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.