au pair/ˌō ˈper/
“A young foreign person, typically a woman, who helps with housework or child care in exchange for room and board.”
One of the biggest decisions I’ve made in my life so far was to move abroad and become an au pair. I will go into detail in this post about why this decision impacted me in good and bad ways, and how it changed my life.
I was in my last couple weeks of college, nearing graduation, and I knew I wasn’t prepared to head straight into a career. I had travelled the previous year to Spain for 2 weeks and fell in love with Europe. It ignited a spark in me to travel and take in new ways of life, there was so much out there that I hadn’t seen and I was feeling determined to experience it. A close friend of mine’s sister was an au pair in France, so I was in contact with her to see if it was the right decision for me. I knew I could work my butt off all summer to make money and leave in September if all went as planned. It seemed to be the best plan for someone my age, who wanted to travel, didn’t have a large amount of money, and wanted to immerse myself in another country.
I began making profiles on different au pair websites (I will link a couple at the end of this post!) in the early summer. I had narrowed down my choices of where I wanted to live to Italy, Germany, and France (which was at the top of my list because I am fluent in French). I immediately started going through families and sending messages to some that I thought would be a good fit for me. I spoke back and forth with a couple very frequently, but I got the most interest from a family in Italy with two young boys age 3 and 5 so we decided to go through with it. We spoke almost daily, we started having Skype dates weekly, I was in the process of getting my working holiday Visa and finishing all of the paperwork. It was all coming together and we decided on a date for me to arrive in early September, I was so anxious and excited to start this new chapter.
The day arrived, I flew to Italy, got the train from Rome to Milan, I took a taxi to the family’s apartment, I was introduced to the whole gang (grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins as well, they are Italian of course!), and I was shown my room. We had agreed upon my duties before I arrived: For 8 months, I was to wake up the kids and get them ready for school in the morning. I would walk one of the children to school, the other child got sent with a family member (they went to 2 different schools). I would pick 1 of the kids up at the end of their school day and either walk home or go to their after school activity with them. We would play, draw, do puzzles, create Lego sculptures, do any activity, but the end goal was to get them to speak English with me so they could learn. They had a nanny who took care of dinner prep most of the time, so we would eat and I would help with dinner clean up. Then I would get the kids ready for bed, and my duties were over. All in all, I was only working about an hour in the morning and a few hours in the evening from Monday-Friday, while I got to live and eat for free, plus making a small amount of spending cash, it all seemed too good to be true! On top of this, Milan was such a gorgeous city and was FULL of other au pairs. There were networks all over social media to be able to meet others, go out at night, or grab coffee during the day. It was so refreshing to meet people my age from all over the world who were also being au pairs. I met some truly amazing people and made great friends.
Once I got a couple months into the swing of things, I started realising some prominent issues with my host family. The parents were never around so the children were never disciplined. The kids rarely listened, they didn’t get along with each other, they were almost always separated so we could avoid conflict between the two of them. I felt like I would make a small difference, and a parent would get home at the end of the day and give into them or give them a toy, and it went back to square one. On top of the discipline issues, both children weren’t fully potty trained (which I realise is not normal). I was obviously unaware of this coming into it, so dealing with something so complicated was hard for me. I tried my best, but I was getting to my wits end. I tried to speak to the mother about the issues a couple times, but she always made me feel like I was the problem or I was the reason the kids weren’t listening. The friends I became close with spoke so positively about their families I knew my situation was not right. My friends and the city as a whole were keeping me there, I would just think to myself “I can get through the hours tonight because I can see my friends after. How could I be negative when I live in such a beautiful city and I have this opportunity?” I was also getting to travel around the country and to other countries on the weekends, but I would dread going back to the family.
It was 4 months in and Christmas came around. I flew home for 2 weeks so I could be in Canada with my own family, which was much needed. I felt refreshed after seeing my boyfriend and catching up with my loved ones, but when I got to the airport to fly back to Italy, there was a piece of me that was so sad. I was going back to deal with this family and this situation I wasn’t enjoying, but I couldn’t bail, I knew I had to give it everything I had.
