As a mom to a beautiful two and a half year old girl and living and working in Brooklyn, NY, I have been blessed to live with three au pair girls from France. I was six months pregnant when I first searched the Internet to find out what child care options would be available to me after my baby was born. Living as immigrants in the absence of support from family and faced with the reality of having to go back to work after just three months, my husband and I knew we had to find a reliable child care option.
Unfortunately, full time experienced nannies were too expensive to afford and sites like care.com or sittercity.com did not offer full time care options on a long term basis. That’s when I recalled a former professor’s wife whose children I often took care of back in grad school, who mentioned she had been an au pair as a young woman and learned two new languages that way. I remember feeling moved when she told me how she was invited to the wedding of the child she once many years ago took care of.
With that memory, I set to work. I found out only a handful of au pair agencies existed that were credible. Since I was a Francophile, I naturally leaned towards agencies that included a formidable number of French girls in their portfolio. EurAupair was one such agency that was relatively affordable, featured French au pairs, and received good reviews. I immediately put in an application and our au pair journey soon began.
I have to say up front that the program might not be a right fit for everyone. While every au pair agency’s guidelines may differ, the program requires the host family to offer room and board for a foreign person in exchange for his or her assistance with child care and some housework. Duration of the program is generally one year; au pairs receive a weekly stipend; their meals need to be provided; they have to complete English classes and their hours cannot exceed a certain amount per day and per week. Different from a traditional employer-employee relationship, au pair girls need to be integrated into the life and culture of the host family.
With my Turkish/Greek heritage and over half a lifetime spanning Bloomington, IN; Weimar, Germany, New York and Moscow, the idea of fulfilling cultural exchange by opening up our home to a young woman from a different culture, one that I particularly loved, excited me. Two years and two au pairs after, we now happily welcomed our third one. Host mom life is not always pink roses and sunny days but it is meaningful and continues to grow me as a mom and as a woman. Here is what these girls taught me which I will appreciate for life, and what we hope they learned during the course of their stay with us.
Our first two au pairs turned 21 during their host family stay with us. While one was social, gregarious, and animated, the other was reserved, creative, and adventurous. Both were independent having lived and worked away from their families for a considerable time. Both were god moms affectionately attached to their god children. I watched with admiration how close they were with their moms yet how beautifully and delicately they separated their private life from their family life with parents. Just by way of choosing to do this program, we knew they were courageous and curious. Both girls have touched my daughter’s life in ways unimaginable. While my girl was blessed with the warmth of our first au pair’s lullabies and endless time on play mats and jumpers playing with toys and pets; her creativity and curiosity have reached new heights with our second one’s passion for arts and crafts and new places.
Some of the things I learned in addition to French girls’ love for daily baths, hair washing, fashion and perfumes, and their delightful nicknames are 1) they need clear instructions 2) clarification of expectations and 3) boundless empathy and patience. Having grown up in multiple cultures and constantly challenged to shift my reality, I realized I often took for granted my own ability to adapt easily, come up with creative solutions, and deliver to as near perfection as possible in order to survive.
Consequently, I had to let go from the very beginning my expectation for them “to get it” at once — to get our house rules, get the long work hours, get what it takes to live together. This meant we needed to deliver and redeliver clear instructions about child care requirements, our limitations on cell phone and TV use, and daily household chores. It meant we needed to remind them to prioritize our little girl and not be distracted by the energy, the sights, and downright sexiness of this city during work hours. All this while being emphatic to their youth, upbringing and feelings. As someone who struggled with the idea of telling others what to do, the experience empowered me to show the way with clear guidelines. It taught me to be patient while I waited for them to figure it out. It taught me to give the benefit of the doubt and hold in the urge to reprimand when lapses and mistakes happened.
As I look forward to a whole new year with our third au pair, I can’t wait to see how her charming spirit, love, and affection will touch my baby girl’s heart and how all of us will grow through the new recipes, places, and stories we will share. Our au pair girls will forever be part of our lives and we can’t wait to see their lives expand into exciting and fulfilling adventures as the years pass by. On this International Women’s week, let us celebrate the difference that we as women make through our love and courage to live our dreams and thrive.