How Can We Develop a Connection with our Socially Detached Au Pair?

by cv harquail on June 4, 2016

The Goldilocks Conundrum

Your connection with your Au Pair is too heavy, or it’s non-existant.

Your Au Pair is either a homebody, sticking close to the house demonstrating little interest in the world around her/him. Or, your Au Pair is always gone — whether physically or socially. S/he  does the job, and then disappears.26117721766_a435b7e8f0_m

We Host Parents *want* some kind of social, familiar, friendly connection with our au pairs.

We don’t have to be best friends, ‘brothers from another mother’, or psychically twinned. We just want to feel with our au pairs that we recognize each others interests, needs, and moods. That we understand each other well enough, and that we have light-hearted but not insipid things to talk about with each other.

I spent a lot of time with our first au pair talking about the band Savage Garden. Ever heard of them? I had’t either. But I became an expert with Darren and Daniel’s lyrics, singing them to our daughter at appropriate moments, because Savage Garden was important to our au pair. And yes, I was relieved when she got interested in Lenny Kravitz.  Less mopey, easier to dance to in the kitchen.

How can we help create ‘just the right’ connection between us and our Au Pairs??

We are a new host family – almost two months in. From the beginning we did not feel a connection with our Au Pair. She is nice and treats our son well. Her english skills are mediocre at best. We were hoping that as things moved along we would feel more like a family. She eats/cares for our son then disappears either to the gym or a friends or her room. We have made no personal connection whatsoever.

First, should we have expected too much and is this just an employer/employee relationship?

(To complicate matters, an even bigger issue: In the beginning our agency did not have a local coordinator, which they soon hired. Now, we found out she is leaving and have no one to get advice from – at least locally.)

We now feel as if we are alone, with an issue and no help. Should we ride it out for a year? We don’t want to make waves because we are not unhappy with her – just no connection – we feel as if she is a stranger to us – live-in babysitter.

~HostMomOfAStranger

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Image: Looking for Goldilocks,  Leesamlong on Flickr

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Aupair Paris June 4, 2016 at 2:37 pm

Oh man! I loved Savage Garden when I was about fourteen! Ahem, as to the question – I think whether you can talk to the AP about this, really depends on the kid of issue it is. If the AP seems shy, and spends a lot of time in her room, inviting her, talking to her, taking an interest etc might all help. She might start to feel more at home and want to hang out more – especially if she’s invited to everything and gets the message she’s always welcome.

On the other hand, if an AP is always with friends or out exploring – I’m not sure this is so easy to change! In this situation, well-meaning attempts to get AP to socialise with the family might just be read as ways to get her to “work” on her off time. Even if it’s a fun outing, everything gets less fun if you have to cancel what you actually wanted to do for it. In this situation, I think all you can do is specify to AP when events are particularly important to the kids… You can change behaviour, when it’s important, but not hearts and minds. You can’t make her want to be there.

I guess it’s something you have to look for in matching – but then, what hopeful young woman *won’t* say they want to be part of the family and really join in? It would be a bit like saying “I’m not hard-working and I don’t much like kids” and still expecting to be hired… :\

*I knew I loved you before I met you, I think I dreamed you into life…*

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Aupair Paris June 4, 2016 at 2:39 pm

Oh, and as for expecting too much – no, you weren’t. But some APs are just like that. Some people are just not good social matches for each other! The important thing is to decide what it means for you – how much you mind it. From my perspective, if she does her job well, who on earth cares?! But other people would have different priorities, and that’s fine too.

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cv harquail June 5, 2016 at 1:55 pm

Our Au Pair actually sang that song to our baby!

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Aupair Paris June 6, 2016 at 6:43 am

That’s really sweet, but also kind of hilarious, when you think of the baby’s actual mum listening to it! I know exactly what my mum would say if I suggested I was “dreamed” into this world. ;)

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Taking a Computer Lunch June 5, 2016 at 6:49 am

Think about how you organize your family time. Since you appear to have just one young child, do you and your spouse cook and sit down to dinner – or do you focus on your child and graze? The reason I ask, is that children of working parents usually want their precious parental time in the evening, which isn’t much fun for an au pair, who has been with the child all day, and is now “extra.” An AP who works 45 hours a week, needs downtime, an opportunity to connect with friends and to recharge her batteries. If she’s on the young side, changes are she was the focus of her parents’ lives until she got on the plane and came to you. She may not be sure of what it means to be a member of a family as an adult in your house – and since she’s your first AP, you’re figuring out what that means, too.

