The other side of the au pair story

When S started reception 2 years ago, I decided to go back to work full time. It had been a while and truth be told, I missed working/having some sort of purpose beyond him. However, with the cost and inflexibility of child care, especially in London, it makes going back to full time work quite difficult, especially as a single parent. It was then that I looked into getting an au pair. I sought the assistance of a friend’s nanny and after going through a few CVs, I came across Belen – a 25 year old Spanish girl who’d been an au pair before and wanted to come back to London.

She started in October 2016 and it wasn’t long before she was very much a member of our family. She ate dinner with us, taught S a few Spanish words, dropped him to school and picked him up. She was interested in learning how to cook Indian food and when Christmas came around, 4 year old S was very excited as I took him shopping to buy her a present. I cried when she left.

An au pair is supposed to be a cultural exchange, where a young person comes to live with you and in return for boarding and lodging, they provide childcare services, acting as a big brother/sister to your child. It’s typically 25-30 hours a week for approximately £80-£120 per week “pocket money” plus transport.

Belen left after 6 months (we’re still in touch), that was always the plan, and we then had two au pairs, Cindy and Damla. Both were here on an 11 month short term student visa from Indonesia and Turkey respectively, to better their English. We unfortunately had a negative experience with both of them. Cindy ignored me when I asked her not to give S juice from the carton she was drinking from, when I asked her not to buy him an ice cream and when I asked her not to give him crisps at 8:30am. She hung her dripping wet underwear on our bannisters and when she finally left, the room she had was in a state with period stains on the sheets. She lasted 2 weeks and I asked her to leave when she approached a friend at tennis camp, where she was picking S up, and asked her to book her an Uber home.

Damla arrived and spent 19 out of 24 hours in her room, which was a tip, with hair and bits of cotton wool mashed into the carpet. I’d have to ask her to clean the bathroom she shared with S 5 times before it was half-heartedly done and I regularly tidied up in the kitchen after her. I genuinely felt like I was paying her to stay with me and that she was only here because she wanted to live in Central London.

1 family, 3 different experiences – and this is what writing should be like – both sides of the story. I was shocked to come across a Guardian article by Rosie Cox (probably written to drum up some PR for her book “Au pairing in the 21st century”) where she described au pairing as “low paid domestic work”. The article is very one sided and from what I can tell, Rosie has gone onto various Facebook au pair groups, posting questions pretending to be a host mum to get some feedback for her article. It’s disappointing to see the Guardian publish such a biased view of what being an au pair is like.

Go onto FB au pair groups and you’ll see host families asking questions like “How can I make my au pair feel comfortable when she arrives?” and “What sort of goodies do you leave for your au pair in her room when she starts?” You also see posts from au pairs looking for a host family in London, ONLY in zone 1 or 2. Other posts have included points like “I will not do any house work”, “I will not work on weekends”, “I expect ATLEAST £150 a week”, “I’m coming over with my boyfriend and we’d like a family who wants both of us”, etc. There was a post where an au pair had gotten into university in Glasgow and so was looking for a host family there. For a student, 25 hours a week of childcare is not a lot to ask in return for free accommodation (WiFi, etc. included) and food while she studies at university. It’s a win win situation.

On another occasion, prior to Cindy starting, I had a girl approach me to be our au pair. She was working in Cambridge and intended to leave that family (working parents, 3 kids) with no notice. She wouldn’t let me get any references as she lied to the host mum saying she had to go home for a family emergency. I’ve also heard of stories where au pairs come home drunk at 4am and can’t wake up to take the child to school the next day and other instances where they’ve stolen from host families and then done a runner.

Like with anything in life, there are two sides to a story. Of course, you’ll have host families who mistreat their au pairs but an au pair has a choice – he/she can leave at any time they like, usually with 2 weeks notice. Responsible journalism would have given two sides to the story, not painted au pairs as “slaves” when I think the majority are actually quite happy and are living and working in a situation that suits their needs, as well as the needs of their host family.

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