Tip for the Work-At-Home Parent with an Au Pair: Have Rules for Interruption

by cv harquail on August 21, 2011

One of the hardest parts of  being a work-at-home parent is managing the interruptions.

Not that we don’t love our kids, or want to see them and help them when they need us. But we need to be able to step into the “work mode” and stay there in order to get quality work done.

Managing interruptions has always been an issue for me, since when I’m working at home I’m either writing & editing, analyzing data, or talking with a colleague about something serious that requires my deep attention.

It’s bad enough that I have to manage my own temptations (e.g., surfing the web, hanging out on Twitter, answering that phone call from my girlfriend, online grocery shopping, etc.). But when I’ve successfully resisted those, and I’ve gotten into a deep mind groove with my work, I go nuts when I’m interrupted. That work groove is just too fragile and too precious to treat carelessly.

I struggle with two big tensions regarding interruptions from my kids.


  1. Being available for my kids when they really need me vs. being un-interruptable when I are deep into my work. 
  2. Letting my au pair be ‘in charge’ and being ready to step in if I am really needed.

Being available vs. Don’t interrupt me

You don’t want to hurt your kids’ feelings and leave them thinking that you don’t care about them, simply because you cannot put Skype on ‘pause’ to get them a band aid or see their latest drawing.

At the same time, though, you can’t be completely accessible or you will simply get nothing of value done. There is only so much work you can do during their naps, after they’re in bed, and before they wake up. Indeed, that’s why you have an au pair.

To manage this tension I’ve got a few ‘rules’.

  • Kids may not interrupt me when I am on the phone, on Skype, or when my fingers are moving on my keyboard.
  • Kids must knock on my office door and wait quietly until I come and open it.
    (My door has big glass panels so I can see if they are crying, or bleeding, or anything crazy. And, If I’m on the phone I can communicate with hand signals, smiles/frowns, and the occasional post it to let them know how soon I’ll be free.)
  • I have a set time that I AM available to be interrupted.
    I make a point of getting up from my desk and walking out of my office to greet the kids when they come home, so that they see that I am available in a predictable way. Plus I get to enjoy that reunion time with them. Sometimes, I even have some coffee or a snack with them and then go back to work.

These three rules work reasonably well, most of the time.

Au Pair ‘In Change’ vs. Mom Steps In

The second tension, between letting your au pair be ‘in charge’ and being ready to step in if you are really needed, is one that waxes and wanes with the au pair’s relationship with the kids. It’s always an issue when an au pair is new, or when an activity is new — the au pair needs advice, training, observation or support, and since I’m working at home it’s (relatively) easy to give this right when it’s needed, versus at the end of the day or in a family meeting.

However, this tension remains even after your au pair knows what s/he’s dong, so you need to have plans in advance to manage this tension.  I’ve had to make sure to wean myself, my au pair and my kids from any expectation that I’ll step in when any one of the three of us is unhappy. This means that I sometimes have to let my au pair deal with bickering kids when I could just open the door and yell at them. It means that I have to let them take too much time on their way out the door to soccer practice so that they experience the ‘natural consequence’ of being late.

It also means that I have to respect my au pair’s authority and her personal way of doing things. I can’t interrupt her for doing something differently than I’d do it myself. And, sometimes I even have had to let her do something ‘wrong’ (e.g., say yes to the Good Humor man) and wait to discuss with her later.  This is what it takes to keep her ‘in charge’ in the eyes of my kids and others, so that they see her as a person with authority and a person whose directions should be respected.

So that neither my kids nor my au pairs have felt abandoned during this weaning process, I’ve made sure to be explicit, saying things like: “Remember, Elrina’s in charge now” or “Elrina, you’re in charge now.”

To help with the ongoing tension of being available but not on duty myself, one day I scrawled the sign you see above, stuck to my office door. (Since the sign’s been up for over 3 years now, it’s too bad I didn’t make a nicer one.)

The sign reminds everyone (me included) that when I’m working in my office with the door shut, the only times to interrupt me are when

  • It’s an emergency, or
  • You really can’t wait for an answer or make a decision on your own.

I should also mention— I break for hot cups of coffee, cold Diet Cokes, and warm cookies straight from the oven. Both my kids and our au pairs have figured out that I’m completely happy being interrupted for any of these, and most of all, for a ‘hug’nakiss’. After that, it’s back to the digitized salt mines for me.

For you other work-at home parents, what are the tensions that are challenging for you?

What are your strategies for managing them?

Please share your ideas!

