Today’s Truth: Some of us are typical host parents, some of us are atypical host parents, and all of us are trying to be better host parents.
I’ve been wanting to write about atypical parenting situations for a while now, but a conversation over the weekend has raised a particular situation where we can consider this…
We know that when we are in the process of matching with an au pair, we get a clearer and more comprehensive psychological contract when we know what to expect of her and she know what to expect of her. That’s why we send out family handbooks, descriptions of kids, photos of neighborhood, and all of that ‘up front’ information.
But what happens when there is something ‘different’ or ‘atypical’ about your host parent situation?
Being a single parent, being a same-sex couple, speaking two different languages, going through a divorce, undergoing chemotherapy, parent being shipped to Afghanistan for the fourth time — all of these parenting situations are not that uncommon. Au pairs may already know families with these parenting set-ups, and may have reasonable expectations about what a family with that situation might be like.
Other parent situations? Not so easy to anticipate.
The kinds of parenting situations I’ve heard about that are atypical include separated parents where the kids (and au pair) go back and forth between houses, parents who are temporarily laid up with serious illnesses (strokes, broken backs, brain surgery), parent undergoing sex-reassignment surgery, parent ‘coming out of the closet’, and more.
Recently, one host mom brought up an atypical situation of her own: she uses a wheelchair. When Wheelchair Bound Mom described her situation and explained how she shares information about it with potential au pairs during the matching process, it prompted a whole conversation of its own.
I’m moving this conversation to this post, and will paste it in verbatim below. Then, those of you who want to join in can do so in the comments.
Let’s see if we can understand the pros and cons of revealing a lot of information or letting the candidate suss it out her/himself.
Keep in mind, too, that we each make the best choices we can for our own situations. We don’t know what a person’s experience is or has been with being in an atypical situation, so our first reactions might not fit well with ‘the whole truth’.
Here’s the convo:
Wheelchair Bound Mom
On the topic of not really outright disclosing things during match – I don’t tell potential au pairs that I have a disease that prevents me from walking and makes a bunch of other things like cooking or anything that requires fine motor skills really difficult.
Taking a Computer Lunch
I’m of the opposite mind, personally (and well, I’m legally bound by State Department regs. to inform potential APs that The Camel is a special needs child because it has a great impact on their year with us) – I tend toward being open. I have found that The Camel is a great separater – the party girls don’t reply to our introductory email in which we state outright that The Camel weighs 25 kg and needs some lifting and the ones who really love children do respond. (We’ve become fairly selective over the years and interview AP candidates with special needs experience – even if it isn’t similar to The Camel’s special needs.) It takes us some time, and we tend to interview 4-6 women before we make our decision. (We would interview men, but the Venn diagram of special needs willing men in our agency does not appear to exist.)
We follow people first terminology, The Camel is a girl with special needs rather than a special needs girl.
Your needs are different from mine, and my advice would be to ask your current and former APs if they would have preferred to have known about your having a medical condition in advance. That to me, would seem to be an important factor in guiding your decision. My guess, is that for good candidates, your having a disablity would be less important to them than the behavior of your children, working conditions, etc.
I don’t think giving a potential AP the head ups that you happen to be in a wheelchair is focusing on what you can’t do. I think it’s being upfront and honest. Not that ‘not mentioning’ it is dishonest, but I would definitely wonder, ‘Well, what else has she just ‘not mentioned?’ if I found out from another source.
This reminds me of my 1st HF- when I arrived, I learned that they *exclusively* ate organic food. Everything in the entire house was organic, and they were verrrry outspoken about it. I don’t really care either way, because the food was great, but I’m also a big fan of McDonald’s, and it made me really uncomfortable when they would go on and on about how superior their food choices were to people who ate non organic.
My point is- the organic food really didn’t bother me, and it really didn’t affect me, because I ate it and enjoyed it, but I think that’s a big enough ‘idiosyncrasy’ to include in emails beforehand, and it was left out. This family also left out many other ’small’ things that didn’t *really* affect me… but by the time I left, my overall impression was that they were not 100% honest.
Wheelchair Bound Mom
OK, I guess everyone thinks I should talk about being in a wheelchair during the interview process. That’s something to look forward to.
One difference between me and the organic food people is that I don’t talk about being in a wheel chair all the time, and I never, ever talk about it with people. I don’t think it’s superior like the organic food people, and instead it really SUCKS being in a wheelchair. It is not a choice like eating organic food, and I find that if I open the topic to people they say things I just have to deal with like “oh, I just don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t go for a jog. It helps me clear my head, I think I would go CRAZY if I were in a wheelchair.”
