Let me repeat that: Your house is not a youth hostel.
It’s not a hotel. It’s not a pied a terre. Your house is your home, and if you choose to have friends of your au pair as overnight guests, there is a lot to think about.
One blatant sign that a host mom and host family is being taken advantage of is when your au pair has a lot of guests, and your house starts to feel like a youth hostel. That’s because this issue sits itself right down on top of the balance between having an au pair as part of the family and having the au pair as someone you pay to care for your kids.
It’s easy to be taken advantage of, even by a well-meaning au pair, because they often don’t know what it takes to host guests.
One of my neighbors had three girls from Germany visiting for 10 days in the second month of her au pair’s arrival (experienced host moms, you know where this story is going…). After housing and feeding these girls, paying for the additional groceries, loaning the au pair the bigger family car so they could all go sightseeing, giving her au pair some extra time off duty so she could enjoy her friends, putting up with the noise of radios and wild conversation — in a language the host family doesn’t speak — and generally not having her au pair’s attention, my au pair host mom neighbor was struck by the final blow.
Her au pair announced in her third month that she had had enough of New Jersey. She was going back to Germany.
Unfortunately, this sort of story happens more than you would think. My own dear sister who lives in Manhattan had the misfortune of hosting a European au pair who had three different friends visit in her first three months, and then in month four simply disappeared. [[The rest of the story I’ll save for another day… but you get the idea.]
I can already hear the host mom’s with great au pair relationships saying:
"Yes but she’s part of our family."
"We want her to feel like this is her home."
"It’s a great cultural exchange to have guests from overseas."
Sure, that’s true. But if you don’t have a really great au pair relationship, or if you don’t know what your au pair relationship is going to be like, the whole question of international overnight guests becomes a big issue.
Problems when there are guests
- Having international guests can be very disruptive.
- The fun/responsibility of guests can compete for your au pair’s attention. She can get distracted from her regular duties. For example, she may start talking in her home language to the guest while the guest is a passenger in your car while your au pair is driving your kids to soccer. Imagine how that feels to the kids in the carseats.
- Worse, "having to be on duty" when she has guests may lead your au pair to be resentful of her duties or even of your kids.
- Visitors from home can encourage your au pair to feel homesick.
You wanted to be a host mom– you didn’t sign up to play hostess. You don’t want to be in a situation where you now have the job of entertaining these guests and also making them comfortable throughout their stay.
Situations where I think it’s perfectly okay to have an overnight guest:
- Your au pair has an au pair friend visiting from another region, so that the two can sightsee together. Often there is an explicit quid pro quo, where you host another au pair and they your au pair goes to visit her… and they are taking turns so that they can see more of the US.
- Your au pair’s mother/sister/best friend/cousin comes to visit.
- The visit occurs when your au pair is starting or ending her vacation, and the guest is joining or leaving.
- The visit occurs when you don’t need your own pair to be on duty.
The occasional overnight guests, especially au pair girlfriends who stay over after a party when it may be too late or inadvisable for them to drive home, is perfectly fine in my book. It’s nice to be able to open in your home to someone in need, such as an au pair in transition or just one who’s been having a bad week and needs to escape.
Situations where I think you should exercise caution in approving overnight guests:
- Within the first three months . You don’t want to set up a situation where she and/or her friends can use your home as a base for their American vacation, only to have your au pair announce she’s going into rematch or just dumping you.
- At the end of your au pair’s year, if she is going to overlap with your new au pair past one week.
- When the ratio between your au pair’s time with you vs. the length of the expected visits is less than 25:1.
- When your au pair has already had a guest.
In our family we have some hard and fast rules about who may not be an overnight guest:
- No more than two (au pairs) visiting at a time (there simply isn’t enough bathroom space in our house).
- No random men we don’t know.
- Pretty much anyone we don’t know.
- And, in some families, no boyfriend or "person with whom your au pair has an ‘active’ romantic relationship"
Discuss as much as you can BEFORE guests are invited
Talk about what you expect her to be responsible for when she has overnight guests. Cover some of these basic topics:
- The length of stay. Please, please, please do not allow an open-ended stay. It’s not your job to provide room and board for her friend who is looking for an off the books American job.
- Food . Who will pay for the additional food? Who will cook the additional food? Who will clean up after the additional eaters?
- Where exactly the people and their stuff will be . Guests need not only a place to sleep but also a place to store their luggage, to put their toothbrushes, curling irons and makeup.
- Laundry. Will they do their own, or do they expect your cleaning lady to do it, in the 4 hours you can afford her?
- The liquor cabinet. Oh yes. Can you afford the wine, and Scotch, and Malibu that her guests may want to drink? Can you deal with 4 young adults drinking red wine in your living room? I forgot to mention that my host mom friend’s au pair’s guests spilled red wine on her couch.
- Use of the Car. For most of us our insurance prohibits us from leading an international visitor drive our car.
- Smoking. Your au pair may have agreed not to smoke in your house, but what about her guests? Are you really going to tell her mom she can’t smoke in your kitchen?
- Where they will hang out. Can you manage having additional young adults in your han ging out in your kitchen, or family room? Coming in late, staying up to watch movies in the family room?
Also, be ready to discuss these issues:
Be clear that you need your au pair to be fully on duty when she’s on duty, especially if her visitors are in your home during her regular on duty hours.
Be warned that your au pair may be tired from hosting her guests, and ask her to make sure she is rested for her on duty time.
Consider that your au pair may not appreciate what it takes of your and your family when there are visitors. She may not fully appreciate the privilege of having guests and may take advantage of you.
Ask your au pair and her friends to speak English when they are in the family common rooms, around your children and/or you and your partner. It can feel extremely alienating to be cooking in your own kitchen, and to be surrounded by three or four girls who are not speaking English. Of course, if your au pair’s friends don’t speak English that’s a different story. In that case, you might want your au pair to do some time translating between you and the guests so that there can be the feeling of openness and welcome.
Remember that you may have a new au pair every year. If so, you need to get clear just how many times in your life you can handle a week’s worth of extra Brazilians in your house. While it may be just the second set of guests for your au pair, it could be your fifth time showing people Monticello and explaining why Americans are so fat.
Look also for implicit contradictions in your signals and expectations…
You may be inclined to treat these guests as your own, and if you are comfortable with that responsibility, fine. But what if you have your au pair’s mom saying your guest room rather than in her daughter’s room? If someone is using your guest room, are they now your guests? And, how will you manage having her parent in the house? Or a guest that is your age?
Be especially cautious with requests for more than one extended (i.e., longer than two nights) visit. A REALLY bad sign is when she has more than two different visits from overseas guests, within the first 4-5 months. It is sad but not uncommon for a girl to sign up to be an au pair with a hidden agenda: She’s gonna "work" for you in your nice LA/Florida/DC/NYC/Las Vegas home until she and her friends get their US vacations, and then she’s gonna split. And leave empty wine bottles in the au pair room closet.
Get your kids involved with the guests. Perhaps have them make a welcome sign or bake some American cookies.
Ask your (and her guest) to cook a traditional meal from their country. One of our most favorite memories is when our au pair CN had her cousin visit for a few days. Not only was he a terrific guest in many other ways, but also he made us a traditional "Swedish bachelor meal" . The meal emphasized sausage. And butter. To this day, my girls will often ask if we can have "the Swedish bachelor’s meal".
We have had visits from family members, cousins, sisters, au pairs in distress (that one for 10 days!), au pairs who want to see NYC, and au pairs who just need a break from their regular schedule. When expectations have been clear, and especially when these guests have been delightful people themselves, it’s been great.