My Au Pair Experience in France

Vue du Sommet du Puy de Dôme, août 2019

The hardest thing about blog-writing for me is starting the post, especially if I have a lot to say. The first line of any text is meant to hook your reader, give an indication as to what you’ll be talking about. The difficulty is that, during this final week in France, I’ve felt a mixture of emotions that I’m still trying to work out. Hopefully as I write they’ll become clearer and, as always, I’ll try to express my thoughts with openness and honesty.

All of my posts for France so far have been written in French but, as I have a lot to say, for now I will just write in English. I’ve always written in French first and then translated to English because this works on my French writing skills rather than my translation skills. What’s more, translation from your mother tongue to a foreign language can also cause you to construct sentences and expressions that sound unnatural in another language and I’m still trying to get out of this habit. Nevertheless, for consistency I may translate this post into French in the future and I apologise to anyone following this blog who has been relying on the French text.

Endings are difficult; goodbyes even more so. They trigger all of my emotions, clear or confused, and bring them to the surface. I think it’s that realisation of finality and is perhaps the reason why I always read the last page of a book twice. This post is the final page of my experience in France this summer and when I say goodbye to my family at the airport, I know I will then have to close the book.

I was incredibly lucky to have found the family I did. The parents, their extended family and even their neighbours have all been so kind, welcoming and generous with me. I’ve been truly overwhelmed over the course of these nine weeks and, in that respect, I couldn’t have asked for a better French family. Thanks to them, I’ve learnt so much about the culture in France, explored beautiful, ancient towns and ventured far and wide to see some incredible views. None of this I could have done without them. My only expectations were to improve my French and gain hands-on experience with children and my overall experience exceeds that without question. Although this was my first au pair experience, I wouldn’t say that it was the norm. No au pair family is obligated to take you on trips or make you feel a part of their real family. Yet this is what mine did and I’m truly grateful to them.

Nevertheless, even without the adventures, au pairing is still a worthwhile experience in terms of improving your foreign language skills and building upon your cultural awareness; you are fully immersed in a different environment where people are living their everyday lives and speaking their mother tongue. You’re thus forced to adapt to your surroundings and speak the language, regardless of your fears.

However, none of this is to say these two months have been easy. Far from it, in fact, and I think it’s important to not feel pressured into declaring a highly cultural experience as being the best time of your life, which is often the impression people give after travelling. You can both have hated school and appreciate the knowledge it gave you; bringing up your children may have been difficult and yet you still love them endlessly. Living away from home, not necessarily abroad, can have the same effect and I hope by sharing my own struggles I can attempt to normalise them.

Even before I left home I struggled. I asked myself so many times whether I was really capable of living away for so long, speaking French, looking after children. The ‘what if?’ questions were endless. When the time finally came the only way I managed to deal with it was to take each step one at a time: catch the train, get the coach to the airport, check in my luggage, etc. If I continued to think about the whole two months (not to mention my year abroad in Spain following that) I probably would’ve given up because it encompassed too much anxiety at once that made me believe I wasn’t capable. And this may come across as surprising to my family and friends who perhaps see me as this confident, assured person who is always organised and has a goal, but it genuinely is a mental obstacle I have to deal with on a regular basis.

I’ve travelled fairly often and stayed in hotels and Airbnb apartments alone, with friends and with my boyfriend and yet I found the first night in my au pair family’s home difficult. The first week, the children weren’t there and the parents were so welcoming and attentive; they couldn’t have done anything more for me. “Fais comme chez toi,” they would say. Make yourself at home. My struggle, though, was simply the overwhelming feeling of being by myself in an unfamiliar house in a foreign country and knowing this was to be my home for the next while. Homesickness. What helped that night was when I did my usual skincare routine (using products that I’d brought with me, as I wasn’t sure what they had in France) and the familiar smell of them made me feel at home, just for a moment. When you are far away from home , I think it’s important to have these comforts around you to help keep you grounded in an otherwise alien situation.

During that first week I was also very tired; I was taking in more French than I’d ever done before. At night my brain hummed with all these French sounds and expressions and I was constantly having to look up words or ask what they meant. After a while this did get easier because I was familiar with the day-to-day vocabulary of the family, their accents and the way they expressed themselves.

The role itself was certainly a challenge. I suppose at the start I had somewhat naive expectations that looking after children was a simple case of setting clear rules from the start and keeping them stimulated. What I hadn’t considered were family dynamics, the set behaviours that children develop and the fact that these children would be too young to understand why I was there and what I was sacrificing to look after them. Communication is key, however, and I encouraged them to express their feelings, ask questions and to reflect and share their thoughts.

There were times when they didn’t listen to me and I felt out of control. Being in control has always been my way of minimising anxiety and whilst I’ve come to realise that we can’t seek control in all areas of our life and that we can be at peace even without it, looking after the children was a big jump towards this disorderly world I’ve been trying to, but perhaps reluctantly, embrace. I felt frustrated and anxious and this only made the language barrier seem more prominent to me. The worst thing I did was take their behaviour personally: I thought it meant that I was incapable of doing the job and that my French wasn’t good enough.

