I want to start this post with a story which I feel epitomises Au Pair work.
Context: I’m currently in Germany, staying with a lovely family and helping look after a three year old boy and six year old girl.
Not long ago, I had a day which really didn’t start off too well. The three year old was suffering from Monday blues, a condition to which the vast majority of adults can also relate, and he remained stubbornly in bed, wailing at the injustice of it all, and refused to let me get him ready for Kindergarten. My heart went out to the little guy; I could completely understand where he was coming from; I also wanted to stay in my pyjamas all day, curled up in bed with a load of cuddly toys. But, alas, I had to be the bad guy.
After a lot of crying, cajoling, faffing, and some children’s cartoon about a crime-solving elephant, we were half an hour late to Kita (Kindergarten), and after dropping him off, I had only just enough time to dash to the supermarket before I had to catch a train to Berlin for my German class. It was just as I was leaving the house to catch said train that I realised I had lost my very expensive travelcard… In almost twelve years of having an Oyster Card and never losing it, two and a half weeks after arriving in Germany I’d put my travelcard in my coat pocket and then never seen it again. Cue ten frantic minutes on a Monday morning while I checked every logical place I could think of, before admitting to myself that it was inevitably in one of those frustratingly un-locatable, illogical places, i.e. lost.
My desperate search meant that I was now running late to my German class. Luckily, thanks to the efficiency of German trains, I managed to get there only a couple of minutes late, but in some ways I wish I’d just missed the whole thing; by the end of the lesson I seemed to be the only one still unable to wrap my head around “zweiteilige Konnektoren” (two-part connectives).
You know things are bad when you genuinely want to start crying over German grammar.
But I’m generally a pretty positive person, and, as I left my German class for the U-Bahn with a rucksack full of new knowledge and infinite possibilities at my fingertips, I refused to let this be the general feeling of my day (although there was a certain amount of much needed self-pity as well). Remember my praise of German vehicular efficiency? I take it all back: for the first time ever, my train home was scheduled to terminate too soon.
I was suddenly running late for the third time that day.
And then, to top it all off, it started raining when I had to cycle to pick up the kids…
By this point, I was so ready for the day to be over, but when you’re looking after young children, it’s not fair to lump them with your problems and your bad mood, and when in doubt, building a den solves everything.
What genuinely saved my entire day, however, happened at bedtime, when the three year old little’un, who normally insists on falling asleep in his sister’s room while their parents sing to them, announced that he wanted to stay in his bed and said yes when I asked if he wanted me to sing to him.
I was so stupefied it took me a second to properly respond.
It’s just incredible that the same little boy who’d run me ragged that very morning was also the only one who could turn my day around right at the end.
And that’s what Au Pair-ing is about: the lows may be intense, but the highs leave you soaring through the clouds, and it can all happen so abruptly that you’re left with altitude sickness by the end of it.
It’s a steep learning curve and you’re definitely thrown in at the deep end (or as they would say in Germany: ‘du wirst ins kalte Wasser geworfen’). I wouldn’t want to sugar coat it because it is tough; no one has ever said that looking after kids was easy, but you do it for those special moments when you feel privileged to be able to watch them grow up and to have had a hand, however small, in that development. To this day, I’m convinced that some of the best conversations I’ve ever had have been with children: they’re insanely curious, they don’t judge, and their imaginations are as wild as yours is. If you want to have a conversation about a space ship powered by strawberry jam on a mission to discover a planet made of chocolate buttons, or play with a toy farm populated by an ankylosaurus and a giraffe, go for it! Trust me, you’ll have more fun with that than you will making small talk with any bog standard adult about the weather. You’ll be exhausted at the end of every day and you’ll be sick of the word ‘no’ in whatever language it’s wailed in, but you’ll also remember the moment he reached out for your hand while you were reading a story and the time she shyly started singing Favourite Things with you while you were both colouring.
Here are some of the other moments you might come to enjoy as an Au Pair:
- When, the day after your first ever language class, you can already use your new German vocabulary because you’re playing cars and need the word for ‘traffic light’.
- When you’re getting into bed and have forgotten the pinecone a three-year-old left in your bed as an early Christmas present.
(And even as I’m putting the finishing touches to this post, I’m lying uncomfortably on top of the stone which is my newest early Christmas present. He came up to me on the sofa, whispered in my ear to check under my ‘Kissen’ [pillow], and then took my hand so I would follow him to my room to see it. He then confirmed to me that I was allowed to take it home [three-year-old talk for: I want you to keep it].)
- When you successfully put the kids to bed by yourself for the first time and feel on top of the fricking world.
- When you start to sing the Arthur theme tune and realise belatedly that your six-year-old charge already knows it.
- When the three-year-old sees a person walk out of a church and whispers ‘Hexe!’ (‘Witch!’) with a mixture of excitement and fear, before you have a chance to explain that she’s actually a nun.
- When you spend a good fifteen minutes having a conversation with a six-year-old in a made-up language.
- When you build not one, but two blanket forts in the space of a week.
- When you have a race with the microwave to see if you can get the little madam in her pjs in less than fifty seconds.
- When you try and get a three-year-old to keep a secret – we were making cards for his Mum’s birthday and the first thing he cried as she walked through the door was: ‘They’re not birthday cards!’
- When you come home late and find a smiling drawing of Mummy and daughter in a homemade photo frame on your bed, which you need to build a stand for before Mum’s birthday the next day, and it’s so adorable it makes you smile too.
For a time, I thought of employing a ‘What would Mary Poppins do?’ mentality, but she seems to solve most things with magic, which I have tried but generally find incredibly difficult.
Generally I resort to a lot of what I did as a tour guide in Australia: smiling and staying calm. It’s easier said than done, but you can achieve much more than you realise with that mindset.