Honestly, I knew that this work arrangement was problematic from the start. Red flags came up before I even formally accepted the position. As time passed, they kept on coming. I saw them, I ignored them, I made excuses, and then, after too much time had passed, I found it hard to admit to myself that I had allowed the situation to become ridiculous. Larger problems are sometimes the result of mismanaging little problems, and that was definitely my case. Everything built up until it became intolerable.
First, Marie* decided that the hours I spent babysitting before I took the job should not be paid because they were “part of the process of getting to know each other”. Eventually, after I objected, she paid me a measly wage of 6 euros an hour. I was tired of apartment hunting and didn’t want to lose a job by being fussy. I let it go.
Then, my apartment was unfinished when I moved. They wanted me to start working before I had a place to live, which was also my payment. There were large appliances missing, which Marie and Jacques, her husband, told me they did not have time to buy for the apartment. Therefore, the responsibility was transferred to me. They asked me to buy the items (How?! My position was unpaid!). I also needed to install them in the apartment. I never did it because I had no way to make large purchases with my university stipend and because, frankly, it wasn’t my job.
Additionally, I had no internet for the first three months. Although, I continued to ask for it and had stressed that internet access in my room was essential for doing late-night research on my master’s degree, they were not bothered. “Use our apartment!” they said, “We don’t mind, really!” It never really occurred to them that I might need privacy or simply did not want to do intensive studying and writing (or having conversations with friends and family from overseas) with an infant and 3 year old (usually screaming) child next to me–or while they ate dinner, had friends and family over, or were getting ready to sleep, or were sleeping.
I got tired of nagging and tried to work out of their home, but it became a predictable game of “can you just watch them a half an hour?” with the regular nanny. I started to feel like I was at work all day, even though my hours were just supposed to be capped at 15 a week. That’s because I actually was watching the kids on my “off time”. To remedy that feeling, I would sit in the back stairwell outside the servant entrance to the apartment and do my work there, shuffling to the side whenever someone needed to pass by.
These problems were more manageable than the others—primarily, behavioral issues (both children and parents included) and a total lack of communication. By communication problems, I mean a kind of synergetic absence of respect or consideration for me as an individual. Let’s deal with that first.
Marie and Jacques did not state their expectations clearly. I would only find out what they wanted while receiving a scolding for doing something wrong. For example, I did not intuitively know that the baby only drank his formula with bottled water or that I was expected to make dinner and feed the children, and that this had to be done before the parents arrived at home. Those things were only told to me—with a tone of shock and outrage at my ignorance to them—after the fact.
Marie was also constantly unimpressed that her 3 year old, Clementine, had not instantaneously started to quote Shakespeare in perfect British English. She wanted to me to keep a journal of everything we did during the (theoretically) two hours I saw her a day, including a list of vocabulary Clementine had learned. Never mind that I was not being paid a tutor’s wage or compensated for any extra teaching duties.
In the mornings, I barely had a chance to speak English with Clementine because she was sobbing uncontrollably and running back and forth between her parents until they left the house, by which time the regular nanny had arrived to replace me. In the evenings, I sang songs and used an animated, full-body charade-style methods for acquiring new words, but she had only learned a few basic words and phrases in English, which—by the way—is perfectly normal for a 3 year old in a predominately francophone household.
The fact is that language immersion takes time and consistent practice. We made little progresses throughout the year, but their expectations did not match the reality of what I could do under the conditions I had. I was left with a consistent feeling that I was failing at my work. Most people ask me, “Why do you care? You weren’t even paid.” I care because I take pride in my work and I get a lot of satisfaction from doing a good job. It just not in my nature to underachieve and sometimes that frustrates me too.
Another big communication issue had to do with when I was or was not working. There were many times when I arrived at the house to take care of the kids and found it completely empty. I would call and Marie would answer her cell phone with great surprise saying something like, “Oh, didn’t I tell you? We are on vacation, so you can have a break for five days!” Except, I didn’t really get a “vacation” because I would have needed to plan something ahead of time. Advanced notice is particularly important for people trying to survive on a tight budget, but explaining this didn’t matter; Marie would just swear up and down she had told me and I just didn’t remember.
Even more commonly, I would be told my hours ended at 20:00 only to be waiting for several hours after (sometimes till midnight or later) without any notice or any payment. They would cancel or create plans last minute and I would be frantically trying to adjust myself to compensate for the changes. “It’s my fault,” I told myself, “I allowed this to happen by being too available.” It’s true. My constantly accommodating their disorganization was enabling and eventually the behavior became the norm. They felt they could show up whenever they wanted because I was always on their time. You have to nip this in the bud from the beginning, put how many days notice you need before you can work and whether you will be paid for extra time (or children) or after cancelations and make them stick to it. Do not be too accommodating or you will end up a doormat.
I did approach them about the lack of communication regarding time off and going over my work hours (without any monetary compensation) because those things made me feel disrespected. I was met with the most beautiful, succinct, naïve admission of my unimportance to them. “It’s not disrespect, Bernie, we just don’t think about you.” I still laugh about that one, usually when my cynical humor defense-mechanism kicks in, attempting to ameliorate my disenfranchisement as a foreign domestic laborer. Other classic, subconscious admissions of their lack of consideration can be summed up in the quotes “It’s not like you have anything to do!” and “We don’t consider this a real job.”
I think, for them, my life only existed when I could satisfy their needs. That I was researching and writing 40 hours a week to complete my thesis, or that I had my own social agenda was not even on their radar. In their minds, I worked 15 hours a week and the rest of my time was spent in shadowland, somewhere hazy and ethereal, twiddling my thumbs, waiting for my next shift. The fact that they didn’t consider my time with the kids a real job was disconcerting because that’s obviously how they justified not paying me. However, it was a job when it suited them. Like when they told me I could not accept any alternative paid work because it was my job to be on call for them for whenever they–may maybe might could possibly–need me.
These annoyances were compacted by the worst of my problems: exhausting behavioral issues. However, I’m going to tackle that in my next post, so I will end this with some advice I give after examining my own mistakes as an au pair.
Avoid the struggle before it begins by addressing your needs in the contract (please don’t work without a contract, you will make things worse for all of us). Before you take the job, imagine you are going to work for the family from your nightmares. Keep that family in mind when you look over your contract and think about what protections, assurances and/or privileges you want for yourself. An employer-employee relationship is not one-directional; you have a right to make certain demands and your employer has responsibilities to you as well. Most likely, your family will be normal people who make mistakes and oversights but genuinely want to do good by you.
However, do not ignore the red flags! Do not explain them away or make excuses or elaborate psychological backstories to understand why your family is not considering your needs or abusing the au pair (which is supposed to mean equal) relationship. I know it can feel scary, but it is better to confront problems head on and as early as possible. Wait until you are no longer angry or in the heat of an emotion and then ask for a moment to speak to them–calmly and with purpose. Think about what you will say before the conversation so that you are not pulled off track by unimportant details, excuse making or emotional manipulation. Decide where you are and aren’t willing to compromise, then stick to those main points/concerns/needs, and don’t apologize! If you start to get heated again, take a break. Tell them you have to use the bathroom and do some deep breathing until you can collect yourself. If you’re reactive your message will be lost.
Thankfully, most people are generally good and want you to be happy while you take care of their kids! If your family is unwilling to treat you the way you deserve to be treated then find another job immediately. If your family is doing something illegal, you can march yourself to Prud’hommes and land them in a world of trouble, so don’t be intimidated by threats regarding your lodging, receiving your salary, visa status, etc. You’re a human being and you deserve respect. Your life is also important.
*All names have been changed.