10 Tips for Future Au Pairs

In November 2014 I made a spontaneous decision to work in another European country as an au pair. The decision was made partly because I wanted to put off the shoulder-drooping reality of needing to find a full-time “grown-up” job after university. I signed up with a free website (I believe it was aupair.com) and created a profile. I was open to any country that I hadn’t been to before, but I did like the idea of being able to speak German, having taken it as an elective during my degree.

Just over a week later, I boarded a flight to Geneva and from the airport I was collected by my host. Along with her came her two kids that I would be looking after and teaching English to. I worked for the family for about two months. The initial plan was to work for three months, but I was unexpectedly offered a job that would start in mid-January.

My experience as an au pair was a mixed bag. There were definitely some great things about it. From the family’s house there were amazing views of the Swiss Alps over Lake Geneva. I got to practise German (the host father was more confident in this than English) and French. On two occasions I met up with two friends I hadn’t seen in a few years – one in Basel and one in Bern. The job taught me a little more about parenting and raising kids. It taught me that I don’t love cooking, and that that’s okay. And it honed my ability to persevere.

The negatives of the position included issues that couldn’t have been predicted, but also included issues that could have been avoided had I approached things differently. Here are my tips for anyone that is thinking of becoming an au pair.

A highlight of my au pair job – exploring parks with views like this!

1. Decide which ages you are comfortable looking after 

Before working as an au pair I had quite a bit of experience volunteering with kids. However, the age range I had worked with had been 8-16. And I think I should have kept it that way. Everyone is different; some people are better with toddlers than they are with pre-teens. It’s about identifying your own strengths and preferences and sticking to them.

2. Make it clear in your profile what you are and aren’t willing to do

Doing this risks reducing the number of messages you’ll get from hiring families, but it also reduces your chances of being unpleasantly surprised by your responsibilities when you start the job.

Example: I started my job assuming that the children I would be taking care of would be potty-trained. As it turned out, I discovered (in German) that I would be required to help with toilet stuff. Had I known this sooner, I honestly don’t think I would have taken the job. It’s not that I am too proud to…get my hands dirty (ugh) but a heads-up would have been courteous. I quickly concluded that this requirement had been kept from me on purpose.

3. Take your time in choosing a family

It wasn’t long after I created my profile that I received a message from the Swiss family. The mother liked my education and the fact I spoke British English. I think the interest went to my head and got me excited too quickly. I was eager to get on a plane again, but really I should have waited to find and speak with a few more families before confirming anything. It’s a bit like looking for a new roommate or house – the first viewing might seem to go well, but it hasn’t been compared to anything. Don’t feel obligated to say yes to the first family that makes an offer.

4. Money isn’t everything 

I fell for the rookie mistake, and it’s one that I warn friends and clients of to this day. Each family’s profile would include their monthly wage. The family that hired me appeared to be offering a lot more money than other families (and the mother didn’t hesitate to point this out when we spoke!). The mother was high up in a bank, and I figured this explained the reason for the seemingly generous amount. However, it wasn’t long after starting the job that I realized there was probably more to the high wage than that. In fact, it wasn’t long before the wage didn’t feel that generous anymore!

Had I taken a lower-paying job, I might have had more free time and a less stressful experience. Since then, I’ve been a firm believer that work-life balance is the most important component to consider when looking for any job.

5. Ask for a employment contract

It’s thanks to my work in HR that I’ve come to appreciate the importance of this. By accepting a paid job, the hours of which were determined by someone I would be reporting to, I was entering into an employment relationship. Some families already send NDA’s to au pairs, but I should have asked for a contract that outlined my job duties, confirmed my hours of work and confirmed my wage/payment schedule. I should have made sure this contract was signed and dated by both parties. This would have helped with #2 by giving me more leverage in refusing to do tasks that I hadn’t expected and wasn’t comfortable doing.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the kids

There have been many times during my recruitment career that I’ve thought a candidate seemed perfect on paper or made a great first impression, only for red flags to be raised during an interview.

After replying to the Swiss family’s message, we set up a Skype video call. The camera came on to show the mother sat between two quiet kids, who of course looked really cute with their big shy eyes and toys in their hands. I asked about their age and whether there was anything they needed special assistance with (hmmph), but I didn’t probe about their temperament or ask what previous au pairs (if they’d had any) had had challenges with. Perhaps I was wary of causing offence. Either way, I should have been more thorough because it was a two-way relationship.

7. Look for reviews from fellow au pairs

Following on from the above, reference checks play an important part of deciding whether or not to hire someone. The function of leaving reviews is available on various work-and-travel exchange websites like Workaway. They allow hosts and host-seekers a chance to see some feedback on the other party. I don’t recall if the au pair website I used had this function (possibly not because of confidentiality and non-disclosure issues), but it would have been very useful. If you’re looking for a family that’s hiring and former au pairs have left a brief line of feedback on their personal experience, see if there’s a way you can contact them to get more detail. Some people hide their real full opinions when posting reviews they know will be seen by their former employer.

8. Clarify what “free time” means and make plans for those times

Example: I was initially told I’d have weekends completely off, in addition to any remaining time in the evenings after the kids had gone to bed. On some weekends I didn’t have plans and would instead find myself staying around the house with plans to read or Skype friends. However, I found that being in the house on weekends always led to me being asked for help with the kids. I found this puzzling, as I assumed the parents would want to have some quality time alone with their children. Requests might also include helping with housework that fell outside of the standard courteous offering to do dishes, etc. Was this time spent working included in my monthly wage?? Regardless of my confusion, I felt obligated to help when asked since I was in their house. I would then find myself sneaking downstairs to my bedroom, hoping I wouldn’t be requested again. (Sometimes I was.) It seemed there was a lack of mutual agreement on the definition of “free time”.

There were a few times when the family kindly took me on a nice trip to a park or town. I appreciated this inclusion, but I also felt there was a lack of respect for my need to have time away from the family. Au pairing can be intense and it’s important to have boundaries! The dynamics were such that I sometimes felt guilty for going off somewhere without them.

There was also one unfortunate occasion when the mother suggested we go to Montreux on an approaching weekend to see the Christmas lights. A couple days later, she and her husband had an argument (in French) and she didn’t return home from work on the Friday evening. Although I’d had no idea what they were arguing about, I could tell from the father’s body language that he was shocked and worried by her departure. She didn’t return until the Sunday evening. Having not been informed about any changes to our plan and unsure when the mother was returning, I found myself spending the weekend at the house doing barely anything. It seemed like such a waste of free time.

