My Short-Term Experience with an Au Pair

More than ten years ago, I was approached by an expat’s cleaning lady who asked if I were interested in taking her daughter for a week, like an au pair*. This arrangement was meant to be an exchange  – her daughter would live with us (an English speaking family), converse/practice English and have free room and board. Her share in this would be taking care my two children (with one in school) and doing easy house work, while I was working.

Sounded like a fair trade, but it turned out to be a complete farce.

First she was to stay with us for a week. I’ll call her Emily (not her real name), a pretty 17-year-old from one of the Eastern Block countries. On the second morning, she informed me she’d stay for two weeks. Well, I thought, there might have been some miscommunication. I knew I had said one week, but “when in doubt, throw it out”. I apply the same principle to my fridge, and mind.

She had arrived on a Saturday evening and we let her have Sunday off, of course. As a matter of fact, my husband played tour guide for her and took her down to Frankfurt, while I stayed home minding the kids and working. Uuuuhhh, it’s so nice to have a live-in child carer. Too bad I wasn’t the one out.

That evening, I informed her of what was to be expected from her for the week to come, such as getting up at 8am, help take care of the children as soon as I started teaching, help with the shopping, etc. I had to get up at 6:30 to get ready for work and figured 8am would be a reasonable time to take over. I did not know the sleeping life of a teenager then.

Monday morning, I tried to wake her up  six times. She finally did get up, when my student sat down for her lesson, with Emily in bed right next to our desk. This pattern continued for two weeks. At first, I felt embarrassed for this lack of professionalism on my side. But I tell you, with each day it got easier. I just introduced the sleeping teenager as my “helper around the house”. My students looked confused, but I carried on.

When I reminded her of her duties, she acknowledged them each time by saying, “OK, OK, OK!” and then she walked away. Once I had asked her to vacuum before my next lesson and she made no move towards it. I was worried she’d pick up the vacuum cleaner at the worst time, when it needs to be quiet during the baby’s nap time. I needn’t have worried. She never even picked up the vacuum cleaner once.

Emily slept in the teaching room. I ended up taking care of my daughter while teaching at the same time. While I was teaching in the morning, Emily would leave her bed then and continue sleeping on the couch. When I went back to teaching in the afternoon, she stayed on the couch to watch MTV. Once or twice every hour, I had to get up to ask her to turn down the volume. When I asked her to take my baby daughter as she was getting too restless on my lap during the lesson, Emily only raised her hand to show me her freshly painted nails and said, ” I can’t!”

She walked into our bedroom at night without knocking. We told her not to do this anymore, but you know…. OK, OK, OK! and she’d do it again.

She was told not to shower after 9 pm as the baby slept in the room next to the bathroom. Of course, she’d go in after 9 pm. When I told her to shower earlier, I got the standard response of “OK, OK, OK!”. I reminded her to ask is something was not clear, but she never did. When I asked her if she could dry the dishes, she’d ignore it. Then I showed her the meaning of “to dry the dishes” by demonstrating it, just like I would do in a lesson.  “Please dry the dishes”, I said. “OK, OK, OK!” was her response. I let you guess what she did next. Everything, but drying the dishes.

Two mornings a week, our baby daughter was with the child-care mother up the street. On the forth morning of her first week, I asked Emily to pick her up (we had gone there together before). She refused and only said she couldn’t. When I asked her why, she had no response.

In addition, when I asked her to help carry some of the shopping bags, she conveniently walked away. She lacked common sense and I also sensed some pride, her feeling clever in avoiding work. This was my first time with a possible case of passive aggression. I am no psychologist, but her behavior was very odd, if not aggressive towards me as hostess. There was no sense of doing things together, she only wanted to watch MTV and spend hours in the bathroom.

Quite normal for a teenager, but not as a household helper or the so-called au pair.

She also had the audacity to ask me for English lessons. I can’t remember if I laughed or cried at that moment.

I’ve learned a few things from this experience:

* The following time somebody offered me this short-term arrangement, I politely said, “No, thank you.” Motherhood, a professional life, and family management leave no time for a short-term solution, which requires a lot of prep time, getting used to each other, and training.

* Even though this arrangement might come about through a friendly relationship (visiting distant relative, a friend’s daughter, etc.), a clear structure needs to be set up. This involves a contract with set hours, clearly defined assignments, a daily planner, and a sign-off sheet. There is no room for assumptions, on both sides of the fence.

* What looks like help might be no help at all.

When Emily left, I was quite relieved and happy. I thought I had been tired before Emily came. While she was here, I contemplated taking Prozac. Just kidding. She only had to leave. That was the best remedy.

