Elizabeth (greyautumnrain) wrote,

The Great Au Pair Crisis

I have returned to work full time, currently as a contractor at the place I used to work two years ago. I suppose I could say a lot of interesting things about that were it not unwise to discuss the comic ups and downs of one’s workplace on the internet, but really any company of size has a share of comic ups and downs and that’s not what moves me to put in the effort to write a post.

Working full time obviously means I need child care, and we went with what has worked in the past, meaning we got an au pair. We actually ended up switching agencies because we really wanted another au pair from China, and much as we adored our last agency they did not have any Chinese au pairs who were qualified to care for kids under two. We were a bit sad to switch because we loved the local coordinator from our old agency so much, but the language thing is a big deal to us (and State Department regulations mean the “infant qualified” part is non-negotiable.)

We did all the paperwork to apply with the new agency, and we found an infant-qualified Chinese au pair who seemed really nice. She asked practical questions about stuff like how she was going to pick Margaret up from school while she was also caring for the boys and she seemed satisfied with our answers. Best of all, she already had her visa and could arrive just in time to start work before I went back to work. We matched with her and she came over.

At first everything seemed fine. She was good at playing with the kids. There were some things she asked for. She complained about the sheets in her room, which did have a small stain on them, so I replaced them, and there were a bunch of other little things. None of them were unreasonable, but the list did grow. There were also some miscommunications about food. We’d take her out shopping for food, she would make only one or two selections in spite of me urging her to get more stuff, and then a few days later she’d complain about the lack of green vegetables or whatever. It was a touch frustrating, but early on in an au pair/host family relationship miscommunications are common. Still, the first week, while I was still at home went fairly well. Then I started work.

The first week was OK, though a bit stressful. With my past three au pairs I came home every day and asked, “Were they good babies for you?” With all three previous au pairs they said yes about 95% of the time. There was the occasional time when I was told that someone got a time-out for something, and there was sometimes a ‘yes, but’ type answer to cover small misdeeds. Generally it was a positive and very quick debrief and then I could enjoy my kids and the au pair could fix herself dinner and/or enjoy some alone time. This time around, though, I came home each and every night to be told in detail what had gone wrong with no positive comments about the kids at all. I know that the transition was hard on everyone, and I think I listened patiently, but it was sounding a lot like a barrage of complaints about my beloved little ones every time I came home. Another minor frustration was that I had to physically take her to the social security office to get her to go there to get her SSN, and necessary step before she could get a MA driver’s license, which she would need to drive. (You can't dirve on a Chinese licesnce in MA.)

Then there was Monday of week 3, the first day of the second week I was away at work. I came home to quite the tale of woe. My understanding of what happened is that the au pair went to pick Margaret up at school. It was the first really nice day in a while and Margaret wanted to play in the school yard with some of her friends afterward, which the au pair allowed. The au pair told me that after they played for a while she said, “Margaret it’s getting late, can we go now?” (The parents reading this will probably spot the tactical error right away, but for the non-parents you can’t phrase a command or request as a yes/no question with a young child.) It seems that Margaret did leave when the au pair wouldn’t take “no” for an answer to her question, but at some point on the way home she had a melt-down, lay down on the ground and refused to get up for some time.

I talked to the au pair about what had happened. She kept going on about how embarrassed she was and how everyone was looking at her as if she’d done something wrong, and she thought maybe someone was taking pictures. I talked to her about the phrasing thing, and about little kids testing a new care-giver, and I assured her that most of the adults who witnessed the scene were probably sympathetic. I tried to keep the focus on reassurance and how to avoid this in the future, but the au pair just kept coming back to how embarrassing the incident had been for her.

That night Margaret spent the entire night coughing and I kept her home from school the next two days. Perhaps I should have pointed out to the au pair that whatever happened, perhaps Margaret not feeling well was a contributing factor. I stayed home sick myself on Wednesday and Thursday.

Then came Friday. After I got home and settled a bit I started doing a craft project with Margaret. Now that I am working I try to make an extra effort to spend one-on-one time with each kid, and the boys were occupied with other stuff. As we were working the au pair came in and wanted urgently to talk. It soon became clear that she was really upset and I had to stop working with Margaret to talk to her. She again brought up the meltdown incident, and just couldn’t seem to get past it. I again went over the ways to avoid that in the future, talked about kids testing new caregivers, and I told her yet again that the first month is always the hardest and that it would get better. She just kept going back to how embarrassed she was about the incident, and she said she had nightmares about it. I told her I wanted to give her the tools she needed to avoid this happening again, and asked her point blank if it had happened again. She admitted that there had not been a repeat, but then went right back to how upsetting she found the incident. At this point I started to lose patience because not only was she taking up a lot of my kid time, but the conversation seemed to be going nowhere. I asked her a couple of times what she wanted to get out of the conversation, but she always changed the subject instead of answering the question. Finally she said that she wanted to rematch, meaning she wanted to leave us and go to a different family. I suggested that she talk to the local community coordinator (LCC).

To make a long story short, we each talked to the LCC privately and then together on the Wednesday of the fourth week. Much as the LCC and I tried to talk in a positive way about communication and addressing her concerns, it became clear that the au pair had no interest in trying to fix any problems, she just wanted out. That was nine days ago, and so I have a little less than a week left now to find a new au pair and temporary child care before the two week transition period is over. It’s a mess.

One of the things the folks from the agency keeps saying is that these things happen for a reason. I’m sure there is some truth to that, frustrating as this entire scenario is to me. I forget exactly where in the sequence the rainy day thing happened (a week ago Monday maybe?), but as Warren said it makes one a little less inclined to fight to keep her. Here's what happened: It was a rainy day. I got a call from the au pair at 1:50 asking where Margaret’s rain coat was. I replied that Margaret wore it and her rain boots to school since it was a rainy day. By this time it was very rainy and also windy. Pick up for Kindergarten at Margaret’s school is at 2:30, and the school is a 15 minute walk from our house. At 2:18 I got another call from the au pair. “I think it is too rainy, can you ask one of your friends to pick Margaret up and bring her to the house?” I paused and tried to frame a reasonable and composed answer. I pointed out that the school would not release Margaret to another parent without prior notice, which there really wasn’t time to give. The au pair replied that it was really raining hard. I said that I knew this, and I was sorry the weather was so bad. I suggested that once she picked Margaret up that she take shelter in a nearby store until there was a break in the weather. She asked if Warren could get Margaret. I said I had no idea, but if he wasn’t home already I doubted he could get there in time. I think there must have been one more attempt to get out of going, because I also ended up pointing out that if she had been more proactive about getting her driver’s license sorted out she would be picking Margaret up in the car instead of walking in the rain. So, I guess the upside is that while the whole thing is horrible stressful and difficult in the near term, having an au pair who can cope with weather events will be a long term win given that Boston is prone to Weather. In the short term, I'm still looking for a temporary nanny if anyone has recommendations.

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