On reflection, I should have made plans for each weekend in advance and clarified my weekend plans with the family before starting the job. I should have booked trains and accommodation to guarantee I would get away from the house and do the travelling I wanted to.

9. Choose your season

A lot of people see their mood dim a little over winter in the northern hemisphere when the days are darker and the weather colder, and I am one of them. I’ve also never been skiing in my life (fun fact), which might lead one to ask why Switzerland was my choice of destination. The answer? I wanted to see snow. (I saw hardly any.) I feel like my outlook on my au pair experience would be slightly more positive if it had taken place in the spring or summer time. I would have had more options for entertaining the kids outside (and wearing them out). I would have been able to get out of the house more on the evenings for a walk and some fresh air. I would have probably felt more motivated to make plans for the weekends. My overall mood would have probably been more optimistic.

10. Speak up if you’re having ongoing challenges with the kids

One day I’d love to read a book by someone with twenty years of au pair experience. I bet it would be filled with terrific and terrifying stories. My persistent challenges included having the daughter obsessively try to pull my trousers down/lift my sweater, and having the son bite and kick at me. This was on top of the standard refusals to follow orders, followed by screaming tantrums and shouts of “You leave this house!” when I took away their toys or turned off the TV.

The problem was, these kids were smart and cunning little devils. They had worked out when to play sweet and innocent, and when they could afford to be cheeky and rude. This would show itself in the way the daughter would say “Oww!” as I was gently brushing her hair while her mum stood by the door getting ready to leave for work. It would show in the way the son would give me death glares only to start beaming lovingly when the door opened and his dad walked in.

Why didn’t I inform the parents about the issues? I felt awkward and embarrassed. I didn’t want them to interpret it as me criticizing their parenting. Also, something told me they would think it was an issue on my end – especially when the little darlings were so good at putting on the waterworks.

I think it’s important to know when it’s appropriate to quit. Specifically, when is the job no longer enjoyable and worth your time and effort? When does the toll outweigh the reward? I can be quite stubborn and don’t like to feel like I’m “giving up” on something. In looking back I’ve realized that others in my position would have quit within the first week. Check in with yourself and remember to put yourself first.

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I’ve heard a lot of great accounts from people that have worked as an au pair. Maybe they got lucky, but maybe they also didn’t make the same mistakes I did!

Have you worked as an au pair? What other tips would you recommend?

A 20-Something’s Guide to Getting Permanent Residence in Canada

My soft spot for Canada developed when I travelled through the country in August 2011, aged 19. It was this country that instilled in me a new sense of confidence, independence and adventure. Soon after my trip, I moved to London to start university, graduating from King’s College London in summer 2014 with a BA in History. I spent that summer in Canada and road-tripped through the USA, without a clear vision of what I wanted to “do” or “be”. Through a mixture of luck and initiative, I was offered a staffing and recruitment role in 2015, and found it to be a field I thoroughly enjoyed working in for the next two years. My relationship with London and England in general wasn’t blossoming quite as well, and I maintained my love affair with Canada through a trip in between contracts. The big and bustling city just wasn’t for me; I dreamed of mountains and lakes of British Columbia, of hiking on the weekend and smelling the ocean’s scent on evenings. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be doing with my life in 30 years’ time, but I did know that moving to this part of Canada would bring me much more happiness than my life in London. I identified for myself that I needed a big change. Neil Young sang “24 and there’s so much more”, and that was how I felt. Some people aspire to have a certain title, make lots of money and have a big house, but for me, living a healthy, active and happy life in a beautiful part of the world was the goal.

Canada is understandably one of the most popular choices for people looking to work and travel overseas; it has beautiful scenery, it’s relatively safe, and it has an immigrant-friendly government. Aged 24, I moved to Victoria in late December 2016 on a two year working holiday visa. Happily settled into a Canadian life, I submitted my application for permanent residence in June 2018 and was granted this status in December of that year.  Below is my guide to the process.

Peyto Lake, Alberta

Getting to Canada

When looking for information on the available opportunities for immigrating to Canada, the only website you should be consulting is the Government of Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) website. The easiest way to start your quest for Canadian permanent residence is to go on this website and apply for a working holiday visa via the International Experience Class system, which is open to applicants aged 18-35. Depending on your country’s agreement with Canada, you can get either a one or two-year work permit that allows you to work for any employer (barring those in the sex trade…). Applying for this is fairly simple and just requires you to enter some personal information including your age and citizenship. You are then entered into a pool from which candidates are randomly selected to apply for the visa, typically after two or three months. You then submit an application form with your personal details and the addresses/occupations of your family members, have a police criminal background check completed, and pay the fee. If your application is approved, you have a year in which to arrive in Canada, where upon arrival an immigration officer will ask you a few questions. You must be able to prove you have sufficient funds to survive for a few months without a job, and have purchased medical insurance to cover the duration of your visa.

Establishing Yourself in Canada 

I was lucky when I moved to Canada in that I already knew the area I would be living in and had a (now-ex) boyfriend whose family I was able to live with for the first few months. If you have enough money saved to rent a place from the beginning, there are usually many house-share listings available on websites like Kijiji or Craigslist. If you don’t have any handy connections and are worried about funds, consider signing up for work exchange programs like Workaway, HelpX or WWOOF. In exchange for around 5 hours’ work a day (gardening, labouring, looking after animals etc.), you receive free food and accommodation. This is a great way to save money while helping others, meet people and get to know your new neighbourhood. Some families really show their helpers an awesome time during their free time, whether it’s taking them camping, sailing or horse-riding. Just make sure you aren’t having too much fun that you’re not putting enough time into searching for a paid job! It’s worth pointing out here that because I had already seen a lot of Canada on previous trips, I was more eager to jump into hunting for a full-time job than I’d expect of someone who was completely new to the country.

Finding a Job

There are a few different programs through which you can apply for permanent residence, with certain criteria needing to be met in order to qualify for each. Naturally, work experience has a huge influence on whether or not you will be granted permanent residence.

The Canadian Experience Class program is a good option for 20-something applicants who only have a couple of years’ skilled work experience in total but have a full-time job in the same field in Canada. The Federal Skilled Worker Program suits older applicants with a solid education who lack Canadian experience but have worked in a skilled role for the past 10 years. Experienced carpenters, electricians, plumbers and so on should check out the Federal Skilled Trades Program.

