When Troubles Back Home Cause Distress

by cv harquail on March 30, 2010

A large number of au pairs, perhaps even a majority, become au pairs in the US as a way to escape something at home.

They may be escaping a bleak economic outlook, a scarcity of jobs post-high school, intense political strife, or an unsafe environment. Many au pairs are escaping bad family situations, including their parents’ divorces, infidelities, emotional problems, and controlling behaviors over their children.

Recognizing that an au pair might be very happy to be away from her home country or her family of origin is not to suggest that these women and men are not genuinely interested in caring for children, living with a host family, or exploring life in the US. But it is important to recognize that there are often problems back home, and these problems will have a negative impact on your au pair.

When a ‘child’ ‘escapes’ from a bad family situation, what is already a bad scene at home can become unstable. Parents, siblings, and others may make demands on your  au pair that your au pair cannot figure out how to meet.

Thus, when an au pair confides in you that s/he has a problem ‘back home’, it’s one of those times when you have to think about what kind of parent-employer you can be to her or him. Your au pair may need some personal support, and s/he may also need some nudging to keep doing the au pair job well.

Let me tell you from my experience– this can be very hard to do.

201003300933.jpgHere’s a request for advice from a host mom whose au pair is being stressed out by a problem ‘back home’ with her mother. The set up of the host family situation is a little complicated, with a total of two au pairs for a family with six kids, so I’ve deleted some of the details. In general, the host family is concerned b/c they don’t have the work or financial flexibility to deal with yet another rematch.

Dear AuPairMom Readers —

I need some advice. I have not dealt with this issue before and can sure use some help.

Our AP is 20 years old and from Germany with a Kurdish heritage. She is a delightful young girl who does very well with our children. She is prompt, kind, warm- hearted and responsible.

She comes from a family of 5 children. ( she is the 4th child). She has described her cultural and family background as being very strict. At home in Germany they have to be home before dark, they are not allow to sleep over at friend’s house. ll of the siblings live at home the oldest being 25 and the youngest 16, they are not allowed move out until they marry. They are not allowed to have a boyfriend or marry outside of her family religion.

Only two weeks ago she was told that she had to separate from the boyfriend of 6 months because he was not Yezida even though he is Kurdish. Her sister wouldn’t speak to her because she was dating outside of the families wishes. The sister said, if you do not end the relationship I will tell on you.

Our au pair suspects she might be the only Kurdish girl in the AP program.

But here is the big problem:

Our AP’s mother is homesick for her daughter. The mom back in Germany goes into the AP’s empty bedroom every day and cries for hours that she misses her daughter so much. She tells her daughter that she picks up articles of clothing, perfume or whatever is in the AP room to feel close to her. She has expressed to my Au-pair that no one helps her (the mom) and she needs my au-pair to be home.

She relied on my AP for everything, the mother is lonely and so heartened that she is here. The mom has limited resources. She is poorly educated — she can not read nor write or drive. She can not pay bills or venture anywhere without her husband or children. I can accept that the mother may be unable or willing to learn or to manage on her own. But, I am upset about is that the mother asks the Au Pair to return home next month.

Every time my AP speaks with her mother via phone or msn she cries. The mother makes my Ap upset and has her feeling bad about being here. Tonight our Au Pair was in tears again and said she didn’t feel well today. I ask her why and she said it was because her mother missing her so much. My Au-pair is NOT homesick, she has never traveled anywhere and is doing very well here. I think she is very happy to have some freedom and not be under the direction of her family.

I am afraid that the mother will put so much negative pressure on our Au Pair that our Au Pair will return home early. She has been upset about this several times and I think she mentioned it to me several times. Tonight really got me worried when she was upset yet again. Any thoughts?

What can I say to her to help both our Au Pair and the mom?

We have 6 children in which 4 are teenagers and two smaller children. I own a business and so does my husband, so both of us are very busy. We can’t image having to screen for yet another au-pair and upset the smaller children again.

I feel like we have been on a roller coaster with this program. We have alot to offer to our AP’s and not meaning material things. ( yes, they get wonderful perks ). How can I prevent this lovely girl from going back home?

I appreciate if you could post a bit of this to see what kind of feedback I would get from other HP.

Pa Mom of two au-pairs

Photo: Hole in the Heart from EltonHarding. Please check out his beautiful images on Flickr.


Should be working March 30, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Difficult situation. I had not realized before this how important it might be to read that part of the application where it states whether the family/parents support the applicant’s decision to become an au pair. That said, both our au pairs stated that parents were supportive, and it turns out in both cases that was not really the case. One mom also called frequently to berate the daughter for being away, for not caring about her (the mom), and begging her to come back. In our case, it seemed to strengthen our AP’s resolve to stay.

