Mothering Sunday

Happy Mothering Sunday! I read about this day’s history and how it originated, with domestic servants returning to their homes and mother churches. I hope some of the au pairs nowadays are able to spend this day with their mothers too, but it’s much more difficult because of the distance.
I’m curious: what do au pairs do on Mothering Sunday?

5 best au pair moments

1. Best friendship
The best au pair moment was watching my daughter walk down the aisle as my old aupair’s flower girl in Poland. For her to choose my daughter to be such a special part of her day meant so much and it was so fascinating to be in her country and see her home after she had lived in ours for so long. We got to meet her whole family, see her life before England and participate in such an amazing day. We will be in touch with her and her now husband forever !

2. Best aupair story
This just has to be the love story of the decade, my Polish au pair had only been in the UK for around a month when she met her Italian stallion whilst out for a quiet dinner, he sat at the next table with a friend. After months of being together, then living together, they got married just under a year ago and it was amazing to see them from the beginning until now when they have both settled in the UK.

3. Best holiday with an Aupair
We went on an adventure holiday for the first time and took our South African au pair with us for the entire journey, from stopping off in Bath to eventually arriving in Wales. It was so fantastic having her there as she became a part of our holiday and our memories and it was so lovely to show her some of Britain outside of London. My kids adored her and it wouldn’t have been a holiday without her.

4. Best foreign meal
Has to be our Spanish aupair’s Spanish omelette, full of yummy potatoes, it took her minutes to make. She loved cooking it and we loved eating it. I reckon we all put on more than a few pounds when she lived with us and can still remember the taste…yummy !

5. Best English food
The best also has to be the worst au pair food, which is Marmite. They either love it and take bags of the stuff home with or hate it. Most won’t even try it, they just look at us like we are totally nuts and almost puke at just the smell of it, let alone eat it. We are definitely a Marmite family though!

The au pair’s diet

There seem to be so many disparities regarding au pairs and food I am really at a loss as to what is the right thing or not. Recently, I interviewed two aupairs that were already here and staying with other host families but wanting a change, both came from complete extremes when it came to food.

The first, a lovely au pair from Romania, told me how she was paid £60 a week and told to buy her own food. The other, an Australian girl, told me she was paid £120 per week and was provided with only organic food!

In these hard financial times, still keeping an aupair feels like a luxury, so can they really expect to give us demands on what they would like to eat and can we REALLY ask them to buy their own food out of what is supposed to be pocket money? After all, isn’t the whole au pair exchange supposed to be a helping hand in return for food and lodgings and pocket money?

What is the middle ground? I certainly don’t believe that an aupair should be expected to buy their own food, but nor will I spend what little spare money I have on organic produce for her either.

I like to think we eat healthily as a family, there is always fresh fruit and veg in the house and my fridge is bursting with yoghurts and juices, which the au pairs can eat when and as they like, within reason. But one of my aupairs once asked me to get her smoked salmon… at £7 a pack I couldn’t really afford to keep her in her pack a day habit, but at the same time felt really embarrassed and mean saying no.

Do I not have a backbone?? Is it normal to be asked such demands for a particular food or diet by an aupair and what do you do about it, sulk and feel embarrassed and buy it anyway like me? Or tell them that you are not the local deli and that you are happy to provide food but within reason?

Au pairs and gossip

Au pair gossip can at times be the thing that brings you closer to your au pair, or the very thing that ends up pulling you apart!

Gossip is a dangerous thing and when someone is living with you there is always going to be that niggle of doubt about whether they they are telling their friends and in some cases your neighbours about your personal lives.

When an au pair arrives at my house I have my little talk about the do’s and dont’s. I always tell them that there are different kinds of families and different kinds of au pairs. Whilst staying with us they will hopefully meet lots of new friends from other families and that these girls will all gossip about one thing and another, but in my experience they are “the unhappy ones” so I tell my girls … not to get involved.

The first thing that au pairs always talk about is money: how much are you getting paid per week, how many hours do you work, how many children are in your family, what are your duties ? And so on. I guess this is a given and an excepted part of having an au pair. However at times this gossip can change in tone from the usual to details about the family and what goes on behind closed doors. In my opinion this a complete breach of trust.

Don’t get me wrong, I know none of us are innocent and we all have a little gossip now and then, but would you gossip about a friend knowing it would go straight back to them, no.

