What Being An Au Pair Taught Me About Domestic Work and Privilege

I was sitting on my bed in my dark, dungeon-esque room in the casa payesa that I was working as an au pair at, reading Rigoberta Menchu’s Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia (Unfamiliar? Read a summary here).

I was on the chapter “Sirvienta en la capital.” Going through the pages, I started to feel very angry. I was so frustrated. I hated everything that Menchu’s abusive “master” (it’s an appropriate word for the situation she was in) did and said to her.

I read the following line and for a second couldn’t breathe:

Y la senora todos los dias andaba vigilandome y me maltrataba mucho. Me trataba como que si fuera no se que, ni como un perro, pues al perro lo trataba bien. Al perro lo abrazaba. Entonces yo decia, “Pero ni siquiera me compara con el perro.

(And the woman every day went around watching me and mistreated me a lot. She treated me as if I was I don’t no, not a dog, because they treated the dog well. They hugged the dog. So I said, “But they don’t even compare me to the dog.)

After reading that line, I stood motionless with eyes wide open. I couldn’t move.  I then started to realize why it hit me so hard. The feeling that she expressed, the feeling of being thrown around and dehumanized was one that I had felt as an au pair.

Don’t freak out. I am in no way trying to compare my experience as a white, socioeconomically stable, nanny-with-a-fancy-word situation to that of an indigenous woman in Guatemala being systematically abused for centuries.

I am, however, cognizant of the fact that for the first time in my life, I have been in a situation of slight vulnerability and being taken advantage of. And I hated it. The feeling that is created after feeling as if you were being taken advantage of is one of the most unpleasant I have ever felt. Rage, frustration, and silence.

I will repeat again, that my situation is very dissimilar from the abuses that have happened throughout centuries to the marginalized. My situation was not Nohemi’s, for example, a young girl who was taken from her home and abused as a domestic worker for a rich family in Colombia for years.

My situation was, however, a toned down, micro-example of how easy it is to take advantage of others. How easily you can slip into situations (being a foreigner, not having a place to sleep, needing money, not having many contacts, not having family) and how dangerous and toxic they can become. And most importantly, my situation was an example of sickeningly well the ones who had power were able to manipulate those that didn’t.

There are two important points to note in regards to my feelings towards domestic workers and au pairing in general. The first, is how I got into this situation in the first place (my need to please, my self-denial, my passivity), and the second, how being an au pair is an excellent highlight of white privilege.

POINT 1How did this happen to me

Let’s discuss the first point: why I was in an uncomfortable situation for months and didn’t do anything about it. The señora pulled the wool over my eyes from the start. A woman that is charming, funny, and social, she captivates you and makes you believe she is just a humble woman with a massive house, properties all of Spain, a handful of expensive cars and a boat. One of the first things she told me was, “I live a simple life.” And I somehow believed her.

As the time passed, I soon started to realize that she is a woman who lives a comfortable and relaxed life, because she has people picking up her messes and figuring out her problems. It’s an attitude of superiority that I have never seen before. It’s almost as if the seven dwarfs were working in her house and she was completely oblivious (behind her repeated speech of how she’s rich but “everyone is equal” and “we all mix together”) to all of the work they were doing for me.

About the time I wrote about why you shouldn’t au pair, I was checked out. Yet, I stayed in the house. I let her manipulative guilt trips guide my decisions. I didn’t put up a fight when she refused to pay me and I found excuses for why I should be doing extra work. As if any of her problems warranted that I work for free.

Her attitude is not unique, however. It’s one that I’ve heard repeated over and over again. It’s a personality flaw, but it also stems from a systematic air of authority solely by being from the upper echelons.