Because of my age, amount of professional experience in England, and the permanent position I received with a Canadian company, I opted to go through the Canadian Experience Class for my PR application. This program requires applicants to have 12 months’ of full-time (1560 hours minimum) work experience with a Canadian employer in the past three years before applying. The job must also fall within the skills category of 0, A or B in the National Occupation Classification (NOC).  ‘0’ refers to managerial jobs in any field, whether this is Human Resources, hospitality, health care or construction. ‘A’ refers to professional roles that typically require completion of a degree, such as a physiotherapist, engineer or teacher. ‘B’ refers to skilled jobs that typically require post-secondary education or training, like legal assistants or electricians. To be brutally honest, working as a server or retail assistant won’t cut it. If you want another country to accept you as a permanent resident, you need to prove that you will bring skills required in the job market that are perhaps lacking among the Canadian population in that region.

If you are struggling with your job search, considering registering with an employment agency. After learning about your skills and preferences, staffing consultants will send you details of job leads with their clients. These are typically temporary roles but can often lead to permanent opportunities if the client decides the temp would be a good long-term fit for the company. I myself signed up with a local employment agency and completed a few temp assignments with the provincial government. While the wage was lower than I was used to and the work less challenging than I was used to, I knew that it was worth it in order to make useful contacts, enhance my resume with some Canadian experience, and ultimately increase my chances of finding a permanent job as a foreigner. Funnily enough, a few months after registering with them, the agency offered me a position as a staffing consultant when a vacancy opened up, and it remains my job to this day! While I definitely had some luck with the timing, I wouldn’t have been offered the role had I not made a good impression during my temp assignments. Moral of the story: let go of your ego and who knows where you will end up!

Sooke, Vancouver Island

Preparing for your Application

If your job is going well and you are confident in its longevity, half the hard work is done! The rest mostly requires organization, patience and frankly, quite a lot of money. To apply through the Canadian Experience Class program, you need to have worked continuously for 12 months. If you work on a shift basis, make sure you are getting enough hours to total the minimum 1560hrs amount at the 12-month mark. If you work a consistent Monday to Friday schedule, use your free time to focus on the other application prerequisites.

While there is no education requirement for the Canadian Experience Class program, getting your education assessed (if it was completed outside of Canada) will boost your points in the Express Entry pool. The Education Credential Assessment (ECA) verifies that your foreign education is equivalent to Canadian standards. It takes up to four months to be processed, so get organized early. Contact your old university or college requesting they send your certificate and transcripts to the organization conducting the assessment (I used the University of Toronto Continuing Studies). You also need to upload a copy of these certificates to the organization’s website, before paying the fee of $271 (as priced in 2017).

A language test must be taken before a candidate is eligible to apply for permanent residence. Yes, you read correctly: if you were born and raised in England, you must still take a test to prove your proficiency in English. I opted to just take the English exam through IELTS. Taking an additional French exam will give you more points, but it will also cost more money, so it’s not worth doing unless you’re super confident in your abilities. This exam involves a Reading, Listening, Writing and Speaking element, and requires half a day of your time (but you can take them on weekends!). Results are mailed out around two weeks later and are valid for a year. It cost me $309 to take the IELTS test. You might be thinking, “This is ridiculous, I’ve communicated in English for 24 years, I shouldn’t have to take a test”, but don’t expect to receive full marks on each test; I didn’t, and I’m a literary nerd. If I could re-take the test I would practise writing in pencil beforehand, especially because some people already struggle to read my handwriting in pen.

While you wait to reach the 12-month mark with your job, it’s also worth contacting your former employers in your home country to ask for references or copies of your contracts, as these will be required when proving your work experience later on in the process.

Applying for Express Entry

Express Entry is a points-based pool system that considers candidates’ age, education, work experience and language skills when assigning them with a rank. Draws take place throughout the year and candidates with the highest number of points are invited to submit a residency application. There are federal and provincial Express Entry options available, with the Provincial Nominee Program meaning a province can nominate you to apply. In the interests of money, I just went through the federal system.

Certain criteria need to be met before you are eligible to create an Express Entry profile. Once you have been employed for 12 months, completed your language tests, and had your educational credentials verified, go on the IRCC website. The ‘Come to Canada’ wizard has a questionnaire which determines what immigration programs you are eligible for. It asks you for your age, citizenship, marriage status and so on before inquiring about your work experience, education and language test results. Eligible candidates will receive a personal reference code to start their Express Entry application. You will only be eligible to apply through the Canadian Experience Class program if your dates of employment show you have held your position for 12 months. Entering the pool is free. (“Finally, a free component of applying for PR!”)

Submitting an Application for Permanent Residence

It’s important to remember that being in the Express Entry pool doesn’t guarantee you will receive an Invitation to Apply (ITA) for residency. It ultimately depends on how your points compare to other candidates. Some people wait for months to apply, others never get the invitation and have to re-apply the next year. I was fortunate (and pleasantly surprised) to receive my ITA after one week. Candidates have 60 days in which to submit an application so once again, organization is key. Candidates must request that their home country’s police force complete a criminal background check. This cost me £45 and the certificate took about 10-14 days to arrive in the mail. They must also complete a medical exam (including an x-ray, blood test and physical) to confirm they have no contagious diseases and will ultimately not be a drain on the country’s health system. The IRCC website helpfully lists all the clinics in your area that are authorized to perform medical exams for immigration purposes. I booked mine the day after I received my ITA because spots can fill up quickly, and all the tests were done within 10 days. The total cost of the medical exams is $340. Ouch. That’s an expensive way to find out that you’re in good health.

When applying through the Canadian Experience Class, you are asked to list all your previous work experience that falls under your current Canadian job’s NOC. Proof of this experience must be provided, including signed contracts or references that note your position title, duties, hours of work, and salary/wage. Your current employer must also write a reference letter verifying your employment status. Reading that my boss valued my contributions and intended to keep me employed for years to come definitely made all the work for the application seem worth it!

Employers wanting to hire a temporary foreign worker for a specific job must typically complete a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) to confirm that a Canadian citizen is not available to perform the job, and this costs money. However, candidates currently in Canada on a working holiday visa obtained through mobility programs like the International Experience Class have an open work permit, and because this is a reciprocal program between the UK and Canada, their employer is subsequently exempt from needing to complete a LMIA and does not need to pay any fees to sponsor the application.

