Someone Else in Your House: Getting comfortable with the idea of an Au Pair

by cv harquail on September 16, 2010

Probably the most common obstacle for any family considering an au pair vs. other kinds of childcare is the idea of having some other adult live in your house with you. People imagine that they’ll lose their privacy, feel crowded, feel constantly observed, never have time to themselves, and grow weary from no time ‘off’.

And guess what, these concerns are right on the mark. We Americans like our privacy and our independence.

Do you remember when you were first thinking about an au pair?
Was having someone live in your home a concern for you?

201009121628.jpgAlthough it was many years ago now, I don’t remember being as concerned about it myself. My DH was already away from home 2 or 3 nights a week; I remember feeling concerned about being alone at night in the house with babies while my spouse was too far away to help.

And, with our au pair room on the garden level and my own bedroom two flights upstairs, I knew that I’d have a place to retreat if I needed time alone.

Of course, I could just be making this up in hindsight, and fooling myself about how hard it was or wasn’t to invite an au pair into our home.

Because it’s true, too, that, each time we’ve chosen to get another au pair, I’ve had to go over this calculation:

Is having the company, culture, and convenience of an au pair enough to outweigh the psychological burdens of sharing our home with another adult?

Along this link of thinking, iMom sent me some questions that she’d love to for us to discuss:

  • What were your biggest fears before inviting your first Au Pair into your home?
  • How did you deal with these?
  • How do you set up boundaries so that you don’t feel crowded by your au pair?

201009121631.jpg See Also:
What are Host Dads afraid of? The Top 3 “Fears of the Host Dad” & How to manage them
Feeling Squished by Our Au Pair
Host Mom Advice Wanted: How to get more privacy and family time?
When you need some time alone … with your kids, without the Au Pair
When your personal, private challenges affect your Au Pair relationship

Images:
On holidays from
PetitPlat by sk_
Crowded from
Tom Poes

{ 19 comments }

Taking a Computer Lunch September 16, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Our first AP, who lived with us for 3 1/2 years (because we started the process of sponsoring her as employers), slept upstairs with the rest of the family in what had been the guest room. It was very cozy, and we knew her comings and goings. She was definitely part of the family because we had very little personal space. DH feared the most about the intrusion – he’s much more private than I. For me, the biggest obstacle was sharing my kids. Even though I was the breadwinner and was not a particularly big fan of babies (I love my kids – but I’m definitely happy that they’re school-aged even though The Camel will mentally be a baby for a long time if not forever), I really resented saying goodbye to them every morning and not seeing them until the afternoon (both of them were up before I left home at 5:45 in those days!).

Now, with each arriving AP, we are accustomed to the sharing of common space, but the APs have had a basement bedroom from #2 onward, so they have more personal space and so do we. There’s always the first month, when we do a dance around each other and DH still wishes there were more private time, but he retreats to our bedroom every evening and that seems to suffice.

I will say that one of our boundaries is that DH and I tend to stay upstairs after we put the kids to bed in the evening. I work in the study and he watches TV in the bedroom.

First Time HP September 16, 2010 at 1:28 pm

I think our biggest fear was just that the AP would always be around. We weren’t concerned about privacy as we have a pretty big house and could always retreat to our room if necessary. It was more of just always having someone around on the weekend and at nights and feeling like we need to entertain her. It actually was a little hard at first as she didn’t know anyone so finding something to do was hard and she didn’t want to just sit by herself in her room, which I can understand. But pretty quickly things took care of themselves as she found friends and lots of stuff to do and many nights or weekends we barely saw her outside working hours. I guess my advice would be to not worry too much as after the first few weeks you’ll probably realize that she really isn’t around all that much. Actually based on some earlier threads it seems like many families struggle with the AP not being around much and not feeling like part of the family.

If you are concerned, my tips would be:
-Make sure her room has TV, cable, DVD player and WiFi, as she’ll spend more time in her room if she has things to keep her occupied
-Be lenient with car usage, if you let her take the car on the weekend she probably will
-Help her make friends by pushing her to cluster meetings, let her invite friends over for dinner, etc. Once she finds a social circle she’ll be out more.

Taking a Computer Lunch September 16, 2010 at 9:31 pm

I agree that attendance at cluster meetings is a good jumping off point to friendships. In fact, I know make it mandatory to attend free cluster meetings (some have fees attached), so that APs make the necessary connections.

