Welcome to your new family!
And welcome to one of the most exciting, tiring, varied, sometimes frustrating, rewarding years of your life.
It’ll be an experience you’ll never forget.
I’m sorry you arrived so shortly before I left; I have so much wisdom to impart!
So many experiences and so many stories. I had to start writing them down because I was worried about forgetting all the little things; sometimes those two little’uns come out with such gold. Your two new charges have incredibly vibrant, unique and energetic personalities, as I’m sure you’ll learn and come to love!
I’m not gonna lie, you will probably find it hard at first.
But there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a steep learning curve.
You’ve hardly had a chance to learn to look after yourself, and suddenly you’re responsible for two little humans. On top of all of that, you’ll have to accept that you’re a bit of a stranger at first. It’ll take the kids a little while to get used to you, and it was only in hindsight that I noticed the point when the kids finally settled down with me. Probably several months in! Early on, I remember wondering how I would ever manage it for an entire year, but by the end, it was so emotional to leave. What can sometimes feel like a trial by fire will eventually settle into a comfortable rhythm.
Now, I definitely don’t mean to write all of this to scare you! That’s not my intention. I just want you to know that struggling is not unusual and it’s not meant to be easy straight away.
Sometimes you’ll put them in front of a video, just so you can cook in peace.
Sometimes you’ll suddenly need to go to the toilet, just for a moment of quiet.
And sometimes you’ll suggest playing ‘Simon says’, just because it means all you have to do is sit on a chair.
I’m listing these things, not because they’re tricks of the trade to aspire to, but so that you know you’re not on your own. Every parent, nanny, Au Pair worth their salt does something like these once in a while. As amazing as you are, you can’t be on your game 100% of the time.
There will be times when you feel utterly out of your depth: standing in the middle of the stairs with one kid crying at you from upstairs and the other wailing at you from downstairs, with no idea what your next move should be.
But there will be other times where you’ll feel so capable that you’ll be convinced you could take over the world if you wanted to.
I had a morning, on my own with both kids, where we managed an entire school run without tears, without stress, and only a couple of moans. Both of them were content, fed, watered, sun creamed, teeth brushed, and at school and Kita on time. It was just one morning, but I felt like I deserved a fricking medal by the end of it.
Changing Au Pairs is a huge change for the kids and I don’t think the grown-ups give that enough credit. I’ve been around for a year. And for the four year old, for example, that’s a quarter of his entire life. I’ve been a caregiver, a teacher, and hopefully a friend to them for a whole year.
Then I suddenly disappeared.
And, to be honest with you, I feel very guilty for that.
The evening before I left, my little girl clung to me like a monkey and told me to stay for another year and miss my flight, and when my baby boy took me to the train station the next day, he hugged my legs and told me I should come home with them. Every little thing they said chipped away at my heart just that a little bit more. I love them and, even weeks later, finishing off this letter, I miss them. I couldn’t stay for longer but even so, I wish I didn’t have to subject them to that upheaval again.
And now I have entrusted them to you and I’m sure that you will do your absolute best with them. They will learn to love you and trust you and share their thoughts and their sweets with you. They will learn that you want what’s best for them and that you’re not trying to poison them with vegetables at supper (actually, that’s a lie. They’ll probably always think the latter).
They will learn that you have a whole new world of games to play with them and tales to tell them. (Although, if you ever need any ideas for school run stories I got as far as the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Not too shabby for about ten months work!)
Without a doubt, you will learn a huge amount as well. I’ve been asked many times how I found the Au Pair experience and it made me sit back and think. For me, the most important thing I’ve learnt over the past year is what kind of mum I think I’ll be and, more importantly, what kind of mum I want to be.
Sometimes I’ve felt so much like a mum it’s scary. When I’ve unconsciously stroked my stinky boy’s hair while he’s standing in front of me, or held my farty friend’s hand as she’s fallen asleep (don’t worry, I’m not just insulting them, those were the nicknames we gave each other).
Even this morning (this bit I wrote way back on 23rd August), I felt like I had the whole Mum thing down: laundry on at 7am, got through the school run, worked on a craft project for the kids, organised a play date with another Mum, and just finished my homemade pizza dough in preparation for the afternoon’s antics, all before I went out to my German class.
(I should also probably say that the actual pizza cooking didn’t go as smoothly as all that. Mostly in terms of whether our deformed doughy monsters could technically be classed as “pizzas”. The most important thing though was that we had a great time making them and they didn’t taste half bad.)
It would be interesting to write a CV just for what you learn as an au pair. Creativity, leadership, communication, initiative, determination, time management, organisation. It should genuinely be a job that’s more valued by potential employers. It’s not all jumping into chalk pictures and pulling potted trees out of a bag! I’ve never been able to juggle as many things in my head at once as I have in those afternoons with the kids.
Another interesting thing for me was that I also discovered the borders to what I thought were the endless depths of my patience. Kids test you and push you.
Mostly because they’re curious: they’re learning how the world works and how they need to function within it.
Sometimes they’re just trying to piss you off.
But if there’s one piece of advice I’d give you above all others it is: calmness is key. Even when you want to yell and scream and slam doors, or when your heart feels like it’s beating through your chest out of stress, don’t let it show. I can guarantee that it won’t help. I properly yelled at the kids once, soon after I started. My four year old (then three) refused to eat properly and cried consistently for forty-five minutes and I completely lost my rag.
Did he then miraculously stop crying? No way. Surprise, surprise, he just cried harder.
Some of my proudest moments since then have been times when I’ve kept my cool even when I’ve felt like I’m about to blow my top. I’ve always been a patient and calm person, but I can now with absolute confidence say that I’ve. got. patience. for. days.
As well as that, just be confident in your decisions. On an everyday basis, you have just as much right to make a decision regarding the kids as Mum or Dad, especially when you’re alone with the young’uns. I spent way too long early on worrying about the consequences.
…That came out wrong. You do need to worry about the consequences. Definitely.
What I mean is, I spent too long worrying about whether my decisions were in line with exactly what the parents wanted. Obviously, you need to listen to them about how they want to raise their children and their specific rules, but ultimately, on a day-to-day basis you need to be able to make decisions without second-guessing every little thing. Otherwise it’s exhausting, unproductive, and the kids will sense your indecision and try to work around it. They’re very perceptive. You have to be able to make a decision and stick to it. And if you’re really not sure, commit to it, and then speak to Mum and Dad afterwards and explain the situation. I’m sure they will understand and you can then work out where to go next.
It’s not all work and no play either. You will have fun. I promise. (As long as you like kids. If you don’t… well then, you might possibly have chosen the wrong job.)
You have the perfect excuse to be a child again. I’ve been able to build so many blanket forts, I’ve spent my afternoons painting (and paint fighting!), making friendship bracelets, building animal hotels, and dancing like no one’s watching. You’ll rediscover all of your favourite childhood games and have fun drawing chalk crocodiles on the ground, which, of course, you will have to jump over if you then want to get safely inside.
You’ll also have some of the most interesting discussions of your life.
I once spoke to my little boy about when the whole world was going to end (which he wanted to know just as he finished his poo) and I’ve had in-depth discussions with the seven year old about topics ranging from opposable thumbs to the chemical composition of water. I invented a new word with my little madam (‘verbuttered’) and a new goodbye with my little man (‘too-doo-dooloo’).
She is firey and independent and intelligent. He is sensitive and introspective and a complete foodie. Your meal will never be safe around him!
It will be a challenging year but it will be just as rewarding.
From one au pair to another: you can do this.
Disclaimer: this is a slightly altered version to the one I sent my Au Pair successor, mostly just so I could edit out the names.