A passport photo, copies of your passport, your medical exam results and criminal background check results must also be attached in the online application, before you pay the submission fee of *gulp* $1050. You’d better really want to stay in Canada!

Whistler, BC

Next Steps

You’ve submitted your application and have collapsed on your sofa with a glass of wine. Now it’s a waiting game. Applications are usually processed within six months. While easier said than done, it’s best to try and forget about your application over the next few months. Unless you have a very dodgy criminal past or you do have a contagious disease, it’s likely that your application will be approved in time. Do yourself a favour and don’t call IRCC every few weeks in hopes this will make a difference; you will simply get through to an automated system and be told that your application is being processed, with no further elaboration provided. After a month or so you might get an email from IRCC and gasp in excitement…but it will likely just be a confirmation that you passed the medical exam.

Following submission of an application, you are considered to have ‘implied status’, which means you can continue working until a decision is made on your application. For additional peace of mind, you can apply for a Bridging Work Permit. I paid the $255 fee for this in October 2018, knowing that my visa was set to expire in late December and you cannot extend working holiday visas. On reflection I don’t think it was necessary for me to do this because my application was due to reach the 6-month mark on December 1st. Had I submitted my application in September, it would have been a different story. But given how close we were getting to December, I just wanted to be safe rather than sorry. (And frankly by this point, what’s a couple more hundred dollars matter anyway..?) Typically, my PR application was approved before I even received confirmation my BWP application was approved. I’m still waiting to hear back about a refund…

Confirming Permanent Residence 

A few days before reaching the 6-month mark, I received a letter from IRCC noting that my application was in the final stages. After reading this I think I did a little jig in my office. Candidates at this stage are instructed to send an Express post parcel to an office in Ottawa with copies of their passport, a form confirming their current residential address, two professional photos* taken for their PR card, and a self-addressed return envelope.

*When getting your photos taken, don’t make the mistake I did of going to London Drugs. I asked the employee in the photography section if the store took photos for permanent residence applications and he confidently told me they did, only for me to find out a month later that the $14 I paid was for two photos that were rejected because they didn’t meet the specifications for the PR card. Thankfully this had no impact on my application, but it was still stressful to find out. I also received no response when I emailed the customer service department with constructive feedback. 

On December 5th, a week after the initial letter, I received the email from IRCC confirming that my application for permanent residence had been approved! Even though deep down I had known there was no reason I shouldn’t be successful, it was still an overwhelming moment and I immediately broke into tears of both joy and relief.

Shortly after receiving this email, your parcel from IRCC will come back with your ‘Confirmation of Permanent Residence’ landing visa. Just when you think you’re all done and can put your feet up and write your emotional Facebook post, you are told that you need to show this letter to an immigration officer and have it signed and approved before officially obtaining PR status. There is an option to schedule an appointment with an officer in your town, but this can take up to 30 days. The other option is to leave the country and speak with a border officer on return. Living so close to Washington State, I decided to get things over with and paid $60 for a US day visa and return ticket for the Coho ferry.

On return from a sunny couple of hours in Port Angeles, I showed the border officer in Victoria my landing visa and then sat down with another officer who signed the forms and informed me of the terms I must follow in order to maintain PR status. While it can take up to several weeks for the photo card to arrive in the mail, the signed landing visa is your official proof that you have permanent resident status. The border officer also touched on the process of applying for citizenship (as if I wasn’t exhausted enough from this process to start considering that!) He was absolutely lovely and I particularly appreciated his recognition of the effort that goes into getting permanent residence. It truly is a long process that requires a lot of organization, patience and dedication. It was as I walked home from the immigration office, passing Victoria’s distinctive legislature buildings on the way, that I felt a weight lift from my shoulders.

Ultimate Dos and Don’ts

  • Do make sure you consult the IRCC website for official information on anything related to Canadian permanent residence. There are lots of visa-assistance or immigration law websites that don’t always give 100% accurate information, and many of them are ultimately looking to make money off people without visa success being guaranteed.
  • Do be organized with looking for a job, getting all your documents together and booking exam dates etc. Two years goes by quicker than you think, and timing can make all the difference. Save all relevant emails in one folder and keep any mail correspondence related to the application in one place, in case you need it for future reference.
  • Do be smart with your finances. Obviously you will want to enjoy your free time, but keep the main goal in mind before you splurge out on trips across the country (domestic flights in Canada are not cheap!). Consider setting up an application fund and putting some money from each pay cheque towards it.
  • Don’t apply for PR unless you are 100% sure you want to stay in the country for the next few years. Applying for PR is a big commitment and an expensive process if you are funding yourself independently. If you are in a relationship with a Canadian, ask yourself what other factors attract you to the country and if you would genuinely want to be there if single.
  • Don’t immediately consult an immigration lawyer for advice. Applying for PR is already costly before paying additional fees for the sake of having to do a little less work. The IRCC website isn’t perfect and ESL speakers may find it confusing, but at least try to understand it first before paying for advice you might personally not need.
  • Don’t complain to immigration officials about the processing times. Everyone is in the same boat, so being petulant and demanding about the status of your application won’t do you any favours.

Approximate cost of applying for Permanent Residence (application submission, medical exams, language tests, educational credential assessment, postage and other expenses)$2500

Salt Spring Island, BC

 Good Luck with your application!

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Please note, this post is an unofficial guide to the process of obtaining Canadian permanent residence, based on my personal experience. The writer of this article cannot be held accountable for the outcome of a reader’s application.

Have you successfully obtained permanent residence in Canada? Please feel free to share any additional tips or experiences below.

Life as an Au Pair in Switzerland: Closing Curtain

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I returned to Switzerland in early January for the final two weeks of my au pair job before having to return home for another commitment. The first week shot by, then after a day in Bern on the weekend with a friend, I was on the home straight! On the Monday morning of my final week, I was feeling fresh. ‘The best is going to be saved until last,’ I told myself as I strode upstairs energetically. Unfortunately, the ‘best’ comprised of the boy throwing up after breakfast and having a terrible cough all week, the path of which I was inevitably caught in. On the final day, I couldn’t believe that the end was almost here, and that the next day I would be heading home. It seemed like only the day before that I had arrived, wondering how I would last until Christmas, never mind now. But now looking back on the period, regardless of the difficulties I experienced at times, I can safely say that I am glad to have been an au pair.

