A month and a half after I began my life as an Au Pair, I left my host family. By the new year two of my closest amigas did the same, and the Facebook Groups were rife with others following our footsteps. Here I write about my experience leaving and my advice for those of you wanting to do the same.
Part I: My Story
There were a number of events that lead to me leaving my first host family and it would be impossible for me to give you a short answer. The main reasons were that I felt undervalued and overworked, but the turning point came when (after 6 months of email exchanges and 1 month living with them) they off-the-cuff informed me their child had a behavioural disorder. The disorder, however, was not really the problem – the problem was trust.
I had spent countless evenings talking to them about their child’s behaviour and they were well aware how much I was struggling with discipline and respect; hours upon hours giving private Cambridge PET exam preparation classes (for free); and I’d even ended up at a Doctor’s Surgery – on my own – having stitches put in their leg after they’d impulsively decided to stamp on a glass bottle as we walked to football practice… Through all of this, they never thought I should have known. After I was gifted with said crucial information, the problems deeply rooted in their household began to unfold, problems they seemed to think were my responsibility to resolve. I didn’t want to give up and I did consider persevering, but after a sour conversation with the father and learning some seriously unnerving things about their past au pairs (I won’t go into it, but reading their private journal was involved) I was out. They had lost my trust, and two weeks after much thought and an interview with another family, I handed in my notice.
It was the most awkward and uncomfortable thing I have ever done. I used all the rhetorical skills at my disposal to break it to them in a way that wouldn’t let them think it was the fault of their son (because it wasn’t). I had to spend another week living with them before I could move in with my new family, and I hated every second of it. On my way out the Mother pulled me aside to have a little chat. She created some fabricated background story, but what had really happened is that she’d stalked my profile online and wasn’t happy with that I wrote a (then) anonymous blog about my Life as an Au Pair. The conversation sent a chill down my spine, and I was glad to see the back of them. I had reason to feel uncomfortable all along: nothing of mine was private in their household, and I needed to go.
Part II: Is it time for you to follow suit?
That is my story, but there are many reasons an au pair might want to leave their family, and as you can see they are significantly more complicated than misbehaving host kids or the low-income. Families are complex structures and sometimes it is simply a matter of not being the right fit. If you aren’t feeling 100% with yours, ask yourself:
- Are you happy?
This might seem obvious, but so often as an au pair you feel too guilty to admit it to yourself. I know I did – in my earlier au pair posts I wrote about how lovely my family were and what a great time I was having, when in reality I was feeling extremely uncomfortable in their home and it didn’t feel right from the moment I walked in the door, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. I thought it may have just been a matter of getting used to it, so I put it to the back of my head and stayed in denial.It took time but with the help of friends I faced up to the truth – I was miserable and it wasn’t my fault.I read about au pairs whose families barely spoke to them, or whose host kid’s tantrums had led them to draw blood (true story). Reasons like that will certainly lead to feel unhappy but, equally, as will living out in the sticks if you’re a city person. Whatever the reason, LIFE IS TOO SHORT. Your summer or year abroad should be the best year of your life and of all the reasons to give that up, a family needing a cheap babysitter is not one of them.
- Are sick for home, or sick of them?
Homesickness is a little demon that can really taint your first months abroad. It affects some more than others, and before I left for Madrid I was a stranger to the disease. Then the pangs started and I was missing things I didn’t even realise I cared for that much – primarily rain, spices, and autumn. I put my initial discomfort with my host family down to homesickness, but soon realised it was not the root cause. The right family will make you feel at home. The right family will take you in as one of their own. The wrong family – whether intentionally or not – won’t make you feel that way. When I logged back into aupairworld there were infinite pages of available families in Madrid, and amongst them I found the one I’d wanted all along. Yours will be there too.
- Are they keeping to their end of the deal?
Whether in the shape of a signed contract or a verbal agreement doesn’t matter – if you made a deal, they should keep to it. Almost every au pair I met complained about how they were working way more hours than they had agreed to, but felt they couldn’t confront their host parents about it because they lived with them and that would be too uncomfortable a dinner topic.It might start with babysitting more than once a month, but they will test how far they can try stretch that vague clause in the agreement. A friend of mine had to bring the kids to school in the morning, help with the food shop and the laundry, pick them up at lunch, then stay with them until they went to bed – for 50 euros a week. That was not a culture exchange, that was unpaid labour. The biggest mistake I ever made was thinking my original family were justified in saying they wouldn’t pay me for any extra hours I worked, or private English classes I taught. That should have been an alarm bell, but I was naive and had no idea what was right or wrong of them expect. My second family rarely asked me to work overtime, but when they did they either paid me extra or exchanged it for another day off. There is no good reason why yours shouldn’t do the same, and if they don’t then they’re taking the mick, and you should not put up with it.
