Au pairs and host families, can we please call a truce?
The whole idea of the au pair scheme was to promote international harmony, not widen the gulf between nations.
Well men, bless ’em, with their metrosexuality and feminine sides (and fronts judging by the moobs on show on my beach holiday) have conceded a little and shifted towards the middle ground. They meet us, oh about quarter way these days.
Perhaps hostility rushes to fill a vacuum, because a new domestic war has been declared. This time it’s behind the nursery curtains. I have to say it’s the au pairs that started it.
Au Pair, a recently published book dishes the domestic dirt on the British host family in earthmover quantities. The quote attributed to it I can’t get out of my head is “These people have no shame and behave as swines,” Oh the denunciation!
What makes it hard to dismiss is that the co-authors are serious academics. Daniel Miller, PhD is Professor of Material Culture at University College London. Zuzana Burikova (as a Jane, I always envy high scoring scrabble letter names) graduated from Comenius University, Bratislava. Her résumé includes a stint as Honorary Associate Researcher at the UCL, which is how she may have hooked up with Daniel. Her ‘communication languages’ according to her CV posted on the Slovak Academie of Sciences website includes English. I am gleeful to record that it is not without its spelling howlers.
Then came a riposte in The Daily Mail by Shona Sibary, in an article titled: ‘Au pairs hate us? It's mutual’. Shona condemned her first au pair for announcing 'I don't clean toilets’. I did find myself thinking ‘I don’t blame you. You’re not a janitor.’ The primary responsibility of the au pair is the family children. Cooking, cleaning and laundry should just cover the children’s needs. No host family should expect the au pair to clean toilets.
She also wrote of a girl from South Africa who left a letter 'This is too hard. I quit.' on her bed. Sibary found it after work at midnight. Might the clue be getting in from work that late? Au pair’s hours aren’t supposed to extend to the following morning in a straight shift.
I was proud of my fellow Brits who responded to the online version of the article. Of the 24 comments visible, 19 supported the au pair’s view, 2 were on other matters and only 3 backed host-mother Sibary - all of those appearing under the ‘worst rated’ tab.
This failure of au pair and host family to get along is more than mere tension in the home. When you consider how the au pair scheme started in the first place, it’s a tragedy.
Following the horrors of the First World War, Britain and Switzerland agreed to offer its young citizens reciprocal access. To help make an extended stay affordable, lodging and pocket money was payment in kind for childcare. The work was never meant to be full time. Au pairs were expected to spend a couple of hours a day in language study. International understanding and cultural exchange was the whole point. Sadly another World War was being raged little more than 20 years later. And now a third is in danger of breaking out in the nurseries and playrooms of Britain.
Who’s to blame? Well, as the owner of an au pair finder website myself, I have a view on this. Many of the old au pair bureaux disappeared with the coming of the Internet. And on the Internet, quantity is all. There are sites out there with thousands of registrations that recruit dozens of new au pairs every day. They promise kind families and lovely adventures and make it too easy to upload a profile. How many other jobs can you apply for in a few minutes?
When au pairs register on my site, they now receive an email from me explaining that the fun comes second to getting the job done. I don’t peddle dreams to au pairs. I counsel reality. If I don’t receive a written reply from the au pair that convinces me that my words have sunk in, that profile comes down. I also advise them to make a video introduction. I don’t care if they look good. I want the applicant to demonstrate effort.
My website might be tiny, but it’s doing its bit to help the au pair - host family relationship because I believe in the scheme. If Britain had an open au pair exchange with Iraq through the nineties, do you think Tony Blair could have taken us to war in 2003? I honestly don’t think so. So come one Professor Miller, Doctor Burikova and you, Shona Sibary; accentuate the positive. International harmony is good for our children and might still be a force for good when our grandchildren come along.
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http://www.VideoAuPair.com is an on-line au pair and host family introduction service. Times are tougher for au pairs. Currently there are three hopefuls chasing each family. Video introductions give the applicant a chance to demonstrate their skill in the host country language and present a richer presentation of character than a still picture can.