This is a heavy topic for a Friday. Apologies in advance.
I’ve mentioned before that I believe that there are just as many young people who become au pairs to escape something as there are those who become au pairs to find something.
Au Pairs who are escaping are fleeing from acute personal disappointments, painful family dynamics and oppressive social conditions. Often, you’ll have no idea that your au pair has been a victim of one of these situations, or that s/he is fleeing from one of these situations, until s/he breaks down crying in front of you for (what you think is) no reason at all.
In conversation with my own au pairs and also with their friends, I have learned about fathers having affairs with sisters in law, uncles being murdered execution-style over land disputes, children being sexually and emotionally abused by grandparents or neighbors, childhood friends committing suicide, children being beaten by family members, teenagers cutting themselves, and self-destruction through eating disorders.
And, lest you wonder which of my own au pairs experienced any of these, with the exception of the uncle’s murder, each of situations was experience by at least two au pairs I have spoken to personally. The world is really that horrible.
Nothing has pushed my protective mamabear buttons as much as hearing these stories from the lovely young women who have been part of our family’s life. I have often wondered how to help, other than by simply listening. I have pondered whether to offer advice, considered whether to follow up with questions, looked for instances to demonstrate that life can be different, and sought out resources ranging from self-help books to counseling to offer them. I have driven them to the doctor, held their hands, and hugged them as they’ve cried.
When your au pair is struggling with difficult news from home, or a local situation that has called up bad memories, it can be hard to know what to do with this knowledge. Maybe some of this pain is continuing to hurt her, and to hurt her interaction with the world.
When I was talking about this issue recently with another parent (who does not have au pairs) she asked me whether, in any of these situations, I thought that an au pair’s experience ever influenced her ability to care for my kids. For example, can an au pair who was regularly “punished” with a belt strap or a hairbrush remain calm and kind when kids are misbehaving?
I firmly believe that none of our au pairs or their friends responded in this way to the children they have cared for. Rather than seeing a direct influence, I’ve perceived (or imagined) something more indirect– an inability to trust, or be open, or believe that you can be loved.
What I have tried to do, in each of these cases, is demonstrate to the best of my ability that there is love in the world, and that there is enough love in the world to help with this hurt. I can’t fix the political situation in Botswana, but I can listen to and believe the fear, and remind an au pair that she is safe here and that she can trust police officers.
I can model (to the best of my ability) forgiveness of my children and especially forgiveness of myself when I completely lose control. I can apologize. I can argue fairly with my husband in front of our au pair and reconcile in a loving way. I can buy healthy food and comment on her lovely personality and not on her physical appearance.
I can remind her that she is strong, and that what happened before doesn’t have to happen when she goes home.
When your au pair has confided in you, what was that like for you?
Did it push your buttons, nudge you to intervene or quietly move you away?
What have you worried about? How have you been able to help?
secret heart from Kaitlin M