A new au pair that is. I really hesitated about writing this post because I always feel like such a spoiled pompous ass when I talk about having an au pair and admitting it in cyberspace for all the world to see is the equivalent of wearing a sign that says "please hate me and kick the crap out of me."
I realize that for many people it is considered a total luxury to have live-in help with childcare. When I was a kid no one had an au pair, they didn't need it, they had um- moms. The kind of people that probably had live in childcare in Southwestern Pennsylvania where I grew up were those with surnames like Mellon, Carnegie, Heinz and none of those people were ever in the same galaxy much less same neighborhoods as I was.
So before you mistake me for some entitled snob, let me just explain our evolution to the world of au pairs.
Nowadays of course things are quite different. Two income families are much more commonplace because in many instances, like ours, they are a necessity. That makes childcare arrangements a necessity. One of the benefits of having children in your 20's is that the chances are much more likely that your parents or your partner's parents are still young enough and energetic enough to play a role in helping with childcare (if you live close by enough and they want to). But if you are like Leo and I, Generation X, happily partying away our 20's and not settling down until our mid-30's then you are also having children later which means grandma and grandpa are older and less inclined or able to take an active role in childcare or in the case of my parents, live so far away which made it impossible. So Leo and I had to go with finding and paying for childcare. When Maya was a baby we put her in daycare, we were lucky to find a great daycare where the care was very good, we liked (most of) the staff and Maya was very happy and stayed there for her first 4 years of life.
When it was time for Maya to start school we enrolled her in an after-school program which was affiliated with her school. Although we were on the waiting list, had Maya stayed within the Montessori school where we first enrolled her she would have gotten a spot within 2-3 months. We bridged the gap by hiring a babysitter. An American girl who lived here and at first I really liked her. She was really nice and we got on very well. In retrospect I think I was just drawn to be around someone more familiar, an American represented home. But as time went on I grew less happy with her. She was nice to Maya but didn't do much with her. And considering that she watched Maya over less hours than daycare but cost twice as much (because she wasn't a registered nanny I couldn't write off any of the expense so it just cost us a fortune to have this babysitter around. That coupled with the fact that Maya wasn't yet potty trained meant she could only go to school until 11.00 which meant the number of hours meant that we were paying through the nose for childcare. And not very good childcare at that. Often when I came home she was sitting on the Internet in the dining room and Maya was alone in her room. Maya was only 4 then and she was having such a hard time at the Montessori school. She was going through this phase where when she was at home she never wanted any clothes on. I mean the second she set foot in the house, she stripped completely naked (she stripped at school several times as well) . Leo was freaking out about it, and I don't blame him. Things at school were awful, Maya was having so many problems then, she was not potty trained, scared and nervous. The time she didn't spend wetting her pants she spent scratching her skin raw. Leo and I were so "in the moment" of the situation and panicking it was hard to think rationally. After a while I decided to relax and let her just be naked. We turned up the thermostat and just let her be. I remember once friends of ours and their daughter around Maya's age visited on a Sunday afternoon and here was Maya running around naked. At first everything was fine, they thought she was just on her way to get dressed, but as the time went on, after coffee, during lunch, here was Maya running around naked. By the time I served dessert, the looks this couple were giving one another were so severe I thought they were going to break their eyeballs.
It was just a horrible time. On the one hand I was constantly fighting with the school, being called on an almost hourly basis, picking Maya up and finding her in the hall crying and being punished for not listening and Maya having no understanding at all of why she had to stay in the hall when all the other kids got to play. Maya's teacher, I am pretty sure was the love-child of Mussolini and The Wicked Witch of the West (and believe me, if I could have dropped a house on her I would have). So this babysitter probably looked at the 3 of us-- naked kid, stressed-out, teary mom and frustrated dad and said, "I want no part of this." And actually there was no probably about it, I came home one day and she told us she was quitting. So from one day to the next we had no childcare. Leo's parents helped us but Maya was in a very difficult phase, you couldn't walk down the street with her without her running away, she almost never listened and she was like the white tornado of tantrums. It was hard for them to deal with her, hard for them to understand what was happening. The naked thing really got to them too, they loved her dearly but were perplexed by her and autism (or any 'real' problem) was not anywhere close to being on the radar yet. Leo's parents were convinced that the problem was at home, and that it stemmed from what they thought was a lack of limits in our house. To be honest, had my mom still been alive then she would have thought the same thing. In all fairness, that is how their generation viewed things like this. I even viewed it like this so how could I possibly blame them for thinking we were crappy parents, I thought we were crappy parents too. I couldn't even get my kid to go to the toilet. I had so many sleepless nights about it, I just stopped sleeping. It was all consuming and I talked about it all the time, at home, with friends and family and even at work (I must have been so charming to be around then). I remember while were to trying in vain potty training her and Leo's cousin and his wife, who are very good friends of ours started potty training their son when we were on vacation together and he refused at first, but within two days, he was going to the bathroom. Every time that kid successfully went to the toilet, or every time I saw his dry pants it made me feel like a total failure.