Gianna September 17, 2010 at 9:43 am

I am not sure what you mean by ” fees ” for cluster meetings. My aupairs have always been invited to meetings with a nice program at a very low cost but some of the aupairs have resented even having to buy a cup of coffee. In my case, this is not the fault of the LCC ( although I have heard some horror stories on this blog ).
So who pays these fees ? The LCC ? The aupair ? The host family ? I absolutely agree that cluster meetings are a great jumping off place. What I observe is that aupairs now come to the States with a social network in place ( Facebook ) and often feel that they don’t need to meet anyone new. I , personally , do not have an
LCC problem and I want to promote a good relationship in case I ever have problems but I find more and more resistance to cluster meetings. I once went out and bought the food that an aupair was asked to bring to a covered dish dinner. I only did that once -enough is enough

Taking a Computer Lunch September 17, 2010 at 10:56 am

Our LCC has one “free” meeting every month – either in a Starbucks or an IKEA cafe, but she also has one meeting that may have a substantial fee – attending a baseball game, going to a festival, a river cruise, skiing, or a theatrical production. She does her best to keep fees low by getting group rates (and inviting other clusters), but the cost adds up. Most of my APs have not minded paying the fees – and if DH and I want to encourage them to go, we pay the fee. I did have one AP who resisted attending every meeting, rarely left her room, and whose English was not improving, so I made attendance at the coffee meetings mandatory. My handbook states that I encourage participation in the meetings and that I give APs time off to attend them.

Should be working September 16, 2010 at 4:07 pm

We were afraid of having someone around all the time, and how that changes family and adult chemistry. It does change the chemistry. It is a tradeoff, and I’m not sure we’ll do this again. All the suggestions thus far make sense–tv’s in separate spaces, etc.

My experience is that the happier you are with your au pair, the less ‘crowded’ it feels. And conversely, the more you are dissatisfied with your au pair, the more crowded it feels. Perhaps in a middling AP-HP relationship, closer quarters could exacerbate small irritations, but as a smolderer I find my own problems with APs are independent of living space.

It reminds me of a vague recollection of a Talmud story:
An extremely large and rotund man had an also-very-rotund wife. Someone asked him how can they possibly both sleep comfortably in bed together. He answered, “When we are getting along, the bed is more than large enough. And when we are not, even the whole house is not large enough for both of us.

PA AP mom September 16, 2010 at 6:27 pm

I think for us the second year was a lot easier because we made our expectations clear up front. We wanted someone who wanted to be part of our family and hang out with us and do family things, even sometimes on her “off duty” time.

If you are looking for an employee/employer relationship and end up with someone who wants to be “pro-family” you may feel crowded and end up being resentful.

Having an honest discussion about what each of us wants can be very helpful.

Future AP September 16, 2010 at 7:05 pm

Hi BLJ Host Mom,

What could I say? Well, if your current AP is great with the kids and a lovely person, you should be more than comfortable to talk to her about your private space. I personally think it is wonderful that she likes you guys a lot, but she does need to understand you have your own privacy and although she is welcomed to activities with you and you want her to feel like part of the family, she needs to back off a little bit. It is not nice for her to be around you all the time because she will miss having done so many things at the end of the program and it is not nice for you because you have more than the right to do whatever you wanna do without her company. Maybe the fact that she doesn’t have many – or any – friends contributs to the thought – because she probably thinks that and maybe because she is used to being with her own parents 100% of the time – of you liking her being around so much, so in my humble opinion you should tell her that you like her being around – you sound like you do – but you also want her to have her own life and activities and friends, not only because she deserves it but also because you want your own space and you have the right to want it.
You genuinely like her as a person, but wouldn’t she be even greater if she knew when it was time to “leave you alone”? Before things get too complicated – and HF shouldn’t have too deal with this kind of situation, personally thinking – talk to her, explain that you like her but it is not nice to be watched or not being able to be yourselves because she is there.
Hope I helped.

xoxo

BLJ Host Mom September 17, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Very much, thank you for your honesty and your thoughtfulness!

Future AP September 17, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Hi BLJ Host Mom, glad I helped! ((:
Hope you have a wonderful talk (and sure you will) and tell us how it went (if you feel comfortable doing so).

xoxo

BusyMom September 17, 2010 at 10:25 am

What happened to BLJMOm’s post? (I snitched it to use it for its own post next week… how did you even know it existed? ;-) cv )

For us, the convenience far outweighs the burden. Knowing that there is someone in the house when I need to leave (very early) for work and that I won’t be late due to a nanny being stuck in traffic is an enormous comfort. For this reason, we started with live-in childcare 12 years ago and transitioned from nanny to au pair 3 years ago. However, it does make the household dynamic different and every once in a while I wish that I had the freedom to walk around in my underwear, (I know there was another thread on this, but I would not be comfy walking around without at least a robe on or full coverage PJs!), whispering something to my husband that I don’t want the au pair to overhear, or just being alone with my own thoughts while straightening up the kitchen late at night rather than having to chitchat.

We do have a few sentences in our family letter indicating that we are very (actually, ridiculously) busy people (hence my moniker) and that when our kids go to bed, we frequently spend the evenings catching up on work or personal business. In other words, if a prospective au pair envisions herself hanging out watching TV with her host parents, we are not the right family for her. We don’t even have enough time to hang out with each other! We also include something to the effect that we sometimes go on family outings on weekends and will sometimes invite our au pair to come with us. What this translates into is that we invite our au pair to 75% of family outings, but there are some that we prefer to do just as a nuclear family. I think that this honest disclosure of our family behavior helps to screen out those who would want to spend all their free time with us.

