At this time of year, I tend to get a bit sentimental because on September 29th, three years ago, I started my year as an au pair in America and these were the first days of a crazy adventure. I can still remember how nervous I was and how sick in my stomach I felt, even though I really wanted to go. While my mom was helping me pack my things and my best friend was there for moral support, I just sat in my room crying, unable to do anything. I felt completely overwhelmed with the whole situation, but there was no going back. It was all ok when we got to the airport, though. I was heading toward a new adventure and boy, an adventure it was.
Ever since I spent part of my childhood growing up in the US, I always wanted to go back. 20 years, I wanted nothing more and now the day was here. Me and everyone else thought that I would never come back to Germany. It went without saying that I would somehow find a way to stay and make my life-long dream come true. I definitely believed it because I went abroad with not one suitcase but two, my carry-on luggage and my mom sent me two humongous boxes with all the stuff I thought I needed to survive. I’m pretty sure that no other au pair in the entire universe has ever brought that much stuff. But I really thought that I would at least do the two possible years as an au pair and then find a job or something that would allow me to stay.
I spent my year in the beautiful city of San Francisco, with a very nice family. (Look at all the beautiful pictures here and here.) I took care of a then three-month old little munchkin who gave me so much, throughout the year that I don’t even have words to describe my love for her. It was a huge responsibility and although I didn’t exactly have a ton of childcare experience, I knew that I could do this. To be honest, my maternal instincts pretty much kicked in immediately. Lucky me, she was one of the sweetest babies in the whole world. The only sad thing about her being so young at the time, is that she won’t remember me. Occasionally we still Skype but I don’t think she knows who I am. She was only 15 months old when I left and since then, she’s been with the fourth au pair, so chances are pretty slim. I hope that when I come back to visit one day, she may recognize my voice because I used to sing to her a lot. I doubt it but you never know. I just like to believe that after all this time we spent together, some memory of me is still inside of her.
Let me say this first, overall, I had a pretty good year. I’ve heard so many crazy stories about what other au pairs experienced with their families and I’m glad to say that I didn’t really have major problems. I mean sure, nothing is always perfect and sometimes things annoy you, but that is the normal way of life when you life with people. I was lucky because they did treat me like family, I was included in pretty much everything and most importantly, they trusted me 100% and that’s worth a lot when you work with other people’s kids. You spend so many hours with them and you don’t want to feel watched or mistrusted and you just hope to be respected. They did respect me and my opinion and that’s something I was really glad about. When this is the situation your kids are raised in, there has to be mutual trust, understanding and a good communication. There is nothing worse than parents who think they know everything better, even though you’re the one who spends the most time with their child and knows it inside out. It just isn’t right and nobody knows everything, so work together.
Of course there were moments when I just felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. It’s normal to feel this way with pretty much any job, once in a while. I also struggled with a lot of personal things that frustrated me. For instance realizing that living and working in the US didn’t feel right, anymore. For 20 years I was sure about what I wanted and suddenly, I didn’t want it anymore. I remember coming home for Christmas and basically spending most of the time crying because I just didn’t know what to do. A big part of me didn’t even want to fly back to the US, but once I start something, I make sure to get it done. It was hard knowing that all of a sudden, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with my life, which was especially terrible because I knew that at some point, I had to go back home for good and face reality. These thoughts crept up on me once in a while and definitely provided a roller coaster ride of emotions. And when you have that mixed with moments where everyone is just getting on your nerves, it’s hard to keep your cool. Sure, you can talk to your host parents but you can’t just slam a door in their face or tell them to shut the hell up. You can maybe do that with your family at home, but as much as my host parents made me feel like family, they were not my family. I still worked for them and couldn’t just do or say whatever I wanted. Which is ok because it’s part of the deal and you just have to live with it. It’s just hard sometimes.