Au pairs, if you want to say something about the family, tell your friends at home, not the au pair next door. They will tell their host mother who will tell their friends. Everything gets back in the end. :-)

Before I sound like I am putting the blame all on au pairs, I also know that host families are just as much at fault of gossiping and in some instances even worse!

I know host mothers who go through their au pairs draws, when they are out, and in one instance I know a host mother who found the au pair’s diary and spent the afternoon, with a dictionary and a cup of tea, translating it. The damage only started there, this host mother told her friend (who is very close to her au pair) she told her au pair and then she told the poor innocent au pair, whose diary had been read.

Personally I can’t imagine what that breach of trust must feel like and I really don’t think I could look my au pair in the eye after prying on her like that. Suffice to say the au pair left and the host family lost a fantastic au pair… was it really worth it?

Over the years I have been told about affairs, violence in the home, drug taking, open marriages and the list goes on… do I really want to know what goes on in other people’s houses? Whilst it may seem interesting at the time we have to live with the knowledge long after the au pairs have gone.

What do you do? Do you do you tell the host family that their au pair is spreading the word on their private affairs? Do you tell your au pair about the prying host mothers? In my experience gossip, however harmless, is always dangerous and will never be a good start or end to au pair experience.

Gift ideas for au pairs and nannies

I have always bought my au pairs a present at Christmas and on their birthdays. In fact I seem to always be buying something for my aupairs. Sometimes I may just be out and see something (little) that I think they would like and can’t resist putting it in the trolley.

Am I mad? Do I take the whole Mother from host mother a little too seriously or do these little acts of kindness help smooth out the inevitable bumps in the road?

I heard and read about some au pairs complaining about how they are treated, especially at Christmas. Their stories ranged from being totally ignored at Christmas (no card, let alone a present) to being the waitress on Christmas day and then the dishwasher afterwards! Surely this is the perfect day for you to show your nanny or au pair how much you appreciate them?

In my 7 years I have always let the aupairs go home to see their family. I know that I will miss my au pair not being around at Christmas; after all she is part of the family. So before she leaves I always get her a gift. But what do you buy? What can you get that will show how much you appreciate and like this person who looks after your kids and helps you around the house?

I don’t think there is a list out there that will cover all nannies and aupairs, but I do think that with any present you need to put some thought into it. I always think about what my au pair really likes and needs. For that to work you need to have got to know them and have a relationship with them, where you know their passions and hobbies.

Try and be imaginative, don’t just buy a scarf and socks, think about what they would really appreciate and that shows that you have really listened to them and you wanted to do something nice for them.

For some it will be plain old money. If this is the case I would personally prefer to buy a little present as well so that it doesn’t look like I have put no thought into it. So how much do you spend?

Well I think for an aupair or nanny half a week’s wages in a card with a small token present is about right. For most of mine I have probably spent a little more than this on their presents; which have always been something I know they will love. I know some will disagree and say a nice box of chocolates are fine but I think it’s these little touches that make my aupairs always stay in touch with the kids, stop by when they are in the UK and the reason my daughter was a bridesmaid in Poland.

Am I over generous… what do you give and what you have received?

Homesick au pair, should you worry?

I like to think I have all the information about my au pairs prior to them arriving. In the past I have gone for both au pairs that are already in the UK and also those who have not yet left their home country. Recently I have preferred the latter. With today’s methods of chat, Skype and email I can get know to them pretty well and feel confident that when they commit to leave their country it will work out for both of us.

When I am sure I am sure… I make up my mind and move forward. I like to think this is the same for Au pairs. They firstly have to make the decision to become an au pair, go through the process of finding a family, making sure they are right for them and finally securing their invitation.

So why did I spend so much time to then pick up a new au pair from the airport and bring her back to my house, only for her to stay in her room and start crying at the slightest thing?

Now, before you think me somewhat of a heartless cow, let me explain. Of course it is completely normal for au pairs to take a few weeks getting used to the house, the family, life in another country. Getting over missing their friends and family and old way of life… I get it, I really do, BUT this au pair was not crying for any of those things. She missed her boyfriend or so she said!

Why oh why had I not asked if she had a boyfriend, I was kicking myself. Why had she not mentioned it, after all, she informed me later that she has been with him 7 years! Why if they were so serious did she make the BIG decision to become an au pair?