So far, perhaps by luck, we have ended up with 3 au pairs who are happy with this model. All 3 have valued their personal time and private space as much as we value ours. We are fortunate to have a room & bath for the au pair on the basement level and that physical separation greatly helps with privacy.

Busy Mom September 17, 2010 at 5:35 pm

CV – I suscribe to the RSS feed, which is how I knew that her post had been there!

SouthCA Mom September 18, 2010 at 7:09 pm

Where can I post my two questions I received from two host families:
1) If our au pair takes one week vacation, should she still get a full weekend of that month? We usualy have her work weekends.
2) If we provide a car for the au pair to go to school, should we also pay for gas?

Advice would be greatly appreciated.
Thanks

Taking a Computer Lunch September 18, 2010 at 11:45 pm

In my opinion, if your AP takes a full week and that includes one full weekend, then you’re under no obligation to offer a second full weekend (although personally, if my AP takes a 5-day week, I give her both weekends on either end – it’s a nice gesture and the good will it earns is worth every moment. I have school aged children, and if my AP has to work a full weekday or two to care for an unexpectedly sick child, I generally give her the full weekend off, even if it means juggling a bit. A “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” mentality, as it were.

My LCC makes it clear that we are to cover gas for transportation to and from school and cluster meetings. We don’t generally reimburse the AP (we have a separate “AP car”). Generally what DH and I do, is when we go out on date night we top off the tank. Smart APs figure out to let the tank run down before date night ;-) .

My modus operendi is to be flexible and generous, but then again I have a pubescent child in diapers who gets her period. Another feeding her quickly figures out why we lovingly call her The Camel (and no one points her positioning chair directly toward themselves more than once). The Camel, in addition to being mentally retarded is also extremely medically fragile. In return for flexibility, reliability, and hard work, we reward APs with no curfew, close to full access to one car, and a work week that hovers between 25 and 35 hours.

Personally, my advice is to be as generous as it is possible for your family to be if the AP meets your expectations. Be more than generous if she exceeds your expectations.

Chev September 20, 2010 at 11:00 pm

I’d say yes to both those questions.
1 – Her vacation week is a full week of work off, so i still see her as still getting the full weekend a month off that’s in the contract.
2 – It might depend on which company you’re with but with CC the family handbook states that HP’s have to provide transport to classes, whether that’s paying for bus tickets, driving her yourself or providing the car and gas.
I’m an AP and have found that between myself and all the AP friends i’ve had (I’m a repeat and extending AP) the happiest of us are the ones who have the HF that are generous and show us that they appreciate all the hard work we do. My HF is awesome and are great about saying thank you when i do more than in the job description or work a lot of extra hours, and that makes me much more inclined to offer to work the extra hours or chip in more with the housework or give an extra hand of non working time when i can see the kids are being buggers and my HP’s are tired.

Should be working September 21, 2010 at 7:09 am

I agree with Chev as a matter of principle that a weekend belonging to a vacation week does not count as the weekend-per-month free, but the agency guidelines are entirely ambiguous in my view. On the one hand the guidelines suggest that the AP should SOMEHOW get 1 weekend off per month, but they do not make clear whether a vacation-weekend would count as that 1 weekend off.

And definitely the HPs should pay for gas for the meeting. I find it more galling that the APs sometimes have to shell out a lot of money for the event planned for those meetings, but the meetings are required, so why should APs have to pay?

Aupairgal September 19, 2010 at 12:47 am

I think it would be best to talk to her mostly because a new aupair doesn’t know from the get go what the appropriate amount time is to be spent with the family. My last week as an aupair I spent training the new aupair and she was too afraid to ask when she was allowed to do her own thing when HM got home or when she was expected to be with the family so she asked me. It is surpising how specific and direct you have to be. It may be that she doesn’t know how much apart of the family she is expected to be.

Aupairgal September 19, 2010 at 12:51 am

I may have posted this in the wrong place…still jet lagged :(

Mom23 September 21, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Sharing our space was one of our biggest concerns when we first started hosting au pairs. We had visions of our au pair hanging out every evening in our living room wanting to watch TV with us. The reality is that a 20-something girl does not want to hang out with 40-something host parents (except for maybe in the first month when everything is new). Our au pairs have all been pretty good about finding a network of friends, some faster than others, but it does happen eventually.

There have been times when the computer has been over used and we wanted to get on it, but now it seems that most au pairs come with a lap top or buy one here. There was a time when our car rules were not explicit and one au pair felt that the family car should be for her private use (we live in a major city near lots of public transportation).

The only problem we really ever had with space issues was a young American woman we hired to live in. She felt that the kids play room was hers to use and moved breakables into the room and then didn’t want the kids playing there. In that case, I felt it was much easier to set boundaries with an au pair than with her.

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