See also:
Sabotage your Au Pair’s Authority: 3 Easy Ways
Share with your Au Pair your system for ‘disciplining’ your kids
Share the Cream: Give your AP meaningful work to do


Heather August 21, 2011 at 10:10 pm

My first AP has yet to arrive so I look forward (I think) to the day that I can have more meaningful input. I do have some experience relevant to this subject, though, with having dad in charge when I am working on weekends. I really hope nobody has an AP who does what he sometimes does when engrossed in his own chores – which is not to respond to the baby crying for a long enought time that I have to get up from my work and attend to him. This is not exactly the scenario you are addressing. Nonetheless I recently received some advice I thought may be helpful in some instances: noise-reducing earphones. The idea would be that DHD – and my older son – would get a visual reminder that they were interrupting my work (apparently opening the office door is not enough) when I lifted the ear phones away from my head. While it does not cover all of your concerns, I think it would at least relieve a work-from-home HP of some stresses, such as hearing the kids bickering.

On the upshot, your post was a good reminder of one of the reasons we are looking forward to our AP’s arrival. I am hopeful that when I stay home with a sick kid or because of a snow day, I can actually work from home, rather than say I am doing so while merely only working as I must to put out fires because I am taking care of two kids by myself in addition to working! Writing for work takes at least three times longer than it should when I am constantly interrupted.

Raquel August 22, 2011 at 10:45 am

I havent been able to comment around here lately, but I think I have good tips about this one.
I was an au pair in a family where the mom worked at home twice a week.
Besides the fact that they were really good educators, some rules really helped us all to work in harmony.
First, I was in charge. PERIOD. My hostmom hired an adult and treated me like one, so it encouraged (pardon my English and my spelling, I’m back to my country for a long time now) me to respond to that as an adult (I was 20). So, she trusted me to make good decisions. ONLY WHEN WE NEEDED/WANTED A SECOND OPINION, we reached for her attention.

When my little one wanted something I wasn’t alowed to give, we asked her. Her first question ALWAYS was: “Have you cleared this with Raquel before? What did she say??”. Always.
This way, she made it clear that I was in charge.
Sometimes she would alowed to break the rules, sometimes not.
When she decided he could have what he wanted, she would explain to him, in front of me, that it was an exception. I always thanked her and smiled (cause I loved to give them everything they wanted, cause they were such good boys). If the SAME thing happened the next day, I would follow the same directions.

Something else really important was that, although the boys were 5 and 8; since they were really young their mom made it clear she was WORKING and that the au pair was there for a reason.

THE WORST THINGS A MOM CAN DO are: 1) “Break” the au pair authority all the time; 2) not make clear she’s working (be available all the time) and 3) not educate your kids to knock on the door, speak low, and respect some spaces (like the office).

American parents really suck on this last one.

If you make it clear and STICK to the decisions, chances are they WILL understand.

StephinBoston August 22, 2011 at 11:46 am

I’m a work at home mom, I’ve been working from home for 8 years now and I have a 6 and a 5 year old… For me and my APs (4 and the 5th one arriving this week), its always been fairly simple. I don’t get involved unless asked, that goes for fights, injuries, demands, etc. I make it very clear that AP is in charge and makes decisions and the kids are used to it since it’s always been that way.
I remember when our nanny (pre-AP) came to knock on my door and said “Ok I need you now, it won’t stop bleeding!”, we had to make a quick trip to the clinic that day :-) . Even though I can hear what’s going on, I make it a point not to get involved unless necessary.
I think another important aspect of working from home with an au pair is to respect that she doesn’t need a micro manager over her shoulder all day. No one likes that, so I think it’s important to give them their space to take care of the children and be themselves without constantly checking in.

emmiejane August 23, 2011 at 10:13 am

I work at home as well and have for a long time. I do exactly what Steph does. I stay out of it and basically ignore everything that I can sort of hear at times. The au pair is totally in charge. Sometimes I don’t come down at all, or only when the kids cannot see me. My children are 2 and 4 and when they see me, they hope I am done for the day, so I try to minimize putting them through many separations. Since I have always done this, the kids are used to the idea that mommy is working and that I can’t be interuppted.

If there is an emergency, obviously I will get involved, or sometimes at an agreed upon time to give a ride. I have also had the situation that Steph mentions above (i.e. there is a tack stuck in his foot and he won’t stop crying), and I do get involved in situations like that.

Lisa September 9, 2011 at 1:20 pm

I work from home, travel with my job and this was my first year hosting an au pair who was a newbie as well and the only tip I have after 11 months is MATCH WELL! I did a poor job of that and did not listen to my LCC when she told me to rematch in month 3 after listening to my laundry list of problems because I had a soft heart for my au pair who was very respectful and incredibly nice. A person who is kind and trying very hard is great, but now I realize she did me no favors when she couldn’t handle situations on her own, whether it was my toddler’s changing sleep patterns, his growing independence, or developing language skills…she just barely was able to do her job. The biggest barrier was that she immediately embedded herself in her culture’s community in my town so she spoke her native language all the time and never was able to effectively communicate in English. She was a 3 (on a 1 to 10 scale) when she arrived and is a 6 at best right now and that is only because 2 months ago we moved to a new city and the only friends she has are the au pairs she has met in our cluster and at school so she speaks english more regularly. Now don’t judge me too harshly, I gave her ideas on how to handle problem scenarios, guided her and tried to help her understand a toddler and their needs, explained how consistency and regimented schedules make them feel secure but her poor language skills were a huge negative. Luckily my son is very mild mannered, but he had his moments that my AP couldn’t handle on her own. We had some good months where things went well from Feb to June, but once he left his summer school program and was home full time, she couldn’t transition to a full 8 hour work day.

