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An au pair in New York: how taking care of little people helped me become a bigger person

At some point in my life, probably around the time I neared the end of school and smelt the sweet scent of university freedom ahead of me, I became a very lazy person – in every way including physically and mentally. Life was pretty much all about me, although I sometimes tried to make it about the people I loved. Things that shouldn’t be an effort became so and, when I returned home in zombie-mode after a term of non-stop partying, I wore my parents’ patience thin, waking up at midday, lounging around the house during the day and reviving myself in time for a night out, eventually crawling home in the early hours of the morning, only to repeat it again the following day. As our attitudes tend to affect most or all parts of our lives, I approached most things with this same lazy, selfish attitude.

However, as the years of university went by, on those rare occasions I reflected on the person I had become, I began to feel faint twinges of disappointment, although this didn’t stop me from remaining pretty much the same person when I graduated four years later. How I managed to pass each year is still a mystery, something my dad was happy to admit on my behalf during his speech at my 21st (I wasn’t offended – everyone, including myself, was equally mystified).

So I should have probably expected the looks of shocked disbelief I received from my parents when, in the middle of apparent job applications, I announced that I would like to be an au pair overseas. I think, at first, they may have wondered whether I knew that being an au pair meant that I had to take care not only of someone other than myself, but of little people too – little people who would depend on me for safety and guidance, little people whose own parents expected me to feed, bathe, transport, protect and generally care for them.

If I didn’t realise the extent of my responsibility then, I soon had no option but to when, a few months later, I arrived in New York, USA, for my orientation week in Manhattan. After a week of resuscitating dolls and learning the general tasks that awaited us, with some touristy sightseeing in between, I met my host family for the first time and travelled with them about half an hour by train from Grand Central Station to Larchmont, New York, where my host mom and dad and their two children, a girl aged eight and a boy aged six, lived.

My host family looked like what non-US people would probably call a ‘typical American family’ – in looks at least. A blond and tanned family of four, mom and dad worked in the city and my host mom’s job appealed to me in particular – a TV journalist for NBC, working in the same building that forms a backdrop to the show, 30 Rock (I saw them film outside once and froze when contemplating whether or not to approach Kenneth – not in character form of course – I’d always been a bit celeb obsessed and didn’t know what to do when I actually came into contact with one).  Although they lived in the wealthy Westchester County and had family homes in different parts, if they were super wealthy it was never obvious. One of the things I loved most about my host family was how down to earth they were and how much they genuinely wanted to spend time together.

Au pairing can go either way; I met au pairs who had great difficulties with their families and I met au pairs who ended up being sponsored by their host families and subsequently became American citizens. I was blessed with a really great family who included me as one of their own – we are going to treat you like our 23 year old daughter, said the host dad from the get-go – and who respected my privacy and encouraged me to make friends and get out and about.

I was spoilt by my working hours too. My main part of the job was to pick the kids up from school and get them to and from their after-school activities, then bathe and feed them and make sure their homework was done by the time their parents returned home after work, and they always tried to return home as soon as they could. I never really worked on weekends and during summer holidays, although working hours were longer, play dates, planned activities and trips into the city and elsewhere meant that there was always some way to occupy the children’s time. We also went away to their holiday homes in Fire Island and New England, where I barely worked at all. At one point, I felt bad that I worked so little during the school week and began waking up earlier so I could get the kids’ lunches ready and take them to school.

During my 13 months in New York, my friends and I went to Manhattan most weekends. Making friends was easy. Nearly all of my friends were au pairs and I loved that I had friends from so many different places! Au pairs in each area belonged to one group and joined monthly meetings where we would partake in some social activity while getting to know one another. We were also given a list with names of the au pairs in our areas. I remember how I used to scan the list with the aim of making friends with people from as many different countries as possible! In the end, my closest friends were German, Austrian and Brazilian. I am so thankful for being able to get to know more about other cultures around the world, something I didn’t know much about after living in South Africa up until that point. Being one non-Brazilian in a large group of Brazilians was one of my highlights of the whole experience and I now sometimes daydream about living there, surrounded by happy, social people who can never dance enough. What bliss!

I was also able to befriend locals when I volunteered for the town TV studio. Unfortunately, that was towards the end of my time there and, as I began to visit parts of Manhattan that were less touristy and more authentic, I realised that these were the kinds of places I would have liked to have gone to more often. But nonetheless, I had spent over a year in and out of Manhattan and for that I am thankful.

My partying ways weren’t easy to shake off, unfortunately. Don’t get me wrong – I love going out with friends and I love dancing, and hopefully that will never change. But I took it too far in university and I knew things needed to change. By being responsible to look after two children, I learnt that my own ways were, in fact, immature. I had become a careless, selfish person and my behaviour led to incidents such as losing or damaging my host family’s property. And it could have been a lot worse, but thankfully it wasn’t.

So, I was quite amazed when, as my 13 months came to an end, they asked me if I would like to stay on for another year. I couldn’t quite believe it. There were occasions when it was so obvious just how much of a mess I was, but they were able to see through that. I like to think that it’s because of the special relationships I developed with their children and with them, the love and gratitude I had for their family and the joy I experienced being a part of their lives, even for a temporary time.

Unfortunately, I had a strange idea that if I didn’t return to South Africa and get my first job ASAP, I would never get one. I also longed to live In Cape Town as a working woman, and if you’ve been there, you’ll understand the attraction. So I said no, with much gratitude and a little bit of hesitation.

I can pinpoint times in my 13 months where changes were taking place. It was there that I came off anti-depressants after having been on them from university days, it was there where I stopped smoking and it was there that I decided I needed to exercise because, actually, being lazy for so long was beginning to get a bit boring. Most importantly, it was there that I began to learn some responsibility and willingly accept the consequences when I stuffed up yet again. I’m not saying being an au pair or living in New York or anything like that is ultimately the reason that I began changing but I do believe that the experience taught me a lot about who I had become and helped me to learn more about what kind of person I really wanted to be.

(Oh by the way, since au pairing usually involves children which generally is the biggest factor contributing to your enjoyment as an au pair, I’d just like to throw in that the children were brilliant  – thank you host mom and dad for teaching me a thing or two about good parenting!)

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