Racist Hosts, Overworking, and Red Flags
As a young 18-almost-19 year old, I wanted to see the world, learn about new cultures, maybe pick up a new language, and, most (not) importantly follow my then-boyfriend to western Europe. Arguably, the least expensive way to travel Europe as a young teen is to become an au pair. It’s meant to be a kind of cultural exchange; Ideally, the host family provides room and board as well as cultural immersion (often in the form of language classes) while the au pair becomes part of the family and can explore the hosts’ country, city, or even continent on their free time!
Picking My Host Family
While I was deciding which country to au pair in, I browsed extensively on AuPairWorld, which is a website dedicated to connecting au pairs with host families. It’s full of useful information, from advice about acquiring visas to stories from seasoned au pairs. Eventually, considering the time period during which I wanted to au pair, the apparent friendliness of hosts that I had contacted, and, unfortunately, distance to my (now ex) boyfriend, I chose a family in the Netherlands who had two year old twin boys.
This family seemed very nice and practical over Skype calls. They were a family with many allergies, but seemed willing to support me in my own dietary needs. Their kids seemed very cute and sweet (I’ve babysat extensively and, yes, I did know that twins would be a lot of work) and their parents informed me that they had a hard time eating solid foods due to medical reasons. I was, however, a bit confused because the host family already had a nanny. I wondered why they’d need a nanny on top of an au pair, especially as the mother was home all the time. These small worries, I would later realize, were HUGE red flags.
As an au pair, you’re supposed to be part of the family, have a schedule, and, depending on your country, not work over a certain number of hours per week. Every country has different regulations, but in the Netherlands, au pairs are not allowed to work more than 30 hours per week, and even then no more than 8 hours per day, 5 days a week. After a few very positive Skype calls with the parents, I decided to jump in and just do it.
And Cue the Nightmare
Not even 3 weeks into living with this host family, I knew something was wrong with how much I was working and the tasks I was doing. I was working upwards of 2 hours over my 8 hour daily limit and well over the 30 hours per week. After my one month check in with my agency, they didn’t do anything to help my situation and just told me to “work faster and stop being distracted.” If I was distracted, it was only despairing about the amount of tasks I had to do; even just feeding the children took almost an hour in total because of the difficulty they had eating and with their oral fine motor skills and all of their eating utensils had to be meticulously sterilized before use. In addition to the usual au pair tasks, like monitoring the kids and tidying up, I was also pressured into and required to perform tasks that were explicitly forbidden and strongly discouraged for au pairs to do. These tasks included making dinner for the entire family and, frequently, extended family every night, cleaning the entire kitchen even when I didn’t use it, and doing and folding laundry for the entire household.
The sheer amount of tasks (and mountains of laundry) alone were enough to make me go crazy, but that wasn’t all. Despite the physical exhaustion that looking after two wild and rambunctious twins entails, navigating around the host parents turned out to be just as, and probably even more, emotionally draining than my other duties. These parents seemed to be anxious, as any well-meaning parents, about the well-beings of their biological children. However, this anxiety transferred onto me by way of my own basic empathy and their own projection. Of course, watching young children is a job that requires responsibility and vigilance, especially when they’re little boys who constantly fight. The parents had strict rules to never take my eye off them and always be ready to separate them from each other. This occupied nearly all of the working time that could have been spent completing other chores like folding laundry or tidying the room.
The helicopter parenting of the kids was frustrating and difficult, but once the parents revealed that they wanted to be my helicopter parents as well, I started to get uneasy and the stress really started. As an au pair, there can be very little social interaction with people who are not your host parents or kids. It can be a lonely, kind of isolated job sometimes, especially if you have an irregular schedule or don’t often have 2 days off in a row (which I did not). After a couple weeks of isolation from anyone close to my age or with any similar experiences, I began to get a little cabin fever. However, my host parents had set a strict curfew of 12AM on nights before a working day (which was extremely difficult because I often finished all of my chores at around 9:30 or 10) and on nights before a free day my curfew was 2AM. This made it difficult to go out because, even though there were a few cute restaurants and bars around my host parents’ house, the city center was a 20-30 minute bike ride (if I didn’t get lost) and about a 45 minute bus ride away. If I finished work at 10, that only gave me about an hour in the city on work days — barely enough time to find a restaurant and eat and definitely not very much time to bond with new friends. Basically, the schedule made it increasingly hard for me to have a social life.
