Sunday, March 1, 2015

Fille Au Pair: Partie Deux

Nearly 5 months have passed since my initial post about life as an au pair. I am happy to say au pair life has improved immensely since then. In fact, I'd say it's about as good as it can get. Yes, the initial transition felt impossible, overwhelming, and just plain tiring. I felt like there was no way I could last 9 months-- I even considered just giving up at one point. 

Luckily, I am stubborn to a fault and stuck it out... and I am really glad I did.

About a month in, I had already reached a breaking point. After hours of sobbing speaking to both my parents and questioning my decision, they both finally convinced me to explain myself to the parents. When I finally went to speak with them, I swear I lasted two seconds before bursting into tears in front of them. 

In the end, this was a good thing because I am pretty good at putting on a happy face, but after this they were able to see how much I was struggling. We discussed how isolated I had been feeling, how stressful it was to wake up to a screaming/hitting/kicking 2-year-old each morning, and how I just didn't want to feel like this stressed for the rest of my time abroad.

Honestly? In many ways, I've come to realize I hit the au pair family jackpot. 

I've heard so many horror stories of other au pair families where there are absentee parents and the au pair truly raises the kids; to parents expecting and demanding the au pair to be available whenever they want; or parents who don't follow the agreed upon hours; and parents who are just not concerned about the au pair. I got lucky, really lucky. My family is nothing like that.

While I am technically their employee, at the end of the day I feel like I'm part of the family because they do truly care about me and how I am doing. The fact is, I care about them too and enjoy being with them. In the months since I confronted my troubles, a lot has improved. They have been great about helping me get around to make sure I feel less socially isolated. My room was finished shortly after and I have a little less noise, my own bathroom, entrance, and most importantly: some separation. They've even hosted a couple of my friends for a slumber party night and we all had a French dinner together that ended up lasting most of the night.
Over time, we have become more of a team in terms of implementing discipline and they support me if I make a decision regarding a consequence-- as a result, most of the hitting and kicking has subsided. The boys actually listen to me now and know that I will give them a timeout if they don't-- I'm always firm but fair. I have managed to keep to my rule of not yelling and I am really proud of that. It takes a lot of patience to keep your cool when a child is screaming in your face, but I try to remind myself that I need to set the example for them to follow.

While both boys have become more comfortable around me and include me in their games, and I have inside jokes with the 4-year- old; the 2-year-old has become particularly attached to me. He always asks his mom to tell me to come back and tuck him in bed, even after I've already kissed and hugged him goodnight. It's really sweet-- though I am sad that he might feel abandoned when I leave in less than 3 months. 

The boys are finally starting to show how much they've actually learned in the time they've been with me. While they don't speak English with me all the time, that doesn't mean they don't understand-- comprehension comes first, then the speaking (thanks Linguistics classes). The fact is, you don't need to know all the words in a sentence in order to understand the general idea. 

I've seen this in my own experiences-- you piece words you know together in order to make sense of the word you don't understand. I tend to speak pretty rapidly in English and they are still able to follow instructions. Recently, I've been going whole mornings/evenings without using any French and they both manage to get ready and acknowledge what I say, even if they only respond in French.

One of the reasons I chose to work with this family was also the opportunity to speak French on a daily basis. While this is mentally exhausting after a while and sometimes feels like I make more mistakes than before I came, I do think it has helped. My comprehension has absolutely improved and I have gained a lot of new vocabulary along the way-- both child related and not. Ultimately, I hope being immersed in my home and work life daily for 9 months will help make my fluency more permanent-- even if I am not able to use French regularly once I am back in the States. Time will tell!

With less than three months left (2 months and 18 days, to be exact), I am starting to really reflect on my time here. Overall, it has been a good experience and one that has tested me, but ultimately helped me grow in many ways. While I have been pretty homesick throughout and no longer intend to live here the rest of my life, I also know that I would have regretted it had I not taken two unique work opportunities to come back to France. It's provided me not only with teaching and cultural experiences, but a chance to make new friends and professional connections, while also affording me the time and money to be able to travel way more than I ever anticipated.

It may have been a slightly different experience than I initially imagined, but it hasn't been a bad experience. If I had it to do over again knowing all I know now-- I'd still do it.
Things I've Learned: Au Pair Edition 

Now that I've assured my family and friends back home that all is well, this part is specifically written for people who are interested in becoming au pairs. It can be a rewarding and worthwhile experience as long as you prepare yourself for what you're signing onto. These are a few thoughts that might help:

Go through a service: While I truly love my au pair family and think they've done a lot to help me, I would say for most people it would be best to go through a service. You may have to pay a small fee to apply, but going through company could offer a few things you wouldn't have going it on your own. They screen and find the families; they have rules/expectations for the au pairs AND the families; they can help if the situation gets bad and/or find you a new family.

Overall, it is probably safer to use a service like Au Pair Paris than to go through a website where families and au pairs post profiles, like Au Pair World.  While I went through Au Pair World and it worked out fine, I do think it would have been nice to have someone else to help advocate for me at times.

Get to know the family beforehand: Obviously, you can't become best friends before you arrive, but before accepting a position/going be sure to Skype with the family a number of times. This can help give you a sense of the personalities within the family and that's really important.