POINT 2When I realized that, despite my frustrations, this is what privilege looks like

Being an au pair, or “domestic worker,” nanny or kanguro, whatever you want to call it, I was associated for the first time with a sector of society that I had never been associated with before (I am very aware of the problematic nature of my situation and my interpretation of the situation). No one I met when I was with the family (unless they asked or were close friends) knew that I had a university degree, for example. No one knew that I have won awards or wrote a thesis or have traveled. Or the fact that my expensive university degree from the United States was paid for by my parents.

Refreshing to not have a reputation, it was also a curious sensation to be grouped into a sector that was completely foreign to me. And mind you this is coming from a girl who believed she was left-wing, has studied human rights and social movements and spent time in the “developing world.”

Yet not of the above had as much impact as putting myself in the situation. People were nice. People were friendly. And especially in Ibiza there a freedom of thought and expression that to my knowledge is unheard of in many other parts. But still, I was not Allison who did this, this and won this. I was the silent au pair who was too stupid to know our language (I do speak Spanish, but they didn’t let me around the girl) and didn’t have any wherewithal to contribute to a conversation.

That feeling hit me hard.

But what hit me even harder (and even harder than reading Rigoberta Menchu) was when I realized that as much as I believed I was suffering, it was nothing compared to my domestic worker peers (and of course, the millions of people who suffer all sorts of abuses on a daily basis).

Because the difference between my peers and I, even though the feelings we might have or the treatment might be the same, is that I have privilege, and they don’t.

I spent time with many Filipino immigrants, as they are common domestic workers. I even heard many people at the private school discussing how, “they were looking for a Filipino because they are silent hard workers and never stop.” I threw up a bit.

The difference between them and I, is that they take care of children, they are nannies. I take care of children, I’m an “au pair.” Even though I was in an uncomfortable situation, I could have left. I have a family who can afford a flight or friends who could lend me money. I have linguistic privilege and many job opportunities solely for being a white American who is a native English speaker.

The main difference, I was horrified to find, is that by the time I realized I was being taken advantage of and wanted out, it was not the same experience for my peers. A few friends who spoke to their domestic worker peers also had similar experiences. The peers didn’t think twice about the treatment they were receiving, or about working 12 hours a day for 500 euros a month, or for being watched constantly to see what they did wrong.

And then it hit me again (man, I just keep getting hit!). It’s easy for me, who has access to resources, possibilities beyond au pairing, a university education, and an overall way out to point out all of the problems with their jobs. It’s easy for me to complain, because I can.

They are not in a situation to do so, however. They are sending money home to their families. They are paying for schooling for the extended family members. They have people and mouths who need their work. Whether it is in good conditions or not. They can’t afford to not have an income, even if it’s a lousy one. This is not my life. My life was not destined to be a domestic worker. I have resources and options. And this sickens me. It’s hard to me to swallow.

And the cycle continues. This is how abuses happen, and this is also how they continue (oversimplified? Yes.But there is some truth to it).

Why Do Shitty Experiences Matter?

I’m still trying to digest my experience this past year and what I want to do with it. How I want to go about transforming the working conditions and attitudes, and dreaming big, world power imbalances.

The one thing I have realized for sure, is that I am so grateful to have been put in an uncomfortable situation. Pablo Picasso said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” I’m not certain that I’ve fully learned, but the next time I find myself in similar circumstances, I will handle it better.

I am also eternally grateful for the opportunity to feel for the first time, a sense of real solidarity with someone different from me. I have sympathy. I’ve always had sympathy. I believe in a universal system of human rights and a standard of treatment for all human beings.

But it has never meant more to me than it does now. Although my situation was clearly not comparable to the abuses most domestic workers suffer, I feel empathy for the first time. There is a switch that only comes from having experienced first hand. It holds a different weight. It hits closer (yet again, the hitting!) to home and creates more rage and frustration (but I’m trying to handle that rage and frustration in a constructive way, while still seeing the power abusers as human. It’s a task.)

A few weeks after reading Menchu’s testimony, I watch the documentary Que Rico Ser PobreThe documentary centers around a man who has decided to abandon his previous life and opt for one of living day-to-day in precarious living situations. In the end, he feels that this life is freer and more fulfilling in this way.