What have I gained from being an au pair?

Many notable things. For example, I’ve cooked food for people without getting a hair in it once; I’ve not broken the large stack of glass bowls after lifting them off and onto a shelf;  and I still have my hair and hands after going ice-skating! But being serious, I feel proud of myself for seeing it through despite there being times when I really felt like quitting. I’ve integrated into a family and adapted to their household regime, as much as I may have disagreed or been unfamiliar with certain aspects. I’ve thrown my all into the role despite moments of being unhappy or fed up, and put myself out of my comfort zone many times, gaining resilience and patience along the way.

The immersion in two foreign languages has been extremely useful and I’m determined to keep practising when I return to England. I’ve learned much about Swiss culture, having interesting conversations about the national identity of a country with four official languages. I was even informed about the state of the economy following the recent soar of the Swiss franc. (Understanding economics was hard enough before a foreign language came into it…) I’ve also put aside my pickiness and tried many different (mainly cheese-based) Swiss palettes, of which one genuinely tasted like feet.

Having taken most of my instructions from the father and been under pressure many times, I’ve become less sensitive and better at taking criticism. All the stressful scenarios and red-faced moments were made worthwhile when, cooking on Tuesday evening with the dad, he gave a big compliment. He basically said that I take cooking instructions really well considering that 1. I don’t have a written note of them to work from, and 2. they are in a different language. He said that he really believed I would have no problem working as a cook in a kitchen as a result. Whilst I’m sure he was just being nice, and I have no desire at all to become a chef, this put a huge smile on my face.

With no teaching experience, and with little experience in general of children at this age, I’ve improved someone’s English. Whilst it has been very frustrating at times, with me wanting to scream “How do you not understand that this says ‘pin?'” etc, it’s also been hugely rewarding. I’ve had to think about how I explain things to both younger children and younger children of a foreign tongue, and have become more coherent as time has gone on.

From my observations, I’ve gained a greater understanding of younger children and how raising them works, including the importance of compromise. I didn’t become an au pair to learn how to be a parent, but the experience has made me think a lot about the value of a good upbringing – something that I have clearly taken for granted. How did I understand from early on to always wash my hands after the toilet? How did I turn out as a polite, well-mannered child? How did it come to be that I chose to be diligent and work hard in school? It was all because of my parents and their hard work. I now have an even greater appreciation of this role, and of the word ‘thankyou’.

I’ve also gained even more appreciation of the importance of family, and childhood. Watching this girl and boy play together, it’s quite sad because I know that in several years as puberty commences, they will gradually feel less inclined to play with each other. Then there was the time I explained to the girl during a lesson that our next one would be the last. “Owhh,” she said, making a disappointed face. “Why you have to go? Because your mummy said so?” I smiled and explained that I had to start a new job. “With your mummy?” she asked. “No, on my own! Because when you’re a grown-up you do more things without your mummy,” I said. Then I pictured her as a grown up, and found it strange to believe that here I was at 22, when it seems like only yesterday I was the age of this girl. “When your English gets even better, you can write me letters!” I suggested encouragingly. She said:”I can come visit. I will drive!” It was sweet that she said this, especially following what I had said, because it showed her understanding that she will become more independent. And yet I’m aware that by the time this is possible, I may very well be a distant memory. On the same evening, I asked the boy what he’d like to be when he grows up. He wants to be ‘the police’, catching ‘naughty people’ and putting them in prison. I can’t imagine him being an adult, and I don’t really want to…but it will come round before he knows it.

Will I miss being an au pair?

Err…

By Wednesday evening, I was getting super excited to leave, especially after what felt like a particularly long day. I started packing my bag, imagining reaching the airport (and changing my Swiss francs for a higher amount of sterling!) I envisioned the privacy and lack of having to clear up snotty tissues and what not, and couldn’t wait. But then on the last two days, I started feeling really emotional at the thought of saying goodbye. ‘What’s wrong with you? Previously you couldn’t wait to finish!’ I would think. I decided that I was partly upset because of the issue of saying ‘goodbye’ in general, based on past occasions. I really suck at it. I struggle to watch the scene in ‘Love Actually’ when Colin Firth has to say goodbye to his Portuguese maid without blubbering, even though I know they eventually get married. I also felt upset because of a slight sense of guilt for leaving after seven weeks, which is fairly short for an pair. Many times I’ve criticised ‘gap year’ projects where people volunteer in an orphanage for six weeks before leaving, because of the effect this coming-and-going can have on a child. But am I not now a bit of a hypocrite? These children have finally made a strong connection to me, only for me to drop it. The main reason I felt upset however, was because of that connection. I’ve inevitably become part of a family and got so used to a routine, that I can’t help but feel slightly moved. I’ve felt every emotion being an au pair, but it’s because of this that leaving feels like a big deal.

In the past two weeks there have been moments that illustrated just how integrated into this family I have become. For example, once during my French-eavesdropping, I noticed that the dad was asking his son to name the family members, after the boy asked who a present had come from. I heard my name mentioned after the boy’s parents and sister. Cue melting-heart moment. Another evening as the girl and I were making banded-bracelets together (meaning that I was watching her whilst offering encouragement, because that’s far too girly for me!), I asked if she liked being the oldest. She said she wished she had a sister rather than a brother, then her eyes lit up and looking at me imploringly, she exclaimed: “I want you as a sister!” Cue lump-in-throat moment. The next day, she wrote her name on a little piece of paper before asking me to write mine. Then she folded it up and put it in her special box, “so that I will never forget.” Cue watery-eyes moment.

‘Miss’ is a word that’s often over-used, perhaps because it’s felt it should be said to show that an experience has been enjoyed. However, I know that I will move on perfectly fine after this experience. I will feel no dependence on its existence in my life, unlike how at times I might really crave the hug of a distant loved one. Nevertheless, there are habits from this experience that I’ve got so used to, that I know I will fondly recall them.

