For the majority of my life, two facts have held true: I love playing Mother Hen (to kids, friends, baby cats found in motel rooms . . . everyone, really) and I adore la culture française. So naturally, the idea of working as an Au Pair in France had always been a dream of mine — a dream I decided to chase this past Spring.
"We treat our Au Pair like a big sister to the children and hope they'll help out around the house just as we expect our kids to," my host family had shared during our first Skype meeting. So I was more than ready to chip in with chores and even deal with the occasional temper tantrum, when I made my way across the Atlantic. I was not, however, ready for kids calling me "l'esclave" (slave), scrubbing shower tiles with my toothbrush, or walking in on adolescent boys masturbating to The Flash.
In other words, my Au Pairing reality didn't quite live up to my expectations. And while it has been a great lesson in patience and the French language, there are definitely a few things I wish I had known before throwing myself into this experience. Here are five things (warnings, if you will) I would tell my past self and any future Au Pairs out there . . .
1. Come Prepared
Mentally, physically, literally – do everything you can to be as ready for this adventure as possible (like a Boy Scout!). My host family told me they'd had Au Pairs for more than eight years, so I assumed they had a fairly solid routine in place. They did not. And sure, I brought over a few coloring books and Reese's Cups, but I constantly found myself wishing I had stuffed my suitcase with American board games and Mad Libs to help the kids expand their English vocabulary (and stay busy). Knowing how to ride a bike might have been helpful, too.
2. It's Not a Job For Homebodies
If binge-watching Netflix series and eating pints of Ben & Jerry's is your favorite way to unwind (as it is mine), know that this kind of "me time" is harder to come by as a live-in Au Pair. When the whole family is spending their Sunday at a rugby tournament or reorganizing the attic, it's tricky to grab a spoon and sneak back to your bed without getting some disappointed looks. If you're in need of a little alone time, I'd recommend a stroll around the neighborhood or trip to the local store — grocery shopping can be surprisingly soothing.
3. You Will Probably (Definitely) Make a Fool of Yourself
This one's true of any experience in which you're speaking a foreign language, especially Au Pairing. Accept that you are going to mispronounce words, string together nonsensical phrases, and — every now and then — a 12-year-old will trick you into saying "asshole" in French. Just don't let any of that keep you from speaking; practice makes perfect, after all.
4. "European" and "Well-Behaved" Are Not Synonymous
For whatever reason, I was under the very incorrect assumption that because these children were French, they were inherently well-mannered. That was not the case. Remember that kids are kids, and they're going to do things like throw spaghetti and slam doors in your face, no matter their nationality.
5. It's OK to Say No
Being the compulsive people pleaser that I am, saying "no" is a skill I'm still struggling to master. Sure, I'll clean your entire bathroom on my day off! Of course you can sleep until two in the afternoon! But when the kids started throwing actual knives(?!), a 4-year-old tried to bite my face, and my host mom asked me to keep an eye on her preteen son in the bath, it had to be said. Know your boundaries, and don't be afraid to draw those lines in the sand (with both children and their parents).