When I was 20, I impulsively decided I needed to flee the country and move to Europe. I learned through a Livejournal post (way past the expiration date of Livejournal being cool or relevant) that the easiest way to do this was to become an au pair — someone who comes from another country and helps with household and childcare work in exchange for a place to live.
With absolutely no qualifications, skills, or experience, I was confident that I was the perfect candidate. I spent an afternoon on browsing online au pair agencies. I judged profiles mostly based on their location, but would half-heartedly read the families "About" section, more interested in the idea of living in a thriving a European city more than the job itself. I was 20, after all, and my lifestyle of stealing burritos from Whole Foods, smoking weed by the community pool, and using my older sister's ID to pay for 40-ounce Mickey's (in coins) was not a glamorous one. I had to get out.
I quickly narrowed down my options after doing more research on each country's salary and visa requirements. The final and most important step was to actually land a job. My strategy for doing this was extremely superficial. I assessed families based on their photos, much like swiping on Tinder. I tried to remain objective, reminding myself that there was no exact formula in determining if a family was a good fit, but I noticed a pattern in the way that a lot of families presented themselves in their photos. I'm talking about the perfectly staged family portrait, with everyone, even the children, flashing wild smiles that screamed white-collar dysfunction.
At first, I would entertain the idea of working for one of these families. I would read through their bios and quickly learn how to decode certain terminology. If the family described themselves as "busy," it translated into "high-maintenance." "Organized" meant pedantic, overly scrupulous, picky, hard to please. If they addressed their children as a "little prince" or "princess," it meant the children were spoiled, and worse, the parents supported the monarchy, which obviously meant they were fascists. If a parent "worked from home," it meant they were going to hover over me and the children, checking in multiple times a day between hair appointments, lunches, meetings, and shopping trips, undermining my authority as caretaker and adult by micromanaging every aspect of the day. If they wanted a live-in au pair who also doubled as a housekeeper and paid them a meager salary of 230 euros a month, well, good day, sir. I said good day!
Another issue I had with this was the fact that I was supposed to just blindly hop on a plane and travel nearly 6,000 miles to live with a family I met on the internet. Skype "interviews" beforehand are protocol, and help ease the anxiety of not really knowing what you're getting yourself into, but only just barely. There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, but this is usually not possible as most au pairs are searching for families in different countries.
But even though I was less then thrilled about it, I decided to stick with my plan.
A few weeks later, I found my match. A family with Chinese-American and Dutch parents and three children, living in Amsterdam. As it turned out, the mother's parents lived in a neighboring city to mine, and they were here visiting for the holidays. We made plans to meet the following week. Over ice cream, I underwent a casual interview, but I mostly spent the hour playing with the children and chatting with the mother. The next day, I got a call from them saying I got the job. Two weeks later, I was in Amsterdam.
In the year and a half I was there, I was treated kindly and respectfully by both the parents and the children. I was paid a generous amount, given health insurance and free room and board, and delicious home-cooked meals.
I was one of the lucky ones.
Others, I quickly learned, were not so lucky. There were two other au pairs in my neighborhood, and I soon became their confidant. One of the girls was from Cape Town, and we would often take our children to the playground and watch them play while we sat in the grass, chatting about our lives. She would tell me about her long list of duties, how unkindly the parents treated her, and how the children were hard to handle. She was expected to wake up early, get all three children ready for school, make breakfast, take them school, clean the house and bathrooms every day including laundry, on top of playing with them and preparing dinner. She earned half of what I did.
Another au pair had it worse. I met her at the neighborhood school, and through her broken English, she told me of the horror she had to endure every day. She was from a small East Asian country and had been working with the family for two years, which meant she was staying in The Netherlands illegally. The family had taken her passport. She worked 11 hours a day, 6 days a week, and wasn't allowed to leave the house for any other reason than to do grocery shopping for the family or pick the children up from school, unless she had permission from the parents. They didn't pay her much, or sometimes, at all.
I offered to help her, but she refused. Looking back, I wasn't sure what I would have done if she had accepted my help. We weren't able to communicate very well because of the language barrier, so I'm not sure what her situation in her home country was like, but I suspect it wasn't any better.
A friend of mine named Kirsten* moved to Amsterdam from a small city when she was 19. She was working as an au pair for a single father with two children. Kirsten would sometimes complain that the father was a little creepy, slightly bordering on inappropriate, but relatively harmless — until one morning as she was in the kitchen making breakfast when he came in and told her about the dream he had that night. In this dream, he explained to her, "I was sitting on the couch when you came in and sat down next to me. You started rubbing my thighs, and when I asked what you were doing, you just kept it up, giggling." She was 19 at the time and just barely out of high school.
A few years later, Kirsten's sister spent the summer in London as an au pair. The family turned out to be completely dysfunctional, with the father attempting suicide multiple times, ending up in the hospital, and when he returned home, she would have to watch over him and the children.
It's completely unreasonable to expect an au pair to juggle multiple tasks and play 10 different roles. Au pairs are expected to act as pseudo parental figures, but also still be a fun sister type. They are also considered "members of the family," so there is this weird pressure on them to balance a casual demeanor, while still trying to maintain a level of professionalism. Essentially, you are living with your bosses, who want you to believe they are your family, even though you both know damn well aren't. They pay you, and you work for them. But they're family. Family who could kick you out any time.
If you're willing to put yourself in a potentially dangerous situation for the possibility of having an amazing and life-enriching experience, then it's totally worth it. I would say it's a combination of good judgment and luck (a lot of it) that determine whether the family you chose will be a good match. Of course, it's impossible to ascertain how the situation will work out until it is, in a sense, too late.