Sunday, August 13, 2006

CALARTS - Summer as an Au pair

I spent the summer of 2006 as an Au pair in Iceland. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, an au pair  is a domestic assistant from a foreign country working for a host family. An Au pair takes on a share of the family's responsibility for childcare as well as some housework, and receive a small monetary allowance for personal use. The title comes from the French term au pair, meaning "on a par" or "equal to", indicating that the relationship is intended to be one of equals: the au pair is intended to become a member of the family, albeit a temporary one, rather than a traditional domestic worker.

This was to be my very first time traveling alone.  I stayed with a family of five in Kopavor, Iceland. The family was young, well educated, and cultured. We met through an internet website for families seeking child related help. The mother contacted me through one of these websites and we arranged a few phone call interviews to see if we were a match.
The house was located on the border area of Kopavor and Reykjavik, in a forested area covered in trees and walking trails. I spent the summer months of June and July in this area where the family house was located. I would bring the children into the open areas to play and sit around. 
My expectations were that I wanted to be challenged by the job I was about to take. When I arrived, I discovered the job required me to work ten hours a day almost six days a week for very little pay. I found the  working arrangement to be  demanding but I felt the compensation of food and housing made the contract  manageable. 
In actuality, the amount of hours in the day stretched to eighteen. Worst case scenarios would occur when I was revealed as late as 10pm/11pm/12am, to wake up again at 6am for my next shift. The family put more pressure on me to remain at the house on my days off. From their point of view, I was a member of the family and as such should be useful on during my off-hours.
As the job became mentally and physically taxing, I began to refuse these invitations. Unfortunately, my refusal translated unfavorably. In a lot of ways, the translation of labor does not equate from a parent to a hired helper. The lack of interest to perusing more "work" became more debt  to the family that brought me to Iceland. Again, I understand their perspective for wanting a third parent. It appeared I wasn't working hard enough. With the added complication of a language barrier with the children, a lack of communication in the household made the experience more difficult with the parents.
Looking back, I understand the parents hired me to have an extra adult to take off some of the load but the lack of organization left way too much work to be placed on one person.  I felt this situation was disappointing for both sides. I wanted to make them happy but my efforts weren't perceived as anything more than half a care giver.
One thing I learned from the experience was the amount of work placed on one parent when one parent is the primary care giver and one is working. The job of raising three kids can barely be accomplished by two parents let alone one parent and a half. I was overwhelmed by the amount of work when I was merely assigning.