Today Zoara, who is currently au pairing in Paris, is sharing how to be an awesome au pair without losing your sanity (easier said than done!). Taking care of young children is very hard and often frustrating work, but there are certainly tactics to make it easier.
You unlock the front door with the kids behind you, sweaty and shaking hands fumbling with your set of keys you only just wrestled out of the hands of the screaming middle child. Click. The door unlocks and you are immediately elbowed out of the way by the eldest, followed by the other two, all three of them tracking mud into the house. You tell them to take off their shoes, which they do, but not without emptying out onto the floor more sand than you ever thought could fit inside a child’s shoe and still have room for a foot.
Everyone heads to the kitchen for an after school snack, and while you’re cutting up apples the smallest child (who has been playing with his older brother’s ears since leaving school) begins to cry because his brother has finally had enough and has retaliated with a hard pinch on the arm. While they’re eating, you dash upstairs to run the bath, swearing under your breath because you step on a Lego one of the kids left in the hall that morning. The rest of the night is a whirlwind of fighting to bathe, fighting to eat dinner, fighting to brush teeth, and fighting to go to bed.
You swear off having children of your own as you wash off something sticky on your hands that could be any combination of jelly, toothpaste, juice, or gluestick. Finally, all the muscles in your neck relax when you sit down on your bed, still cursing the fact that you’re doing it all over again tomorrow.
Not even close to every day is like this, but when it happens it forces you to question why you moved your entire life hundreds or thousands of miles away to pursue an adventure. And sometimes it’s difficult to imagine you’re on an adventure at all while you iron the button-downs of a four-year-old or mediate an argument regarding who actually did win the one-hundredth game of Uno.
But keeping your chin up during these bad days is exactly what you need to do in order to not sink under the pressure they create, because you will get out of this job whatever you put in. An au pair job is incredibly rewarding, but in order for that to happen we have to make sure that we’re doing what is necessary to keep work pressure low so that we can do the best job possible.
Being able to plan ahead comes up repeatedly when you want to be a successful and happy au pair. From the very beginning when you choose your host family, doing everything you can to know how and if you will click with them can save you from so much unhappiness. Every host family and au pair is different; some want to add another family member into their lives while other people want to keep their relationships reserved and professional.
Figure out what you want and look for it to avoid ending up feeling mismatched. After that, making sure you have copies of all your important documents is a huge safety net to save you a lot of trouble in the future. When you start your job, little things like cooking dinner before the kids get home or having activities planned is a great way to keep the kids busy creating things with their hands and not hitting each other. If you have things prepared ahead of time you’ll be able to focus more on the kids. And even if you’re in the middle of a bad day and an hour alone in the kitchen cooking while the kids play by themselves sounds like exactly what you, in my experience a little extra love is exactly what a grumpy kid needs. The key is protecting yourself from potential problems before they wear you down.
While you might have thousands of miles between you, talking to loved ones is an essential to keeping yourself happy while working as an au pair. No one is immune to homesickness. I love the rush of finding myself in a new city, and I was not prepared for the crushing feeling twelve weeks into my shiny new life when I realized my small town in Ohio I had spent the last six months trying to escape felt like the only place I wanted to be.
Regardless of your distance from them, your family and friends want you to succeed and not only will keeping in touch relieve (even just a little) the rough emotions we all experience after a big move, but they can also remind you of what you wanted to get out of this experience when you started. When you’ve spent the last five days staying positive for the kids and surrounding them with love only to feel like it isn’t being reciprocated, it’s easy to start feeling like the universe doesn’t care about you much. Never forget you have a support system back home that is rooting for you. And do not forget you can build a support system in your new city; learn about the local expat community or find au pair Facebook groups—which are perfect for meeting other people who know exactly how hard this job can be.
What inspired you to become an au pair? Did you dream of travelling the world? Did you want to learn a new language? Did you want to learn more about teaching children? When you’re struggling with work, it’s easy to forget why you started this job, leading you to flounder, counting down the days until your next vacation. Setting goals at the start of your job keeps you focused.
I knew I wanted a career in education, but after graduating university and having experience with only high school kids, I wanted to see if having the opportunity to teach elementary students would be a better fit for me. My goal was to learn about children and learning development. Now, even when I’m having a bad experience at work—a child getting frustrated when he keeps forgetting the English word for something, for example—I can remind myself of my goal to learn about teaching children instead of teenagers. I stay calm because it’s an opportunity to educate myself through observation of the learning process. If your goal is to travel the world, save the money just do it! Setting goals keeps you happy by giving you a sense of accomplishment and purpose.
Finally, be firm with your kids. I struggled with this at the beginning because I had only worked in a formal educational setting. Even teenagers will do what you ask most of the time if you’re in a classroom. But au pairs work in an informal setting, and when your kids see you as a sibling or a friend who has dinner with them, washes them, and kisses them goodnight, it’s difficult sometimes to have them also see you as an authority figure.
Even if your host parents aren’t very strict with the kids, as an au pair you must be. Have a set of rules and stick to them. Never let things slide. I, for example, have a very strict set of rules for how the children must behave on the mile walk back from school. If they do not break any rules, they get a small treat at snack time. When we get home, they must put their coats, bags, and shoes away before sitting at the table to show me they are ready for their snack. If they don’t do everything, there is no reward. No exceptions.
It’s difficult, especially when you’re young, to accept yourself as an authority figure, but you have to before the kids see you as one as well. And the sooner your kids see you as someone whose orders must be obeyed, the easier your work life will be.
Never let the stress you experience from your job make you feel cynical about your au pair life. It is a truly amazing experience that more people should do. The hard times are definitely hard but good times happen much more frequently and it’s those you will remember long after the mystery goo is washed off your hands and you’ve come back home. Keeping yourself positive and stress low is the best way to get as much out of the au pair experience as possible.
Have you worked as an au pair? How did you do a good job while staying sane?
Zoara Christman is an Ohio State graduate, Anglophile, and writer currently working in Paris as au pair and part time busker. Literally addicted to overstatement.