There are ways to built connections – if you’re including her in a sit-down dinner, then ask her questions about herself. Learn about her interests, and discuss ways she can explore them here. Offer to take her to a restaurant that serves food from her country. Ask her what her favorite foods are on the menu.

When she disappears to her room and you’re ready to eat dinner, do you go to her door and invite her to join you? Even though I do ask my AP if she will be joining us for dinner as I begin to prepare the evening meal, we do explicitly knock on her door and give her a 5-minute warning.

Do you know what your AP’s favorite foods are? What restaurant(s) do she and her friends go to? What foods does she miss most from her country? (Knowing favorite foods is a great way to reward an AP for moments when she goes above-and-beyond with your child. A gift card to her favorite restaurant makes a great birthday or holiday gift.)

Build in opportunities for communication into your AP’s schedule. Spend 15 minutes in the morning when she starts her shift communication about the day – note any changes. Then, build 15 minutes into the end of her day (staying within the 45 hours of course!) Make it work time for her to talk about the day – even if your child needs to sit on your lap and cuddle while you do it. If her English isn’t great, then you might want to keep a written schedule, too, but do explore opportunities for simple conversations.

If her English is mediocre, then she may be taking the easy way out, and spending a lot of time with friends who speak her language. Ask what her goals are for learning English. Since you don’t have an LCC, then you’ll need to explore opportunities for her to practice and learn – and to meet the State Department requirements! I’ve had some APs who did intensive language instruction at local English-only schools, others who took English at our local community college, and others who really felt they needed to practice a lot – and went to free sessions at our local library (even though it didn’t add to their State Dept. requirements). Some even went to local churches which offered free English classes – and proselytizing. As her English improves, it will be easier for her to connect with you.

Do book her for a weekly or bi-weekly check in time after your child has gone to bed. Ask her which night she’d like to have the conversation. This will be your time to ask her how she feels – and you’ll have the opportunity to assess whether she is content, even though you’re not. Don’t make it last long – unless you’re trying to correct mistakes.

Finally, understand that you’re just not that exciting to a young adult. Don’t take it personally! If you want to build a personal relationship, then you’ll have to make the first move and be interested in her – not just her relationship to your child. (I recall when I attended the HF orientation before my first AP arrived, and another HM was excited because she and her AP were the same age – 26. I think she was disappointed, hurt, and perhaps a little jealous – because the AP saw her, the mother of 4 young children, as boring and left the house after her shift ended to hang out with AP friends.)

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2 kids and a cat June 5, 2016 at 9:30 am

Think about what you would personally need after 45 hours with your son. We have a strict “the phone is for professional use only during work hours”, so our AP would dash off to check in on her family and friends, then resurface for dinner. That seemed reasonable to me. If her door was closed, we never knocked, to give her privacy. We probably shoud hav taken TACL’s approach an not assumed she would how up if interested.

Ours wanted to be part of a family, but didn’t actually like/understand us. We had aimiable dinners and outings, but ultimately her detachment beyond that grew to disrespect because she wasn’t invested in us, the parents/household (in spite of excellent chidcare.) This led to rule-breaking and eventual transition.

In hindsight, there was no way to make us more compatible. Yet, I think we coud have made her more aware of things we were doing while she was in her room. Yours might be more mature than ours and simply want more space, but I would check in more in these early months.

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WestMom June 5, 2016 at 5:41 pm

Agreed with comments above. OP does not say how old her son is, but if AP is basically working 9-5 every day alone with baby, I do see how this would feel more like a ‘job’ and the family home being the ‘workplace’.

