What do you call someone who takes you to school, picks you up from school, gives you a snack and does your homework with you, plays and makes dinner, gives you a bath, feeds you, brushes your teeth, reads you a story, and usually puts you to bed?
That was my life last year, five days a week. If it sounds like parenthood, it’s what it felt like too. But I was an au pair, and at the end of eleven months, I disappeared and left the three kids I’d grown to love for good.
In France the official term of au pair is “jeune fille au pair,” literally young girl au pair. I wasn’t that young, compared to the other girls who were 17 or 18, and living away from home for the first time. I was 24, already spoke French, and didn’t end up living in the same house as the family. It was better for everyone to have that separation, because over the course of the year, I felt as if I vacillated between mother and servant, family member and cleaning lady.
The kids were incredibly loving and sweet, always climbing all over me for kisses and hugs. They were also competitive for any attention from adults and weren’t as developed as kids their age should be (the five year old had trouble wiping after using the toilet, for example). I quickly discovered that being raised by other au pairs during the school year, and often by their different grandmothers during the summer, meant that the children were experts at pushing boundaries to see what my limits were. The fact was that the parents still to this day see their children as projects, and spent almost no time with them, preferring to have them taken care of by a native English speaker so as to enhance their skills for school later.
Although adults may discount their feelings, even three-year-olds know when their parents don’t want to spend time with them. The littlest boy, when he would hear the dog next door crying because it was kept outside, would ask me why it cried. When I said it wanted to see its owners, he nodded understandingly. “Just like I want to see my mom,” he said. The five year old would enact little revenges on her parents by hiding in strange places, or by trying to run away (once making it to the end of the road before they caught her). The eight year-old would notice when the drawings and presents she made for her parents landed in the trash, and so she stopped making them after a while.
I would usually go home much later than I had been promised (around 8:30PM or later), covered in yogurty handprints and exhausted. But still I was enamored with these kids, with their hilarious personalities and serious kid-thoughts. Many, many times I thought about quitting after being spoken to by the parents like less than a person. Often, the mother would sabotage something fun that I would do with the kids, like making cookies or playing outside, would be deemed “too dangerous.” But I was too emotionally attached to leave, and I stayed through the end of the year. I had to fight back tears when we said goodbye. The littlest boy didn’t understand, but the two girls clung to me so that I barely couldn’t make it outside.
Still now, after my time as an au pair has ended, my heart hurts to think of the kids. I’ve seen them a few times since I left, and I send them postcards so they know I’m thinking of them. But I wonder how on earth they’ll deal with having stable relationships when, during their childhood, their primary caregivers changed every year.
For myself, it was a venture into parenthood that I wasn’t prepared for but that I don’t regret. I am not planning on having kids, but I do feel like I have more insight now into just how enormous a commitment children are. I don’t know that I can go down that road ever, for many other personal reasons too. But I’m grateful for the kids that I know and the opportunity to make them cake and give them hugs, if only for a year.
Fiona* wrote this for Flux, an online forum for those of us encountering adulthood. She is the proud daughter of hippies and in a committed relationship with chocolate; she has a severe aversion to confrontation, shoes, and Adulting.
*This piece was submitted anonymously and Fiona is a pseudonym