On being an au pair: When it rains, it pours

I had no idea how so much water could come from the sky at once. It was December, it was pouring, and it was time for the first graders to leave the building.

I stood with my umbrella, willing it to stay right-side-in as the wind blew. My large bag and a sack full of a six-year-old’s rain boots plus her Hello Kitty umbrella weighed down my shoulders. The six-year-old belonging to the umbrella appeared in the school doorway, and with a nod from her teacher, walked toward me, brandishing her belongings. Here, Heh-LEE, take this drawing I made so it doesn’t get wet. Take my backpack (« quartable » in French). Take my gym bag. With four bags in my hands, I held onto my umbrella and led her away from the school. I am a Statue of Liberty for kids of the haughty 8th arrondissement: give me your bored, your rich, your whining masses yearning for snack cakes.

Right on cue: Heh-LEE, did you bring my my goûter ? ( « Goûter » means “snack” in French; specifically, one eaten in the late afternoon before dinner.) The rain thumped against our umbrellas. It was seeping into my shoes. It would have been senseless to try to get her to change into her boots. We needed to get inside. I pushed through the horde of umbrellas crowded around the school doors — nannies and mothers and fellow clueless Anglophones who were just as impatient to get out of the storm.

Maybe I was reaching for the snack. Maybe I was just trying to adjust the bags so it would be easier to hold this kid’s drawing in the dry air. But somehow, I dropped her Frozen backpack face-down into a puddle. Ana and Elsa’s faces were suddenly mucked with gray water.

The girl saw what I had done instantly. Heh-LEE, NOOO!!!!!!!! And just like the rain, she went from calm to sobbing.

I have tried many times to write a post about being an au pair, which is what brought me to Paris to live this year. But every time I have started, I have stopped. Because there is just too much to say. And, most of the time when I write about being an au pair, I turn into a child myself: curious and creative but also complaining, why me?

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“Why me?” … a thought I think while being covered in Les Monsieur Madame stickers.

It has been seven months since I set foot in Paris with little to no childcare experience under my belt. In the time since September, I have not only learned how to nanny a French kid (though how can one ever completely learn to nanny? Gotten used to it is what I should say), but done so while speaking a language I hardly used before coming here. Moreover, I have slowly grown accustomed to working for a French family I had never met prior to arriving whose every 24 hours is a chaotic ride of unplanned playdates, last-minute doctor appointments, miscommunicated responsibilities and, sometimes, impromptu trips to other countries. (“We’re sorry, Heh-lee, but we’re not going to be home on Sunday because we’re flying to America. Can you be home for dinner with the girls?”) You should know — I love my host family. I would even go as far as to say that I like this job. But, after seven months, I can safely say that for a job with no experience necessary, there is a hell of a lot to it all.

Welcome to the family

Why do people have au pairs? In many countries, bringing a young foreigner to live in a family’s home and to look after its children in exchange for room, board and pocket money is a cultural experience that enriches both parties’ understanding of the world. In Paris, that is part of it. But in Paris, the main reason why families hire au pairs is because they are enormously cheaper than employing a real nanny.

That’s right. Even when you count paying for the au pair’s health insurance, her studio apartment on the fifth floor of the family’s building, her food, her metro pass, her cell phone, her heating and electricity bills, and even some money toward her language school, it is still cheaper than having a full-time French nanny. Paris is a harsh place. The high cost of living drives everyone to work long hours. The rich stay rich by working late into the evening, and saving money by getting someone to watch their kids (a necessity if both parents work from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m.) is no laughing matter.

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When you are an au pair, you need a big bag to carry around snacks, clothing, and doudous — stuffed animals like this here sparkly lamb.

I lucked out by getting a family that provides me with everything it is supposed to. But I have heard stories about ones that try to cut corners even further by denying their au pair food, not paying for her transit, making her do laundry at the laundromat, or even not getting paid. (These families have made the excuse that the cultural exchange is payment enough or that the au pair’s room is her payment. These families sometimes see their children fewer hours out of the week than the au pair does.) Also, though I say “her” because the bulk of au pairs here are young women, there are also other-gendered au pairs out there. My “guy-pair” friend works for a family that eats potatoes, rice, eggs or cucumber every night for dinner and nothing else. His host parents do not buy milk for their cereal, and my friend has lost eight kilos since coming here.)

Even though I am lucky to not have to worry about the conditions of my job, plenty of things came as a surprise to me. Most of all: the way children are.

