 2009 at 4:56 pm

As I was following this thread, I jokingly started calling it the “white bread” thread! I’m going to comment just on the food aspect. Food and nutrition is a topic around which we American “yuppie”moms have strong feelings and “values,” especially when it comes to feeding our children. (Usually at the point when you can afford an AP, you can also afford to buy organic milk etc). I’m no different – because my daugher had cow’s and maybe soy’s milk sensitivities, and every 3-6 months we’d go through diet tests to see if she’d outgrown them, I had my first AP write down not only everything my daughter ate, but the color and consistency of my daughter’s poos etc (GI reactions can show up several days later..). I also photocopied a page from the AAP Nutrition handbook and wrote out sample, nutritionally balanced menus with suggestions from each food group and daily calories.

At the same time, as someone who has lived and worked overseas, I think American host moms also need to relax around the food issue. Food is the easiest, most inexpensive way to keep an AP happy and connected with her home country – so buy the healthy versions of what she likes, and for special occasions buy her the unhealthy stuff she likes, and just deal with the fact that the kids may not always eat optimally. My first AP liked white bread, potatoes, and meat. No exotic spicing. Vegetables and fruit were optional. She grew up in a poor background where meat was not common and her stomach/taste buds couldn’t handle a wide variety of anything else. So while she was here, we had two kinds of bread in the house – I usually requested she feed my daughter whole wheat, but my daughter also got used to white – you know what, now that the AP is gone it’s no longer an issue. At mealtimes we usually cooked two starches (potatoes and something else), vegetables (for the rest of my family), and a meat the AP would eat. My AP also liked chocolate – I did not stock that on a daily basis, she bought it on her stipend, but on holidays etc I always made sure the AP had a chocolate “stash” to keep in her room, away from my daughter. And in the summer I paid my AP to take my daugher out for ice cream once a week as a treat for them both (I’d rather not keep that stuff in the house because I have a compulsive eater streak myself!).

In countries where families don’t have a lot of money they can’t afford to be picky about food or nutrition. We Americans are blessed with overabundance in our supermarkets and I think we forget how it may seem to outsiders.

Anonymous April 15, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Please be a little careful in stereotyping host moms, too! This is not a new value to my husband and I — we have been local/organic for 20 years, starting in college, which i’d like to point out is long before we had either children or money. (and now that we have children we have much LESS money for food. We stretch, and have lots of beans. Have you tried some of the heirlooms? Delish!) My sister taught me organic gardening in the 70’s. It’s not a “value” in quotes, it’s a VALUE.
We do purchase she things our AP likes, but it does cause problems with our kids’ eating. If i may be so bold, it sounds like your kids are a little younger, and take it from a mom of older kids, as they encounter the world of food options, their relationship to food changes. It would be nice to be able to have home be a place where guaranteed nourishment happens.

Glass Half, with a report April 30, 2009 at 5:15 am

Well, dear readers, it’s been an interesting few weeks.

I took your advice and started ‘actively managing’, which I’ve been doing for a solid month now. Things have really improved. We set a regular meeting time, and I have actually been chided by AP for not bringing up concerns, that I am not giving her enough feedback so that she can improve on how good an au pair she is. It has been great to hear her concerns, too, so that we can fix some small things. But whodathunkit? I worry so much over hurting feelings that I’m hurting feelings and preventing growth. Big lesson learned there.

In spite of conventional wisdom on this blog, we did decide to extend. Because she started with us at the end of last summer, she knows what that will be like, and I may be in the minority, but I think summer is a difficult time to transition a new au pair. I know that many people like to have them come when things are “more relaxed”, but because of our energy level, summer is hard on the adults. And the days go on forever. And this year, we can’t afford as many camps as usual.

Will keep y’all posted!

cv April 30, 2009 at 6:05 am

GlassHalf — Thanks so much for the update! It sounds like your efforts to be more direct and more explicit are paying off. It must feel pretty wonderful to see your work making a difference. Here’s hoping that you sail smoothly through the summer and continue to reap the benefits, cv

Dawn April 30, 2009 at 5:48 pm

I’m glad to hear that “actively managing” your AP has been working out so well! I totally agree with you about summer being a difficult time to transition to a new AP, so I think I would have done the same thing, assuming that (as it sounds like is the case) the “active management” is helping to turn your “so so” AP into a great one. I’d still stick with the advice that it’s not a great idea to extend with a “so so” AP — but if she’s not “so so” anymore, then it makes all the sense in the world!

Good luck, keep us posted!

aussie_aupair May 8, 2009 at 3:24 am

Just a quick note to add….If an au pair is just looking for a huge house and added perks like vacations and expensive cars, then I wouldn’t feel bad that you can’t attract these au pairs. They’re obviously in it for the wrong reasons and will probably try their hardest to get in to the big houses in popular areas by exaggerating skills etc. I think that you should feel lucky to weed these bad apples out of the applicant pool!

The right au pair will match with you because you are the right family, not because you have to biggest house, best car and can offer the best vacations!!!!!

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