I had no idea how many strange encounters an au pair must endure in the bizarre relationship they have with their employer/host parents. If I had a nickel for every awkward moment I’ve unexpectedly found myself in during my au pair year, I would make double my au pair salary.
It’s just not a normal situation. They’re supposed to be like your parents, but you’re an adult so they can’t be too authoritative. So they often try to be like a friend, but they’re also the ones paying you. You can’t imagine the emotional stresses that come from trying to manage living with someone of a different culture who you just met, while still trying to keep the peace, act as part of a family, maintain your independence, be a good employee, etc. etc.
We au pairs are constantly finding us wanting to ask for or say things that we just don’t know how to bring up appropriately without jeopardizing our job and life abroad.
There are some things that we’re not sure are okay to talk about, things we avoid saying but we wish our au pair host parents knew. This is compiled from my and my friends’ personal experiences here in Vienna, as well as from au pairs I’ve talked to all over the world.
Here are 15 things au pairs wish our host parents knew:
1. Please encourage us to eat your food so we don’t feel weird about it.
I’ve never personally had a problem with this with my current au pair host parents. My host family has always made me feel like what’s in the fridge is fair game and I’m pretty open about my large American appetite. However, I do know quite a few au pairs whose host families don’t keep much food in and then the au pairs feel uncomfortable taking it because it feels like they’re taking it away from the kids. I know people in Europe often shop differently than in the U.S., and they’ll often buy just enough groceries for that day’s dinner and maybe the next day’s breakfast. That can make us au pairs feel like we need to be stingy with what we eat.
Living with a host family is already an uncomfortable situation and we don’t want to impose. Room and board is supposed to be included and we’re supposed to feel comfortable eating in our home. We also really don’t make enough to be responsible for providing our own meals. The best bet is to ask us what we want from the grocery store or take us shopping with you!
2. We’re poor.
One would think host parents would be quite aware of this, as they are the ones that pay us. But when we go shopping and the host mom suggests a cute $80 top and says things like “oh you have to get this. I would wear this if I was still young,” it just makes us feel small because … we can’t afford things like that.
Or you may not realize that when you don’t pay us back those $20 from groceries, that’s quite a lot out of our budget. Please remember to pay us back for little things like that, so that we don’t have to awkwardly ask days later. And please don’t assume we all have savings and/or are getting money from our parents. That’s simply not true for a lot of us. We make in a month what you probably make in a day, so just be aware of that.
3. It’s nothing personal, we just need our alone time.
Please, don’t be offended. Any normal young adult needs their alone time. If we’ve worked all day and then we go to our room to read or chat on the phone or watch Netflix, it’s not because we hate you. Often au pairing requires you to be very upbeat and put on a good face for both the kids and parents, and it can be a little mentally and emotionally exhausting. We’re just going through a lot and we need some time to center ourselves and recharge our batteries!
4. Your vacation is not our vacation.
It’s great to go on holiday with you, but be aware that we did not choose the holiday. We’re often not in control of our time, we still have to work, and we’re pulled away from our friends. I had a friend who went to Ibiza with the host family and left their vacation house twice in an entire month. She had to work basically all day every day, was miles away from all the friends she knew, and didn’t have access to a car to go out on her own terms.
Yet, when the host parents are constantly reminding us of “how lucky we are to be on a holiday,” it just makes us feel bratty for not feeling entirely the same way. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes holidays with the host family are great– when you can do your own thing and you’re not expected to be working all the time. But that’s not always the case.
5. Just say what’s on your mind.
Please just tell us what you’re thinking. I don’t know if this is an Austrian thing or a host parent thing, but both my au pair friends and myself have struggled with host parents being passive aggressive. Please just be forthright! It’s really terrible to be far away from your real home and feel uncomfortable in what is supposed to be your new “home,” and feel strangely guilty but not know why. If there are certain rules or you want something done a certain way, just be open about it so we’re all on the same page.
6. Please for the love of god, pay us on time.
Do you know how many times I, and fellow au pairs, have had to ask to be paid? That would never happen in a normal job. We hate it. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and unfair. Please just set up an automatic transfer so we don’t have to have that conversation.