We didn’t start the program until our kids were all in school so our APs have always been on a split schedule and I have always scheduled their hours to overlap with family dinners. This has always been our time to talk, joke and just catch up with life. For some of our APs who had a busy social life, this was the only meaningful time we spent together. If it wasn’t for dinner, some would have probably been right out the door as soon as we walked in…

A few tips: 1) When I interview, I make it clear that we are looking for someone who wants to integrate in our family. I write this in our profile, and I look for APs with strong family ties, ask them what they do with their relatives, and look for cues that family is important to them (for example, one AP sent me questions like: will I be able to spend xmas with you? Will I have the chance to meet your relatives?). 2) As mentioned above, I make time for AP to join us (In our case, I basically pay her to eat dinner with us!). If you don’t have any extra hours, perhaps you could tell AP you would like to spend more time together and ask her to choose a day where you can cook and eat together. Or plan a weekend activity once per month… a baseball game, attraction park, a play, whatever… 3) Personality can’t really be changed… Unfortunately, some APs will *think* they want family time, but once they meet their group of friends, they realize they really don’t… Some year are just like that, and that’s ok too.

Last word of wisdom: Don’t sweat it too much. If she is doing a great job with your son and you are happy with her work overall, then this is a good year. You will see the relationship change from one year to another. One year you may have a socially active AP, and the next you may have a homebody who wants nothing more than watching TV on the couch between you are your husband. Then on that year, you may wish for AP1 back!

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anonformerAP June 6, 2016 at 4:50 am

When I was in my 20’s, I had a great social life. I was studying and working part-time. I also had a sane, close, but also quite overhelming relationship with my family and close relatives. I didn’t live with my parents, but I used to have lunch with them 2-3 times a week, plus all the extra time we were spending together.

I took care of my 2 grannies (grocery, doctor appointments…) and their “payment” for this “services” was cooking me a delicious lunch or dinner and make me stay. I also visited other relatives during the week, and spent all important holidays together. It was nice and I loved them, but it came to a point where it was too much. And I felt the urge to “escape”, but they were so accostumed to see me every week that it sounded almost unrespectful or rude, stop visiting them.

For many other reasons, I decided to become an aupair. My HF asked many questions about my family (do you have dinner together? …) and it was hard for me to find the correct answers, since yes, we had TOO many dinners together. I wanted to spend some social time with my HF, but nos as much as I was spending with my real family, and I didn’t know how much would be enough. I needed my time, and not feel tied.

Once I was in the US, it worked out well. Some weekdays I had dinner with my HF and helped around with pleasure (when not on duty), others I was eating by myself earlier or later and retreated to my room or went outside for a walk or meet a friend. At weekends I was out for the day and came back for dinner, since I worked very early in the morning, or sometimes I dinnered with other aupairs at their houses.

What I want to remark is that family-oriented girls al home may experience different needs once abroad, not family-related, and most times they aren’t even aware ot that even if asked. (I guess it might happen the other way arround, but I haven’t experienced it) Is important to talk about it in advance, and set expectations. But also let spend some time, observe and adjust as it goes.

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HMAdvice June 6, 2016 at 10:04 am

I can totally relate to you. This year was our first year with an au pair and my au pair acts the very same way. I have bent over backwards trying to make her feel welcome and help her to have an good time and see things in the USA. I even reached out to talk to her about it but like many of these other replies, they are who they are and I just had to accept that this is who she is. We are all busy families and verbally extending an invite to things can be hard when you are busy but I did start doing this even when it was just watching TV and she did attend more things with us.

I will be honest this was disheartening to my family as we really were looking to build a relationship with our au pair but we did end up sticking it out. Our relationship really hasn’t changed and our year is almost up so I doubt we will really stay in touch after this.

If there is a next time, I will interview harder for this but I agree to that sometimes the grass looks greener on the other side. I chose to stick it out because at the end of the day my au pair did what I asked and was good with my children. She was responsible and didn’t go partying or anything like that. For the most part she didn’t really complain (at least to me). At the end of the day I think there could be worse things so she stayed.

Good Luck.

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massmom June 6, 2016 at 11:27 am

On the upside, your au pair is busy and has formed some good social connections with her peers, so that’s great!

