When your personal, private challenges affect your Au Pair relationship

by cv harquail on September 23, 2009

Often on this blog we talk about what’s happening between you and your au pair as the source of difficulties– but sometimes the difficulty is all of our own making. Things happen to us host parents — grandparents die, host parents divorce, someone loses a job, a parent gets hospitalized, a child is challenged, and on and on.

swallows by Fergal OP.jpg

When things happen to us personally, our reactions to these events and situations can affect our au pairs. They may sense that something is up, and wonder if they’ve caused it. They may even have learned (from you or someone else) just what the situation is, and yet they may not know how to respond.

When difficult things have happened to me and I’ve been aware that they’ve made me tense or bitchy, I’ve done my best to tell our au pair up front– I want her to know that I’m not angry at her, or crying because of her, or inattentive because of her.

I recognize that often, when a person has no data about a situation, they look to themselves as a possible cause. (“Uh-oh, she just yelled at the dog… I must have put a good knife in the dishwasher!”) I don’t want her to worry that she’d done something wrong when what’s caused the issue has nothing to do with her.

Unfortunately, even when others have nothing to do with our issues, they get caught up in the drama. We may be upset, unavailable, unpredictable, who knows– but they have to deal with it. Is there any way to make this easier?

Consider this mom’s concern:

Hi AuPairMom–

This blog has been super helpful :) But I’m having some troubles that I wonder if other host moms have experienced… We now have our 3rd AP who has been with us for almost 2 months. She’s from Brazil, and a wonderful person and AP.

My dilemma is that personally, I’m having a really difficult time with things in general, struggling with some personal stuff. However, the AP and I are still in the building-relationship phase, and she’s basically getting me at what is probably the worst time I’ve ever had in my life. There are times when I’m mean or bitchy (not intentionally, just that I am not present enough to realize I am being like that), which she takes personally and subsequently feels bad (not un-rightfully so; I’m not trying to make her feel bad, but I’m understanding now that I am doing it).

Part of it is that I am also second-guessing my interactions and what I’d like to do with or for the new AP, based on the really terrible experiences I had with our 2nd AP (which was just a couple months ago). It’s resulting in a lot of miscommunication, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings all around.

Now, on the one hand, I’m trying to do what I can to get myself sorted out (seeing a therapist, other things); but I’m also scared that I’m going to scare her away with what I feel (hope) is a temporary condition for me.depressed by deepfruit.jpg

My specific question is:

Does anyone have thoughts on how much to share with the AP about my personal struggles? Has anyone else been in a similar situation?
Do you have any tips for navigating this?

It feels difficult partly because the relationship with my au pair is so new; I know my husband and my friends can understand and basically cut me a bit of slack, and give me some space, because they know I’m not always like this. However, I also am afraid that from her perspective, coming into a home where the mom is struggling at the beginning, you might wonder if it’s ever going to get better. I wouldn’t blame her for wanting to rematch, but I really don’t want her to leave.

I would love to hear from some other host moms on this topic. Thanks!

I already responded by email to this mom, mostly to remind her to appreciate the important steps she’s already taken, for being so self-aware, and for wanting to work on her au pair relationship — in addition to all the work she’s doing on the issue itself. And I’m sure you parents (and APs even) have some helpful suggestions.

Please offer your advice in the comments….Let’s see if we can help.

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PA au pair mom September 23, 2009 at 9:20 pm

This is a really tough situation, especially since it is occurring in the “getting acquainted” phase.

If the “situation” is something that you feel like you can/want to discuss, even generally, with the au pair then I would suggest doing so. If it’s more personal, then maybe you could say “I have been going through a lot of personal struggles lately and they are making me much more edgy/emotional than usual. I want you to understand that if I snap at you or yell at the dog or cry that it is not because of anything that you did”.

Keeping the lines of communication open seems to be the best thing to do in this very difficult situation.

Good luck.

CoCa September 23, 2009 at 9:58 pm

I think this is very interesting because it also touches on a related topic that I struggle with a lot, namely:

How much do you in general adapt your own behavior to the fact that you have a “stranger” living in your home?

What I mean is, is it OK to be just as moody, just as bitchy, just as angry, just as whatever, as you might normally allow yourself when it is just you and your family? Or do you have to basically put on that smiley face when you come down in the morning, and pretend to be happy even when you’re not?