The thing that stuck we me the most after watching the documentary, is that the man explains why he loves to live this life. He explains that via living like most of the world actually lives, he feels closer to the universe. He feels a sense of unity with others that can only be achieved through putting yourself, literally, in their situation (not just imagining it).

For me, this is the most beautiful about any situation, positive or negative. The more experiences I live, the most I can relate to others, and the closer I feel to the people of the world. Shared experiences unite us, and I feel very fortunate to have felt the negative feelings this past year, because for once, I feel connected with a sector that was previously far from my reach.

What is the point of living, if not to create circumstances that will unite us?


What It Means To Be A ‘Sex Positive’ Au Pair

When the little girl “accidently” touches my boobs any chance she gets (“oh, you see I meant to touch your shoulder/stomach/back…it was an accident, promise!”), I firmly respond, “You cannot touch anyone else’s body without them giving you permission.” When she sticks her hand up her butthole and then smells her fingers, I politely and calmly tell her that she “cannot do that in public. That is private and should be done where other people aren’t looking.”

Children Are Inquisitive Human Beings

Being an au pair is the first time in my life that I’ve spent significant time with a child. As the youngest of three girls, I was always the young one trying to act older than my age. I don’t have younger cousins and I don’t spend time with babies, infants or children. In short, up to this point I haven’t had anyone significant in my life that would have clued me into what it would be like to have to constantly confront a pre-pubescent, extremely sexually curious 8-year-old girl.

As I mentioned in my post for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I believe in the power that every individual has in making a difference in sexual education and violence prevention. Having had experience researching and being a proponent for this type of intervention in schools, it wasn’t difficult to implement. It required very little second thought.

However, when it came to my job as an au pair. It was more difficult. It often left me stumped and I didn’t know how to act or respond to some of the things that came out of her mouth. I was very weary of saying certain things, or too much, or the ‘wrong thing.’

We Don’t Touch Our Vulvas At The Table

Last summer, I happened to click on an article on my Facebook newsfeed called, “Sex Positive Parenting, or We Don’t Touch Our Vulvas At The Table” (Excellent article, you should read it!) This article would later become extremely important in my time as an au pair.  It turned out to be extremely influential in my way of handling such conversation. Because being an au pair is as much about the academic aspect as it is the personal and developmental. Spending many hours a day with her, these issues come up frequently.

The author of the post explains her parenting style when it comes to talking about sex. She says,

I’m what some people call “sex positive.” That doesn’t mean I talk with my four year olds about how great sex is and how good it feels. It means I don’t pretend it’s something other than it is.

She goes on to explain that,

It’s telling them the truth, the whole truth, and letting it sink in so they can make their own good choices

At this point in the girl’s life, it isn’t horrible to confront the situations (sometimes, however, I regret not responding in certain ways). Often, I have to be sex positive when it comes to touching – both her body parts and mine – consent, and general questions about relationships.

It is important to note here that sexual education can happen at all ages – the only difference is appropriate information for the time in the child’s life. In Argentina, for example, the government passed Integral Sexual Education Law 26.150  in 2006 with the goal of equipping teachers and schools to implement comprehensive sexual education (including violence prevention) to all ages. In their curriculum, the content varies by age; for example, in primary school, topics of equality, anatomy, respect for others’ bodies, and diversity of families. The earlier the education begins, the less abuses are likely to happen.

Imagine You And Your Boyfriend…

The first time I realized that this role of being sex positive would become a significant part of my caring for her, we were playing. We were in her room ‘playing house’ – a usual game for children that transcends international borders.

She had the brilliant idea that I would be the older sister, and she would be a cat. She said that we were all on the boat for vacation (their family has a sailboat they frequent).

Suddenly, I saw a sly look in her eye. Her mind was churning. She said, “Also, your boyfriend is here.” I said okay and we were continued to “play on the boat.”