7. Please be understanding of the holidays.
It’s hard for us to be away from home for the holidays. Whether you’re old or young, been here for a year already, or just moved abroad, it’s tough. Please be understanding if we want to visit family or have family over and give us the time off we deserve.
8. Only invite us to stuff if you actually want us there.
Sometimes we feel pressured into attending things you invite us to so as not to appear rude. And then we get there, only to find ourselves feeling out of place. Perhaps everyone there is speaking a language we don’t know, or we’re with a bunch of fancy grownups we have nothing in common with. It then puts you in a spot where you have to mediate or look out for us to make sure we’re having a good time. If you just want to chill with your friends, go for it!
Don’t get me wrong, surely there are family events and such that are appropriate for us to attend. But don’t feel pressured to invite us au pairs to everything when in reality both parties don’t actually want that. Most of us are perfectly fine bowing out and won’t be offended.
9. Try and limit how much you fight with your spouse in front of us.
Pretty self-explanatory. We don’t want to know your personal problems like that. It just makes us uncomfortable.
10. Just because we’re home doesn’t mean we’re working.
It’s tough living where you work. I know a lot of au pairs try to get out of the house when they’re not scheduled because otherwise they feel pressured by the host parents to be doing more. We deserve a home to relax in too. What we do is a job and everyone needs time off. Just try to be mindful of that.
11. If you show us appreciation, we’ll be a lot more inclined to help you out.
I think one of the biggest problems au pairs struggle with is not being respected or appreciated. In the very beginning, I was very keen to make a good impression so I was constantly doing things that weren’t required of me (canceling plans when the host mom asked for help last minute, cleaning up the host parents’ messes, offering to stay late), but then I came to feel like the host parents just expected this. I didn’t feel appreciated at all. Be grateful when we go the extra mile. Show us and tell us. We’ll want to help you a lot more.
12. We have a life too. Please don’t act like your time is more valuable than ours.
An au pair’s job is not to be at your beck and call at all hours of the day and night. My host parents once told me (not asked me) that they needed me the next day (my day off) which was the day of Wiesenfest (Oktoberfest in Wien). I had told them that it was my day off and I already had plans. The mom’s response was that she knows it’s my day off, but “unfortunately” her husband made plans with their friends… As if that is an unexpected occurrence out of their control. Um, that is not okay. You are a parent. You cannot just expect that you can go away at the drop of a hat and your kid is taken care of. We have days off. We have time off. We have a life outside of helping you. That needs to be respected.
13. We are not a third parent to your child, but we are still a team.
We should not be expected to have equal amounts in raising/disciplining your child, as we are not the ones who decided to have children. That being said, we’re on your team! We are an authority figure for your child, so please make sure your child respects and listens to us. Don’t make your child a messenger, and talk to us about how you want things handled.
14. If we’re not allowed to leave… that’s work.
One of my friend’s host moms prohibited her from doing a language course because the mom wanted her there during weekday dinners. It wasn’t her working hours, it was just “bonding time.” Another of my friends would work occasional Friday or Saturday nights while the parents went out but didn’t get paid extra for it because the host parents didn’t count the time when the kids were asleep as her “working hours.” If you are requiring us to be there, if we can’t leave and go somewhere else… it’s working hours.
15. Part of being an au pair is a cultural exchange.
If we want to take language classes, that should be encouraged! If we want to make new friends, or join a club, or see the sights, you should be pumped for us. We’re young adults starting an entire new life in a new city. If we spend most of our time with our host family and no one else and aren’t really going out or learning, it can make us depressed. It’s not a personal offense to you, it’s just us trying to soak up as much as the abroad-ness as possible. Be on our side!
This isn’t to say we’re ungrateful or don’t care about our au pair host parents! There are just some little things, that when living abroad, build up and manage to seem huge to us.
Au pairing may seem like an easy job because “all we do” is take care of kids (in theory) for a few hours a day. But honestly, the most stressed out I’ve been au pairing has always been from the parents rather than the kids. Expectations are always different, and feelings get hurt. That’s why it’s super important to establish clear communication from the beginning! It makes things a lot easier in the long run if we all feel we can openly discuss problems as they arise.