Just like with dating, you have to be compatible and can't force something that doesn't feel right. My gut told me that my family would be friendly and helpful and it felt like it could be a good fit. Ultimately, you won't really know until you're there and living with them... hence the benefit of going through a service.

Know why they want an au pair: My family told me from the beginning they wanted to make sure their kids got an early start on English. Some families may just need a nanny and aren't worried if you help them learn a language. If the family does want you to help get the kids to learn a language, find out how they expect that to be done. As a teacher, I know that rote memorization is really not ideal for learning a language. Language is best learned when you're immersed and figure things out little by little.

However, my family seemed to really be utilizing the rote memorization tactic and were concerned that I wasn't "teaching" their kids. The fact is, I was and do speak mostly English to the boys, but I don't quiz them on what each word means in French like their parents. It's just not productive. I began to implement some of this when the parents were around, but one-on-one I focused on immersing the kids in the language. Understand the family's expectations of what they want you to accomplish or do in your time with them.

Living at work: Everyone told me it would be hard to live where I worked and I completely underestimated how hard it could actually be at times. Even if your room is somewhat separated, you hear the noisiness of kids at 7am on Sunday morning (earplugs!). Even if it's not your working hours, you feel like you still have to be "on" and ready to be smiley and friendly at all times. Even if you're told to make yourself at home, you always feel somewhat like a guest. I am always very careful about not making too much noise, cleaning up after myself in the kitchen, and keeping my room tidy, though they never come in it.

Know that you're there for the good moments, like the first loose tooth, but you may also be around for some of the more difficult ones, like parents arguing. It is just impossible to completely separate yourself from it all when you're living in the middle of it.

Find an escape: Take time to find a hobby, or a book club, or to leave for a weekend, even if it's just to be by yourself. This is healthy and necessary in order to avoid burning out. You need a life outside of being an au pair, otherwise you'll feel trapped. And believe it or not, sometimes the family may need some alone time too. It's good for everyone.

There were a few times I rented a room in my nearest city just for an overnight to get some peace. The city is 15 minutes from my house (by car). You may find this silly and not see why this was a great idea, but it was and helped keep me sane, especially in the beginning.

Ask how the family disciplines: I was very worried about crossing a line-- putting one of them in timeout and having the parents disagree and then undermine me. Luckily, that didn't happen, but I was very cautious in the beginning because I didn't want to be perceived as too harsh.

Ask the parents what their process is normally like. Personally, I like the whole count to three method, ask the kids to make a good choice, and then explain a timeout is in their future if they don't change their behavior. No yelling, no spanking, just talking. At times the family found that because I wasn't yelling, I wasn't a good disciplinarian. I think over time they've seen, through me, it's better to talk to their kids than to yell-- less stressful for everyone. 

Location, Location, Location: I truly think if my family had been in a more urban area, I would have not felt as isolated as I ended up feeling in suburbia. Before coming, I asked about the location and they explained they were in a smaller town, but there was a bus stop right outside the house. Being from Chicago, I thought "Okay, that will make it easier to get around." Wrong. The bus comes by a few times a day.

This immediately made getting out of the house more difficult because of the journey I'd have to take to do anything. Find out exactly what stores/restaurants/transportation is near them and get a sense of how central or far removed their home is. It could make a HUGE difference in the experience and your happiness.

Salary: If you come on an au pair visa (I didn't), it is legally expected (and regulated) in France that you work no more than 30 hours a week and are paid at least 80 euros a week. Before arriving, my family and I talked on the phone and they mentioned they 300-400 a month to work 20 hours a week, which sounded reasonable.

After arriving here we sat down to discuss the "contract" and was told they would pay me 200 euros a month because I requested one full weekend a month to myself and I have vacation time through my TAPIF program. They had also calculated the food and room they would be paying for as a reason they lowered my salary. I said okay mostly because I felt awkward to confront them face to face and was already living with them.

Have a contract of SOME sort: Make sure your hours, salary, vacation time, and work expectations are written and signed off on by all parties SOMEWHERE. I would even say have written documentation, even if it's not a contract, of what you agreed upon BEFORE you get there. Mine was all only discussed through the phone.

If you're not going through a program, you have to protect yourself and the family should want to protect themselves as well by setting expectations. Otherwise, you could find yourself working way more hours than originally discussed, or with less vacation time, or expected to do housework or whatever. Just get written documentation.

Have some guts: You will HAVE to confront the parents about something at some point. If you're a people pleaser like me, that can be really, really hard, because you don't want to ask for change or feel like you're imposing. This could range from having time to do your laundry during the day to serious salary or work issues. You have to be ready and able to advocate for yourself. Yes, it can be uncomfortable, but it's better to go through a few moments of awkwardness conversation than to be silently frustrated for the X months you are with them.

The beginning is hardest: It's a transition for you, for the parents, and most importantly, for the kids. Change is not easy and accepting a new person can be hard for kids, especially if they've had plenty of au pairs before and are used to them leaving. The kids are going to test you. A lot. It's going to be tough at times, but in my experience it got better, not worse.

When I came back from being back in Chicago for two weeks, both of the boys were noticeably more affectionate, talkative, and wanted to play with me more.  By the time you're getting ready to leave, the kids will be very attached, and you'll have to help them transition into the fact that you won't be there anymore.  

Have any questions? Feel free to comment and I'll answer as best as I can! Bonne chance!  

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