I was somewhat annoyed but my mothering instinct came through and I spent the next few weeks trying to make her feel better. But with the endless tissues and sobs my kids wondered what was going on, they asked if it was them, and in the end whether someone had died (which was briefly amusing) ?

She spent every conceivable minute on Skype to him, and the remainder talking about him to me. But was it HIM ? Or was she just not ready for this experience? To be honest I don’t really know, but I do know that she and I are were thoroughly miserable.

She went home after 4 months and I was left back at square one flicking through profiles to find the next one! The boyfriend dumped her after two months and she wanted to come back but by that time it was too late.

The experience taught to take more time getting to know my girls before they arrive. Now I ask a few personal questions that sometimes feel a bit intrusive, but this has meant that the problem has never happened again.

Adjusting to my English life

I have always (bar one au pair) got my au pairs from abroad and tended not to get ones who are within the UK already.

Unlike my friends who have always insisted on getting au pairs that are already here. Speaking English, settled and know what to expect, I have always gone for the longer and perhaps harder route of getting them straight from their home country …. and so far it has worked for me.

However, trying to explain to an au pair that London is a big place and you can’t just walk from one side of it to another is not easy. They literally have no comprehension of the size and fast pace life they are about to embark; when they arrive they are like a newborn baby looking at everything for the very first time.

Just starting to think and speak in English takes a couple of weeks. Then come the questions and interest in what life is like for us. As I explain London life I almost feel like emigrating myself. I find myself questioning why they have made their choice to come here. But I suppose its all about the experience.

When do you all sit down to eat together?

No, we don’t eat together for 3 hours every evening, whilst laughing and chatting about our day alfresco over a glass of wine! My kids are on a tight schedule and need to be in bed by 7.00 pm, otherwise we will ALL pay for their lack of sleep. And no, I rarely eat with my husband, he works long, long hours and I never really know what time he will be home (even when he does he spends most of his time on the blackberry or laptop)

So what do you do for fun at the weekends?

Well, we spend most of our time as a taxi service … taking one child to a party and another to swimming lessons. We don’t go to the beach and spend hours soaking up the culture at the local museums, we just DON’T have enough time!!

Why do you go to bed so early?

Yes, it’s true as I watch my Italian au pair cook herself a delicious two course meal lovingly at 11.00 pm at night, I am tucked up in bed, tired, stressed and in need of just a little rest bite to help fight the next day… the next Ground Hog Day!

Then there is negotiating the tube for the first time and explaining that London is a big place and there are some strange people and that a lovely girl from a idyllic village may find it hard to urbanise herself to the harsh realities of a big bad city.

So I guess they came here wanting to understand what life is like in cold wet England and there they have it, but as they smile at me and tell me it is wonderful and life is perfect here I wonder is the grass really greener?

Making Friends as an Au pair

Making friends as a new au pair in a new country is probably the most important and an essential thing for all Aupairs and host families.

Being an au pair can be a lonely place, you spend most of your days and nights with the family and it is important for you and the host family to have some “time out”. Thankfully for all concerned, things have changed a lot with new technology, mobile phones, forums, blogs, Facebook and email, making finding and keeping in touch with friends easier than ever before.

I remember when we were younger living a little bit further out from London, with an almost non existent travel system. The only way for Au pairs to make friends was to go to college and hope there was someone like minded on their course. Now most of my au pairs don’t even go to College, finding it too costly.

Being the nice host mother that I am :-) the first thing I do is post a status on my Facebook to see if anyone of my “friends” have an aupair nearby who would like to meet a new friend. More often than not a string of replies come in offering aupairs from all over the world living within a couple of miles of our house. This is the perfect way to start, so that they have someone nearby to travel with at weekends and at night.

Once they become a little more used to the area and transport system, I recommend that they join various forums and groups that are dedicated to au pairs in London. Here they share meetings, the latest clubs, great exhibitions and other places to go. I have even learnt of a few new places myself this way.

Without friends you will find your aupair will become withdrawn, depressed and unhappy, as their life will only become about work and the host family.

I have a friend who has an aupair who does not want any friends and likes to keep herself in her room every night and at the weekend. She barely travels more than a mile from the house and then she is back! This makes the family feel uncomfortable and gives them no space at all, which is needed for any perfect aupair/host family relationship on both sides.