Wait for me

I am not a particularly patient person. Most of you reading this know that. For those of you who do not, I’ll give you an idea: if I ask for a pen and someone hands me a pencil, I snap back, “I said pen.” I am always running about 10 to 15 minutes late, but the minute someone is five minutes late to meet me, I text them: “You said 12:30. Are you close?” I am a hypocrite about my own time, which I prize like a maniac above everyone else’s.

The first time I picked the six-year-old up, I realized with a jolt that she walks three times slower than me. The walk to her school that takes five minutes for an impatient adult takes her 15. That does not even count all of the stops to kick at garbage, to splash the water tricking down the gutter, or to open doors of random buildings and threaten to go inside. Or — heaven forbid — to throw a tantrum. Like one brought on by me dropping her bag or not making her a snack, two things that in most parts of the world are totally normal for a kid to do herself. But not in Paris’s 8th arrondissement.

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Children get out of school and meet their nannies, mothers and sometimes fathers in Paris’s 8th arrondissement.

So, after 130 or so trips to that school and back, slowing down on the dusty cobblestones to wait for her small, distracted legs to catch up with me, towing notebooks and gym clothes and Mardi Gras costumes and scooters and umbrellas and boots and drawings and sharable treats and three-part snacks that are not my own, I have slowly accrued a bit more patience. It is difficult to avoid that when looking after kids.

Too old

Oh, no. The dreaded question on a Monday afternoon before lunch: On peut aller jouer? “Can we go play?”

Being an au pair has made me realize a few depressing realities. One: I am not a kid anymore.

I will follow the girl reluctantly into her room and sit with her as we imagine we are camping out by a river where we have to fish for our breakfast every day. In the game, we own two cats and a baby rat, and we read stories. It is charming and I actually find myself enjoying games like this. However, I am not always so lucky. Sometimes we play Barbie. Most of the time, we play games in which the girl is a princess/movie star/queen/singer/ballerina/famous person and I am the servant/audience member/mother/fan/ugly best friend telling her how great she is. I find it difficult not to glance at my watch every three minutes as I say “whoa!” and “wow,” knowing that this is not supposed to be about me but at the same time unable to stop thinking of me, and how much I am not enjoying this.

Ten years ago … wait, no … fifteen years ago, I would have been happy to pretend I was a dog’s owner and the neighbor who wants to steal said dog. Now, sadly, the mind I once thought was so limitless is always screaming to get back to more structured territory, like homework time or dinner time. Is this what it means to grow up?

The second depressing reality is actually not so depressing: I am also not quite an adult.

Sometimes, when we are throwing a tennis ball up into a tree or I am pretending to be a funny four-year-old boy we encountered in the park, the girl will laugh and I will find myself genuinely laughing too. I will make up stories and somehow tell them to her in French, and despite my horrid accent and bad grammar, the girl will be thoroughly enthralled in the story and its characters. It gets my imagination turning again in a way that it did on the playground in Saint Paul, Minnesota, grasping for story lines from characters I had just whipped out of my brain: a cowgirl; a cat who can talk; a magical world some kid stumbled upon by falling through a hole in a neighbor’s back yard.

Thankfully, my soul is not totally dead. Is this what it means to not have grown up yet?

Being an au pair brings on all sorts of bad moments. Scootering home from the park, the girl will hit a hole in the sidewalk and tumble down, screaming more out of shock than anything else. Whole afternoons will pass when she will say no to everything I ask her to do, when she will never stop asking for one more cookie, two more minutes of iPad time, five more turns at a game, or 10 more minutes before starting homework. Insults that once made my blood boil are a normal thing to hear now. Sometimes, though, I come up to my room wanting never again to walk those five minutes to the school, to pick up her Frozen backpack or to carry her umbrella in the rain.

But the good moments, just like the rain, pour too. Like reading a book during babysitting and knowing the girl is happy to have me there. Or telling stupid jokes and laughing just as stupidly. Or feeling sheepishly surprised after hearing her say, “sometimes, Heh-lee, you’re very funny.”

I might not be very patient and I might not be very youthful, but I was very, very happy to hear that. Just a few words can make all the other stuff worth it.

Photos from when I am not getting stuff stuck or painted on my face

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One perk of au pairing is getting to check out hidden spots in Paris, like this cute courtyard outside of a dance studio.
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The Centre Pompidou in between hailstorms.
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The brunch at Paperboy in Paris’s 10th arrondissement. With museli, avocado and fromage blanc, the meal from the Anglo-friendly establishment goes by the name le Healthy.
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The view of Notre Dame from next to my language school.
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A note on a building near Sentier: Fanny my love … I miss you, my beauty. I love you.
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