If you’re really bothered by the lack of connection, talk to her. You may find that you are having a misunderstanding. This can happen so often…a host family wants to respect an au pair’s time off so doesn’t always invite her to dinners and activities, which makes the au pair feel as though she’s not being included, which leads to her retreating to her room, which leads to the host family feeling like she is aloof…it can be a vicious cycle which can often be improved by a single conversation clearing up assumptions and intentions on both sides.

I would just tell her that you would like to get to know her better, and ask if she can commit to having dinner with the family 1 or 2 times a week. Have her cook a meal from her country once in awhile so you can talk about how food relates to culture. Not sure how old your kids are, but we often do things at family dinner like ask a silly question everyone has to answer, or make a summer bucket list where every member gets to add a few things they would like to do. See if you can draw her out and maybe make a couple things on her bucket list happen for her. If she sits there like a bump on a log, there’s not much you can do, but at least you will feel like you made the effort. Rest assured there are many family-oriented au pairs out there and you may have a very different experience next time around.

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Old China Hand June 6, 2016 at 6:40 pm

I fall into the camp that if you don’t schedule them, you can’t require it. Tacl has some great suggestions about taking short amounts of time to build a connection. This is basically what we have done as we use every minute of our 45 hours a week. I am able to come home for lunch many days, so I spend time with ap then. None of our aps have regularly eaten dinner with us. This one makes a point to try to on Saturday and Sunday nights but it often doesn’t happen. I leave this up to them. They have a full week and need space. We are a lame family and don’t do things that they will find exciting to join in on. Maybe that will change as they get older, but with two whose ages add up to 6, it’s the way things are right now. I think owning the situation in your family is important and being realistic about expectations is as well.

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WarmStateMomma June 6, 2016 at 8:48 pm

Every HF/AP relationship is different. It’s not unrealistic to expect a family-style relationship with your AP. I wish we had a more personal relationship with our amazing AP but there’s just not a whole lot of common ground. She’s brilliant and sweet and close to perfect as a caregiver and housemate, but… there could be more of a personal connection. I’ve learned that she feels quite close to our whole family although HD and I don’t feel as close to her. It’s complicated. I was way closer to the last AP but this one is beyond amazing as a caregiver.

Can you invite your AP to join your family on some sort of relationship-building experience? Like a weekend camping trip? Something where you all disconnect from the world and focus on doing things together.

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Taking a Computer Lunch June 8, 2016 at 11:39 am

Introverts often feel very close connections to their HF, but are unable to express it. When I experienced this the first time, I knew what to expect when I encountered it again. Introverts will be happy to join you for family game night (even a 4-year-old can play Candyland or Chutes & Ladders – and an AP with weak conversational skills will have common words for colors and numbers reinforced at a basic, non-threatening level). A family movie night can also work. Introverts will need to be explicitly invited to join you, but over time will develop a comfort level.

Introverts also need a lot of down time, so “hiding in her room” (which as an extreme extrovert annoys me as a waste of time – but I’m slowly building sympathy) is absolutely necessary for her to have the down time she needs to re-energize. An introverted AP will have one or two close friends and be totally lost when they move or have a boyfriend – you may discover that even midway through her year, she’s joining you in more and more family activities. (A great gift card for the introvert is a gift card for her favorite restaurant that covers the cost of a meal for herself and her best friend. Even if her favorite restaurant is not a chain, you’ll find that most any restaurant will create a gift card on the spot.)

If you invite/demand your AP to appear at the table, do ask her specific questions, so she feels like she’s part of the conversation – and start the questions with her name, so she immediately knows they’re for her and not your children. There’s always that magic point when your AP acquires enough language to join in the conversation and not just be a quiet participant at the table.

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Mimi June 7, 2016 at 3:30 pm

We talk about expectations for family participation when interviewing. We are very explicit about the kinds of activities we do as a family that we expect the AP to join; family meals 5-6 nights a week (off duty), family holiday/celebrations (on/off duty depending on the occasion), and other specific monthly family outings like carnivals/festivals/movies (usually off duty and paid for).

