We all want to be generous, and we all want to be appreciated. There’s nothing like having a third car for your au pair to use to make you aware of the tension that can exist when you want to be generous and want to be appreciated.
When we bought our first Volvo wagon to give our precious new baby a fancier, safer "ride" than my 8 yr. old Nissan, we decided to hold onto the Nissan and use it as an "Au Pair Car". Like the archetypal "station car" in a John Cheever story, the Nissan was intended only to get you there and back safely. Nothing fancy, nothing expensive, but it ran well, was safe enough, and was in great shape.
Our first au pair drove respectfully and safely, as did our second, third, and fourth au pair. It wasn’t until our fifth au pair made a right turn from the left lane and smashed the front fender into someone else’s that the car started to look kind of junky. And it wasn’t until our sixth au pair that the third car was taken for granted.
Up until that sixth au pair (who was in every other respect a FABulous au pair), I really loved having that third car. It seemed like a nice ‘carrot’ to tempt a desirable au pair, it relieved me of having to coordinate my driving plans with my husband’s or the au pair’s, and I was never blasted out of my seat at ignition by a radio set at high volume and tuned to a heavy metal station. Quite an assortment of benefits!
But, when I discovered that our sixth au pair was driving to another state to follow her boyfriend’s band, explicitly and implicitly ignoring the rules about car use, I realized I had let it go too far. I had traded that sense of "one less hassle for mom" into "just another thing I’m supposed to have. And I can use it as I darn well please, thank-you-very-much."
So, we had to set up few new practices and rules. Here are some of the things we did, and that you can try, to reduce the sense that the "third car" is something your au pair is entitled to.
We changed the way we talked about the car.
1. We stopped calling the third car "the au pair car" or "your car". We started referring to the car as "the silver car". [Also, my husband and I trade off who drives which of the other two cars when we are home, so we don’t have a situation where one car is "Mom’s" and one car is "Dad’s", leaving the third car implicitly to be the "Au Pair’s".]
We began to vary who drove the car, so that it wasn’t always and only our au pair who drove it.
2. I started driving "the silver car" occasionally when it was last in the driveway or just more convenient (as long as I wasn’t putting out our au pair. It was and is still critical for her to feel that she is more or less free to come and go when she’s not on duty.)
3. I put a car seat in the back seat, and another spare car seat in the trunk. This was in part to make it possible for the au pair to take the kids somewhere in the silver car in an emergency, in case my husband and I both had taken the other cars with their car seats. Although our au pairs almost never took the girls anywhere in the third car, the car seat was another kind of reminder that this car was for the extended family, not just for the cute single girl and her friends.
4. When Grandma & Grandpa came to visit, they got dibs on the silver car too (never when our au pair was off duty). I paid for their gas. This way, the car was used as an ‘extra car’ for whoever needed it, and the need was negotiated. This helped make it less hers alone, and more like the 3rd car.
We asked our au pair to take a little more responsibility for car.
5. Also, we made it a practice to have our au pair take her car (oops, I meant) the third car out of the driveway in the morning to park it on the street, to continue to re-park it on the street when she went back and forth during the day, and then to pull it into the driveway last thing at night. This helped me and my husband not have to be car jockeys when we needed to get out of the driveway in a station wagon, and it also made the station wagons easy for the au pair to use for the kids when she was on duty.
6. We asked our au pair to take the car to get its oil changed and to check the tire pressure… in her on-duty time.
While this tactic might seem like a way to have the au pair take ownership for the car (and it may have done that) this was intended to encourage her to think of the car as something that cost money. We didn’t ask her to pay for the oil changes (we paid for that and other maintenance) but we did ask her to pay to have the car professionally washed and vacuumed. (Of course, when my parents in law came, I took the car to the carwash myself.)
We treated the car like an expensive and valuable family possession, not like some hand-me-down.
7. We reinforced the rules for using the car. We had always had the car curfew, a weekly mileage guideline and limited travel radius (7 miles around our house… including the nearest two malls but not including New York City). We began to be more consistent about applying these guidelines.
8. Also, we set up some guidelines around car-pooling with other au pairs so that other au pairs didn’t take advantage of either our au pair OR the third car. We didn’t want our third car to into the au pair clusters’ taxi, with our sweet au pair expected to drive everyone else. More on that in a forthcoming post.
9 We made it clear how much the car cost, and discussed it as an ‘on the job benefit’.
We told our incoming au pair how much the silver car was worth and how much extra it cost us to have a third car insured with an under-25 as the main driver. That really helped establish the car as an "extra", that we paid for it, and that it wasn’t something to be taken for granted. (Check the post on the cost of having an au pair to see how much this nets out to.)
Being Generous & Being Appreciated
Despite the fact that having a third car for our au pair is pretty generous, I’m sure that any au pair can find someone else with a nicer material situation. (Be sure to read the post on avoiding the "Amenities Arms Race" and the competition with other host families.)
We live in a town where there are many au pair families wealthier than ours, whose au pairs drive expensive SUVs and never pay for their own gas. But there are also au pairs driving clunkers, sharing a mini-van, and riding the bus, the train, and the bike. For every au pair with a fancier ride, there’s another au pair who’s glad for a lift to Target and who is happy to chip in for gas.
There is often a tension between wanting to be generous and wanting to be appreciated… for both host parents and au pairs. This tension doesn’t have to be resolved just by managing the use of the spare car(s)— we can be generous in other ways (comfy room, occasional latte, a flowering plant on a rainy day) and ask that the privilege of a car be appreciated.
Ultimately, there are au pairs who will feel entitled and au pairs who will feel privileged. Happily in our family, we’ve had 9 au pairs who appreciated and enjoyed what we have been able to provide for them, and only two that behaved in ways that would have embarrassed their moms if their moms had only known.
It’s important to remind your au pair and yourselves that while there will be host families for whom the cost of a third car is nothing, for some of us that third car is an extra expense that is hard to justify. We are now in the process of selling that third car, and so things will be changing in our family. With my husband commuting by train and my desire to reduce expenses, having a third car just so that I can avoid the hassle of negotiating who gets a car on Saturday afternoon (with two kids at soccer and an au pair off duty) seems like too much. But I’m ready to work on that.
For starters, I’m trying to make sure that I offer the material things that we can afford, and be even more generous in ways where money is irrelevant.
Are there other ideas that you have for helping your au pair appreciate the privilege of a third car? Do share…
Here is the original query from CT Mom:
How do you deal with use of the car when there is a 3rd car? We have a 3rd car, so obviously there is no need to “share” the car. Our current au pair is new (our last one just ended her year with us) so we’d like some ideas so this doesn’t become an issue this year. For those with 3rd cars, please share your car rules! Thanks.