By Cindy Atoji Keene
The first few weeks can be difficult for au pairs who have never been to the U.S.; they need to learn basics ranging from how to use currency and drive larger American vehicles to what idioms like “play it by ear” mean. But thanks to Melinda Brooks and other Au Pair in America staffers, the newly arrived guest worker often quickly feels at home with her host family, helping to take care of young children while enjoying education and cultural exchange programs. “For many families, the live-in component is the best part of having an au pair ¬– it’s truly a global experience and everyone involved learns about new cultures and customs,” said Brooks, who heads up a New England team of Au Pair in America community counselors. The relationship between host parents and au pair is a learning curve; it takes everyone time to adjust, said Brooks. But after two decades of experiencing the ups and downs of au pair transition, she’s able answered all types of questions, from, “Is it fair to schedule an au pair for late night baby feedings?” to “Can I ask my host mom for a cell phone?” Brooks has drop-in coffees, arranges social outings, hosts family meetings, and more, all to help facilitate communication and provide on-the-ground support for all involved.
Q: The au pairs go through a four-day orientation when they first arrive – it includes safety and child development training as well as child-care practices in the U.S. What’s one of the more unusual aspects of the training?
A: We talk a lot about cultural differences and life in the U.S. And believe it or not, it’s the little things, like not knowing how to fold a stroller or operate a microwave, that can be very bewildering. For example, a typical American family has a lot more “stuff” ¬– that’s the word the au pairs use. Not just toys, but infant equipment, like strollers, bouncy seats, wind-up swings, port-a-cribs, high chairs of all sorts, gates, and more. So we have all this equipment in one big room to introduce them to the gear. Just having familiarity with things like that is helpful for them, or anything else they might encounter in the host home.
Q: What countries do most of the au pairs come from?
A: We have about 500 host families in the New England and recruit from over 50 countries; the families in our area tend to gravitate toward Germany, France, UK, South African, Thailand, Brazil and Sweden. There are many au pairs from Western Europe because there of the cultural encouragement for youth to live abroad before settling into careers or finishing university studies. They encouraged “gap years” long before we had heard the term.
Q: What stereotypes do au pairs often have about Americans?
A: One is that Americans only eat junk food; another is that all Americans are workaholics. And still another is that all Americans are overweight. Of course, when they get here, they quickly realize that these are oversimplified images and often far from the truth.
Q: If an au pair will be doing a lot of driving, are there assumptions you can make about their driving experience based on what country they come from?
A: These are all broad generalities with lots of exceptions, but typically Western Europeans tend to be good drivers, because they’re behind the wheel a lot. But in places like Peru, Bolivia, China, Slovenia, Croatia, and some others, most people don’t drive very frequently so the state of Massachusetts requires them to take driving lessons and get their license here. As another example, most Thailanders are good at city driving – going from stoplight to stoplight – but not as adept at interstate driving.
Q: What’s an example of a typical conflict between au pair and host family?
A: Often it’s personality or lifestyle issues. A host family might think an au pair is lovely but not a good role model. They might want to get the kids out every day to kick the soccer ball and shoot hoops, but the au pair might be sleeping in or staying up late. But that’s where I come in to help explain expectations and work through misunderstandings. And worst-case scenario, the au pair or the host family can ask for a rematch.
Q: What’s your “happily ever after” au pair story?
A: I have a family in Lexington that throughout the years had 13 au pairs who helped take care of their children. The kids are older now, so they just said goodbye to their last au pair. When their youngest son made his Bar Mitzvah recently, 12 of the au pairs came back to the states to be there; they flew in from all over the world – Germany, Lithuania, South Africa. It’s a testament to cultural harmony that we don’t often see in the world today.