You cannot prevent the girl from going back home. It is ultimately her decision, even if one made under pressure and for unfortunate reasons.

But what you can do is get her as supported and happy as possible. Does she have au pair friends? Even if they are not Kurdish, surely there are some au pairs from strict backgrounds, or from countries where daughters get a lot of pressure to help their mothers extensively; ideally an LCC would know who has this sort of background in your cluster. I can imagine those girls (boys?) have similar issues and it would be helpful for your AP to talk to others from similarly strict, daughter-dependent households.

Also, I note that there are 3 older [adult] children in this household. Perhaps they could step up to the plate a bit more to help their mother. Perhaps the AP could explicitly ask the siblings for that.

PA au pair mom March 30, 2010 at 2:46 pm

We always ask our candidates if their families support their au pair year. If they say “no” or hesitate then we move on to a new candidate.

It is very hard for the girls/boys to be away from their family for a whole year but imagine how much more difficult it would be if the mother, or father, acted that way.

Euromom March 30, 2010 at 3:33 pm

In a situation like this, you need tactics.

Tactic No. 1 – Remind your au pair why she is here. Ask her leading questions – what made you want to be an au pair, why did you choose our family specifically, what parts of the US are you looking forward to seeing, etc, etc – make her think and remember the positive reasons she came to your family.

Tactic No. 2 – Stop asking (or ask alot less) about the mom/problems back home. If your au pair initiates a conversation in that direction – steer back to Tactic No. 1.

I would very tactfully encourage the aupair to examine the mother’s reasons for “begging” her to come home. If it is a sense of duty – this is were the other siblings come into play. Realistically she left for a reason and in doing so, she made a commitment to your family – surely her family would want her to honour her commitments!

Good luck.

massaupairmom March 30, 2010 at 6:46 pm

This is a dicey situation for everyone concerned. I believe that the au pair must have known when she left that her parents did not support her decision, and that she made a conscious choice to try to get away from them. I also do not believe the reactions she is getting from family members can come as a surprise to her – I am sure her mother has used histrionics before. But this is not just a case of an overbearing or manipulative family. Her family has strong religious/cultural beliefs that dictate her role in the family, and what constitutes socially acceptable behavior for a young woman (who they want to be able to marry within their culture). The reality for this young woman is that her family may never forgive her or accept her back into their lives if she doesn’t follow their wishes (heck, she may already be irreparably damaged goods in their eyes – who knows what forbidden fruits she has tasted since being here!). She is standing with a foot in two very different worlds, and only she can choose which one is right for her. Unless the host family is willing to REALLY be this girls family, I don’t believe they can counsel or encourage her in either direction, however tempting it may be to encourage her to follow through on the commitment she made to herself and her host family when she became an au pair.

Also, I do think there is a Kurdish au pair out there with Au Pair Care. I saw her in family room, but she is no longer there. (Could be the same young woman, I suppose, although based on the activities she was involved in, I didn’t have the sense she had a particularly strict family…)

aupair March 30, 2010 at 7:50 pm

I think this girl is not strong enough to take position and to expres her own decisions.
It’s not healthy for her to be away from home and to cry every night. And her mother is very selfish. She’s not thinking how much bad is doing to her girl with those phone calls.
Your AP must feel trapped between being au pair in usa and listening to her parents and going home.
My personal opinion is that she’s not mature enough. She should have said to her mother that this is what she wants and they have to accept it! Otherwise, she should have stayed home in the first place.
I think you should start looking for another au pair. This one might say that she’ll stay for the moment, at your place, but if something bad happen ( you an her having an argument, or herself getting bored. etc) she will want to run back home.
I wouldn’t trust her. She is definetly not strong enough if she allows this to happen with her mother.
All the best luck!

kat an ex-aupair April 6, 2010 at 4:32 pm

may i ask where do you come from, aupair? i dont think you understand the backround this kurdish ap comes from.

Angie March 30, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Listen sympathetically and let her vent, but don’t offer advice. It is your au pair’s life and she needs to make her own choices, she doesn’t need someone else’s opinions – she needs to figure out her own.

The separation of self from family or from family’s wishes and discovery of an independent self is something just about everybody in the US goes through sooner or later.

You can’t control if your au pair decides that going home early to be with her mom is more important than finishing out her au pair year.

It doesn’t frankly sound so bad to me – it sounds a bit like a healthy depressed reaction to a mom crying at her to come home when she doesn’t want to go.