While dinner is being prepared and cleaned up, we talk “grown-up stuff” (dinner is for the kids practicing their conversational skills). Topics vary from how her day went to how her family is and occasionally if the news is on the background, current events. Only one of our APs (who we went into rematch with) didn’t respond to our attempts at conversation and not all of our APs have been very outgoing.

OP, I would try initiating more conversation with your AP and see where it leads you. You can also be upfront about getting to know her more now that she’s settled in a bit and see where that takes you. You can talk about wanting to help her improve her English and be direct about wanting to feel like she is more a part of your family. If she doesn’t seem receptive to opening up more or having the kind of interactions that you feel contribute to anything more than an employee/employer relationship, then you should decide if you can continue that way and work on a different relationship with your next AP.

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IntellectualMom June 8, 2016 at 8:47 pm

Wow Mimi, I am impressed with your expectations. Do any of your potential APs balk at being expected to have dinner 5-6 nights while being counted as off duty? I’d like to hear about how you came to set these expectations and how it has gone over with your APs…I have expected our APs to eat dinner with us as DH is often abroad for work and it balances out the adult to children ratio (we have 3 children ages 1-9). However, dinner and breakfast has always been included in her hours and this makes me very frustrated when occasionally she comes and claims I have worked her 45 1/2 hours that week or something. I also admire how clearly you set the expectation for conversation. it has irked me how our dinner conversation can sometimes turn to adult topics (AP’s friends and plans and social life etc) whereas I’d rather focus on the children… does it really work to set it up so that you talk about grown up things around but not AT the table? I’d love to hear more as we switch over to a new AP in August and this would be helpful to set expectations. Also, do you share a handbook in advance and does it stipulate this? Thanks in advance!

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Former AP Now HM June 9, 2016 at 3:34 am

I’m not Mimi (obviously), but our au pairs eat with us every night unless they are physically out of the house for the evening (in which case they have to let me know by a certain time and I will ask if they want me to make them something early/save something for them). We eat as a family and they are part of that – including waiting for everyone to finish eating before getting up and helping clear the table. We don’t really spell it out in matching as an expectation because I’ve never thought of it like that. It’s just polite to do if you’re living with someone. However, we absolutely do not focus on the children while we are eating, and if we did I think I’d count it as work time and schedule them for it. I know how awful it can be to eat with children you aren’t obligated to love, especially if you’ve already spent 45 hours with them, and I want my AP to feel relaxed and at home in our family, which means that everyone is included in mealtime conversation. I expect the children to learn how to listen and participate in adult conversations without interrupting, and I really value mealtimes as a way of bringing everyone together in a relaxed, communal environment. My APs have all been fairly family-oriented and take part in the conversation, and this way I can make sure that we have a bit of time to focus on whichever language she wants to work on.

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Mimi June 9, 2016 at 1:38 pm

We talk about family dinners while interviewing and it is in our HH where we describe in detail the kind of relationships we’ve had with our APs over the last 8 years. We are clear about what we expect from the AP as well as what they can expect from us.

I set menus in advance so that if our AP doesn’t like what we’re having, they have advance notice so they can go out because we don’t cook separate meals. They rarely do this but it helps that we eat meals that our APs like and are somewhat familiar with. Also, the APs don’t need to help out at dinner, because I expect my children (12/7/7/2) to manage their own meals, especially as HD also travels. (Obviously #4 needs some help but is managed by me or HD.) They set the table and also clean up afterwards (including #4) so that dinnertime is somewhat civilized (unless it’s a special once-in-a-while free burps pizza night that we plan when the APs are out). We’ve never had an AP balk family dinners, not even the few that haven’t worked out. My father eats a meal with us every week and there are frequent nights when he and the AP are still talking about whatever well beyond dinner, clean up, and bedtimes.

