Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Au pairing: the final chapters

In little over two weeks my au pairing contract will be finished, and my remaining time with this family feels like the stirring stages of waking up from a very strange dream. Increasingly I have the feeling that, had I known beforehand how challenging this experience would be, I would have had second thoughts about jumping into it quite so blindly. However that does not mean to say that I regret spending almost a year as an au pair. I have changed hugely as a person, met incredible people from all over the world and had huge amounts of fun during my time spent so far in Weimar.

I maintain (see my last post) that one of the fundamental flaws of au pairing is that it is unnatural for a twenty-something university graduate used to living on their own to then go back to family life and have to adjust their lifestyle and, to a certain extent, their attitude and morals, to that of a group of strangers. Before becoming an au pair, I had not lived with my own family long-term for nearly four years and was accustomed to being able to dictate how and when I did things in my daily life. Living with a host family means that you always bear a certain amount of responsibility towards them, which can become exhausting after a while. When I am with my host parents, I cannot be the same person that I am when I am with my friends- I always have to be careful not to say the wrong thing or make a joke that they don't see the funny side of.

Straddling the boundary between employee and family member has been one of the hardest things for me to overcome about being an au pair and after a few months in this job I came to accept that I would never feel completely comfortable living like this. In a way, always living out of my comfort zone is one of the things which has changed me the most from this year, and looking back I think it has done me a huge amount of good, but it does mean that at 'home' (I still hesitate to call this house that word) I exist in a permanent state of never quite relaxing.

My host parents have told me that I appear unwilling to totally integrate myself into their lives and that I seem more concerned with my own; my response to this would be ('would be' because I cannot tell them how I really feel- I live in their house, they pay my wages) that it would be abnormal for someone at my stage of life to feel any differently. I feel as if I have relinquished my status as an independent adult in becoming an au pair and I crave the freedom which my friends take for granted. I am not lazy in my work and I always try hard to please these people, but I sometimes feel suffocated by my living situation and need to distance myself from it, which is something my host parents seem not to understand.

One of the things which I think appeals to potential au pairs is the comfort of family life. However living with a family means that you are exposed to all aspects of these people's personalities, and they in turn see every side of you, whether you would like them to or not. Families work on the basis of unconditional love and acceptance of the fact that mistakes are made, bad days are had and that nobody can be perfect all of the time. I am not saying that my host parents expect me to be some kind of flawless superhuman, but I am aware of the fact that their forgiveness of things I may do wrong will only stretch so far because, when it comes down to it, I am not a member of their family. Living with my employers and their three children is, at times, a struggle for me, and the distinction between work and home is something which I desperately miss.

This sounds like I have had a negative experience this year, which is worlds away from the truth. I have had a lot of good times spent with my host family and the children especially, but the living situation of an au pair is a strange one and now my time here is drawing to a close I am able to think about it more objectively and I wanted to put my thoughts into words.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Thoughts on the au pairing experience (thus far).

Last week saw my halfway point here in Weimar- six months down, six to go. Although I believe that I still haven't quite worked out exactly how I feel about the whole experience, I have come to the conclusion that my time au pairing has been simultaneously one of the hardest and most rewarding periods of my life.

One of the main difficulties I have faced in this job has been that of living with my employers, and I am still wondering why the possibility of problems arising from this didn't occur to me when I was considering becoming an au pair in the first place. The basis of au pairing is that the au pair is treated like one of the family (luckily I can say that my host family has treated me very well and have really made an effort to integrate me into their lives), however unfortunately the same liberties are not granted to the au pair themselves and I still feel as if I am living with my bosses and have to alter my behaviour accordingly. I am not sure whether my host parents know the real me, and to live with two adults in this way creates a somewhat strange environment.

An issue stemming from this is that I have no real equal within the house, which is ironic given that the job title 'au pair' implies equality. In my first few weeks here I spent a lot of time trying to work out where I belong in this house, and sadly I have come to the conclusion that I will always be something of an exception. These people are already a complete family and when spending time with all five of them I feel not only slightly surplus to requirements, but also that I am intruding into their lives. I often have to remind myself that it was in fact out of my host parents' free will that they decided to employ me as an au pair, as I cannot help the feeling that it must not be easy for them either to have a relative stranger living in their house.

Au pairing is not a regular 9-5 job: you live in your workplace and therefore are more or less 'on duty' at all hours of the day. Certain things that you may have taken for granted previously are off-limits when living with a host family. Want to loaf about in front of the telly for half an hour after getting back from somewhere? Can't do that. Are you hung over after a Friday night out and want to shut yourself in your room for the day? Saturday might be your day off, but your host parents won't be pleased if you do that. Fancy cooking your favourite meal? Well you can't, it's spicy and the kids won't eat it. As an adult used to having a large degree of freedom, it can feel very trapping to have to adapt completely to another family's lifestyle and values.

However as I said earlier, au pairing has also been a very positive experience for me. The last six months have passed by incredibly quickly for me and I know that this is because I have been busy for the majority of my time here, either with my host family or with my ever-expanding circle of friends here in Germany. I have been lucky with my host family- the problems I have listed stem more from the basic concept of au pairing rather than any specific problems I have with the people I live with. I know that the challenges I have faced here have been good for me, and I feel as if over my time here I have somehow become a different person- if not better, then at least more self-sufficient. And lastly my command of the German language has also greatly improved, which was my reason for coming here and is one of the reasons why I have full intentions of sticking it out for the whole year here.

Roll on the second half. Expect a full-time update in another six months.