Share the Cream: Give your AP meaningful work to do

by cv harquail on September 28, 2009

One piece of advice my friend Adelaide gave me when we got our first au pair was “Share the Cream.”

“Sharing the Cream” means sharing both the good parts (the cream) as well as the tough parts of a job or an experience.


I don’t know where Adelaide came up with this saying, but it’s stuck with me because it’s so appropriate to the challenges of sharing childcare. I’ve been on both sides of the equation myself.

When you have childcare help, as we do when we have au pairs, it can be tempting to give our helpers all the harder work  (changing diapers, doing laundry, sitting at home watching the child sleep, cleaning up after meals) — while we take all the cream (going to the park, a fun play date, snuggling in the glide rocker with a book).

Sometimes, when an au pair ends up with the ‘skim milk’ part of the deal, we can address this concern by reapportioning who does what. The goal is to make sure that each adult (parents and au pair) gets to do something for the kids that feels like fun.

In some situations, however, the very structure of our family lives, and/or the personalities of our children, make it hard to give our au pairs childcare tasks that feel fun, feel meaningful, and feel like they matter.

Consider this request for help from an au pair, whose job caring for an independent child is structured in such a way that there is very little that she can do that feels meaningful. Any ideas for her?

“I need some advice from host parents and other APs! I am not a new AP, i have worked 6 months each for 2 families before. My first family had 4 schoolgoing kids, the second one had 2 kids under the age 5. In both the families, I had sole charge from 7am-7pm (excluding school/nursery hours) since the parents worked full time.

Now I am on my third au pair job for a wonderful family who have their business nearby, and they own the biggest house on the block.200909282008.jpg

For the past 2 months, i am taking care of 10 year girl, who is very brilliant and reclusive (not like my previous charges who were kind of average in their studies). i am used to having kids all over me, talking to me nonstop, playing with me nonstop. That was how it was in my previous 2 jobs, since the parents were not arnd much, and i loved it too as I was very close to the kids that way.

But in this child’s case, her parents work literally around the corner, so they are often home (not regularly, but they drop in several times a day), and when they are home, they take care of everything their daughter needs, and i just sit useless when that happens.

While I’m delighted that I am working with hands-on parents, a part of me is questioning what I’m getting out of this experience. Her parents are obviously rich and she has everything at home – all kinds of musical instruments, ipod, wii, a dog and parrots, swings and pool in the garden, everything. So, I’m sad to say, she just considers me to be the person who fixes her dinner and drives her to school. She has never been rude to me at all, but she never talks to me about anything! She is totally mature for her age and totally independant that I’m quite lost.

i have this sad feeling that she really doesn’t need me as a friend or even a caregiver because she gets all love from her parents and all play from her toys. Even when she is working on a craft project or homework, she is very competent and doesn’t need any one to help her out. All I do is just sit and watch mutely.

In this situation, what do I do? How do I make her play with me more? (Also her hormones are starting i think, so if i compel her to play, if i pressure her even tiniest bit she goes all huffy.)

There is already a live-in housekeeper so my job is to “keep daughter happy,” but it looks like I am unhappy if she is to be kept happy! I would love your suggestions. Chithra

Cream Team of Three by Crunchcandy on Flickr
Sharing Ice Cream by Clappstar on Flickr

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AnnaAuPair September 29, 2009 at 3:32 am

have you already talked to your Hostparents about? I don’t think they would get upset, if you told them what a wonderful job THEY do (I mean, I unfortunately know a lot of parents who do NOT give their children enough love) and what a wonderful, mature and independent girl their daughter is. Tell them, you don’t feel like there is anything you can do to make her more happy, because she already IS happy.
Ok, it surely could end up in them considering not having an AuPair anymore, but on the other hand, just sitting around is really not satisfying ^^

Mom23 September 29, 2009 at 9:28 am

Hi Chitra — could you talk to the host parents about perhaps taking for for a special treat. Perhaps to a museum, to a movie or a play. That might break the ice a bit and let you and her have some fun time together.

Happy Host Mom September 29, 2009 at 10:33 am

This little girl sounds like she REALLY needs you and is lucky to have you. An ipod and wii cannot give her human interaction and affection. I would encourage you to hang in there because as someone who wants to be her friend, she needs you. Ultimately, though you have to consider your own personal satisfaction, and it will be up to you if you will achieve that in this situation. It may be a situation where the little girl doesn’t realize the positive impact you made on her life until she is much older.

My 2 cents September 29, 2009 at 11:00 am

I LOVED and adored my babysitters who watched me in the afternoons and early evenings 5 days a week when I was growing up and this age. The reason? They were infinetly more in tune with stuff at my age and I got to do all the fun stuff with her that my own parents did not or chose not to do with me ! Stuff like painting nails, doing hair, reading teen gossip magazines, watching afternoon TV, listening to popular music . . . just all the stuff that if you had a big sister you may get to do, but not the stuff parents (or at least mine and rest in my neighborhood) do with their preteen daughters without it becoming very awkward. I can tell you I never wanted to watch any of the John Hughes films with my own parents no matter how much I wanted to see them!!

So my recommendation would be to explore ways you can become more of a big sister figure to her, as opposed to a babysitter or tutor, whose goals are not necessarily to have fun or develop a strong personal connection. Try to get her to open up about what her interests are. Maybe take note of what she is listening to, watching, and what her friends are doing. Just keep trying to find an avenue to connect with her.

