Friday, November 29, 2013

Calling all Au Pairs

At least in the Netherlands.

We have had au pairs living with us for the last six years.  It was a choice that we made just before Maya was diagnosed with autism, figuring it was better for her to come home after school rather than have to adjust and cope in an after school program, once Maya was diagnosed we knew that an after school daycare for special needs kids was not really something that existed.  

It's been a win-win for us.  And before you think we are just spoiled, upper class people who don't want to raise our kids, we aren't.  We are quite atypical from most families that have au pairs.  While we are comfortable financially and have a nice house, we live in a very average home, in a neighborhood with people who are school teachers, electricians, secretaries auto mechanics and the like.  We definitely do not live among the country club set, no CEOs, Diplomats, Ponzi Schemers or Hedge Fund Managers over here.  We definitely have to think about where and how we spend our money.  We go without certain things in order to have an au pair.  We take less vacations than your average European family and we also gave up having a second car.  So, we are not just some rich family in a Range Rover talking about how hard it is to find good help.  

This is a conscious choice we have made for our family.  We gladly made and continue to make that choice for our girl, because having an au pair is better for her development, it's more comfortable with us and fits better into our lifestyle, helps reduce the inevitable stresses from raising a special needs child and most importantly, our daughter, as an only child, it gives her at least a taste of the experience of having an older sibling to be with, live with, pal around with and form a bond with.   

We've adjusted pretty easily to having someone living with us (which is the number one question I get from people about having an au pair) and now it just feels normal to have another member of our family.  

There are certain adjustments you need to make as a family with live in help.  There is the whole thing that you have to adjust to someone actually living in your house and who has different ways of doing things than you do.  You also have to accept that there will always be things that you feel they don't do as well or as thoroughly as you, because that is just the reality of having household help.  It's the overall package which is important rather than any individual task.  The fact that you have someone taking your children under their wing and helping you with the day to day of childcare, of taking the children to where they need to go and  helping you keep house counts for a lot.   I always love coming home from work each day and having my living room and kitchen cleaned up and tidy, our beds made and things more or less put away.  Believe me, it would not look that way if the system were dependent on me.

We've had 4 au pairs over the years and will likely have a few more.  Leo and I have decided to continue with an au pair at least until Maya finishes primary school and then based on where she is with her development and what her life looks like then, we will decide if we will continue.  

We've loved our au pairs, they have all been very kind people, although with very different personalities and Maya has adored each one of them.  Of course, like anyone, you like some traits better in one person than another and vice versa.  We've been very lucky, because despite whatever personality ups and downs there have been, every single one of our au pairs has been kind and caring people, who've loved our girl and have done their best to do things the way we Leo I like.

Not that our au pairs over the years haven't done things that have irritated us from time to time or had certain habits in the way they did things that we would have preferred were handled in a different way but that is always going to be true when you have relationships with people.  If you keep a scorecard, you are going to get less out of the relationship.  If you build trust and accept that one another are not perfect, you can find your way.  We, like any other family have certain deal breakers and I stress the importance of those and mostly for the rest, I let it go, as I am certain there are certain things we (mostly I) do which annoy them from time to time and they let that go as well.  Give and take.  

Au pairs that come from a foreign country often become friends with other au pairs, and you know what that means.  They compare their host families.  So, we've had a lot of au pairs come in and out of our house and I have heard a lot of stories about host families.  Many are just funny stories, but we have heard more than our fair share of truly shocking things, things that really show a lack of compassion, responsibility and downright abuse.  

 The Netherlands has very strict rules regarding au pairs, partially because there were so many cases of reported abuse by host families that our immigration authorities just got a whole lot stricter.  Even with those rules in place, however, it seems like a lot of families don't follow those rules and take advantage of their au pair's youth and naiveté.  Au pairs eager to please and make a good impression, have a good experience are often reluctant to question the orders of their host families.  

Still, the things I see are often in flagrant violation of the rules and in my view, common decency.  An au pair is not a job in the classic sense, the au pair doesn't get a salary, he/she gets room/board and a small stipend each month.  It's supposed to be a cultural exchange and you are supposed to treat the au pair as if they were an older sibling to your own children.  That's not to say that it's not right to give them responsibilities and require nothing, but you really should play fair.  These people are caring for your children, however you treat them will be reflected back to you in how the au pair cares for your own kids.

These are just some of the things I have seen/heard about over the years:

-Not giving the au pair their own room but making them sleep in a public room, like the dining room, without any privacy.   One au pair told me that her room is detached from the rest of the house and doesn't have its own bathroom and the family has said she is not allowed to come into the house when they are there, even to use the bathroom.  They've given her three buckets and toilet paper to keep in her room.  Ummm, guess what, it's not a barnyard animal you're keeping, it's a human being.  How the f*ck would you like to pee in a bucket?  (the rule is that the au pair needs their own room (and their own bathroom if possible)).  

-Making the au pair work 6 or 7 days per week (5 is the max)

-Giving the au pair the responsibility for all the shopping, cooking, cleaning and total care of the children (totally not allowed, the immigration authorities are very specific about what you can and cannot ask from an au pair in order to make sure that the responsibility stays with the parents, down to the fact that you can ask them to vacuum but you can't ask them to clean your stove or oven).
-Routinely expecting the au pair to watch the children 10-12 hours per day or more (8 hours per day is the max)

-Not giving the au pair any weekends off (they must have at least one per month)

-Calling the au pairs on their day off and expecting them to return home to work (not allowed, days off must be scheduled, you can change the schedule, but that should be done in consultation with the au pair and certainly NOT once the day off has begun).

-Not providing meals on the au pair's day off (full room and board is the agreement)

-Making the au pair do the family's entire laundry including ironing (kids laundry only)

-Making the au pair taking care of all night feedings for a newborn baby (not strictly against the rules but probably not very ethical unless the au pair's night hours are factored into the hours she is allowed to work (which means for a newborn probably a pretty light day schedule), and this particular au pair gets up in the night and then takes the older children to school and picks them up.  Not sure what the schedule is there, but this person is supposed to help the parents, not raise the sodding children.  

While it is the host family's obligation to ensure that they follow the rules, both the official rules but also the rules of common decency, I find it hard to believe that many au pairs feel like anything other than a servant.  Still an au pair has to know their rights.  Many host families think that because they are supporting the au pair financially they can ask anything and everything and like I said, they often take advantage of the au pair's naiveté.  Au pairs should know their rights.  Certainly there is room for flexibility, so if you for instance like doing laundry, and you agree, sure, go ahead but to me the problem is where a host family just expects, expects and expects and gives no flexibility or leeway of their own.  In some capacity by not understanding the rules and gently raising questions on these things, they confirm to their host families that indeed this treatment is okay.  

We relish the relationship we have had with all our au pairs and love that they have loved our daughter so much.  They truly are members of our extended family and I hate to see, what I think are mostly good natured people being taken advantage of.  

Au pair is not French for indentured servant.  

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad you wrote this. My daughter will be starting her year in the Netherlands as an au pair very soon. I'll be sharing this post with her!