I think we can all agree that going to extremes in that department would be impossible, you just couldn’t keep that up for a year. But I also know that I, for one, expect that if my au pair has boyfriend trouble, PMS, or just a bad week, she doesn’t slam doors or go sulk in her room for days on end – even if this might be how she would behave at home.

So it seems only fair that she can expect some of the same from me. But how much, on both parts?

I think that if you, like the poster above, is going through some real trauma and not just having general off days, you may (sadly) have a serious problem on your hands. I just don’t think that a new relationship of any kind can necessarily withstand this kind of behavior.

I would try in the first instance to explain, not necessarily going into details but just tell the au pair as often as you can that you appreciate what she’s doing and that she mustn’t think she is the problem. But beyond that, I sadly think you MAY have to accept that this is simply too much for a young woman in a strange place to handle.

Darthastewart September 23, 2009 at 10:18 pm

I try to be fairly transparent where the au-pair is concerned. So, if there’s something going on, I’ll give them a bit of information, and explain that it’s not them. I believe that most people are fairly sympathetic, if you give them anything to go on.

Jenny September 23, 2009 at 11:02 pm

I’m with my first Au Pair, 6 weeks in, and she’s fabulous.

In reply to CoCa – in general I find myself being a better version of myself, because I am constantly modeling how I’d like my children and my home to be treated. I may just be in the honeymoon phase of a great new relationship, but at the same time, this is a benefit to my family of having an au pair that I didn’t really consider. It relates to a previous discussion about the AP manual being your “ideal” world at your home. I just seem to be doing a better job with patience and kindness with the kids and keeping the house in order (partially because of all her help). Now if she were to read this, she might say…THIS is your best version of yourself, running late, frazled, and cranky at times? But I notice myself being present more and trying harder because someone (an outsider) is watching how I do things.

I had to tell our Au Pair when I picked her up the airport that my husband had lost his job that day (talk about terrible timing); I was a mess but just told her that we would be okay. And I’m 6 mths pregnant, so our home has been all but stress-free. I haven’t shared with her much about finances other than to say things are tight until he gets a job (a very big understatement). It has been hard getting on a “normal” routine with my two young daughters, with him job hunting at home. Only one day did I have a major meltdown, and she asked me if I was okay, and I said yes, and left it at that. I don’t want to give my worry to her, because she has enough to worry about without worrying about job security or family finances.

My policy is to be open, but not too open, and make sure to often tell her what a great job she is doing and that I can’t imagine matching with someone who was a better fit. So far it’s working, but I have also wondered at what point (if ever) I share more with her – because in this economic state, things are bound to get worse before they get better…

Anon mom this time September 24, 2009 at 7:45 am

I was in this situation. Two months into our au pair year last year, I found out that my 20-week pregnancy was over. That was the worst time of my life. Of course I told the au pair what happened. I don’t know how much she understood it affected my subsequent behavior (she was young and not very bright). After delivery I spent 6 weeks home on disability, and that gave me the opportunity to see how she was with my kids (not really coping well with her responsibilities), and three weeks later we initiated a rematch. I realized that when I go back to work, I cannot leave her home alone with my kids.

Then we got a rematch au pair. I didn’t tell a rematch au pair exactly what happened to me, I couldn’t bring myself to. But I did tell her that I just spent a long time on disability, and I think from the conversations with my family she figured it out. 4 months into that relationship, I lost another pregnancy, much earlier on. I had to have an operation to remove it. She knew I had a minor surgery, but I didn’t tell her what. That threw me into an even more terrible funk that the first incident, it took me months to become more-or-less functioning person instead of go to my room right after work person. I did have meetings with her weekly though, and I did tell her that because of my health issues that terrible year she got the short end of the stick in terms of my usual self…
The thing is, she was a very bad au pair. We had problems from the beginning and should’ve rematched right away. But it lasted 8 months because I could only realize the severity of the au pair situation when I got some strength to see things other than my own problems a little more clearly. My husband wanted to rematch with her earlier too, but he couldn’t get through to me for confirmation, and I didn’t get his hints (he is very indirect talking about certain subjects)

I don’t know how it helps you since you have a wonderful au pair, but I will second others in favor of communication and disclosure, as much as you can. She will understand I am sure. You can also ask her for suggestions on how you can ease it for her (within your current abilities of course).

