Although I only au paired in Italy for two months, I was still able to learn a couple of valuable lessons about this artful business that I wish I’d been told from other blogs beforehand. So here is a list of things that you might or might not have heard of about au pairing that I believe are worthy of mentioning:
1)Decide whether you want to au pair in the big city or countryside.
This is crucial as it effects how you commute to other places in the country and maybe even out of it if you travel a lot during your free time. For some, they prefer the more ‘cultural’ experience of staying in the countryside, but the downside of that would be the inevitable commute to the city in order to travel anywhere else. For me, I stayed in Florence city after being contacted by a couple of families from different Italian cities and towns. I decided on Florence as it’s rather central for travelling in Italy in general, as every train line would go past this Renaissance city that is the capital of Tuscany.
2) Whether you choose to stay in a city or a country town, know where your host family’s house is in terms of its city/town.
This is something I wish I had known before my au pair journey. We all know that Florence is a very historical city, but my host family lived in a modern suburb about 4km from the centro historico (historic centre). While au pairing there, I had a friend who lived a 500m away from the historic centre and would walk past Piazza del Duomo on the way home everyday, but for me I had to detour from my host kids’ school in order to see the Duomo. Her host family lived in an apartment filled with out-swing casement windows, but I instead had a very modern flat that resembles what an apartment back home in Australia looked like. I can’t help but hold the belief that being outside a city so renowned for its history takes away the magic that it had.
3) You’re not really expected to know what your duties are until you get there.
This seemed to be the case with all my other au pair friends too. All we had found out before arriving was basically what our rough working hours were and how old the children were. Everyone seems to have a ‘formal’ meeting with their host parent as soon as possible after their arrival.
4) Remember that most families with au pairs are quite wealthy, which means the kids are very likely to be spoilt.
For me, this was the biggest shock of all. I knew my host family was affluent, but I should’ve prepared myself for what sorts of personalities I should expect. In Italy, most people start their own families late (in their 40s) as it generally takes longer for people to succeed in the workforce. This was the case for my host parents who worked their asses off until they landed in their current position as managers. However, because my host kids were born after the family’s wealth was established, and were considered ‘miracles’ due to the low fertility late brought about by old age, they had everything they wanted. I remember that on the first day of my arrival, I was jet lagged and sleepy, but my first impression of one of my girls was her shouting at her mother for giving away her leftover Christmas lollies to a family of 6 with no Christmas presents, let alone lollies.
5) The first few weeks WILL be very tough, and you will probably want to quit.
Again, after meeting a couple of other first time au pairs, this seemed to be a common trend. Whether it’s adjusting to a new family’s life, getting used to the kids, or coping with the unexpected amount of work, everyone seems to hit the point where they’re on the verge of quitting. Some hold on and eventually get used to it. However, the pressure of it all would understandably be too much. For me, I really wanted to quit because of how inconsiderate my kids were. I even wrote on my travel journal on the first day there that: “I’ve never met kids as selfish as these,” and that’s probably the saddest thing I’ve written because normally I love kids. Knowing I only had to cope with the kids for a few weeks, I held on, and I think my relationship with the kids did get better- they got sweeter towards the end of my stay.
6) Don’t feel guilty for saying: “No” occasionally.
Everyone said I had the dream family- I basically had no duties as an au pair as all I had to do was to be there with the kids before and after school to speak English to them. But because I had so much luxury, I always felt bad for refusing to do any extra duty being asked of me, i.e. babysitting without the parents’ presence on a school night, putting the kids to sleep etc. While I didn’t mind these duties as I would have normally been ‘working’ anyway, I did feel like there was so much extra pressure on me without the parents there. My host kids simply would not listen to me! In hindsight, I know that while I didn’t feel like I was doing anything, I was giving the kids an invaluable experience with an English-speaker. Time was what I was giving. Once you establish your duties as an au pair, feel free to say: “No” to any extra work, as hard as it is.
7) Be honest with your au pair family, and talk to them about how you’re feeling.
This is something I wish I did. When I was still new, I didn’t tell them that I wanted to quit. I didn’t tell them the kids were being difficult. I didn’t tell them that I felt guilty for feeling like I’m not giving back. Instead, I bottled everything up, which they assumed was because I missed my family a lot. The only way to prevent these problems from happening to future au pairs is to raise these issues, as hard as it was at the time. Now, I really regret not talking about them, because the next au pair in my host family (who’d arrived about a week after I’d left), left without saying goodbye after about a week. I can only infer that her reasons to quit were probably similar to mine.
8) Choose your country of au pair carefully.
At first, I just thought to myself that because I’d never gone to Europe before, Italy would’ve been a great place to be the start of one of many European adventures. What I didn’t consider was what the Italian culture that I had to assimilate to. For me, I absolutely love travelling alone. For Italians however, families and connections are everything, which is why I had countless stares in the public whenever I walked about alone or ate a meal with a book in my hand. And because randoms would approach me and start questioning my incentives, I was always very self-conscious. I think this also made me miss my own family a lot! Consider your country of au pair as if you’re considering which destination to travel alone to.
9) Remember that every family is different!
Every host family wants something different from their au pair. While some of my au pair friends were treated more as nannies, I knew from the very get-go that all my family wanted was to provide their family a cultural immersion. While you might complain about your au pair life or brag about it to others, remember that the whole experience is ultimately shaped by your host family, so try to really get to know your them. It’s a reciprocally respectful relationship you need in order for all be comfortable!
10) Expect to still spend a lot of money.
Au pairs usually don’t get paid much (I only got paid 50 euros a week!), but luckily I’d stacked up a bunch of savings before I got there, so I could travel around the country. Don’t think of au pairing as work, think of it as a cultural experience 🙂
11) You shouldn’t be working a lot of hours.
I personally had no problems with this as I had like 5 ‘working’ hours a day, but some au pairs had a different story. You can check these laws online to make sure you’re not being exploited.
12) For god’s sake, get out of the house and explore.
I met a lot of other au pairs who had been there for at least 3 months and hadn’t even explored Florence city. Once the kids were at school, they’d just spend all day at home Skyping their friends. Hello? You’re in a new country! Don’t use “I’m too tired!” as an excuse and just suck it up, princess.
13) Everyone should try and be an au pair at least once in their lives 🙂
While this post may sound like it’s criticising what being an au pair is like, that’s not the aim of this blog. I simply wanted to shed light on what I didn’t read about au pairing and wish I had. In fact, I don’t regret the experience for one second. For me, it was a quick stint at motherhood, as I know it’ll be useful one day. I’ve returned with countless stories about my journey abroad. I feel like I’ve gotten to see both the touristy spots of Italy and the off-the-beaten-path towns where I’d find nobody who speaks English. I’ve gotten a pretty good understanding of the Italian culture. For me, the most important thing that I took from this experience was knowing that I’d made an ongoing connection with a second family that’ll stay in my hearts forever. I’ve been updating them on my everyday life back at home, and so have they. That’s all that matters in the end 🙂