Here is my wish list for my new au pair that i will be expecting in 5 weeks:
1. Speak English (during my skype chat, I will have her read a children’s book…shhh, don’t tell her)
2. I will look closely at the age applicants say they have experience caring for
3. My au pair had a full time job as a dental hygienist…i will look for childcare background
4. I also say the AP is in charge. This worked well when he was younger, now he is 3 and knows he can railroad her. I only step in, as of late, when the battles get out of control and I know she isn’t going to get him to do whatever task it is (brush teeth, put away toys, put on shoes or whatever).
5. I don’t have a home office with doors that closes, but repeating “when mommy is at her desk that means she is working and needs privacy” works.
6. I let my son know what times of the day I will see him i.e. after music class, lunchtime, snacktime etc throughout the day so I pretty much can move freely without him getting distracted with my presence and vice versa.
7. I keep the AP and my son busy outside of the home as much as I can afford too and make sure there are playdates at playgrounds, museum trips, and after school activities.
8. I have regular conference calls on Fridays so I would have our morning activity at a place where there was wifi, do emails, listen on the call (if I needed to participate, I did so 1st thing on the call). This was a special day b/c mommy got to have a traveling office morning.
9. That leads me to wifi friendly places…sometimes I needed to get out of the home office too!

Although my year was challenging, I know now what will work for me although i do expect hiccups along the way. I’m not perfect, my kid isn’t perfect, I know my chances of hiring a close to perfect match is slim but I’m better informed, more confident and a better judge of my childcare needs as I work from home and share the same space. My resources are plentiful, the support in the AP community is abundant (thanks aupairmom blog!) and there are a lot of great au pairs that really want to help.

newaupair September 10, 2011 at 5:45 am

Ok, so I have a question regarding this post.

I have recently moved into a new family after going through the rematch process with my previous family and I thought that for sure this family sounded great and we would definitely hit it off! Which we did, the family is great and I can really talk to them about anything.

Though the one major issue I am dealing with right now is the fact that both the host parents work from home, and .. get ready for this.. THEY DONT BELIEVE IN DISCIPLINE! I look after their 8 year old son before school and after and he is so disrespectful to me it is ridiculous. I will ask him to clean up his mess and he will look at me and say “no, that is the au pairs job”, or I will be cleaning/doing chores and he wants me to come play something that I don’t want to at the moment and I am cleaning anyway so I will tell him “not right now, I am busy, maybe later when I am done” and he will literally scream at me “you HAVE to, it is your JOB to do what I say!”
On top of this, everything I ask him or tell him to do, the first word out of his mouth is “no” and he whines about absolutely everything. Such as me placing his uniform on the coffee table for him to get dressed into and he whines and cries and throws a tantrum because he says it blocks his view of the TV or something.
These things here would not be the main issue though, because I can handle these things.. when I am allowed. Every time I say something to the child such as “stop whining, it isn’t going to help anything” or if I tell him to do his homework which is to read a book for 25 minutes, his mom will step in and completely disregard what I say. She says that I fight with him and that he is “just a child” and she doesn’t believe that you should argue when he says no. … WHAT? I literally am not in charge at all when I am with him because we are never alone and I can never handle a situation because the host mom will ALWAYS step in.

I have talked with her about this and she has just laughed and said that she isn’t trying to say I am doing a bad job, that is just the way things are in the house.

I feel very disrespected by the child all the time and I don’t want to feel this way anymore but I don’t want to rematch because the family in a whole is really nice.. I just need host mom to understand that I can’t do my job if she is constantly there doing it for me. What should I do?

newaupair September 10, 2011 at 5:48 am

oh, side note. The host mom has never once said that I was in charge to the child. Ever. He thinks that I am his toy and am just there to do whatever he wants, and someone that just has to deal with things that he does even though I specifically told him not to do it 5 seconds before.
I have told hostmom that I don’t feel like I am in control of the situation and she said that I don’t need to be because it is just a power struggle between me and the child and he will win because he is “stubborn”. It is getting to the point where I can’t stand spending time with this child because I am so disrespected and taken advantage of.

MommyMia September 10, 2011 at 4:45 pm

If you’ve already talked to the HM and she says “that’s just the way their family is” then I think you owe it to yourself to rematch. Try having your LCC/LAR come so you all can talk together to see if the HM is willing to consider some of your realistic suggestions for you being in charge, but also be prepared to have her start the process. It sounds more like a power struggle between you & HM, not you & the boy, so it’s time to move on. If you’re never alone with the child, why are they even employing an au pair, I wonder?

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