NoVA Host Mom September 24, 2009 at 8:51 am

Jenny, welcome to the world of being a new HM. Yes, you are in the honeymoon phase. Trust me, it becomes very exhausting trying to keep up that “together, all is great, Leave it to Beaver” facade. It will pass when you start to feel more comfortable with a stranger living in your house, watching and listening to all you do. I tried in the beginning, too, and you know what? It’s not real life. And it’s too hard to pretend. Real life gets messy, real life ends up with a forgotten load of laundry in the dryer, real life ends up with no one remembering to get the milk on the way home. It happens. That’s part of being a family. You set your goals, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t make them all.

I think to a degree the original HM needs to be as direct with the AP as she would her children: “Mommy is going through some tough things right now. It may make me cranky or easily upset, but I am working on the issues and should be handling things better in the future.” Be honest, but there is no need to turn her into a confidant. She is still an employee who lives in your house. Just like the kids, she will be able to pick up on things going on as it is, so better to head any speculation off at the pass and get facts out in the open.

Be honest about the steps you are taking, too. It is a normal part of things, at least in our culture. It might be that where she grew up, in her environment, seeing a therapist is not common. Maybe it can be a teaching tool that seeing someone to help you work out issues and conflicts is an acceptable and normal thing to do.

Jane September 24, 2009 at 9:14 am

I’ve been through this and feel your pain. If you like this au pair and feel she is doing a good job, then my advice is to be as open as possible with her about what you’re going through—confide to the level you feel comfortable—and then allow yourself the space you need to get through this.

I developed a severe illness as the result of my pregnancy and had a long hospitalization after delivery. I made it back home only one week before our first au pair arrived, whereas I would have had two months at home alone with my new family otherwise. Between still recovering (I was on medical leave another month), adjusting to being a first-time mother, having a stranger who spoke a different language in my house, and being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, I was a complete and total wreck. I did my best not to let it affect my interactions with our au pair, but I remember crying a lot and spending whatever time I could alone in my room, until I finally sought counseling.

I explained to our au pair fully what had happened to me physically, and that certainly gained her sympathies and cut me a little slack. I never could bring myself to fully disclose my resulting depression and PTS *except* on the occasions when it specially affected her. For example, when I really needed to spend my first mother’s day with just my immediate family, I explained to her that I had a lot of grief over how my delivery went and the fact that my illness took me away from my new baby for his whole first month. I explained that I needed time to be with just them, and she completely understood. As I got better, I told her how I regretted she came to us at a very difficult time in my life when I couldn’t give more of my time to her, but I think she understood. When she came back to visit us a year later for a month, we had a much different experience where I could take more time to be social with her. She was a pretty self-sufficient girl socially, so that made a big difference in her being able to deal with my moods and anti-socialism. She didn’t have a problem with giving me space, and I was careful not to take my moods out on her.

With our next au pair, I went through a major surgery and while emotionally I was much better, this was still a tough time. Again, I was just as upfront as I could be. This au pair was much needier socially though, so we had a bit more conflict when I wanted to be alone and she wanted my attention. She knew I was going through stuff and wanted me to let her help me—which isn’t really my style. It wasn’t a terrible year, but I often felt on edge at home. So I guess a lot will depend on how your au pair handles and feels about your condition. My advice is do what you need to do to feel comfortable in your own home—otherwise it will be much harder to get better. Best wishes on recovery!!

Anonymous September 24, 2009 at 9:17 am

I share just about everything with my AP. She has been with us for just over a year (extended for year two), and has been through a lot of good days and a lot of bad days with our family. We have a child with some severe psychiatric problems, and that is often a challenge. It puts a strain on our household some days, and a strain on my relationship with HD. Those aren’t things we can hide from her, so why bother trying? She isn’t stupid – she knows if HD and I aren’t getting along, or if my work stress has built up, or if I’m feeling frustrated with trying to meet my daughter’s needs. Rather than trying to put on a happy face if I’ve had a bad day at work, or if I’m feeling down – I’m just honest with her. And I apologize a lot if I’m snippy or unpleasant around the house.

