Not a Cinderella story: my misadventures au pairing in Switzerland

Moving abroad to work as an au pair (or a nanny or live-in babysitter) is a common way for university-aged people to experience a new culture, make a bit of money and have something to do for a summer or longer.

Many young people do it and enjoy it but quite a few have bad experiences that make them leave before their contract is over. I fell into the latter category when I was an au pair in Switzerland.

I was a mere 20 years old and it was my first time overseas. I was very excited and planned on taking full advantage of my time in Switzerland.

I had just signed on for 18 months as an au pair, the maximum time limit for an au pair visa. The family lived in a wealthy neighbourhood and also owned a castle in the countryside and a chateau in the Alps.

No problem, right? Sounds like heaven! Well, paradise became hell is one short month.

There were four of them
One kid can be difficult, but four of them is just a handful, especially when they’re not your own. Ranging from 2.5 to 9 years old, they had grown up with au pairs and knew how to torment them.

Think of Maria in The Sound of Music being tortured by the von Trapp children. Eventually she won them over, but I didn’t have her luck.

As if it wasn’t already difficult enough, the youngest, at 2.5 years old, wasn’t potty trained – when he had to go, he was sent outside to go in the bushes.

The mother didn’t work
It’s crazy enough taking care of four kids, but when their mother is home, often in the same room, it’s insane.

Since she didn’t work, she was always home, but sadly not paying attention to the children she gave birth to. She would play with them at times, but if there was a problem, I was responsible for it.

I realise this was the job that I was being paid for, but it’s very confusing for the kids to see their mother but not get her attention and it makes the au pair’s job a lot harder.

The children didn’t speak English nearly as much as their parents said
Having an au pair is a good way for kids to learn and practice a second language. It’s common for wealthy families to take on an au pair to keep up the kids’ English (or another language) over the summer or year-round whether they need a babysitter or not.

These four kids spoke German as their first language but they were in summer school to improve their basic German grammar. In my opinion, if a kid is having difficulties in his first language, it’s not the time to start on a second language.

It also hampered my communication with the kids. I didn’t know any German when I arrived and I was to only speak English with the kids. To enforce this, the parents were very hesitant to teach me any German and told me it was unnecessary.

I didn’t have time to practice the little German I was learning which I needed to use outside the home and was part of the reason I decided on this part of Switzerland.

The kids would lock me out of the house
Kids are kids and they will play, but no au pair deserves to be locked out of the house.

Usually it would happen when I was in the backyard with the kids. They would run inside and lock the door.

If the gate was closed (which was normal) I would have to hop over the fence to get to the front door.

I learned pretty quickly to carry my key with me but that shouldn’t have been necessary.

The father kept tight control of my money
When I arrived, I suggested to the father that I open a bank account to keep my money in. He told me it would be easier if he just kept a running total of how much he owed me and I could ask for money when I needed it.

While this sounded fine at the time, in the end he was withholding money that was rightfully mine.

When I confronted them about problems, they didn’t want to solve them
When I went to the parents with major problems, like the kids locking me out of the house, they didn’t help me find a solution.

They frankly told me to ‘get used to it’. This is the phrase they said that has stuck in my mind since then.

Like I said before, no au pair deserves to be locked out of the house and the fact the parents weren’t willing to help me find a solution was a huge red flag and ultimately led to my decision to leave.

When I left, the father decided I owed him money
When I made the decision to leave, the father told me I needed to pay him back for things the family had bought me. When he gave them to me, they seemed to be gifts, but after I left, he insisted otherwise.

The most notable were two train discount tickets that he now wanted me to pay him back for.

I told him I didn’t have the money, so I gave him back the cards.

He then proceeded to itemise each trip I used the discount on and made me repay him the amount that I’d saved.

The family kept tabs on me after I left
After I left, the father called the house of a friend I was staying with, telling them that I owed him more money.

I had already paid him for things that were not my responsibility, but he wanted more and somehow tracked me down there (I never gave him the name nor number where I was staying).

I never gave him more money and promptly moved to a hostel. Luckily he never found me there.