When we decided to pull her out of Montessori and get her on the list for a therapeutic kindergarten where she could have a full evaluation and go to school until we had more clarity on what the situation was. We were of course put on a waiting list and were told it would be between 6-12 months for her to have a spot in the kindergarten so we contacted her former daycare and asked if we could return her there until a spot opened up. Although it was technically against the rules to have children over 4 years of age within daycare (ah, the Dutch and their rules, a post for another day), after hearing her situation, they very willingly opened their arms and doors to us (I am forever grateful to them for that, they were a wonderful port in a very bad storm). The period in daycare helped us to calm the hell down, try and look at the situation rationally and charge our batteries. Amazingly the second she returned to daycare the naked problem disappeared and I breathed a huge sigh of relief that Maya wasn't going to turn into one of those naked-hippy-dippy-types.
When she was at daycare of course, 'after-school' was no problem because daycare was open until 6. Her kindergarten was a shorter day but started a bit later in the mornings (9.00-3.15) and she went by bus since it was not in the neighborhood which meant she didn't get home until at least 4 and some days even later. When we were notified that she would start we knew we had a problem as there was not an after school program for her (and since she was in a special education environment we were not allowed to put her in a mainstream after school program. So our choice was to take a chance and try and find another babysitter (once bitten twice shy kicked in there) or then we started thinking about maybe getting an au pair. Our friends had one and it just seemed so logical. Maya's school schedule was real up and down, at first she went only 3 days per week (to help her adjust) and then 4 days and then eventually 4 and a half days. An au pair seemed to be around the same cost as daycare (although more expensive than just after school) and we felt that we were headed to a potentially stressful period, Maya was calmer and slightly more mature but still a real handful and hard to communicate with. Plus I just felt being one-on-one with someone at home among her own things would be better for her than one day to grandma, one day here, one day there. So we enrolled with the same agency our friends did and before long our manny came into our lives and we were blessed to have him for 3 years.
There are of course a lot of advantages to having an au pair. The biggest one is flexibility. Even when Maya was in daycare there was always stress around dropping her off and picking her up, particularly the picking up. You just cannot be late to daycare or they charge you something like $10 per minute. We were at least smart enough to put Maya in a daycare a stone's throw away from Leo's parents and when we were held up at work, or in traffic, Leo's parents just zipped over and got her. But an au pair is a lot easier, you don't have to spend your time watching the clock so intensely, if something takes you 20 minutes longer it is no big deal (well I think it would be a big deal if you habitually abused this but we are always really flexible and therefore our au pair was flexible too). Another big advantage is that when you come home you child is bathed and pajamas are on and so you can spend your time with your child instead of just telling them what to do. And for me a big advantage is that they are there to help with little things around the house. As Maya is older now and doesn't need quite as close supervision there is time enough to unload a dishwasher here, clean up Maya's toys there, and to help keep the house in some semblance of order. Leo and I run quite a chaotic and cluttered household and it was always so wonderful to come home and see that the living room looks nice, the table is cleared off and the beds are made.
But the value goes way beyond any household chores. Au pairs are part of your family. We were very lucky with our last au pair. He was wonderful and Maya misses him terribly. After 3 years they got very attached to one another. Maya doesn't mention him that much but the other day when he visited us just the way she looked when she was sitting on his lap, she was totally contented just made me realize just how big of a void there is in her life without Rodrigo.
Having an au pair is expensive. The monthly expenses are pretty reasonable but there are a lot of start up costs (an agency, which is now mandatory in the Netherlands, the costs of the plane ticket, health insurance, the costs of the Visa). In the end it costs the same as daycare which was more 40 hours per week (10 hours per day 4 days per week as opposed to the au pair which is a maximum of 30 hours which is strictly enforced) which we normally spread over 3-4 days per week. We definitely have to sacrifice other things in order to afford an au pair, we could take more vacations, save more money but in life you make choices. We certainly do not fall into what you would call the typical kind of family that has an au pair. You see more the CEO types and we are definitely NOT that. Our agent, who is a lovely woman said once that there were a lot of families where we live that have au pairs so the nice thing is that when our new au pair is here, she will have girls her own age nearby and she can hopefully make some friends and have people to hang out with, but she did couch it with the comment that the au pairs in our area are not in our neighborhood but more in the wealthier side of town. We live in a neighborhood of very few yuppies, we are littered with school teachers, people that work in banks, middle manager, IT types. I hope our new au pair doesn't think she is going to live in some mansion or estate house because will she be sorely disappointed.
On the plus side though, we do have an ice maker and air conditioning.
On Saturday we will welcome our new au pair Violah, Maya is very excited to meet her and to have again that special relationship. I hope she will enjoy Holland but also enjoy our wonderful daughter and our very wacky household.