A regular reader sent me a long email about traveling with her Au Pair over the Christmas holiday. This reader is one of those very experienced, very thoughtful host moms who takes pains to see all sides of a situation, before doing her very best to be clear, constructive, and kind when she interacts with her au pairs (and for that matter, when she shares her advice in comments).
As with many (most?) real life situations, there are layers and layers of dynamics. Underneath all of the specifics of the situation lies this problem: her au pair does not seem to understand that the plans that she makes need to incorporate the plans of her host family.
This story is a good example of how, as we start to talk with each other about the ‘presenting problem’, we can begin to see what’s going on at a deeper level. You might recognize yourself (I certainly do) as this mom explains, interprets, understands, and tries to stay fair in a situation that’s becoming a drag on her own generosity.
The whole email, and full situation, is below. As you read through, think about how the general, fundamental issue might be addressed as well as how the particulars of this unique situation might be addressed. Here’s the situation:
Dear Au Pair Mom —
This year, we have an issue that has never presented itself in the 11 years that we have been host parents.
We will be traveling at Christmas to my parents’ home. My parents live in an interesting place that many au pairs want to visit. My parents are very generous people, and have always been willing to include our AP as well as one of their friends in our plans. It all seems to come down to a problem of communication.
Our AP, whose English is reasonably good, appears endlessly surprised at the various differences in culture between her European country and the U.S. even after 5 months in the U.S. My AP does what is asked of her and is generally a good AP, but she isn’t used to communicating and seems embarrassed about letting us know what her plans are. We are probably a little more intrusive than her own parents, but we aren’t especially nosey – we just want to know if she’s in the house or not when she’s off duty.
I told her that we would be traveling to this desirable location for Christmas and offered, if she were willing to share a double bed with a friend, that she could invite one to celebrate with us. I made sure our AP had all of our flight information. Her friend wanted to celebrate Christmas Day with her HF first, and then to travel to the desirable location.The bottom line has always been that the friend has to pay her own way and that we would not book the flight.
Last night our Au Pair told me, “X will be arriving at 5:30 on December 25.” My reaction was to raise my eyebrows in a way that probably made it clear I was displeased. My AP celebrates Christmas on December 24 in her country, and although she was aware that December 25 was the holiday here, I don’t think she had given it a thought until exactly that moment. My parents don’t live close to the airport — it’s a 45-minute drive from their house to the airport. Add in time for parking and the walk through the airport to the baggage carousel, a 5:30 arrival on Christmas Day completely interrupts dinner plans — either we eat early and have a light supper after X arrives, or we hold back on the main dinner until X arrives, by which time my kids will be exhausted.
My father will trust either DH or me with his car, but if only one of us were to drive to and from the airport, that still means the other is in charge of feeding the little ones, helping my parents prepare the dinner, and lay the table. Not to mention, celebrate being together.
I told my AP to see if X could adjust her plans and arrive on the 26th. It turns out that X’s HF selected the time of her flight because it suited their plans best (they don’t know us from Adam, so it would never have occurred to them to ask X if the timing worked for us).
What is done now is done. Our AP is now perfectly aware that we are jumping through hoops to adjust to her guest’s schedule.
And it gets more annoying: Although she never asked about what we might do as a family to see the sights in my parents’ area, suddenly she is interested.
My question is twofold, and it’s hard to believe that I’m asking it when I’m living with AP #9 (in 11 years).
1. How far does one need to go in conveying how Americans (or at least my family) celebrates a particular holiday in order to clue APs in toward marking their plans?
It never occurred to my AP, or X that we didn’t celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve until I made a face last night (and then my AP had an “Aha!” moment, and said, “Oh, right, you celebrate Christmas on the 25th. Everything is different here.”) It was amazing to me, but she also didn’t seem to know that the desirable location was in another time zone (despite being a 5-hour flight).
2. How does one clue an AP in to paying attention to family details when making personal plans?
You want a lift to the airport? Don’t book a flight that conflicts with the when the kids need to get on the schoolbus in the morning unless you want to pay for your own shuttle! You want us to pick you up at the airport? Then don’t book your flight to arrive a dinnertime! You want to do something on your own with your friend? Do the research to figure out if it is possible! It all comes down to one issue for me – ask questions! Be curious
Is it necessary to lay how one celebrates holidays on the line months before they occur? We haven’t even gotten through Thanksgiving or Chanukah yet…
(AuPairMom sent a follow-up email for more details…)
DH agrees with you AuPairMom. We’ve asked the Au Pair friend make her own way to my parents’ house because she’s coming on Xmas Day.
When our AP said something about visiting a particular sight, I told her “You are welcome to join us in any family activities, here are some things we always do when we visit. DH and I are not renting a car and you will not be permitted to drive while you are. Here is the bus schedule.” I also gave her the option of using some vacation days while we were there, because I know her friend will be using vacation days.
Yes, I agree with you AuPairMom, the trip is about spending time with my parents, and we should make sure that the family has the vacation we need to have. But, I also feel like this is an important time for our AP, showing our AP how we celebrate the holidays, while listening to her explain the differences (my mother is super curious and will be grilling our AP), but also about showing her a very different part of our country.
But these are the issues we continue to struggle with:
- Explaining the differences enough to the AP so that they understand how their plans have an impact on the family and
- Having their expectations for their own activities be sensitive to the actual holiday celebrations, so they are thoughtful about all of the activities they book when they want transportation assistance.
Looking forward to thoughts from the community. …. HolidayHostMom