Then she said it was getting dark out and it was time for bed. She (the cat) snuggled up in one side of the room. The next sentence she rattled off is what left my in shock for a couple of seconds. She said, “Now, Allison, I am the cat so I am going to sleep here. Imagine that you and your boyfriend go to bed and start having sex. And I’m just going to be here asleep. Go, start making noises.”

I froze. My mouth dropped. There were a million questions running through my mind – where did she learn what sex was? What did she hear about the noises?

And then, I thought about the article that I mentioned above. If I hadn’t have had the feminist education I’ve had or hadn’t have read that article, my first reaction might have been, “No! Don’t say things like that!” or “Why would you say that, don’t talk about that!”

Instead, I first calmed myself down, and when I was composed enough, I said the first thing I could think of: “My boyfriend and I will not have sex because that is not realistic. We wouldn’t have sex when other people were watching.” (I guess that’s not entirely true for all people, because, after all, there are all kinds of tastes and sexual behaviors. But it was the quickest and most appropriate thing I could think of to say and not ruin her perception of sex).

Importance of Sex Positive Parenting (or in my case, au pairing):

Why is the sex positive perspective so important? Why is it necessary to deal with it instead of ignoring it? The author argues,

I don’t want them to grow up ashamed of their bodies or confused about what they do. I don’t tell them about cabbage patches or storks, I make an effort, always, to be honest about human reproduction. Every aspect of it.

It is a human right to have correct and accurate information. I believe that whoever is with children has a responsibility to address confusions, curiosities, and errors of consent (such as touching my boobs without my permission).

Working in the IES (high school), I can see a huge difference in behavior of children who obviously have parents who talk about sex, and those who don’t. The difference in education leads to a difference in self-esteem and respect for others. I hear swirling gossip of incorrect information, or degrading language and slut shaming. Perhaps if students were taught unbiased and scientific – sex positive if you will- information at home, education at school wouldn’t be such a challenge (one can dream).

She and I

I want to tell the girl the truth, but I don’t want to tread where it doesn’t correspond to me. Yet, that’s the whole point. Being “sex positive” doesn’t mean explaining every detail, especially when it isn’t necessary for the situation. It does, however, mean that you don’t lie. You don’t create answers that confuse. You respond in a way that doesn’t encourage feelings of humiliation.

The girl is extremely interested about anything related to sex. I have noticed she has already started to masturbate and if she sees anything sexual happening on the news, on a TV show, or in public, her eyes become immediately glued. You can’t pull her away.

And there is nothing wrong with that. She is feeling things and seeing things that she doesn’t quite understand, so when she asks me questions, the least I can do it tell her the truth. The last impact I would ever want to leave on her is teaching her to be embarrassed. Or that she is wrong. Or that what she is feeling isn’t okay.

In a world where girls (and boys alike) are meant to feel that they are only valid if they look and dress a certain way, it is my hope that by being honest and direct about things related to her body, she has one less pressure connected to her body image. Because if she’s already starting to feel awkward and uncool (as indicated by the comments and comparisons to her classmates she makes), it’s only going to get worse. And if I can make a difference in at least one aspect, I will try my best.

Learning Curves

Since I’ve been here she’s discovered a lot of new things – correct body anatomy in English (you’re welcome), Shakira’s ass in her music videos (not encouraged by me. She seeks Shakira out), and even menstruation.

The last one was by accident, but it was more than entertaining. I left the door to my room open and went into the kitchen (across the patio from my tiny house). While I was gone, the dog came in and went through my trash can. What he found was a pile of previously enjoyed, blood-soaked, smelly pads.

When I left the kitchen to go back to my room, I found the dog in n playful position, with his backside towards the sky, tail wagging, eyes staring straight at me, and something dark in his paws. He was chewing contently on it when I came closer. As I stepped towards him, I realized it was my dirty pads. Trying to grab it from him only encouraged his playful attitude, and soon there were white and dark blood bits and pieces of the pad strewn across the patio.

dogs chewing pads
Son snacking on my menstrual blood.

