Overall, my experience as an au pair has been positive. Among other things, I’ve learned about myself, I’ve gotten to see drama of another family, and have seen firsthand how to ruin or increase a young girl’s self-esteem. However, despite my good experience, I want to use this post to warn people who may be thinking about au pairing. Below, you’ll find reasons that from my perspective outweigh the good and are reason enough for me to not encourage others to find work as an au pair.
It’s important to note that this post also comes at a time where I feel a bit claustrophobic from living on an island. If you would have asked me three months ago the drawbacks to my job, I might have mentioned them but they wouldn’t have been such a weight on my shoulders.
I have friends on the island who are also au pairs and their situation is worse in many aspects. I’ve heard stories about everything from jealous and manipulative moms and horrifyingly bratty children to wiping an 8-year-old’s butt and having to stay in on Saturday nights to feed horses. Compared to my friends, I’m extremely lucky. Remember, that all of the critiques are relative. I am fed, I have a lovely house to live in, and I am incredibly privileged in almost every way. But, the idea isn’t to talk about my biases or privilege but rather to discuss of the problematic aspects of au pairing for anyone considering it (especially for people who are considering it as a way to get abroad. There are SO MANY other ways to do so, don’t think this is your only option!)
Here are my top 8 drawbacks to being an au pair:
- Your life no longer belongs to you
It’s difficult for me to explain the feeling of constantly living for someone else. Yes, it sounds horribly dramatic. We are not indentured servants (although many people treat their hired help as such). However, for the first time, my existence in this house is solely for the purpose of working for this woman and her daughter. With this attitude comes a certain disregard for anything related to my personal happiness, my time, or preferences and relates to everything else on this list.
- Your house is not your home
At the current point in time, this is one of the drawbacks that is affecting me the most. The concept of home is one where I am finally able to relax, to forget, to enjoy, to have a base to recharge for the outside world. Now, however, my home conjures feelings of stress and unrest, because I am never able to leave work. I eat, sleep, and relax in my workplace. It is exhausting not feeling that you have a place to let your guard down or escape. It is frustrating to me to have to travel into Ibiza or always go to a friend’s house feel calm (thank god I have friends!).
- Your free time is not yours
Closely related to drawback #2, because my house is not my home, if I am in the house during my “free time” there is a general assumption that I enjoy spending time with the family and I want to do so during my free time. An assumption that I believe is dangerous and easily leads to more dissatisfaction and getting burnt out. I have to reject their invitations and awkwardly tell them that I’d like to sit in my room or read a book or watch TV. Then, it’s uncomfortable, as she acts surprised that I’m not dying to spend every waking moment with them (don’t they get sick of me too?).
- Your house is not your house
It is also very difficult for me not to have a space to invite people over. Whether at my parents’ home or at college, my house was one that always had open doors to everyone who wanted to stop by. I love having my home be the center of social life, be a meeting place, and a space for sharing and collaboration. I love hosting get-togethers, parties, dinner, and facilitating meet and greets to introduce people to each other. I can’t do any of this, because my house is not my house. This was especially taxing because after moving to a new place, I would have loved to have a space to invite over people who I was getting to know. Instead, I always have to meet in a café or other public space.
In other news, I’m only allowed to use my toilet in my separate tiny home. I’m not supposed to use any of the toilets in the main house.
- Your work is not compensated appropriately
While some countries have specific guidelines on au pair contracts, Spain does not. Some websites give “suggestions.” For example, they explain that 30 hours a week, including one night of babysitting, should be compensated by room and board plus 50-70 euros a week of pocket money. The problem (in my opinion obviously) is that it is a completely screwed system for the au pair. Not only do we lose our freedom, our homes, basically our lives, but we are working much more than we could even get compensated for based on the international norms.
Why are the general guidelines problematic? First, if I was a paid tutor, I would charge at least 10 euros/hour (some in Ibiza can charge up to 20). I have a university degree and training that make me competitive as an English tutor. So, if I’m working over 30 hours/week (often more), I should be receiving around 300 euros/week. That means around 1200/month. Because I am living with the family, I’m rent free, right? Yes. But, imagine that this house already existed before I arrived to work for this family. They didn’t have to pay anything extra to put me up here. I could find a room as cheap as 200 euros/month. Imagine, then, how much I am losing out on. If I was paid by the hour and lived in my own apartment, I would be hundreds of euros ahead. But, what about food? I have friends in Ibiza who eat plenty of food, and aren’t particular about the food they choose. They spend around 30 euros a week on groceries. O sea, not enough that it makes sense for me to be compensated with food.
- Your usual weekend activities make you lose big time
One of my favorite things to do with friends (especially since I don’t have a house) is go out to eat. Try new food, try new restaurants, and meet new people. However, when considering that one of the ways I am compensated for my work is through food, it doesn’t make any sense to eat out. Again, it seems like a small sacrifice (and ridiculous – millions of people around the world could never afford the food I eat!), but over the course of months, and when you’re not compensated as you should be, it starts to bother you.
- Your personal life mixes with work life
When I first arrived in the house, I was stuck. I was in the middle of the island and it was already October, which means that the buses stopped running frequently and most of the lines were dropped. There was no bus that passed near my house. I had to walk 2-3 kilometers to find a bus stop. Because of this, I ended up paying over 300 euros in taxis (without realizing it) because I needed to escape so many times. I also ended up doing a lot of activities with the family on the weekends, first because I wanted a ‘cultural experience’ and second because they didn’t really give me an option not to (“we’re going to eat at a friend’s house. Do you want to eat lunch [read: do you want to eat today]?”). It went along with the assumption that I am dying to spend time with them.
However, the free time I spent with them on the weekend, was it really free? I chose to go with them, but was I ever not working? I was playing and working with the girl the whole time. What constitutes work and what is fun? If I am performing the same job? It is confusing, and a bit deceiving. I can’t ever tell if they are inviting me because they want to be welcoming or they just want free labor.
Then, they make you feel bad or act like they miss you when you’re not there. When it comes down to it, you have to remember that it is a job. They are not your friends, they are not your family. You are here because you need to work. Is that how you’d like to spend your free time? It would be nice if I could feel that I wanted to spend a lot of time with them, and even in my free time. I can’t seem to shake the feeling of being taken advantage of in those situations.
Small rant: The low point for me has been the three times they’ve invited me on vacation with them. But no, it’s not like in the movies when they pay for everything and eat at fancy restaurants. They expected me to pay for my flights. So, you want me to pay to spend my vacation working?
- Your hours are confusing
There are no clear cut hours. Yes, I’m with the girl from 4:00pm every day until when she goes to sleep. But when does she go to sleep? It depends on the night. It depends on if her mom is talking to one of her friends on the phone for two hours. It depends if the mom has friends over. It could be 7:00pm or 11:00pm. You don’t get to go into an office, have a shift, and leave. In the way it’s set up, it makes it difficult to plan anything for yourself. It also relates to drawback #1: you are not in control of your hours, therefore you lose some control over your life. You don’t depend on you anymore, everything depends on them and their wants and needs.
It is crucial to note that not all au pairing experiences are the same. There are advantages and disadvantages to every situation and every family. There could be much better and there could be much worse, and in the end it depends on your personality. My family is overall kind and has offered to show me and explain to me many things. But in the end, they are not my family nor are they my friends. And as a grown woman used to living independently and doing things on her own time, it has been very overwhelming.
What have your experiences been? Write me or tweet at me at @yasminesoyyo