But it is relatively easy for me to do that because from the beginning my AP has felt like a close friend or sister – we make it a point to regularly leave HD at home with the kids and go out for lunch, shopping, a drink, whatever…to have some “girl” time and get caught up on each other’s life. I know there are a lot of mixed opinions about whether your AP should really be treated like one of your girlfriends – but for me it has worked really well. I think talking about personal situations is important. Most APs are going to catch on to some tension anyway, and sharing with them shows that you trust her, and that she is part of the family that should be aware of what is going on within the family.

StephinBoston September 24, 2009 at 9:29 am

I too try to be fairly transparent with my au pairs, bad day at work, frustrated with the children’s behavior, I let them know. But then again I haven’t faced the tough challenges that a lot of you have. So I’d say, share what you can, at least explain that it’s a difficult time for you and would rather not talk about it more. Even tell her you might feel more comfortable talking about it when things improve. Just make her feel that’s she’s doing a good job and she’s not the one affecting you. I always get older au pairs so we end up being good friends (I work from home and spend a lot of time with them). I have 2 boys, it’s nice to get some female interaction :-)

MTR September 24, 2009 at 10:27 am

I have gotten in to a habit of emaling my au pair and letting her know that I may be in crappy mood when I get home if I had a bad day at work and make sure she understands that is not about her.

Anonymous September 24, 2009 at 12:15 pm

When something happens in my life that I might not want to share ( worry about my own job situation , for instance ) , I don’t share it all necessarily with my aupair. If it makes her anxious that my job circumstances are a little up in the air or if I am upset with my in-laws, I would not want to put her under the pressure of knowing something that she is exspected not to share with her friends or my neighbors. Instead, I make a point of telling my aupair about all the great things she has done. I might bring home a gift card to Taget or Shop Rite or perfume. That way, I want to communicate that there is no issue between us. I learned this from my own boss at work and I appreciate it. Loss of privacy is the biggest challenge I have had to learn to deal with in this program.

My 2 cents September 24, 2009 at 1:00 pm

Firstly, I’d say it is a great move in a positive direction that you candidly and objectively acknowledge that you have not been very nice to others lately, including the AP.

In terms of sharing, I’m more on the conservative side. For me, it’s beneficial to my AP relationship to be a confident and strong adult presence for her. That means not coming home and lashing out at her, or breaking down in front of her, or being pushy or terse. I find that I command more respect, and therefore more positive return, if I do this. Of course, the reality is that all of us have personal struggles and break down and make mistakes with how we address one another! But I sincerely believe keeping it even keeled around the AP is important.

In my honest opinion, I don’t think that how much you share or confide in your AP will change things in a positive direction for long. Sure, I can agree that maybe opening up a bit and sharing that you are having some issues in other areas that are making you more distracted, emotional, etc. may help your AP see that you are human and that you are especially vulnerable right now. But I think ultimately it comes down to how you treat her, just like it would with almost anyone else in your life. I don’t care how much explaining and sharing you do, if you continue to snap, lash, ignore, or whatever, you will lose her respect, her confidence in you, and probably and relationship you had or could have had. Avoid the trap of thinking that if you apologize and share what is bothering you, it will be made all better. You do that more than once or twice and it really begins to sound very insincere and the person has no trust that you will change and they must accept this, or get out.

Just my 2 cents.

Jenny September 24, 2009 at 1:10 pm

NoVa Host Mom – NOOOOO I don’t want it to ever end! I want it to stay like this forever! :) (very similar to my honeymoon, I guess). Well, I’m certainly not holding myself to a standard that is something I can’t keep up, (June Cleaver I am not) like never forgetting the milk or leaving a load in the wash, but I AM more patient with my kids and that is something we all want from ourselves more at the end or beginning of a busy day. I hope that in the house I’ve already set the precedent of how I want things, and so far she is following. Again, for me, I see this as a benefit and I wasn’t expecting it.

The hardest thing not to “share” (and obviously the thing that would cause the most worry to here) is the big elephant in the room. Money. It’s tight, and stressful, and we don’t have an end in sight – he is trying very hard, but so are 12% of other unemployed Oregonians. It could be tomorrow or it could be in 6 months, complete with another mouth to feed (oh wait, that’s my job too! Sigh!) I hate that we love her so much, and she is kind of getting the short end of the stick with extras – as in no eating out (with us), no events or extra treats, not a lot of goodies grocery shopping, etc. The good news is, she doesn’t seem to really care about those things (as we had discussed in the matching process), and she appears to be happy to have found a great family, such as we are.
Thanks, and good luck to all!