The way to get through it, is to find some great friends who you can just talk to, preferably who work as au pairs as well because nobody else can really understand the struggle. And you just try to make the best out of it and look for great adventures. As an au pair, I was more of an outsider, which wasn’t a real surprise. I was older that most of the others, I loved my lazy weekends and didn’t feel like having to party all the time, because I’m in another country. And I just preferred to spend my hard-earned money on travelling or the Disney Store. That made me so much happier than any club night ever could. I was also very lucky to have a great support system back home in Germany. There was hardly a week where I didn’t get a letter, postcard or package in the mail. Sure, we can all send a text or an email, but my friends and family actually all sat down to write to me and it always cheered be up, a lot.
Aside from working, I got to travel quite a bit and experienced great trips because let’s be honest, San Francisco is an amazing city. It already started when I got on the plane to the States because the first stop was training school in New York. Sure, nobody was thrilled about the whole thing, but I met some pretty awesome girls and we just made the best of it and NYC is always a fun sight to see. In San Francisco, I tried to see a lot of the city and will never forget the feeling of seeing the Golden Gate Bridge for the very first time. I also fell in love with the water front and Pier 39 definitely became my happy place. I also tried to visit places that were not very popular in the travel guides and I’m pretty sure I got an overall good city experience. I also travelled to Colorado, Boston, Montana, Los Angeles, San Diego, Disneyland, Yosemite National Park (too many to list everything) and in my travel month, which happened right after my 12 months were over, my favorite travel buddy and I were all over the map. We went to Crater Lake (Oregon), Portland (Oregon), Seattle (Washington), Big Island (Hawaii), New Orleans (Louisiana), Jackson (Mississippi), Birmingham (Alabama), Atlanta (Georgia) and Portland (Maine), which you can read all about here. Even though I had some rough moments, I would’ve never experienced all of this, if I hadn’t worked as an au pair and I’m grateful for every single one of these trips, even though they may not all have been perfect.
I often look through all the photos I took in these 13 months and I look so happy in them because overall, it was an amazing experience. I think about riding the merry-go-round at Pier 39, about playdates at Golden Gate Park, I remember crossing the bridge with my bestie from Denmark, who I’m still good friends with, and I think about celebrating my birthday by swimming with dolphins. I will never forget all the times I heard my little munchkin laugh, how she took her first steps or how I taught her to give high-fives. And I will definitely never forget the moment I put her to bed for the last time ever and she said goodbye with a very loud fart. I think about the times my mother or my brother and his girlfriend came to visit me, or the fun I had at Disneyland. I remember making s’mores and watching the sun set at Ocean Beach. I smile when I think about driving down Lombard Street at night, when all the tourists were gone or about spending lots of money at Target, when I only needed like one thing and bought half the store. These memories and many more will never be forgotten because they made me so incredibly happy.
It wasn’t the easiest year of my life but it helped me to figure things out and to learn a lot about myself. I’m glad I did it and I’m also very happy about the fact that I did it at 26 and not 19, right after school. I was ready for it and I did a good job. I can only recommend doing something like this because it will definitely teach you a lot. And really think about the decisions you make, no matter what your au pair agency or anyone else tells you. You have to feel what is right for you and what’s not. And don’t make the mistake of thinking that being an au pair is all just fun and games and that you basically just work a little with children and can travel and have fun all the time. That’s not what it’s all about. It’s part of it but it still is a real job that should be taken seriously.
This advice I can give you: Do what makes you happy, don’t let anyone treat you badly, don’t be scared, travel as much as you can, be a good role model, be prepared, find places you love and visit them, when you’re having a rough day, find real friends but don’t worry when you’re not part of the popular crowd – it’s overrated. Take a ton of pictures and not just with your phone. Take the kind that you can blow up poster size and hang on your walls. Take notes or keep a diary to make sure you don’t forget anything, fight through the hard times, be open minded, spend all your money on fun cause reality will hit you soon enough, cry when you feel like it and just enjoy the whole experience with all its ups and downs.
If you have any questions about how it’s like to work as an au pair, about travelling in the US, about San Francisco or whatever else you may want to know, always feel free to ask because a firsthand experience is definitely a good start to knowing what you’re getting yourself into.