We conversation questions with the kids since they were little as dinner games. Questions like “If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?” and “If you could only use one word for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?” When the AP is new, this gives her an opportunity to talk about her favorite foods and to describe it if none of us know what it is and I can talk with her later about it and ask more about her food preferences, invite her to cook/help cook it, or talk about how Americans are addicted to grilling and have adapted/ruined ethnic dishes. :)

The conversation piece is something that we consciously work on with our APs in the same way we work on it with our children. It’s an easy cultural lesson for the APs and etiquette lessons for the kids. We have lots on conversations with the APS about their drama, and I don’t mind it. I have employees the same age as the AP and it helps me stay current with what concerns them and in many ways better relate to them. I see it as part of the give-back of our family relationship. (It’s also the only excitement I have in my boring, middle-aged existence!) It helps that our kids are at an age where they are nosy so the AP is less likely to share personal drama openly that she will gets grilled about, because the boys are active participants in conversations at the table. Sometimes we will have dessert when the kids are in bed and I can ask about her latest outing or plans for the next week.

Something to think about for yourself might be the subtle ways in which you might be doing something to discourage your AP from opening up to you. You mention that she talks about adult topics at dinner when you would rather focus on the children. She may be picking up on this and interpreting it as a lack of interest on your part rather than part of being a busy mom. If you can try to find more ways to create conversation with your AP, it eventually becomes second nature.

It’s easy to forget that the APs are looking for us to show them what is socially acceptable or not and trying to fit into our culture includes learning about the HF home culture. Anything that is out of their frame of reference is going to be a challenges for them and different APs handle those kinds of challenges differently.

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HappyHM June 10, 2016 at 10:01 am

Our au pairs have also nearly always joined us for family dinner. This is probably going to change when I have Baby #2 next month (family dinners might go out the window for a few months), but it’s worked really well for us, even with AP #2 with whom we rematched. It’s been a good time to check in and talk about the day and what plans the au pair has coming up, whether we have plans for the weekend for which the AP might want to join us, etc. In my house rules, I say that we assume the AP will eat with us M-F and not eat with us on the weekend because during the week our schedules are pretty regular, and on the weekend either we or the AP will probably be out and about. I then say that if the AP doesn’t plan to eat with us during the week or does want to eat dinner with us on the weekend just to let us know so that we can plan for it. Mostly this is so I can give her space on the weekend–for example, if she’s upstairs vegging out in her room, I’m not going to bother her, but if I know she wants to have Sunday dinner with us, I’ll make sure to go up there and let her know when it’s almost ready.

Again, it’s worked pretty well for us, possibly because our weekday schedules are so regular–we only have a toddler right now, so our AP works 9 hours a day, 5 days per week, and we’re not running around in the evenings to activities and such.

I do think this time really helps us bond with the AP. Because we have a toddler, it’s not usually a lengthy dinner, but it’s a time for us all to check in and be together on a regular basis.

With regards to the OP, I’m curious to know whether you’ve invited her for dinner? Maybe ask her to choose the meal 1 night per week (you could make it or ask for her help making it). I think it’s fine to say that you would like a chance to get to know her better and get to know some of the foods she liked to eat back home.

Our current AP came from a family who rematched with her because they said they didn’t feel a connection with her. She actually sounds like she was in a situation a lot like this one. She would care for the baby all day and then go upstairs and call her mom and/or talk to friends when the parents came home. She says she was caught off-guard when the HF said they wanted to rematch because of lack of a connection because they had never SAID anything, and had she known they wanted more of a connection, she would have been willing. Of course, there are two sides to every story, but I think the moral is to communicate more. Maybe don’t go from NEVER eating together to ALWAYS eating together, but saying that you’ve been really happy with your AP’s care of your child and you’re looking forward to getting to know her more, too, is a nice gesture. Open the door and start small. :)

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ChiHostMom June 10, 2016 at 5:22 pm

We’re much like Mimi and have conversation practice at dinner time and generally expect that APs are joining us. 99% of the time they do unless they have other plans. We don’t expect them to help with kids but it’s a good time to talk about our days, etc. Weekends are free-for all and we invite but don’t expect participation unless it’s our kids birthday party.

Bitka September 5, 2016 at 12:53 pm

I wanted to be a part of the host family and eat dinner with them but then I realized that they were linking all the conversations with kids. They were waiting for me to take their dirty dishes and it was tiring for me waiting for the dinner till 7 p.m. after whole day running with their kids. I was hungry in the middle of the day so I stopped comming for dinner at all.

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