My reactions (“OH MY GOD! GIVE THAT BACK”) were met with confusion from the girl: “What is that? Why are you trying to get it Allison? Why is he playing with it. But, seriously, what is that!?”

I learned a lesson (shut the damn door), and the girl learned that once a month (if it’s regular) a female sheds her uterine lining. This forms part of a menstrual cycle.

Gender and Sexuality Education Beyond Being Sex Positive

Something related to giving honest and unbiased information has to do with expanding the image of gender and sexuality that she is taught in the media, at home, and at school.

I don’t specifically bring up the topic, but when it’s appropriate I will make a comment in attempts of amplifying her perception of how the world works relating to family structures, bodies, and gender roles.

For example, the other day at the beach it somehow came up that girls have vaginas and boys have penises. And she said, “Well, a boy would never have a vagina.” To which, I realized, I had an opportunity to respond. I said, “Well sometimes. But sometimes someone can dress like a man and have a vagina or someone can dress like a girl and have a penis.” Because, it’s true. And taking the opportunity to explain something in the world is a chance to plant a seed.

The same goes for the typical gender stereotype assumptions – “No, Allison, boys don’t wear bracelets (why not? If they like them they can!).” “Allison, you have to be a mother. You’re a girl. (I can if I want to be, but I don’t have to be).”

And typical sexuality assumptions: “You would never see two dads, Allison (you wouldn’t? I know lots of people who are two boys and they have children together). “Families always have a mom and a dad and kids (au contraire!).

Making an Impact

I might never know if anything that I say or do – sex positive or academic related- will have an impact on the girl. Nevertheless, I know that the subtle behaviors, actions, and speech of adults has a crucial influence on children’s perceptions, whether they are conscious of it or not.

Therefore, in choosing to be a sex positive au pair, I am aiming to create a sense of ownership of her body, self-expression, and respect for others and their bodies.

She is only 8 year-old now, and I know that the years to come she will be faced with more difficult questions than if she can touch my boobs or not. I hope that in some way she will remember my comments, or at least the environment I tried to create.

If You Are Brave Enough To Au Pair, Here’s What I Wish I Would Have Done

If you read my depressing and whiny post “8 Drawbacks to Working As An Au Pair” and you’re still considering it, I like to throw at you some advice.

I’d like to urge people to do exactly what I have failed to do this year. Small details would have made my experience as an au pair a more comfortable one. So, essentially I am asking you to take my advice that I myself have trouble implementing.

Because no one experience, person, or family is uniform, please take this advice with a grain of salt. Recognize that it comes from my own personal struggles working with an Ibicenco family.  Some of these pieces of advice may only be relevant in certain situations. Keep in mind, I did not go through any sort of agency. Rather, I was introduced to the family once I had already decided to come to Ibiza. This can make a difference in negotiation and expectations.

Maybe you think I’m a complainer or maybe this doesn’t make sense to you yet. Either way, I believe it’s best to put everything out on the table at the beginning. And remember: I warned you.

  1. Be completely honest from the beginning about why you are au pairing

If you are truly trying to enjoy your experience, you must be honest from the beginning, with yourself and with the family. It may be more difficult to find a match that will make both parties feel comfortable, but it is worth the extra effort.

For example, what is your motive for wanting to be an au pair? Is it to be able to learn a new language? To live a “crazy life abroad”? To travel frequently? To get free housing? To make a lot of money?

Think seriously about why you believe you want to do this. It will have a big influence on how you get along with the family. If the family is very wealthy and travels a lot, you will probably get to go with them. However, you might be going to Costa Rica with them for two weeks, but only stay inside a resort without seeing the country. Therefore, you won’t be “traveling” the way you might be used to.