Looking back, there were many signs that I was not a good fit for the family and the family was not a good fit for me.

I am very glad that I left when I did, although it was much earlier than I planned. It changed my plans a lot – I was planning on being with the family for 18 months and I left after just 1 month.

Au pair jobs can go smoothly or they can end quickly, like mine.

It can be difficult to be put in that situation, but if you feel like you’re being taken advantage of or disrespected, then you should leave.

To be stuck working for and living with a family that you don’t have a good connection with is very stressful, especially when you’re in another country.

When I hear people want to au pair, I encourage them to pay close attention to certain things that can set off early warning bells. By noticing the potential problems, you can save yourself a lot of stress and hopefully have a much better experience.

For my recommendations on what to look for as an au pair, check out my post 6 Tips for Future Au Pairs.

You can find more posts (and more positive stories) about my time in Switzerland here.

14 thoughts on “Not a Cinderella story: my misadventures au pairing in Switzerland

  1. nlee1 says:

    I once worked with a women that had an au pair from Sweden. She was Beautiful.
    Apparently the husband thought so as well, because he ran off with the au pair.
    A true story..


  2. G. says:

    Very interesting post…I had a similar experience in the US though…changed families after 7 months…in the US aupairs work 45hrs/week!!! (not only 30 as in Switzerland)…but my family refused to give me a schedule so I was on call 24/7! the second family was rich but only saw in me a housekeeper…they didn’t want anything personal to do with me…now I am a host mom in Switzerland myself and try to treat my aupair girls the way I wanted to be treated when I was in their place…unfortunately, as host mom there are some things that I see different now…many aupair girls do not realize that this job pays so little…but families that are really and truly wealthy wouldn’t hire an aupair but have a nanny and housekeeper…so the money issue I find is a problem…and the household support…I only asking my aupairs to do during their 30 hrs what I am doing all day when they are not on duty. I call them the “2nd mom of the house” 😉 some aupairs accept it and others have left before their time…i am really anal about getting a schedule out every weekend for the next week…and I don’t ever overdraw on the 30hrs!!!! Free time is free time…of course aupair and us spend some of it together…but by all of our choice and liking…no pressure either way!! 🙂 I love the aupair we have right now…we call her “aupair of the year”…best thing ever and a true friend already. that’s how it is supposed to be!!! a give and take on both sides and most of all: Honesty and trust 🙂 Good job trying to stick it out and talking to the family…I wish it would have worked out better for you!


    • Thanks for helping out future au pairs!

      It’s very true that some au pairs and families just don’t ‘click’. Even if you’re a good au pair, it doesn’t mean that you’ll do well with any family. And just because you’re a good family doesn’t mean every au pair is a good fit for you. It’s always good to have a trial period before deciding whether it’s going to work or not.

      It’s awesome that you don’t go over the 30 hours a week and that you give them a schedule. 🙂 I’ve had neither of those with my past families so even if I wasn’t with the kids, I knew they could ask me to be there in 30 minutes between 8a and 8p. That’s not a relaxing day.

      Maybe you could start an au pair family training seminar of how to be a good host family. 🙂 And for au pairs about what to expect. 🙂


  3. Lucy Handerson says:

    Hi. there, I am shocked but not surprised! I just read your story. I too worked in Switzerland and still do, although not as an au-pair…never again! My family seemed nice when they interviewed me but the problems started on my first day when I was asked not to talk too loudly on my phone in my own room..I didn`t realize I was. Next day the father asked me not to have my phone with me when I am working or to use the internet in my break time at lunch as I am at a work place and not at home…hmm, interesting, because I was asked to work over the weekend and almost every day on my two weeks stay with the family and I couldn`t complain that it was my `work-place-only so please don`t bother me after my agreed work hours`. Anyhow, I felt like I was in a prison, with no phone to use in the daytime(just to check for messages from family and friends) and no internet connection in the evenings as the father turned it off around 9pm EVEN THOUGH IT WAS FREE. I did complain but he said that I should be sleeping and not on the internet at nights. In the end I decided to leave, not being able to talk with my friends and family, being cut off from them totally was awful and when the father complained about the 200 Swiss franks he was supposed to pay me at the end of the week, it was the final straw.. like I supposed to be grateful to him. I`m glad you left, I only stuck it out for two weeks though!