Oh yes, I have found that not talking about my being in a wheelchair clearly and successfully sends the message that I don’t really want your opinion on what it would be like to be in a wheelchair. Everyone has their way of coping and this is mine for this particular topic. I am trying to think of appropriate parallels for you, but I’m not sure there is something similar. What if DH had severe adult acne, should that be mentioned to potential APs during matching? The AP might think it is just a rash or bad sunburn in any pictures and not know it is permanent, should dad have to talk about his acne? Or maybe dad completely runs the household whenever mom gets debilitating migraines, or maybe she gets horrid menstrual cramping every few months and dad handles things then – should host families need to mention all of these things to APs, or is it ok for them to deal with these things as needed instead of during matching?
PA AP mom
I think you asked for opinions but then didn’t like the ones you got. (I am not an “organic food” person either, just for the record.)
I had a stroke back in February. I am not in a wheelchair, but I have some significant limitations (no driving, difficulty walking distances because of balance, etc). I am in the process of finding a new AP right now and I disclosed it immediately.
I am not suggesting that your wheelchair should be the focal point of your family’s application or profile, but I do think that you should be upfront about it. Wouldn’t you be upset if your AP was in a wheelchair and didn’t mention it and showed up at your home? You would feel like you hadn’t had the chance to make an informed decision. I think an AP would feel much the same way.
There are plenty of APs out there who don’t care if you are in a wheelchair and would still think that you are the perfect family for them.
Wheelchair Bound Mom
Fair enough – that is all true – and you are right I didn’t really like the opinions but I think it’s ok to express mine. It’s all true – except that an au pair can not be in a wheelchair because she would not be able to do the au pair job. Also, the wheelchair is not hidden during matching, it’s just not discussed. If she gets here and is surprised to see I am in a wheelchair, it would mean she did not look at our pictures.
I guess I could do a better job making sure they understand I am in a wheelchair – after all I would not want an AP who does not like me for that reason alone anyway.
“Also, the wheelchair is not hidden during matching, it’s just not discussed.” I think this is a contradicting statement. You don’t say anything, therefore you are in around about way, hiding the fact. Just because she sees the photos doesn’t mean she understands the situation. She may think you had surgery and it is a temporary thing. And I agree with PA mom. You asked for opinions, and because you didn’t like answers you recieved, you have to argue with us! If you don’t want to hear something that contradicts what you have already made up your mind about, please don’t ask the question.
Wheelchair Bound Mom
I agree, thanks for your supportive comment.
I would agree – as someone who has walked with crutches for temporary injuries and resulting surgeries in both the US and Europe, while public health is cheaper in Europe, attitudes toward people with disabilities are far behind the US, and facilities (e.g. elevators) that make life easier almost non-existent.
Most of the AP candidates that we interview assume that they will be caring for The Camel full-time (even Europeans), and are surprised that not only does she go to school for the same amount of hours as her brother, but that she receives curb-to-curb transportation (well, at least 99% of the time). Some are resistant toward feeding her in public, and won’t try until we bring them along for an outing and make no big deal about it. New APs need to be talked through the steps of transporting her, making requests for services (like opening the special needs locker room at the public pool), etc. that exist here.
You need not make a big deal of it. We are very up front about The Camel’s disabilities and needs (mainly because APs have to be able to pick up 25 kg briefly) in an introductory email, because we want out ‘party girls,’ women who are too tiny themselves to do the work, and those not interested to weed themselves out. We tend to interview 4-6 women, which is a considerable amount of our free time when we’re in the process – so we don’t want to waste it.
We do not reveal The Camel’s full diagnosis until the AP arrives – choosing to focus on the symptoms that affect their lives during the matching process.
But this is all just advice Wheelchair bound Mom. None of us are telling you want to do – just what we would do. You get to digest our advice as you make your decision whether and how much to reveal in advance.
Wheelchair Bound Mom
Thank you TaCL – that means a lot to me (as I wipe away some self indulgent tears while I type). Obviously this is a somewhat emotional topic for me and I do appreciate the input.
[Thanks to everyone for being respectful, kind, and willing to ‘give’ in this conversation so far. It is really hard to put our situations and our coping strategies out in the open– it’s so easy to misunderstand/be misunderstood .. and it is so hard to so, “Oh, you’re right” and then revise an opinion in real time. thanks. Comments are now open … cv ]