So for anyone about to become an au pair, or considering being an au pair, what should you expect in your first month as an au pair? I’ve been here 3 weeks now (wow!) and so here are some of my observations of what to expect, and what NOT to expect!
Week 1 – The Au Pair Training School
Expect to make new friends, and miss them when you leave. Even if you would prefer to stick with au pairs that speak your language, try and make as many friends as possible. The ones from your state/area are great contacts to have for social stuff, and the ones from other states are great contacts to have for when you want to travel and need somewhere to stay!
Expect the food to be average, or below average. I say this because it’s the truth. Also expect that most meals will revolved around the salad bar (because it’s probably the most edible thing there). If you don’t like salad, you’re in trouble – make sure you hit up the grocery store across the road at the first chance you get!
Don’t expect to get much sleep – you’ll be majorly jetlagged, and lucky to get 5 or 6 hours sleep a night (I averaged 3.5 hours sleep a night for the 5 nights we were there).
Don’t expect hotel style accommodation – the rooms are standard college rooms, with bunk beds and shared bathrooms. The bathrooms can be a little strange, but are clean and do the job, and the beds are comfortable enough for 4 or 5 nights.
Don’t expect to see all of NYC in 6 hours. The tour is about 4 hours long, and you have 2 hours free time. That two hours is only really enough time to have a look in a few shops, take a few pictures and find something to eat, so don’t make big plans to tour SoHo or the Upper West Side, as you won’t have time. Plan at least one trip to NYC during the year to make up for this!
Week 2 – Arriving at your family
Expect to be welcomed. Some families do this by giving you a huge gift basket of toiletries and giftcards, some with homemade banners and signs, some with a bunch of store bought flowers or balloons, some with a vase of flowers picked from their garden. Some will welcome you with open arms (literally) and big hugs, others are a bit less physical. Remember that each family is different, but in general they are happy to have you there, although they may show it in different ways. Therefore, don’t expect to arrive to big gift baskets and a welcome party, because it might not happen.
Expect to have a lot to take in that first weekend. Even though you are technically not working that first weekend after you arrive, it isn’t a time for you to spend in your room alone. The family will want to show you around, give you a lot of information (informally, usually) and possibly take you to a mall or shopping area. They may want to take you to the grocery store to pick out some foods you like. They will probably want to take you for a drive around the local area so they can assess your driving skills, show you how to work the car, and also show you important places that you will need to drive to. They may invite family over for a BBQ or dinner to introduce you. Expect to spend a lot of time with the family that first weekend.
Expect to feel a little bit homesick. Being at the training school is actually the easy part – although the food is bad and the showers can be cold, you are surrounded by people who are in the same situation as you and who understand how you feel. In those first few days with your host family you may feel like the odd one out, or that you don’t belong. Try not to focus on these feelings too much.
Don’t expect your bedroom to be like a hotel suite. Just because your host family can afford an au pair, it doesn’t mean they live in a huge mansion with 8 separate suites and 17 bathrooms (although some host families do live like this!) Your host family will make your bedroom comfortable and a nice place to live, but this doesn’t necessarily mean a queen sized bed, flat screen TV and a mini-refrigerator! Most families go out of their way to make your room a nice space to live in, so be grateful, even if you are sleeping in a twin/single bed!
Don’t expect to get out and about a lot in the first week. Your life is not going to be a roar of social activity in the first week, even if you made friends with au pairs in your area on facebook prior to arriving. You will still probably be pretty tired from the time change, and getting used to your new routine.
Don’t expect full car privileges straight away. A lot of au pairs have said to me that they expected to be able to have access to a car for their own use on the day they arrived. A car for personal use is a privilege, not a right, and a lot of the time you will need to prove your driving skills before the family will let you have use of their car. When you get car privileges, prove that you are responsible by asking to use the car, instead of telling them you are going to take it, especially if you share a car with the host parents. Tell them where you are going, and what time you expect to be home. And if you’re going to be late, be courteous and send them a text message to let them know.
Don’t expect the kids to love you straight away. Some children, especially older ones, are wary of new people, and some younger children who know that you are there to take care of them know that your presence means they will be spending less time with their mum and dad. If you are their first au pair they may not like the idea of having someone new living in their home. Be willing to give it time, and not force yourself on them, but be friendly and try and interest them by talking about things with them that you know they like.
Week 3 – Your first full week done and dusted
Expect the kids to start to become comfortable with you and start to be used to having you around. It won’t happen overnight, but it will (usually) happen.
Expect to feel like and be treated like part of the family. Try and make an effort to be part of the family as well, even if you’d prefer to be doing other things. This time is a great time to make a good impression on the family and accept invitations to dinner or outings with them, even if it is your “time off”. There will be plenty of other opportunities to go to the mall. Seriously.
Expect to get out a little bit more. Hopefully you will have made at least one friend in the area, and you can organise something social with someone your own age, even if it’s only dinner or going to walk around the mall.
Expect to buy a few things. Or more than a few things. It’s common knowledge that au pairs who arrive in the US go a little overboard on their shopping for the first month, or two, or three. It will happen, so just be prepared.
Expect culture shock. Expect highs and lows. Expect to compromise. And again, expect homesickness.
Week 4 – Up, up and away!
Expect to start feeling at home. The homesickness might have subsided a little bit, hopefully. Hopefully you feel comfortable with your host family.
Expect to start planning trips, vacations and weekend activities with your new friends. Get out and be social!
Don’t expect to be 100% comfortable with the fact that you are going to be away for a whole year if you have been homesick. (This is something I am still coming to terms with).
Most importantly, expect your au pair year to be one of the best years of your life, if you let it be!