    • Yes. Working as an au pair is difficult. I think raising anyone else’s kids is tough, but when the parents have gotten you a visa and are your only legal way to work in the country, they take advantage of their employees (au pairs, nannies, housekeepers). It’s really sad, but luckily, there are some people out there looking out for those workers. 🙂

      I’m glad you left. If you were mistreated, you don’t deserve it and they don’t deserve you!


    • hahaha! I’m glad you didn’t actually spray your OJ!!! 🙂

      The au pair stories you usually hear about often the horror stories- they can get much much much worse than mine, trust me! 🙂 There is a book called ‘The Nanny Diaries’ that’s a true-life story and I can only imagine what’s in it…. I haven’t read it, but it’s also been made into a movie. I think it might hit too close to home. Kind of like a shipwreck victim watching ‘The Titanic’! 🙂


  4. This is nuts! I looked into being an au pair while I was in college, but it sounds like you got stuck in an unfortunate situation. Yikes! I’m glad you out of that job 🙂


    • Au pairing can be a great experience or it can be disaster! I’ve met a lot of people who have a good time (but complain about it like you would a ‘normal’ job) but too many who have had bad experiences like me. I guess it’s just hit and miss in a way, but it’s still important to do your research. 🙂


  5. Wow, that’s pretty horrific. Reading the first few problems, I was thinking, “Oh, that’s not so bad. A little difficult but part of the job.” — and then I got to the part where the family *cheated you money.* That’s disgusting! They own a castle but they’re making you pay them for discounts — basically, coupons — you used? I would have never, never paid that man back. He was clearly charging you money out of spite. Well, at least it makes for a good story.


    • hahaha! Yes, it does make for a good story and hopefully others can learn from my mistakes! 🙂

      At first, I thought I should be able to deal with it and I was just being too picky, weak or lazy, but then I realized that I really didn’t deserve everything they were putting me through. I was not enjoying myself and for that reason alone I should have left! There were so many thing that kept being put on my ‘reasons to leave’ list that by the end it was an obvious decision to leave. 🙂

      The father was a lawyer and I was 21 years old and he basically threatened and scared me into paying him. He was also holding onto my money since he just kept a running tally of what he owed me, so if I gave him a bad time about not paying him for those things, he probably would have taken more since he physically had my money. The discount cards (Gleis 7 & Halbtax cards) were good for a year and cost about 200 CHF (about $215 US) and he was certain that when he asked me if I wanted them (30 minutes after I arrived at the airport from the States- jet lagged and overwhelmed), I was agreeing to pay for them. He never said anything about me paying for them until I left, so I knew it was just to get back at me for leaving him without an au pair (but still with a housekeeper who shared the kid duties with me & worked for the family for 10 years).


  6. wow, that is terrible! Nothing is worse than the dad robbing you of money though, that’s just completely out of line.

    I was an Au Pair for 6 months in Argentina, but I didn’t live with the family, I refused. I knew they would work me all day when I was only supposed to work 5 hours a day. The kids were much older 11-15, I was more of an English tutor. However, the 13 year old threw a ton of fits. More than once he laid on the ground and refused to get up to do homework. He also looked me right in the face and said “fuck you.” Luckily, the parents were sometimes helpful and that was one of those times. His father gave him quite a talking to.

    Sorry your experience was so rough! Glad you made it through.


    • Wow! Sounds like you made a good choice to not live with the family. I wish I had realized how much of a difference it make when you live with the family. Even if the parent’s don’t ask you to do anything on your time off, the kids have a hard time drawing that line.

      After trying au pairing again in Italy this summer, I came to the conclusion that I don’t want to raise someone else’s kids and if someone wants to have children, they should be able to take care of them. I’m fine babysitting or live-out au pairing, but I don’t think live-in au pairing is right for me. 🙂


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