Anonymous September 24, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Jenny, we’ve had our au pair for over a year, and I keep waiting for the honeymoon to end. :-) She is a super AP, and it does make me a better mom, partner and host mom having her around. I tend to watch myself more before I make negative comments, and tend to be a bit more patient with everyone. On my bad days, she often saves me. She knows me well enough to know the second I walk in the door what kind of day I’ve had, and she is often quick to ask “Can I pour you a glass of wine?” Or to offer to stay on duty a bit longer so I can have some down time to change clothes, unwind, and regroup. She’s a saint.

We, like you, are going through some financial set-backs, and I wish we could give her more things, trips, dinners out, etc…. I really believe, though, that by doing little things – sending her an email or text during the day just to say hi and tell her she’s wonderful, or a little card or treat picked up from the dollar store – just little things…go a long way. I like Hallmark e-cards – free, and a great way to take a minute and let her know how much you appreciate her. I really think that most mature, compassionate au pairs understand that having love and support from a family that truly cares is much more valuable than going on luxury vacations.

Keep up the relationship you are already developing. That attitude got our family through a very successful first year with an AP and in to another year with the same AP.

T September 24, 2009 at 5:28 pm

As an au pair I would like my host mom to share her troubles with me. Especially if they affected the relationship between us.

But I guess every au pair is different. Some girls might not want to talk with their host parents about personal stuff. But, anyway: GOOD LUCK.

If something really is bothering you, you should talk about it. I just talked to my host mom about a serious thing that had bothered me for sooo long, and now everything feels so much better!

Calif Mom September 24, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Anon mom this time — I’m very sorry for your losses. Everyone forgive me for using comments section for this, and I am not an MD, but please get tested for blood clotting disorders. There are a number of different disorders that few people have heard of, and that don’t cause any problems at all until you are pregnant. Just because you have had one child already does not mean that you do not have such a condition that isn’t yet diagnosed. There are ways to treat these conditions and have another baby. Educate yourself about this, because there is wide regional variation in how up to date on these issues OBs are and you may need to advocate. I strongly suggest paying for the battery of blood tests yourself if you have to (often insurance won’t pay until you’ve lost 3 pregnancies). My heart goes out to you.

Anon mom this time September 24, 2009 at 10:30 pm

Calif mom,

thank you for your concern. I actually have two kids, and more than two miscarriages. I have gone beyond the OB to many specialists to investigate. Those miscarriages where there was fetal tissue left, it was investigated and pathology was done on my late loss. I did have a repeated pregnancy loss panel done – very comprehensive, and also got additional tests for blood clotting disorders with a hematologist, and I had karyotype testing done with my husband with a reproductive endocrinologist. I had a full evaluation (HSG, etc.) by a reproductive endocrinologist in addition to that. I had all the possible tests done except some of the immune factors which are controversial in mainstream medicine, would require me to travel across the country and pay a fortune.
No real reason was found, so here is hoping for better luck next time. And I will be on blood thinners next pregnancy just in case.

NoVA Host Mom September 25, 2009 at 8:15 am

Anonymous – I cannot tell you just how jealous I am. Of course, being pregnant right now wine is off the list, but Oh! how I would have loved that before I was. You have one of Those APs. One of the APs who are a perfect poster girl for why people want APs. I don’t know that my own husband ever offered a glass of wine upon my return from a hard day. Well, maybe once or twice. Certainly not as often as I would have liked.

Yes, it does make me want to be a better mom/wife/parent-representative/whatever, but (and maybe some of this is tainted with pregnancy hormones and frustration with our 1st AP who lasted 4 loooong months), at the same time a part of “it is what it is” has slowly but surely crept back into real life.

On the other hand, I now make more of an effort to do things with the family like visiting pick your own farms and special events, seeking out different parks for our daughter, visiting museums and attractions I have not seen in the 10 years I have lived this close to DC, despite my frequent declarations of how easy it is to do living this close.

But all in all, I think a level of honesty about the cost of life, economic and employment issues, etc, is a good thing. A lot of these APs are young, and may have been either a bit sheltered or come to the US with stars in their eyes. It might be refreshing to them to see that things are tough everywhere. We might have more or less than some countries, but it does not make things easier.