I will fondly recall those little voices calling my name when they wanted my attention. I’ll fondly recall the childish naivity and gullibility – how I could convince them to eat their carrots because it would make them grow loads taller, and how the girl still believes that there is a mouse in that tree…I’ll fondly recall making their cocoa in their special little breakfast mugs, and always giving the girl an orange straw. I’ll fondly recall laying their clothes out in the morning and putting on the boy’s socks for him so that he could be ‘faster’ than his sister. I’ll fondly recall doing the girl’s hair before school followed by the standard: “No I didn’t want it like that!” I’ll fondly recall folding their tiny tops and trousers and putting them away in their wardrobe, always amused by how many clothes they had, and tactically organising the piles so that those clothes at the bottom had a chance of being worn (Yes, I did do this.) I’ll fondly recall making their beds and hoping I put their cuddly toys back in the right place. I’ll fondly recall spooning food onto their plastic plates at lunchtime, giving them the same colour so they wouldn’t bicker, only for them to inevitably start telling on the other to me. I’ll fondly recall the repetitions of ‘tan/gap/pig/sip’ with the boy during his English lessons with me and the feeling of elation when he read a story all by himself. I’ll fondly recall the moments when I would let the girl play with my hair (having decided she could be trusted not to chop it off) and she would say: “Tell me if it’s hurting you.” I’ll fondly recall the cheery tune of ‘Peppa Pig’ playing on the TV (and the programme itself – genuinely witty stuff). I’ll fondly recall sitting between the two of them on a Friday night after bathtime, eating pizza and watching CBeebies. I’ll fondly recall reading ‘Rapunzel’ over and over again to the girl at bedtime, her eyes wide with tireless fascination.

I’ll fondly recall eating dinner with the parents whilst watching the evening news, hearing the dad mock the French and the mum tell him to shut up so she could hear. I’ll fondly recall the moments when the dad and I experienced a language barrier (the best example being when he asked about my ‘Indian boyfriend’???) I’ll fondly recall One Direction ‘Story of my Life’ playing on One FM radio in the car all the time. I’ll fondly recall things from the wider community too, like the weird looks I got for wearing sno boots when it was sunny. I’ll fondly recall the teenage girls at the school with their skinny jeans and handbags, looking like they were going to shop rather than study. I’ll fondly recall looking out from the living room window at the snow-capped French Alps behind Lake Geneva, watching a train go past now and then in the distance. I’ll fondly recall walks alongside the vineyards and how dog-walkers would say ‘bonjour’ every time they passed someone. I’ll fondly recall the nice man who drove the 725 bus on two of my journeys, with a cheery ‘au revoir’ after I thanked him. I’ll fondly recall walking back from that bus stop near the local hospital in the dark, feeling completely safe. I’ll fondly recall the sound of beeping cars on Saturday afternoons following a wedding (having initially been quite bewildered, I learned that this behaviour is a tradition, and not that it was because my purchase of tampons and chocolate had caused a frenzy…)

The Goodbye

On my last day, I was asked to go and spend lunchtime with the girl at school, because the family car was in service and walking back home to eat before returning would be too rushed. It seemed fitting that I was spending my last day outside of the house more, doing different things. We sat in the cafeteria with the ‘big’ pupils and I got out the pesto pasta and fruit I had prepared. The girl looked around timidly at the students on their Iphones, whispering in my ear when she wanted to ask something or make an observation. Then she held my hand affectionately as we walked around the town, before I took her to a café where she could do some drawing. I bought us a cream bun to share, glad that I could speak in French and the lady did not feel a need to resort to English because this was what I spoke with the girl. The girl was really well-behaved, accepting when I said no to buying her an ice-cream. When we walked home later, we were jumping in puddles together. Then during her last lesson, she was lazy and naughty, drawing silly pictures of me (with ’boutons’, hmmphh) rather than doing as I asked. I threw the paper away and whilst she finally worked, drew a nicer picture instead, with my name written underneath. But she was cross with me for throwing the other away and later ran off to her room in a huff, saying she didn’t want this picture I had put on her table. But when I went in the room later, my smiling face was next to her pillow.

The boy had a tantrum so I didn’t say goodbye to him before he went to bed, even though I would be leaving very early in the morning. I read the girl a bedtime story for the last time, and managed not to start crying when she gave me her toy piggy to kiss, and held out her hand for me to shake like an adult. I gave my thank-you gift to the parents and watched the final news bulletin with them, before saying goodbye to the mum. I told her that this had been a very valuable experience, and she said “For us too.” The dad would drive me to the station in the morning. When I lugged my luggage up ready to leave at 7.30, I saw that everyone was awake waiting to wave me off again, and felt really touched. The little boy turned shy and didn’t want to give me a hug, instead looking at me in bashful silence with his lip turned down. The girl demanded a photo with me and her piggy. Then it was time to leave. During the drive, I told the dad everything I wanted to say – how whilst there were probably times when I made no sense, speaking German with him was really useful, and how it had been frustrating because sometimes I wanted to say more about a subject, but couldn’t find the word. “Tschüss, Shan-non,” he said sadly, before the customary three kisses. Then I got on the train and waved as it set off, before collapsing on a seat. I had a little cry, and then slowly the relief and optimism began to sink in. But now I’m crying again as I write this…

I would definitely recommend being an au pair, because the benefits, even if it may not seem like it at the time, will definitely outweigh the costs. Thank you for following my experiences, and a big thank you to the family and friends who were very supportive during the difficult moments! I leave you with my official au pair playlist…

The Delfronics – ‘Didn’t I Blow your Mind this Time?’ (The first impressions)

MC Hammer – ‘Can’t Touch This’ (The pervy moments)

Culture Club – ‘Do you Really Want to Hurt Me?‘ (The vicious moments)

The Police – ‘Don’t Stand so Close to Me’ (The ill moments)

Katy Perry – ‘Hot and Cold’ (The bewildering behaviour)

Guns N’ Roses – ‘November Rain’ (The despair…during November)

Eric Clapton – ‘I Can’t Stand it’ (The onset of anger)

The Supremes and the Temptations – ‘I’m Gonna Make you Love Me’ (The determination)

The Foundations – ‘Build me up Buttercup’ (The moments of promise)

Whitesnake – ‘Is this Love?’ (The turning point)

James Taylor – ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ (The sweet moments)

Boyz II Men – ‘End of the Road’ (The goodbye)

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Life as an Au Pair in Switzerland: Settling In

I’ve been an au pair in the French-speaking part of Switzerland for a week so far and I’ll admit, I definitely under-estimated how tough this job would be. It brings a lot of challenges, some of which are general and some of which are house-specific. I decided to become an au pair because I wanted to fill my time with a new experience in a new country whilst waiting on other jobs. A chance to travel to a country I’d never been to and earn money on the side seemed perfect. I signed up to an au pair website and within a week, had arrived in Geneva. It was the most spontaneous travel decision I’ve ever made. However upon starting, I realised that in my desperation to get out of the UK, my rationale had not been quite right, and my priorities did not fit with the reality of being an au pair.

