Working parents find remarkable ways to answer the question of childcare. For my husband and me, the priority was simplicity. When I went back to work after five years of primarily parenting, the only thing worse than the guilt of leaving my boys was the notion of scrambling for ad hoc childcare.
In the midst of researching options, a friend reminded me that her family had an au pair, and although we initially dismissed the idea as too invasive, it kept floating back to the surface of our conversations. As former Peace Corps volunteers, both my husband and I had been hosted by families in foreign cultures. We knew what it meant to feel like a fish out of water—asked to work in a culture you didn’t always understand. We knew that living in close quarters with a family not one’s own could be enervating and frustrating. We knew that if our au pair experienced the emotions of homesickness and culture shock, we would be the ones putting the pieces back together, helping her through the process, and possibly bearing the brunt of a miserable mistake.
Still, my work start-date was looming, so we pushed aside our reservations and, through a well known au pair program, were matched with a young Swede. Jannike’s application letter appealed to us, and her smile in the attached photo was warm and sweet. There isn’t much to go on when choosing an au pair; a form filled out in looping Scandinavian script, a collage of photos, a signature of a hometown doctor, so far away, vouching for the candidate’s health. The agency required that we have one phone interview with our candidate before committing, so I calculated the time in Sweden and called. Jannike and I both giggled nervously, bonding over how odd it seemed to be on the phone arranging for her to come and live with us with so little concrete evidence that we’d get along. I told her if we were up front with each other we’d have no real problems, and she told me that she wanted to be part of an American family—not just a live-in employee. It was what I wanted too, and I told her that she should tell her own parents that we’d treat her with the same respect we’d want our kids treated with if the roles were reversed.
For the first few days, it was strange to have a new family member, but it began to seem normal very quickly. The moment my husband and I found ourselves able to walk out the door at 7 a.m., kissing our still sleepy, pajama-clad boys goodbye and knowing that they’d have a packed lunch, clean teeth, and be delivered to school on time, all under the watchful eyes of an instant big-sister, the awkwardness faded. When we came home from work one afternoon to see that the boys had learned to make Swedish cookies and were laughing upstairs over an art project Jannike had initiated, we breathed a sigh of relief.
We realized that having an au pair had allowed me to focus on seamlessly returning to full-time work, and had contributed to us being relaxed enough to cook and sit down happily to family dinner every night instead of tossing a hurriedly-heated can of Spaghettios in front of each child and then feeding ourselves later. We realized that having a new family member forced us to be on our best behavior—during her first few weeks with us we carefully modeled everything from giving the kids more vegetables at dinner because we wanted her to do the same; talking reasonably to the boys and each other when before we would have been more free to succumb to annoyance; to lessening the boy’s TV time because we didn’t want her simply plopping them in front of Noggin wherever possible. We lived these good habits because of her, and then we began to embody them. We not only had more patience for our work, each other, and the kids, but we found ourselves able to institute that oft-advised and oft-ignored “date-night.” Finding a babysitter for a Sunday evening was no longer an issue or an expense, so why not go the movies?
Jannike has lived with us for four months now. I can’t imagine her not being here. She is a member of our family. I know that one day she’ll go home, or on to another adventure, and I worry about the space she’ll leave behind when she goes. I wonder if we’ll get another au pair, or if the ease with which she’s entered our household cannot be reproduced. But then I remember the choices we weighed before she came. I remember that when my oldest son had a cold last week and stayed home from school, I went to work. I felt no guilt. I knew he was home being read to and fed by someone who knows him; who knows our family; who knows where the children’s Tylenol is in the jumble of our medicine cabinet. I know that when I’m at my desk, able to focus clearly on my work, that someone else is focusing equally as clearly on my beloved sons. It’s a win-win situation. And I can’t imagine having made a different choice.