What does it mean to “pitch in” with host family chores?
Pitching In (defn): To join the family in doing some everyday household upkeep, to help keep the household running smoothly
In anticipation of an au pair question that will get posted later this week, I wanted to sketch out the basic advice (okay, my aupairmom opinion) about what it means to “pitch in”.Print by OrangeTwist, available for purchase at Etsy
The idea that we ask our au pairs to “pitch in” — comes from the recognition of some simple facts of family life:
1. Mess is a natural byproduct of living and living together. The mess in a household is created by everyone who lives there, doing basic things like walking in from the dusty outdoors, eating shared meals cooked in common pots, and tossing napkins into the kitchen trash can. “Mess” is the everyday, ongoing outcome of entropy.
(Note: Mess is not bathtub scum or dust in the corners of the stairs — that’s ‘dirt’ that is handled by ‘housecleaning’. Dirt and housecleaning are not au pair responsibiities.)
2. Mess must be dealt with by the deliberate actions of washing off, picking up and putting away.
3. Everyone in the household contributes to this mess.
4, When an additional person joins the household, there will be an incrementally increase on the overall amount of mess.
5. Who precisely is responsible for which mess, and for how much of that mess, is impossible to calculate accurately. We can’t have each adult who ate dinner clean just one-third of the casserole dish, or sweep one third of the kitchen floor, or sort through the recycling bin to bring only their diet coke cans to the curb.
6. Everyone is responsible for clearing up shared mess.
When we ask au pairs to pitch in, we’re asking them to contribute to maintaining the household, given that having an additional adult probably also creates an additional amount of work.
Here’s where a challenge arises:
Since we can’t tell exactly what and how much of the common mess can be attributed to any specific person, how do we now how much an au pair should pitch in?
How much is fair?
To answer this, we need to recognize the nature of the au pair role. When we describe an au pair as ‘on par’ or ‘as equal’ that means that he or she is equal to any other adult in the household in terms of being responsible for his or her share of what goes on. No more than a host parent, no less than a host parent.
- The au pair is not “below” the host parent, there to pick up after the host parent or other adults in the household. The host parents can’t leave their towels on the floor of the bathroom and expect the au pair to pick them up and hang them on the towel rack.
- The au pair is also not “above” the host parent. She or he can’t expect to swan out of the kitchen after dinner, expecting the host mom or dad to put her dishes in the dishwasher. Host parents are not there to clean up after the au pair.
Because it’s hard to assign proportions of household mess or specific kinds of household mess to one person or another, it can be hard to feel that everyone is actually ‘pitching in’ and doing her or his fair share of the common work.
In my own household, our au pairs have had the single, specific household chore of emptying the dishwasher. Originally they did this by themselves, and as the girls got older they were responsible for helping our au pairs with this chore.
From our Au Pair Handbook:
Our au pair should help the girls keep their room and playroom tidy and neat. We expect our au pair to help the children pick up their things and put them away each day, to keep the playroom (toys) organized, put her dishes in the dishwasher, occasionally prepare dinner, help clear up after dinner, and keep her things in her bathroom and room tidy (we have a housekeeper who cleans other parts of the house). The only other “official” au pair household responsibility (besides those included in childcare) is to empty the dishwasher/dishdrainer, as a way of pitching in to keep our shared home running smoothly.
We did the dishwasher chore as a way to make the au pair’s pitching in concrete enough to demonstrate visibly that she was contributing, with work that was actually helpful, and in a way that “contained” the amount of pitching in so that it was hard to take advantage of her or to never be satisfied with how much she’d contributed. (Plus, this isn’t a smelly job like taking out the garbage or a servant-like job of washing the kitchen floor.)
Our au pairs would also help clean up after dinner when I cooked for both of us. If she happened to cook for us, I’d clean the pots, wipe the stove and put away leftovers. We would each clear up out own place at the table, and ‘pitch in’ with clearing up things like the salt, the ketchup, and the water pitcher. I would never expect an au pair to clean up after I cooked if she hadn’t been part of the meal.
If our au pairs were around when I came home with groceries, they’d almost always help me put them away. But, I’d never call them down from their room to put away groceries or laundry, the way that I do with my now teenagers. This strategy seemed to work for our family.
Family Differences, Cultural Roles
Some cultures, and some families, may have different expectations about how common messes should be handled, and by whom. Some families expect that the men and women will be responsible for different areas of common mess (e.g., women = dishes, men= trash). Some families expect that individuals in specific family roles have different levels of responsibility for tidying up (e.g., mother 80%, dad 15%, grandma 5%).
Au pairs also bring with them expectations about who should clean up which kinds of mess, and how responsibilities should be divided in the family (e.g., some come from cultures where daughters do the dishes and clean the kitchen while sons go watch tv).
With my spouse and with our au pairs, I’ve always felt that it would even out in the wash — and it usually did. I credit the families of our au pairs with teaching their kids that ‘everybody has a roof, everybody helps’.
Often these expectations are unclear, and families and au pairs don’t even realize that they exit and that these expectations might conflict with a ‘all equal’ expectation of the au pair programs here in the ‘we try to be democratic and equal’ US of A.
Thinking abstractly for the moment–
How does your family define ‘pitching in’?
How do your expectations for host parents, au pairs, and other adults compare?
How do you guesstimate that an au pair has done his/her fair share of pitching in?