The particular family I was hired by offered more pay than most families and I’ll confess that in my graduate state, this was a key factor in me deciding to take this offer. I did not consider that there might be a deeper reason why it paid more than most. I had assumed that I would have plenty of time to myself, to read and write and run, alongside the free weekends for travelling. I believed it would be similar to help-exchange homestays I’ve done, only that in this particular house, I would be looking after younger children than I am used to. But I figured how hard can it be to entertain a five and six year old for a few hours a day? Surely they would be in school for most of the day anyway? Then after agreeing to the role, I was emailed two days before I left with further instructions about my duties and details of the kids’ daily routines. It was then that I realised things weren’t going to be as simple as I had imagined. Perhaps this was why I seemed to feel the most reluctant I’ve ever felt boarding a plane to a new country.  This wasn’t going to be a working holiday; it was going to be a job abroad. And just because a job is in a foreign country doesn’t mean it will be a walk in the park.

Below are the key issues that au pairing has raised.

1. Free Time

Upon starting, I quickly realised that I wouldn’t have quite as much time to myself as I originally hoped, and have consequently realised just how much I value my free time, and being alone with it. Partly because of the weather and partly because of the family’s requirements, I have mainly been confined indoors doing little jobs and therefore not got outside to explore and exercise as much as I intended to. The view outside my home is like that on a postcard – Lake Geneva with the Alps behind. Many times I have gazed outside the window at the glistening water and snow-capped mountains longingly, yearning to be outside exploring.  ‘Why didn’t I just go WWOOFing or house-sitting somewhere over here instead?’ I have asked myself, knowing that these forms of homestay travel would offer more opportunities for being outdoors.

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The house is also surrounded by vineyards, the bronzed colours looking lovely when the leaves catch the autumn sun.

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I soon clarified that money really isn’t important to me; I value my free time much more, especially while I’m young. Since agreeing to work for this family, I have received emails from other au pair families in Switzerland, as well as from families in Germany, Norway, Italy, Spain and China. All are keen for me to stay with them for the same amount of time, and all pay less than this family. But most of these places would probably be more suited to my interests and aims, because of the older ages of the children and greater free time.

I can’t complain too much about this though, because I am being paid a generous wage amidst receiving wonderful hospitality. My host family parents are very friendly and accommodating people. The mother, who is around very little during the weekdays because of her job, regularly checks up with me to make sure I’m comfortable and has been marking pieces of French that I write. I have my own floor downstairs with a separate bathroom, and they insist I help myself to any food. They respect that I am a young adult and hence treat me like one. We have been watching TV together on an evening. Watching ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ with the dad, I explained that Judy Murray was Andy the tennis player’s mother (he doesn’t like him too much, but in the land of Roger Federer that’s understandable). I have also survived the first film-sex-scene moment without too much embarrassment (“Ooo, salut!” was the father’s comment.) They have explained train passes to me, and are just as encouraging for me to leave the house to explore somewhere new for a whole weekend as they are me to stay and go somewhere with them. On my first weekend, I decided to stay with the family because I wanted to get to know them better. They took me to an Arboretum which is basically a conservation park hosting various species of trees. This was lovely, and in the lead up to Christmas I will undoubtedly be invited to a few family outings.

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2. Young Kids

Being the youngest in my family and therefore not too experienced at looking after young children, I definitely over-looked how dependent five and six year olds are. They require constant supervision for health and safety reasons, and constant motivation to do things. How do you get them out of bed in the morning when they stubbornly refuse to get up? How do you get them to eat their breakfast when they moan that they just want chocolate? How do you drill it in their heads that they must wash their hands immediately after the toilet before touching anything else? (I expect I will catch a bug some time soon.) It drains your emotional, mental and physical energy. Sitting bored out of my brains smiling and making encouraging comments as the boy plays with his toy cars and the girl cares for her baby doll, I’ve realised that there is a large difference between liking children, and liking to devote all your time and attention to them. I’m used to home-stays involving teenagers or others closer to my age, who are less restricted in their capabilities to do certain activities and with whom I can have more mature conversations with, and I definitely prefer this.

Young kids are extremely unpredictable, testing your patience to the max when they love you one minute, only to throw a tantrum the next. The five year old has started shouting “You leave the house!” whenever he doesn’t get his way with me. Ouch. 10 minutes later after one of these outbursts, he was asking if he could come to my house and wanted me to get in the bath with him. He’s definitely going to be a heartbreaker when he’s older. Then today, the girl asked me about a knot in a tree. I told her that a mouse lived in there who only comes out when humans are asleep, and began telling her what he was saying. It was adorable seeing her (believing that it really was a mouse making the squeaking noises) press her face against the tree and plead him to come out, promising she’d give him some cheese. I felt super proud of myself for winning her engagement and getting her to describe in English the clothes she would give him (because he said he’d be too cold if he came out of the tree). Then when I explained that he’d gone to sleep and therefore couldn’t come out and say hello, she began balling her eyes out. Bugger.

Kids of this age are sneaky and devious, lying to you so that they can get what they want from you/to their parents when they don’t get what they want from you. This is quite daunting should they make a very serious allegation. Another difficulty is when the mum and dad give conflicting instructions, especially because I don’t want it to seem like I’m listening to one parent more than the other. Little kids also invade your privacy, literally. Many times I’ve played ‘Where’s [boy’s name]?’ knowing full well that he is hiding behind me, trying to pull my trousers down. And once when home alone with him on an afternoon, I told him to continue playing lego in his room whilst I went to use the bathroom. He proceeded to follow me, opening the door (which doesn’t have a lock) with a grin on his face so he could watch me ‘pee pee’. I told him to count to 20 outside the door. Unfortunately, I under-estimated how quickly he could count in English…

Many times during my first couple of days, I would ask myself ‘What was I thinking?’, believing abandoning my favoured age-range for a younger one to have been a big mistake. I thought about the remaining weeks ahead and wanted to shoot myself for advocating the amount of time that I had to the family, pondering excuses I could make to leave. However, as I get to know the kids better, I’m learning more how to crack them and deal with their stroppy, sulky ways. I’ve impressed myself with my ability to be strict when necessary whilst remaining composed and without shouting at them (although let’s face it, they probably wouldn’t hear even if I did).

