What’s the difference between an au pair and a maid?
In some host families, not very much.
Some host families expect their au pairs to do basic housework in addition to caring for children. In the US, “housekeeping”is limited to cleaning up the kids rooms (but in my mind, not vacuuming them), keeping the play areas tidy, cleaning up in the kitchen after kids’ meals and the au pair’s meals, and keeping his or her own room clean. In my house, au pairs have also had a daily ‘family chore’ of emptying the dishwasher. And, au pairs are expected to “pitch in” with some limited activities like setting or clearing the table at mealtimes.
In Europe, the expectations are a little broader, with au pairs doing a larger variety of housekeeping tasks, but still having child care as the primary responsibility.
“Light housekeeping” does not mean “Maid Service”
“Light housekeeping”, whether broadly defined in Europe or specific to the kids in the US, is not the same as acting like a maid. While an au pair can be expected to clean up any kid-related mess that’s made while s/he’s on duty, the au pair is not expected to pick up the mess that’s been made in the kids’ rooms during her weekend off. S/he is not expected to wash breakfast dishes from the morning that Dad was on duty.
An au pair is absolutely not responsible for picking up after host parents.
Au pairs (especially tidy au pairs) are vulnerable to abuse when host parents and other adults leave their messes all over the house and expect the au pair to clean up after them. Host parents leave their dishes in the sink, their dirty pots on the stove, crumbs on the counter tops, and ingredients everywhere but on the shelves where they belong. And, they expect the au pair to clean up after them. Host parents often (think that they) get away with this behavior, because the au pair is responsible for leaving the kitchen clean at the end of her or his work day with the kids. The crazy double standard is that while some host parents expect the au pair to leave the kitchen clean at the end of the shift, these same host parents leave behind an absolute mess when the au pair comes on duty.
To me, that kind of host parent behavior is absolutely rude.
I myself am a bit of a kitchen neatnik (which I’m sure you’ve figured out by now). As a neatnik and a person who often works in her home office, I know that I can spend hours tidying the kitchen as a way to avoid revising that journal article. I have a personal rule guideline that I only clean the kitchen once a day, at the end of dinner. So, if I make myself a lunch, I might leave the crumbs on the counter or my pan in the sink. But my au pairs are *forbidden* to clean up after me. I have been very explicit with my au pairs that anything I leave behind during the day is *my* stuff to clean up, not theirs. Similarly, I don’t expect our au pair to fold up my Wall Street Journal and put it in the recycling bin, and I don’t expect her to hang up the dog leash if I’m the one who left it on the floor.
I’ve heard this concern from several au pairs, most recently from “Tired of Tidying”, who writes:
My problem is that…my host parents don’t respect the fact that I clean the house. I have never seen such unorganized people in my whole life! They leave the shopping everywhere, nappies, bottles, bags, plates, cups. They just don’t care.
To be fair, I’m here at their place to give them a hand with the children and “light” housework. But the problem is that my host parents don’t even bother to wash their own cups and plates. Since I’ve been here, I have never seen them washing a single fork! Not to mention the amount of crumbs they leave everywhere.
The same mess happens even when I’m off. A friend of mine advised me not to work, or wash anything in my time off. But….i’ve tried that. And guess what? When Monday comes, we don’t have clean dishes. In the end, it will be my job to clean the kitchen anyway.
I know I was supposed to help with the cleaning, don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to clean up after the children and the pets, but not the parents. I even make their bed, but when I have to take their cups back into the kitchen or when I see they don’t put the bottles to recycle and they just leave them there for me to do, I feel like a slave. I constantly have to clean behind them.
How can I ask my host parents be more tidy,without being rude or making them feel embarrassed? Overall, they are nice, kind people and we get along well. They keep saying that they know an au pair is not a full time nanny or a full time maid, and that they don’t want to take advantage of me, but this is what is happening anyway.
On the surface, it looks like an easy job. I’m supposed to work from 5 to 8 on weekdays and have weekends and the day times free. But on top of my evening schedule, I am working all day, walking their dog, washing the dishes, doing laundry or cleaning other rooms from the house. So it’s almost 3 hours of cleaning, daily!
It’s not my house, really. And I don’t want to be bossy, intrusive or to make the rules. I do really feel like I am the grown up here and I have in charge 2 teenagers. What should I do? if somebody can give me an advice, it would be more than appreciated.
Note: We have already discussed some issues related to housework and what’s appropriate to expect of an au pair. This situation has its own specific twist– the host parents are leaving their messes behind, day in and day out, expecting their au pair to clean up after them. Cleaning the house for 3 hours a week is one thing. Putting away every one of the dishes every one else uses? That’s another thing.