Jenny September 25, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Great point NoVa Host Mom! It is very good for all young girls to see that is possible to have a good life and healthy family in tough economic situations, Americans or other…
We also are utilizing the things we love that are all “within and hour” from Portland…things we haven’t done since before we had children…and in this gorgeous fall weather, falling back in love with this city we love! I’m pg too, but DEFINITELY plan on implementing that wine glass pouring upon the end of the day in the new year, as long as my AP remains poster girl perfect! :)

All kidding aside – I want to go back to the original posting mom. I give Kudos to you for recognizing the things you have to deal with and doing the (HARD) work to fix things. Nothing is more valuable to your kids and family, regardless of what happens with your Au pair. Be honest with her that you are having a hard time and be as good to her as you can while you find more strength. You are obviously doing your best, and for now, that has to be good enough, for everyone.

NewAP Mom September 26, 2009 at 11:27 pm

To the original posting mom – the fact that you wrote about this shows me you’re sensitive to it, and I think it will all work out okay. I hope you get through whatever is going on and it all turns out as well as possible.

Based solely on my relationship with my last au pair, I’m not sure it will do you much good to tell her what’s going on. Really depends on the person but in my experience, it was hard for her to relate to what was happening in my life anyway. My advice would be to sit down and tell her that you have some personal things going on, it has nothing to do with her, and some days you may not be your best and you’re sorry.

Make sure when you can, you tell her she’s doing a great job and point out specific things she’s doing well.

And although you didn’t ask, make sure you’re treating your own family with the same sensitivity. I often caught myself treating the au pair like a guest and then taking all of my bad mood out on my husband, which wasn’t fair to him. Not that you’d do this, I’m just saying just in case…

And on a totally unrelated note, I’m one of the people who actually did the full gamut of auto-immune treatment. After 10 miscarriages and nearly losing my twins at 12 weeks, the IVIg saved them and today they’re here and healthy as horses. I know it’s controversial but I’m a firm believer in it, for obvious reasons! I am very sorry for your losses, anon mom, and hope you can find some answers.

tracy cota September 30, 2009 at 9:13 am

During my first au pair’s stay with us, my grandfather fell, went into a coma and died. Our au pair was here helping us through that, and I don’t think I could have spent as much time helping my grandmother through her grief (they were married 68 years) without the help of au pair.

Similarly, our second au pair was here while we were still dealing with loss, and soon afterward her own grandfather died back home, and she needed to go back for a few weeks.

Being open about what was going on for us as a family, regarding these incidents, brought us closer to our au pair, and I think helped her understand why there was more stress, in the house, why weren’t having as many family dinners, etc. Understanding what was going on here, I think made it easier for her to be here through a difficult time (both of the au pairs). And they helped us through these times, tremendously, as a result.

Sara Duke December 7, 2009 at 9:06 am

My daughter had brain surgery while our first au pair was living with us (she had been a pediatric intensive care nurse in her native country). It was a very stressful time for us, as our daughter is severely retarded and didn’t understand what was happening to her, and then nearly died from complications while in rehab and had to be rushed back to the hospital. She spent five weeks in hospital and rehab and wore halo traction for nearly 5 months. Our au pair was fantastic, volunteered to sleep with her one night a week (my husband I did tag-team parenting, so that our daughter was never left alone in the hospital and were always exhausted), patiently cleaned our daughter (who managed to vomit into the vest that held up the halo traction more than once), and was incredibly supportive.

But the stress was too much for everyone. Our au pair started demanding more time off and arguing when I asked her to do things. When my husband’s appendix burst, it was the final straw in what was left of our good relationship, because she refused to accept changes in her schedule. For me, things reached a pitch when I came to rescue her when she had a flat tire in the rain, and I was home in bed with pneumonia (because the stress of two illnesses and preparing for a new au pair had flattened me). She got mad at me for changing the tire and telling her to drive to the tire company and get it replaced, instead of letting her have the small car to go off with my son.

In the end, the stress of grief was too much for all of us. Our goodbyes were incredibly acrimonious, and we had a 3 week period without an au pair while we waited for our new au pair to arrive. None of us handled it well, and all of us were too exhausted and sad to make it work any better.

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