As time went on I came to see that this wasn’t the case; we got to know each other more and the children were better able to reflect on their choice of words and explain what they meant to me. I learned not to take any difficult behaviour to heart and continued to adapt my approach to this and develop new methods to reduce a hyperactive or heated atmosphere. I can’t make dramatic changes in two months but I think at the very least my presence helped the children to adjust to new situations and taught them to welcome ‘different’ people into their lives.

I also believe part of the problem was that I’d always felt uncomfortable with reprimanding or disciplining children as I remember being a child myself and the frustrations I had towards adults who didn’t understand me. I would therefore focus too much on building friendships, forgetting that as an adult I need to be guiding children, teaching them the importance of respect and politeness, and then practising what I preach. My time with the au pair children taught me this and, whilst I still strongly believe that adults and children should respect each other mutually, I must also remember that its the responsible adult who needs to establish fair authority for the good of the children.

Moreover, even though I was with the family almost all of the time – going on several excursions, participating in events and family get-togethers – there were some days I still felt really lonely. As all of my family live in England, I’m used to being away from them but I missed my boyfriend terribly. We video-called each other about once a week but I often felt worse afterwords because it only reminded me how he wasn’t here – or rather how I wasn’t there. I found that keeping myself distracted was the best way to manage this, either by joining in the family activities, writing on my blog or simply reading a book. For me, those moments of loneliness were only temporary and usually just reminding myself that I would be home eventually and that this was perhaps the only time I would have such an experience encouraged me to live in the moment more.

Other days I felt somewhat the opposite of this. At the start, I wanted to be involved with everything so that I could see and learn as much as possible and also to help that inevitable loneliness. My ‘days-off’ were typically the weekends when both parents were home but often we did things together. Yet I soon came to feel restless and I realised it was because I didn’t have as much space as I did when at home. Whilst the parents were happy for me to take whatever time I needed for myself, it was difficult to explain that to the children, especially after having spent everyday with the family on our two week holiday in the south of France. For the children, this was their home, their life and so they didn’t understand that sometimes I needed to get away from that and to be by myself.

It can be very intense living in another household; you’re there for all the good times and also the bad times. I felt very much part of this family but shared no part of their memories and their history which are what hold a family together. For that reason sometimes you do need your own space and it took me a while to stop feeling guilty about that whenever the children asked me to play and, for my own well-being, I had to say, “Not right now, but later.”

What’s more, there were days when I got tired of being surrounded by the French language, as much as that surprised me. Languages are a big part of my life and something I thought I would never tire of, and yet it happened. Initially it bothered me if new acquaintances spoke to me in English (I thought it meant they were undermining my ability to speak French, rather than their attempt to be inclusive or merely because they wanted to practise their English) but I began to embrace it in the second month. I missed the ease of speaking my native language and began to recognise the beauty of its descriptive adjective range, the uniqueness of its expressions and the charm of the various accents it can be spoken in – as bizarre as that may sound to non-linguists. I hadn’t thought that time abroad would allow me to reflect on my own language and look at it in a new light.

Finally, my level of anxiety and homesickness fluctuated from day to day. I remember coming home from watching The Lion King remake and feeling utterly depressed. My emotional thoughts in response to the movie heightened my sadness at being away from home and it took me about three days to move on from that feeling. Another morning I woke up to rain and, considering it rains seldom in France in the summer, for a moment I thought I was home in grey, drizzly Northern Ireland, only to realise a second later that I wasn’t. The sound, the sight and the smell reminded me so much of home in a way I never realised it could have done before. It was little things like this which made me miss home.

On the days my anxiety peaked, I did contemplate on going home. Yet I knew I would let myself down in doing so, not to mention my au pair family. As a last resort, I knew I could’ve always discussed how I was feeling with the parents, but it never ended up coming to that. Instead I would take a mental step back from the situation and work out the cause of my emotions, deciding that day to not write on my blog because it was beginning to feel too much, or maybe I would go to sleep earlier or I would discuss my feelings with someone from home to help me understand them better. I continued this approach of taking one day at a time and, again, tried to encourage myself to live in the moment, rather than remain stuck in a rabbit hole of thoughts. Time passed easier when I didn’t wish it away.

Despite all of these struggles, I’m still incredibly sad at the thought of going home and that next year it will be another girl looking after the children. I ask myself have I made enough of an impact on the children, enough for them to remember me, as I know how our early memories can fade very easily. And if they do remember, will they look back on this summer and smile? The parents did ask me if I wanted to return next summer but for a variety of reasons, I decided I couldn’t spend another whole summer away from home so soon.

The family and I are very keen on keeping in touch through letters and video-calls and I’ll continue to help both the children and the parents with their English learning. I hope to visit them next summer (as I plan on returning to France to study for a month before starting my final year of university) and I look forward to the day I can repay the family for everything they’ve done for me by opening my doors to them. They’ve given me an unforgettable summer and I’m blessed to now be part of their family.

Thank you to anyone who’s been following this journey. I’ve tried to tell it as honestly and authentically as possible and hopefully, despite the down times, it’s inspired you to step out of your comfort zone and to aspire to those good times which I’ve shared on my other posts. I’m incredibly proud of myself for what I’ve achieved and will try to remember this experience to overcome my future obstacles. For now, however, we’ve come to the last page of this book and I seek comfort knowing that my writings will forever preserve the memories of my time here in la France.

Part Two begins in Spain.

Until then,

Shelly x

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