Anyway, she was like a third child, a teenager who not only did not pull her weight, but added extra work. Yet, she was a stranger, so I kept trying to be polite in asking her to help. Hindsight, I should have yelled at her.  Not that it would have changed her, but I suppressed too much during that time.

I did not realize then how much I suppressed by trying to keep life going. Now I know. But even turning this around in my head, I now know nothing I could have said would have mattered to Emily.

I like to think she is an isolated case, because there are many good people out there. But finding the right one is real tricky. I wasn’t even looking for help, but instead got a real burden on our family life.

Whenever I feel down, I just need to remind myself that Emily isn’t here… and then I feel better.

*au pair (ˌō ˈpe(ə)r/)
a young foreign person, typically a woman, who helps with housework or child care in exchange for room and board.

12 Things You Should Look Out For With U.K. Student Housing Contracts

There was a time when I actually thought life would get a bit quieter once our son is enrolled at university. Should have known better as we know, when situations change, so do the demands.

During his first year at the University of Nottingham, he has room and board. For the second year (starting September 2013), he has to find his own private housing arrangement.

Sure enough, 10 days ago, I got a phone call, asking to send money for a down payment and retainer as he and his friends were going to look at a house for rent. When I asked him what a retainer was, he was not sure either. But in order to secure a reservation, he had to have the money for it.

Of course, he was told to pay by cheque the same day, which is very unlikely going from a German bank to a British institution. I made a direct deposit into his postal account instead and we has able to make a cash payment.

Our son then sent us the guarantor form and rental contract. After looking both forms over, I decided to send them to a friend who is an expert in the field of renting/letting in the U.K.

He pointed out the following things to watch out for when renting student housing:

1. Make sure your prospective landlord offers you a Unipol standard contract. The best landlords in Nottingham are Unipol registered, which is designed to protect the student from rogue landlord demands.

2. The amount of 250 pounds for a down payment is normal. Make sure you receive e-mail confirmation from the Deposit Protection Scheme (DPS) within 14 days of paying the deposit to the landlord. If not, the landlord is forced to refund the money to you.

3. The charge of a retainer (my friend has no idea what this is…) is neither required, nor acceptable under Unipol contracts. If they want to charge you for a retainer, find out what it is, why it is required, and when it is returned. Get this in writing.

4. This is a joint agreement, i.e. each person can be accountable for the WHOLE rent if someone pulls out. Student tenants each agree to be jointly accountable for all the rent. Harsh, but normal.

5. Make sure the amount of utilities (gas/electric/water) are included in the contract. Watch out for the costs on a weekly basis to avoid shocks. As a guideline, one person’s electric bill share should be about 5 pounds and gas should run about 6-8 pounds a week.

6. Make sure all defects are noted and agreed at the beginning of the contract, i.e. before you move in. If not, take photos, note the defects on a check-in sheet (make one yourself) and have the landlord sign it. This is for your protection.

7. Insist on a minimum of 24-hour notice for access, i.e. when the landlord wants to show the house to prospective tenants.

8. Reputable landlords do NOT advertise until 21 January, the official start of Nottingham house hunting. If advertised earlier, then watch out.

9. Watch out for the interest fee charged for late rental payments. Ours said 8% if the rental fee is 14 days late. Again, this kind of interest fee is not allowed under Unipol and is a clear warning sign of a tough landlord.

10. Make sure to get the completion date noted if your housing rental is still under construction. Clarify this before you sign. Living in an unfinished house, with construction workers in and out, while paying full rent, is not right.

11. Quoted from our contract:

“PROVIDED that if the rent or any instalment or part thereof shall be in arrears for at least 14 days after the same shall have become due (whether legally demanded or not) or if there shall be a breach of any of the agreements by the Tenants, the Landlord may re-enter the Property (subject to any statutory restrictions on his power so to do) and immediately thereupon the tenancy shall absolute determine without prejudice to the other rights and remedies of the Landlord.”

This is illegal. There is a legal procedure to reclaim a property, but this clause is not permitted.

12. If you decide to rent with a landlord who isn’t registered with Unipol, then insure the following:

– Ask to see the House of Multiple Occupation licence (HMO), which will demonstrate that safety standards or some kind are met. If the landlord is not in possession of such HMO licence, the landlord can only legally rent to two people in the house and risk big fines if the tenants report him.

– Ask to see the Gas Safety Certificate. This is critical and needs to be valid at all times of the tenancy.

– Ask for a CO2 monitor. The cost is about 20 pounds and will detect CO2 if released.

– Ask to see the Fire Certificate/Working alarm system. There MUST be a working fire alarm system in the house.


Last, but not least, take your time and look at various buildings with your friends. In regards to Nottingham, there are 4000 more bed than students, so there is no need to rush. The university told you to take your time, and so do I.

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