On the other hand, if you make sure to point out that you are au pairing because while, yes, you love kids and want to help out the family, you are also hoping to see a lot of their country. If the family relies on you as the sole caretaker of their children, as opposed to a tutor for homework, it might be difficult for you to schedule vacations.

  1. Make a clearly defined contract

Especially if you find an au pair job once you are already living in the country, your family might not be interested in making a formal, written contract. However, do your best to create one and make sure that it clearly defines the most important aspects of your work, including:

  • Salary. Reflecting differences in increased work hours (do you get overtime?). What other compensation can you expect to get: will they pay for toiletries? Gas? Transportation?
  • Hours per week (again, should you be available during your “time off” just in case they need you?). What are you hours specifically? Are they flexible? Can you ‘make up hours’?
  • Birthday parties. It seems to be the cat’s meow to send your kid to a birthday party with the au pair. And they are typically at nights or weekends. Which means if you think you have weekends off, you don’t. Make sure to define if and when you have to accompany the children, what your compensation will be.
  • When kids have school off are you required to take care of them, and what happens if you can’t? For example, I have a day job at a high school. I cannot take care of the girl when she’s on vacation (her school has a different calendar than the public schools). If you do need to watch the kids on their vacation, ask for extra pay. It’s a lot of work.
  • Your duties. A clearly, no-nonsense guide of what exactly they want. Logistics as well as expectations. For instance, it’s important for the mother of this family for her daughter to reach one level higher by the end of this year. That means she expects me to prepare extra homework and learning games for her daughter.
  • Expectations around the house. You will be losing your freedom, and probably for the first time in a long time will have to obey like a child again. Try to avoid any confusion that could cause problems. Are you expected to keep your room orderly? Are you allowed to use everything they use, or are there specific items for the au pairs? What is off limits? When are you allowed to have friends over, and who?
  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification

And I mean clarification for everything. It is much better to be annoying than to be confused or unclear on what’s expected of you. There are things that will come up that even a perfect contract can’t predict.

I had a conflict at the beginning of my experience because once the mom was discussing taking the girl to the psychologist on a Saturday morning (at the beginning she said weekends would always be mine. Then she switched it up on me. We had no contract set, so I was stuck. She “needed me”).  The way she talked about it that Thursday, it seemed like she was just mentioning that we could go together to the early Saturday morning appointment and if I wanted I could meet up to have breakfast with one of my friends. She framed it as if she was gifting me an opportunity to see my friends.

I understood it was a suggestion. I didn’t get any message or word from her about it further. On that Saturday morning, I slept longer than normal because I had gone out the night before. When I finally got up, she had a nasty face on. She said, “I took the girl to the psychologist this morning, because you were in there [she pointed to my room].” I was so confused and it finally hit me that she expected me to go. When it was my “day off?” I didn’t ask for clarification, I assumed. I didn’t know what was expected of me.

OH NO. That’s about when I realized that I had no power, and I was already on my way down a very confusing slippery slope.

  1. Give warning about vacations early

I somehow had it in my head that if I didn’t tell the family when I was going on vacation until a few weeks before, there is no way they could say no or have any problems with it.

Why that seemed like a good idea, I’m not sure, but regardless, don’t do what I did.

If your family has made it clear you can go on vacation, it shouldn’t be a problem. But they will have to rearrange their schedules and have enough time to do so. Especially if they work and rely on you, they will need to know to be able to find someone else.

  1. Make a list of what you want from the grocery store

Part of your payment comes from room and board. If you hate the food they buy or miss some of your favorites, don’t be afraid to ask (especially if you don’t do the grocery shopping, you will have little control over what they buy if you keep your mouth shut!).

Do you have any other advice to add? What have your experiences been? Do you agree or disagree? Comment below or tweet at me at @yasminesoyyo

8 Drawbacks to Working As An Au Pair

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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!).

  1. 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?).

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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?

  1. 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