What do you do if you have used up all the above resources, they don’t like anyone they have met or the other au pairs don’t seem to have taken to them?

As  a last resort, once, I did sign my au pair up to a course just to give her and me some space. Thankfully she did meet one friend whom she bonded with and that was all she needed…

Safety advice for au pairs – where to draw the line?

As a host mother I have always looked at myself as a surrogate mother for my aupair, almost like my third child, not quite getting to sleep until I hear they are back safely from a night out.

However, most recently there have been a couple of terrible situations that have occurred to friends aupairs and I am struggling to find the line between making them aware and frightening the living daylights out of them.

London is a big city and some of my girls have come from small secluded idyllic villages to see the wonders that London has to offer. Do the au pairs really know what they are letting themselves in for and how do you prepare them for the fact that everyone in the City may seem friendly but there may be one or two they meet on their journey that are not?

Of course I know life is a game of chance; you can be anywhere at the wrong time and no amount of preparation is going to help you, but how prepared should I at least try and make my aupairs?

We have just had a letter through the door today from the local police, four women have been attacked (two in broad daylight) within half a mile from our house within one week.

I have obviously warned my au pair to be more vigilant, not wear her ipod when walking alone and at night always walk with other girls. I am concerned for her safety and my own, but I am conscious that she has only been here for three weeks and I don’t want to freak her out!!

One of my friends, who has always had Au pairs, has a routine of sitting them down on arrival and telling them the whole don’t answer the door to strangers and be safe etc. However she then got into a stranger’s car and was badly assaulted. Whilst I feel sick to my stomach about what happened to the poor girl, a part of me can’t help thinking that surely her real mother/parents should have prepared her in life to not be so trusting and shouldn’t be down to the host mother to then deal with this terrible situation and all that comes with it.

How far should we take the “Mother” part of host mother and how much responsibility should we have?

Upon my au pair going out for her first night in London, my 6 year old daughter wisely told her “don’t talk to strangers!”… but for an au pair here alone that is the only way to build a life for themselves and to meet as many “strangers” as possible.

So where is the line? Do I cross it and freak her out or simply cross my fingers and hope she will find her own way?

Setting the au pair’s duties and responsibilities

I have over the years asked a number of my friends to send me their comprehensive list of au pair duties, timings and responsibilities and they all differ so much I think I became even more confused!

I think the best thing for the host family (especially mother) and au pair is for you to be really sure about what you are looking for before the aupair arrives. There is no point proactively looking for an aupair who is great with kids only to give them a 30 hour week of cleaning duties… trust me, the au pair will not stay long.

What is an aupair? A cleaner or a nanny ? I like to think they are neither, but rather a much older sister who helps out with the kids and housework and becomes part of the family. My friends say I’m naive but I really don’t think I am, that is exactly what ALL my aupairs have been, big sisters!

They have a mix of duties starting with helping me with the kids in the morning: getting them dressed for school, washed and fed and out the door. They then tidy up and make the beds whilst I take the kids to school. My au pairs are then free until we get back, which is roughly around 12.30. As one of my kids isn’t at full time school yet, their responsibility is generally to help me as an extra pair of hands with the kids, especially when they both have friends around. They then help me with supper bath and bed and they are free!! My kids are always in bed by 7.00 pm and we very rarely go out more than once a week so the rest of the evenings and weekends are theirs to do as they like.

I chose to get a cleaner on top (of an aupair) as my personal experiences have been that au pairs are generally excellent at cleaning or with kids but are rarely great at both. So for me it is more important that my kids love them, we love them and enjoy having them around. I would much rather they are playing play dough with the kids than having them worry about moping the floor and other domestic duties. However, 90% of my friends work in the complete opposite way, they see an aupair as being a cheaper option than getting a cleaner and babysitter so therefore the au pair has little interaction with the kids apart from at bath and bed time.

I personally have never been very good a pinning exact times down and always ask for flexibility, there are times when I may ask a little more of my au pairs, but then for example if myself and the kids are off to someone for a playdate for the afternoon I will often give my au pair the afternoon off… it is a partnership, it has to work both ways!

I don’t feel that there is necessarily a right or wrong way, as long as you are very clear from the start (prior to them starting the job and accepting) in setting the au pair’s duties and responsibilities: what you are expecting from them and what they should expect from you. What do you think?