Unfortunately, the helicopter parenting didn’t stop there. These hosts decided that they wanted to know exactly where I was going and who I was meeting, even (especially) on my days off. After my ex-boyfriend and I broke up, I started seeing an ethnically Afghan Dutch guy and my host parents went as far as to tell me that they would fire me if I stayed in contact with him because of his religious and ethnic background. They also told me that I was still just a child (who hires a child to watch over their children, really) because I was only 18 and they treated me as if I had never lived away from home (I had been living away from home for almost a year at that point). Honestly, I should have had the courage to leave then, but I stayed because I didn’t want to go home early (oh, the shame) and I was honestly afraid of the host parents, who would even curse at me sometimes and tell me that there was something wrong with me, that I couldn’t manage their household within 30 hours a week.
The Beginning of the End
After a couple months, I met my current boyfriend, Floyd, at my first meeting with a board game club in Amsterdam. After a blow up over me being 2 minutes late for my 2am curfew that night, I really had it in my head to leave. Anything and anywhere, I thought, would be better than living with these people. It didn’t take long for me to finally tell them I wanted to leave. Soon after, I emailed my agency to tell them that I was thinking of a rematch and my agent told me that I should wait a week to see if things improve (literally the worst advice ever). Of course, things didn’t improve.
Less than a week later Floyd invited me to a small get-together with friends close to where I lived. He told me he’d pick me up after I finished work and drop me off at church in the morning (it was a kickback and there would be drinking so of course he wouldn’t be able to drive me home late at night). I asked my host parents if it was okay (don’t ever do that; you shouldn’t have to ask permission to have fun on your day off) and told my host parents where I was going, gave them the address, numbers, and names of the people who would be there like they asked (which I think is a major invasion of privacy), and as I was finishing up my tasks for the night, the father asked me when I would leave. I told him when, and that I’d be back the next day after church. That was a Big. Mistake.
Immediately, the father starting yelling at me, telling me that I was disrespectful and rude for not obeying their rules (which I did obey) and that I was not allowed to stay anywhere overnight without them first meeting everyone there. He and the host mom told me that if I kept being so “disrespectful,” then maybe our arrangement wasn’t working. I was so shocked and angry that I blurted out, “Yeah, I was thinking of going into rematch too.” The father looked shocked, but the mom told me she already knew that. Things happened pretty quickly after that. They finalized the rematch process in a few days, but asked that I stay until the end of the month.
I agreed. But I shouldn’t have.
Fast Forward to the Last Day
Work became even more unbearable than before. I counted the days, hours, and sometimes even minutes before I could leave their house. The host mom seemed to try to pile on every chore she could think of and was more critical of my efficiency and productivity than she had been (which was a feat in itself; she should win an award). I just tried to avoid the parents as much as possible, but I felt really bad leaving their nanny because she was always so nice to me and taking care of those two boys and the household in the way their parents dictated was really a herculean task.
At the end of my contract, I had to clean my room, which, being the procrastinator I was, I saved until the last two days. Unfortunately, while I was cleaning, I lost the SIM card that the host parents had provided to me. I was more than happy to pay for a new SIM card, but when I told the parents, they, of course, viewed it as a heinous offense and freaked out. On top of that, they immediately also told me about some phone bill fees that I had apparently spent over my allowance, but would not show me the invoice and got offended that I had asked to see it. I was tired, anxious, and constantly on the verge of tears so I simply gave them the money and left as soon as possible.
Before I left, however, the host mother didn’t hesitate to give me a piece of her mind. I was almost finished cleaning my room on the morning I was supposed to leave, taking a break, when the host mom came into my room. She told me that I “f*ck everything up,” that I will never be able to survive on my own without someone to take care of me, and that I will “amount to nothing,” afterwards saying that she only said those things because she cares about me and that she hoped that I would realize it some day. I was so tired and numb that I couldn’t help but agree with her, but I wish with a burning passion that I had had the presence of mind to talk back.
Originally, I wanted to leave on a positive note, but after a conversation like that all I wanted was to run out of there as soon as possible. I left and didn’t look back, even when I realized I left the only designer item I’ve ever owned at her house (I’m really sad about this; they were cute Tommy Hilfiger boots that I got 70% off and they were comfy).
LEARN FROM MY MISTAKES!
If there is anything you take away from this long, not-even-comprehensive post about my experience as a legal au pair in the Netherlands, it’s that, as an au pair, the quality of your host family will majorly determine the quality of your experience. (Also, maybe don’t move continents for a boy). Living with this host family was an invaluable learning experience for me, but I was uncomfortable, sad, angry, and tired the entire time; it was probably the furthest thing from positive that you could think of. Be careful when choosing your family! There are many resources available to help you make informed decisions about your au pair year. Blogs like Au Pair, Oh Paris (APOP) and websites like AuPair.com and AuPairWorld.com have a lot of helpful and practical information and they have inspired me to au pair again some day in spite of my bad experience. Don’t forget to also join some Facebook groups and, if you use an agency, network with the other au pairs in your area through them!
Have you had a bad au pair experience? Do you have questions about being an au pair? Leave your comments below!