Obviously, you need to talk with you host parents to see if they are on the same page with you, and to make clear you understand that it all falls in line behind her getting her priority stuff finished first (homework). But I’m going to guess that her parents recognize she is on the reclusive side and may welcome your younger, positive, perspective and skill set to perhaps encourage her to be less reclusive and to, in their words, “keep her happy.” Maybe that’s why they hired you as opposed to say an older nanny or had a neighbor watch her?

PA aupair mom September 29, 2009 at 4:28 pm

I felt bad for our new au pair when she first arrived. I was in between jobs and I seemed to always be at home. I could sense that she was feeling not that useful, even though she definitely was.

I suggested that she start taking the boys to the park in the afternoon after school. It gave me time to stay home and cook dinner or do laundry without interruptions and her some fun alone time with the boys.

Now that I’m back to work, they still love going to the park with the au pair a few times per week before I get home from work. They take pictures of each other and share them with me when I get home. I also give them money to stop for a slushie on the way home.

Anonymous September 29, 2009 at 5:12 pm

I believe that children also appreciate the people who are there for them at what Maria Montessori called the teachable moment. I think they also appreciate t he people who are there conistently every day. This is imtimacy as opposed to romance.\
In the fifties, it was the dads who came home on weekends and provided all the treats. Now, things are more equitable but life cannot be firecrackers and music all the time.
Fun things are very important but so are those still , quiet times. Kids really appreciate being picked up from school,given a snack , just having a mature , kind presence in their lives. What you are doing is very important and it sounds to me like it really is appreciated.

TX Mom October 1, 2009 at 5:41 pm

We have incentives (especially in the summer) that the kids need to earn and I like to let our AP take them for those treats. They have gone to water parks, movies, ice cream trips, zoo, bowling, etc. It is usually a good tool for the AP to motivate the children and a good bonding experience for the kids and AP. If the reward is for one child, I watch the other one.

Margaret November 10, 2009 at 9:17 am

I have a similar issue to the AP in the original question, though it’s not really an issue of sharing the cream. I am included in the fun stuff. But I feel like I am… not useless but not really needed. I take one of the two kids to school and back, and pack their lunches (I asked to pack their lunches because I felt useless in the mornings.) My chores are to vacuum and empty the dishwasher, and to dust once a week. I take care of one of the two kids until HM comes home from work with the younger one, and then (most nights) I cook dinner.

When the kids are sick they call the grandparents to come over or stay home from work. When HM has to go away for a business trip for the weekend, her mom came to stay with us. Both sets of grandparents are retired and live within a 40 minute radius, maximum. The older kid is in my care for maybe an hour before her mom gets home with her sister. HD is usually home an hour later. Why am I here? They could get the same amount of care with a housekeeper or an after school babysitter at a fraction of the cost.

I want to bring up my concerns with my HF because I don’t know how to handle feeling and/or being so utterly useless, but I don’t know how to bring it up without seeming like I don’t want to be with them. I absolutely do not want to rematch. I care for my HF and can’t imagine living with another. If they do decide that they don’t actually need an AP (I’m their first, 3 months in) I’d probably travel a bit then go home and finish university. How do I bring up my concerns about feeling/being unneeded without seeming like I want to leave them?

Margaret November 10, 2009 at 9:21 am

Also, I can’t really be there for the ‘teachable moments’ because my grasp of the kids language is still rather shaky, and they often do not (or act as though they do not) understand me.

PA aupair mom November 10, 2009 at 10:10 am

I know a lot of au pairs that would LOVE to have your situation. Most of the complaints I hear are about working too much.

That said, if you are truly uncomfortable, could you talk to your HP about additional responsibilities? Our au pair only works before and after school because my boys are in school all day. She has all day free. Because of that, she asked if she could take over the grocery shopping. She and I review a list that she makes each Sunday. I add things that I may need or want during the week and she does the shopping on Mondays. She seems to enjoy it and I enjoy having her do it.

Kidwise, she asks if she can take the kids on special excursions after school…to the park, playing mini golf, to the library. The kids love the activities and she loves doing them. She takes lots of pictures and sends them to me so that I can see how much fun they are having.

I am sure that your family doesn’t think you are useless but I would recommend discussing it openly with your host parents.

Margaret November 16, 2009 at 11:08 am

Thanks. I’ve asked to do more of the grocery shopping; its something I like doing anyway and it helps since I make dinner usually anyway (I like to cook.) My HM says she still wants the grandparents over when the kids are sick bc of the language barrier, which I can understand even if it annoys me a bit. I think half the problem for me is that before I came here I worked full time and was a full time university student, and now I have all this free time on my hands while the kids are in school and all and I have no idea what to do with it. Plus, playing video games and doing arts and crafts and running around with kids hardly feels like work. My AP friends say I was being ridiculous, so maybe last week was just an ‘off’ week for me.

PacificNW_mom November 16, 2009 at 1:55 pm

Hi Margaret,
Our au pair also does before and after school care and some evening babysitting. We always warn au pairs before they come that they will have a lot of free time during the day and it will be boring at first. By the end of their year, though, they have found enough to fill the days and are quite busy! Plus, one of the biggest reasons we have an au pair is for the summertime – that is when they have full days.
Have you already registered for classes? That can keep you busy during the day. Also, our au pairs tend to join a gym and workout during the day. There also may be ways that you can volunteer at the school – teachers always welcome the extra help and your host kids would probably love to see you at school.
My advice is just to be ok with things being slow to start, don’t watch too much daytime TV and make some suggestions to your host mom on some ways you can help (groceries are great!).

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