When I got back it all just got worse, not only did I not want to be there but all of the issues continued and I felt so far from the finish line. Having that glimpse of happiness at Christmas time and not having to deal with the host family for 2 weeks made it seem so much worse upon my return. I had already bought my plane ticket home for mid May so I didn’t think there was anything I could do but stay there and work through it day by day. Also getting me through, my best friend from Canada planned on coming to Italy for 2 weeks in mid February. I had arranged ahead of time with the family that I would take a week and a half off to show her Rome, Florence, and Pisa. Then she would sleep at the family home with me for half a week while I did my usual duties, and showed her Milan in my off time, until she flew home. I spoke to the mom multiple times confirming these plans, making sure she was okay with everything, and she was being surprisingly very understanding. So day by day I did my duties and found release in hanging out with my friends in my off time.
I finally reached my breaking point when the mother pulled me into her room 1 DAY BEFORE my friend arrived, telling me that we would need to make new plans for accommodation in Milan because she didn’t want us staying in her home. I had given her plenty of opportunity to tell me this months in advance but she decided it was best to tell me this with nearly no time to plan. She also told me this minutes before her, the father, and the kids were leaving for a weekend away in their mountain home. This moment truly made me realise my worth. I knew I could figure something out until May, I had so many friends in Milan and loved ones who just wanted to see me happy. I was done with being a punching bag for this family, being blamed for their parenting issues, and being manipulated into feeling like the kids problems were my fault. This was my perfect opportunity to leave. So I wrote a long note, telling the family that I was unhappy and just couldn’t do it anymore. I had this conversation with the mom many times before but she guilted me into staying, so I didn’t think this would come as too much of a surprise. I packed all of my things, I left the key under the mat, and I was gone for good.
I travelled Italy with my best friend and had an amazing two weeks. I managed to rent an apartment on my own for a few weeks in Milan after that so I could plan a backpacking trip. Then I travelled to 10 different countries around Europe, making my way back to Italy in May for my flight home. I got to see so much and I was the happiest I had been in months, all because I had the guts to leave that bad situation. I truly think that unhappiness and having to make those decisions changed me as a person. I learned that I don’t need to waste time and energy on people or situations that make me unhappy. I learned how to make decisions under pressure and how to handle my emotions. I also learned how to be very independent doing all of that travelling by myself.
Looking back, I am proud of myself for staying for 6 months. I tried my hardest and I gave it all I had, but it was not worth the unhappiness. I also wish I would have, face to face, confronted the mother about leaving again instead of just writing a note and disappearing. But I still fear that if I tried that I would have been made to feel guilty again and I would have ended up staying. I would not have left this family if I didn’t think they could do it on their own. They had the grandparents living in the apartment underneath them, an aunt down the street, a daily cleaner, and another nanny who was always there, so I truly don’t think they suffered without me. I also spoke with the girl who replaced me as the au pair. She lasted 1 month before she left abruptly as well, because she said she couldn’t handle it. This family clearly had problems they needed to figure out before bringing in a girl from a foreign country to help manage their children. I truly hope they’ve learned from what’s happened, and their kids are thriving now.
If you are here because you’re thinking about being an au pair, I don’t want to turn you off! I want you to learn from my experience. I also want you to ask the hard questions BEFORE you make the decision to live for months with a new family. Here are some great questions that will hopefully help you with getting to know the family:
- Are you in contact with your past au pairs? And if so, would I be able to contact them to speak with them about their experience?
- Have you had an au pair unexpectedly leave in the past? If so, why?
- What are you looking for in an au pair?
- How do you see me fitting in with your family?
- Are there any important rules in your household that I should know about?
- How do you solve conflict?
- What discipline techniques do you use?
- How do you deal with tantrums?
These are a few questions I wish I would have asked beforehand that may have helped me make my decision on which family to choose. The majority of the friends I made had the most amazing experience with their host families, and even though I didn’t, I would recommend this experience. It changed my life in many ways, and I honestly wouldn’t change a thing, even the negatives, because it taught me so much.