- Do they respect you?
The au pair dream is playing with kids for a few hours a day, speaking to them in your native tongue, all the while soaking up an immersion yourself in a new culture and language (if you’re lucky). The reality is that your host parents heard on the grapevine that they can have a cheap baby sitter AND raise their kids bilingual at the same time.I’ve said before and I’ll say it again – as long as this remains legal this is all fine (ish), but only if they show you they are grateful for the insane life-opportunities you are giving their child, and they respect you for the work that you do. A close friend of mine had considered leaving her family: she was living out in Majadahonda and was envious of the new, independent lifestyles myself and my friends were leading having left our first families and moved into the city. In the end she didn’t because her family were worth rushing back at 2pm for, and the night buses every Saturday night. Fact: you are not being paid a enough for what you do, and if you don’t feel appreciated then what’s the point? My second host family couldn’t thank me enough and because of that I was happy take care of the girls as and when they needed me. The money wasn’t what was important – feeling appreciated was what made it worth it, and it was the #1 reason I stayed put second time round.
Part III: How to Move on
Once you’ve made your decision, the first thing you should do is hit up the facebook groups. They are an awesome support network and you will need them (trust me). Some will tell you to pack your suitcase and get out when nobody’s in, but unless they have been horrendous I wouldn’t recommend that. My second family had had that done to them by a girl who was just too scared to tell them she wanted to go home to be with her boyfriend… Just because it isn’t working out for you doesn’t mean they deserve to come home to an empty bedroom. Suck it up and be a grown up: sit them down and talk it out. Its awkward, uncomfortable, and emotional, but it taught me a valuable lesson I needed to learn: how to say no and stick to my guns.
What I would recommend is finding a new family first: some au pairs are told to leave by the next day, and you don’t really want to be left homeless in a city you barely know… Check for families via your agency or the facebook groups: around October time many families are in a scramble to find someone and you’ll be able to take your pick. Meet with them in person, and don’t be afraid to grill them: make sure they know exactly why you were unhappy before, and that they are not going to be the same. I remember my host Mother’s face when I bluntly asked her questions like “Do either of you children have any disabilities or disorders I should be aware of?” and “How exactly do you discipline your kids?”. She was surprised, but it showed her I was serious. Oh and always get a detailed and signed contract, working hours and pay included: my new host mum was a lawyer so this was easy enough, but some families might deem it unnecessary. If they feel this way then ask them: what is so unnecessary in a clear timetable and pay agreement? Nada, that’s what.
Once you’ve chosen your new family its prime time to break the news. I was a nervous wreck and spent the whole weekend trying to wait for the right time. I soon realised no time would ever feel “right”, and ended up doing it in the kitchen with the door shut whilst the kid and his friends were having an unexpected games party in the room next door… You can choose to be 100% honest with them, or tell them a half truth. Worried my family would blame their son, I went for the latter. I chose “I need to focus on my career and teach English, so sorry but I have to leave asap” over “You have lied to me and lost all my trust, ADIOS”. To be quite honest I’m not entirely sure if they ever believed me, but they didn’t blame their son so I think I did what was best given the circumstances. You do whatever you feel comfortable with. Bite the bullet and get it done. The worst they can ask you to do is leave, and you’re leaving anyway… And if in some freak incident they get angry and verbally attack you, then would be a good time to get out when no one’s home (or call the police…). It will be tough: I spent a week in hiding living off cereal bars, too anxious to show my face in the kitchen. But it was well worth it, for me and every one of my friends who did the same.
Part IV: Learn & Enjoy
“Every new beginning comes from some other end” a wise man named Seneca once said. Moving in with your new family is your time to turn over a new leaf and it can be better this time. You know now what you deserve, you’ve been clear with them on your agreement, and they know you’ve left a family before and wouldn’t be scared to do it again. I never heard of an au pair that had to change families twice (I’m sure they exist), and all of my friends were better off for it. We were no longer naive or afraid of awkward dinner conversations and all in all were having a fabulous time in Madrid. Sure we could still moan for hours on end about our host parents and how our host kids wouldn’t wash their hands, but that’s just part of the job. As an au pair you are part of a community, and to survive as an au pair you need friends in that community. It’s a bizarre experience: to stay sane you need to get out of the house and socialise with others who share your timetable and who will understand your frustrations.
I hope that this has been of some help to any of you in this posistion. If you have any questions or would like more guidance, please leave a comment below!