3. Foreign Languages

For an au pair, there is a lot of information to take in. Au pairs tend to be almost-fluent language students who want to practise speaking in the relevant country. I have therefore thrown myself in at the deep end since my French is very rusty following years of little practice, and I am only a mid-level German speaker. The dad is Swiss-German and works from home, so I’ve been receiving daily instructions from him in German (with some French thrown in), because he is not so comfortable speaking English (and at the end of the day, why should he speak a foreign language in his own country?) But it is easy for me to sometimes misunderstand things and subsequently feel awkward and useless when I have to be reminded about something, or am told I’ve done something wrong. I normally discover this after being asked about something I have done, for example how much of a certain ingredient I’ve used. Concerned to have done it correctly, I have to quickly translate what’s been asked, quickly clarify to myself what the answer is (heck, I probably don’t even know) and then quickly express it coherently in another language. A few times, my mind has gone blank and I’ve gabbled out a muddled mixture of French, German and English.

Meanwhile, on a few occasions when adult or family guests have come round, I have sat smiling blankly whilst everyone sits around chattering away in French, with me only understanding tiny snippets of conversation and subsequently feeling a little left out. This and the constant company of young children contributes to an occasional sense of loneliness, which is what I had most feared feeling before arriving. My room is my point of escape where I can finally be alone to return to my own world, and yet it’s easy to feel distant from the friends in that world, busy with their own agendas in different countries. I have missed being mentally stimulated by people my own age. I’m emailing my mum every day, because her advice is reassuring and her news is a distraction from any stress. I never get home-sick, but there are sometimes moments when I come very close.

However, language practice has by far been the biggest advantage of being an au pair. In working in the French part of Switzerland, I hoped to improve my French, and that is definitely happening. Nothing beats listening to a conversation and having that ‘aha!’ light-bulb-moment when you recognise a sentence. On top of that. I have spent way more time than I expected to speaking in German, and this has been really useful for my confidence. As the days have passed in my short time here so far, conversation has been picking up and becoming more detailed. Immersion definitely is the best way to sharpen up at a language, especially if your listening skills are your weakest area. Improving at foreign languages really makes this job, with all its downsides, seem worthwhile. At the same time, the main reason the family offered me a job was so that I could help the children with their English. Taking lessons gives me something to focus on, and whilst I think I would find teaching older children more rewarding, the effect my help has makes me feel like I have more value to offer in my role, therefore compensating  for any little mistakes I’ve made.

4. Comfort Zone

Living in someone else’s home means that you must adapt to their household customs. This can lead to you doing things that you would rather not, especially if, like me, you are pretty wimpish when it comes to advocating your preferences if they are in the minority. Here are a few examples so far:

  • I haven’t had a huge appetite in my first week. But whenever the father asks me if I would like more food and I say “Non merci, je suis plein”, he makes a face which I think is jokey, but in case he is actually offended, I feel obliged to take up the offer, subsequently forcing food down into my bemused belly.
  • Whilst I can tolerate it, I’m not the biggest fan of roast beef, lamb or pork. But I don’t want to come across as fussy, knowing that red meat is a major feature of many peoples’ diet, and therefore I have only said “Je déteste les champignons” and “Je ne bois pas le thé ou le café” when it comes to dietary requirements. Then, eating lunch one day, I saw roast beef on the table. My stomach went queasy at the smell of it. The father cut it to reveal a rather red-looking meat, and put some on my plate, saying that I could have it cooked for longer if I preferred. But everyone else was tucking in keenly and I didn’t want to seem too picky. So I chewed on this meat and hoped I didn’t look like I wanted to vomit.
  •  I mentioned above that I don’t drink tea or coffee. But when I found a cup of tea placed in front of me after a meal during one of the children’s crazy birthday dinners, it soon passed the point where I could politely refuse, because everyone was busy talking and the dad had already turned around. So I sipped my tea and hoped I didn’t look like I wanted to spit it back out.
  • On Sunday morning, the dad got out a bottle of something and asked me if I’d like a glass. I politely refused as it looked like sherry.  Reading the ingredients in English, I saw that it contained brandy and definitely knew I didn’t want some. But he held the bottle in front of me with an encouraging smile, saying the particular brand was a Swiss speciality and hence making me feel rude not to try. So I had a glass and hoped I didn’t look as light-headed as I felt.

However, situations like this can also be beneficial. There have been times when I’ve suddenly been asked to help with something that I’m normally not great at, for example: wrapping presents and tying balloons. Yes, you read me correctly. I can of course wrap a present, but it’s normally a pretty shoddy job, and I’ve always for some reason struggled with tying knots in balloons. And then there is perhaps a slightly more significant one: cooking. I’m having to do more of this than I expected (mainly because I had assumed the children would eat lunch at school, and upon finding out that they in fact come home for lunch, learned that this would not be a simple sandwich-and-apple job…) I’m happy cooking for myself, but for others you don’t know too well, there’s always that little bit more pressure (especially when you are reading a recipe or hearing instructions in a foreign language!) and giving the kids food-poisoning probably wouldn’t go down too well. So it’s crazy what difference it makes when you are in an environment where you feel you must impress. Your performance peaks and as a result you actually feel like a capable grown-up. (I have also now explained that I don’t tend to eat much red meat…)

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Am I regretting my decision to be an au pair? If you asked me this in the first few days, I would say yes without hesitation. I will always wish I had more freedom, but what’s been a great help is being told by an ex-au pair friend of mine that my struggles are common for an au pair. My mum has also made me review my perspective by reminding me that au pairs used to be paid peanuts and rarely got weekends off. I am now starting to get more used to this family’s routine, and have realised that I will probably come away from this experience having got more out of it than is perhaps obvious. It’s useful life experience to overcome a struggle without giving up, which I am determined not to do. I have adapted to the needs of the household, and tell myself that persevering through all the tantrum-handling and relentless-requirements will only be useful in the long run when I have kids myself…many many many years down the line. In coming to be in this position through a slight error in judgement, I have been the most out of my comfort zone within a confined period of time. But I believe that as challenging as it will be, and as much as I will want to pull my hair out at times and have my own tantrum, this will be a mistake worth having made.

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This post and others about au pairing are now featured on AuPairConnect.de