You can tell her you are counting on her and are happy she is with you. But I don’t think there is much else you can do, if she decides keeping mom happy is more important than keeping you happy she will go.

PA au pair mom March 30, 2010 at 9:08 pm

I agree with Angie that if she will leave if she wants to and there isn’t much you can do about it.

If you think that there is a good chance that she will honestly leave, then I would cut your losses now. Otherwise, you are going to end up with no childcare and no notice.

franzi March 31, 2010 at 4:11 pm

i agree with the above notion that if she wants to leave there is nothing you can do to stop her.
but to me the issue boils down to something many young girls from a strict cultural and religious background face in germany or other westernized countries: their family is living a life that does not match the outside world. and she is trying to fulfil her family role while also trying to explore for her if the world doesn’t have more to offer.

her mom’s tactic is that of a mom missing her child, seeing her leaving the nest but ALSO seeing her moving towards a lifestyle that is different from what it would be if there was more family supervision. she’s pulling the guilt card and your AP is falling for it.

your AP is not happy and crying every night is not healthy for her and i’m sure affects her performance as well.
i like the approach euromom suggests: talk to her when she brings up the topic and initiates the conversation. otherwise ignore it. your AP needs to figure out where she wants to belong. i don’t think that a conversation initiated by you will yield the same results as a conversation initiated by her when she is ready to talk/wants to get it off her chest.

be prepared for some harsh comments, fear of being ostracized from her family, even fear of reprehension, forced marriage etc.
this is what is happening in germany and i think your AP tried to use her year abroad to really find out for herself where she wants to belong, without the pressure of her family. the family realizes that now, maybe even heard her talk about how she spends her free time, how happy she is etc. they are afraid of losing her and the guilt card is just one way of appealing to her “good daughter instinct”.

i apologize if someone finds this post offensive or insensitive.

kat an ex-aupair April 6, 2010 at 4:36 pm

this is a very thoughtful and useful comment, i find. i guess in germany there are lots of foreigners from the east?

VA Au Pair March 31, 2010 at 6:43 pm

For au pairs to be in a foreign country and away from things they know is hard,i know it was for me,but both my parents surpported my decision and whenever i used to phone home ,when i was homesick my mom used to just listen to me and encourage me and reminded me why i wanted to au pair in first place.For a host family i think just listen to her and encourage her to go out and explore and make new friends. As for her mom, i think you should encourage your au pair to speak her true feelings to her mom and explain that she’s can’t live at home forever and she needs to grow as a person and find herself. Her mom is battling to let go and seeing her bedroom reminds her of her saddness. Also remind your au pair to say that mom i’m gonna be back soon it’s not like i’m gonna be living here forever and by the way you do have other children to keep you company.

PA HOST mom of TWO Au-Pairs April 3, 2010 at 12:55 am

Thank you for all the replies to this post.
I will most certainly follow the tactic no # 1 rule posted by Euromom and tactic no #2 – I do not ask about the problems back home. I always ask the AP’S how was your day and how were the children today. Reply: when she stated she wasn’t feeling well, that is when I was told about the issues with the mother.

As for the older children in the home they are Excellent~ they help these girls with everything! Whatever, Whenever they need the older childrens assistance they always give a helping hand without attitude. My children are very respectful as my husband was a prior marine.

MassAupairmom: hit the home run with her post, thank you!

So true, her family has strong religious/cultural beliefs. Her father was somewhat supportive but was very protective to ensure the agency and program wasn’t a scam, in fact he went to the police dept to have them look at all the documents. The mother was not as supportive stating you can’t care for yourself, how can you care for another families children. The AP is determine to prove them wrong, as she has a full solid one yr work history in a daycare setting! Plus she is doing a pretty job with all the children here. My 3 yr old love her, when she is off duty and comes down out of her room he says stay here with me XXX.

My update on this AP and our relationship. ” looking good”
( from Cultural C Agency )
despite the fact that she totalled the car two weeks ago and didn’t want to tell her parents. She is doing( A+) she has been positive and making waves with her parents.
She has figured out how to deal with the mother by speaking to her less . She tells them she is unavailable to talk due to work obligations this keeps her from being upset often. ( avoiding the situation) they would always ask her are you ok are you happy and everytime she said yes, I don’t think they believed her. So>> I get on skype with her to talk with her parents and use body language to show how happy we are with her here. That was a big help and I think they were happy to hear and see me with their daughter.

I think she is going to make it!

MommyMia April 9, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Good news, PA mom! I’m glad it may be working out for all.

Just to note, though, when I read the earlier posting I thought the reply referred to the AuPair’s older siblings stepping up to take on more responsibilities at home, not your family.

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