Caroline's blog: Learning the hard way

They say that if you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning. Sadly, it was into this second category that our recent au-pair experience fell. Whilst we can laugh about it now, I hope that our cautionary tale might spare other Cityparents a similar experience.

At the start of January we trekked excitedly to Luton Airport, armed with banners and cards, to welcome our new au-pair. This was our first au-pair, so we had been careful – we used a reputable and recommended agency offering ongoing support, and had carefully identified a girl who seemed a perfect fit for our family. We invested in getting to know her, our WhatsApp chat was very active, and our tots looked forward to meeting the new addition to our household.

A key requirement for us was an ability to drive, as our tots’ school is a 20 minutes’ drive away. Our au-pair was in her mid-20s, described herself as a confident driver, and seemed happy to be tasked with the school runs. On her second day, we took her out for a practice drive. Unfortunately, driving was not quite the skill she had described it to be. After a shaky start, she floored the accelerator, mis-steered, and sent the car flying across the road and into a high kerb at speed. The car sailed through the air before crashing, destroying the suspension and the whole left side, and causing over £5k of damage. As my son recounts, “our little mini got sent to car hospital on the back of a pickup truck to be made all better”. The good news was that the tots were not in the car and we had insured our no claims bonus. The bad news was that there was a £1,500 excess to pay and we were badly shaken up.

We approached the agency, only to find that their advertised “ongoing support” consisted simply of someone at the end of a phone or email offering sympathy. They made it clear they would not be able to find a replacement, and asked us if we’d done various background checks on the au-pair that we had presumed fell within their remit. As there was no “Plan B”, we tried to salvage “Plan A”. We found a driving instructor who spoke her native language, and booked a course of lessons. Even after that, the instructor shared our concerns about her driving generally, let alone about having children in the car.

Unfortunately, the carnage initially caused on the roads of North London eked itself out in different forms in the confines of our own home. There was almost a daily routine along the lines of the following – the children going to school with the wrong things, outer doors being left unlocked during the day, clothes shrinking in the wash, barely cooked meals followed by food poisoning, household appliances packing up due to serious misuse. There would then be a chat about what had gone wrong and why, and what had to be done differently, coupled with profuse apologies and assurances. Then – guess what – Groundhog Day! The same routine began again the next day. With each repetition our stress and anxiety levels increased a notch until, after 4 months, we conceded defeat and called time on the arrangement.

So what went wrong? We’ve struggled with that one. We know many families have very successful au-pair placements, but for us we found communication issues ran much deeper than language differences. We learnt that “yes” wasn’t affirmative that she understood. Instead, it was indicative that she was prepared to give it a go, even if she didn’t fully understand the request. We had seen age as representing experience but it seems that some slightly older girls who have never lived away from home are less adaptable and more prone to homesickness. Others have since told us that the strongest au-pairs are generally those coming for a defined period of time at the start of the academic year with clear plans for before and after their time in England. We were also naïve in not looking beyond the agency’s alluring advertising slogans such as that they were: “here for the success of every arrangement” and that they “make sure no family need lose out if things are not as they hoped.” We should also have been more willing to end the arrangement sooner, rather than try to redeem the situation.

We can see some positives - our tots loved having her, and can now sing the advertising jingles for some of their favourite ice creams and sweets in another European language. My son had someone to kick footballs with in the garden, and has now adopted her city’s Champions’ League team as his second team. And we’ve appreciated that with all goodwill and meticulous planning, childcare arrangements don’t always work out, and sometimes you just have to cut your losses, live and learn.

Caroline is the proud mum of an 8 year old Disney Princess and a 6 year old Superhero. She is also a senior associate in the pensions team at a magic circle law firm where she tries to balances work and family life by mixing office and home-based working for four days over five days each week.

Category: A Citymother's Diary

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