swf seeking family of four: the almost au-pair

 

Will they like me? 

Will they think I’m attractive?

Am I showing enough personality? 

These are all questions that sprung to my mind as I surveyed my bio. I felt waves of confidence–then shivers of self-doubt. But my work, for the moment, was done.

I had carefully selected five or six photos, chosen for the version of me they projected. I had curated a mix of “fun,” “professional,” and “good hair day.” I had spent two hours distilling my experiences, qualifications, and goals into a few breezy paragraphs.

Now came the hard part. Waiting to be noticed.

I wasn’t looking for eligible bachelors, but married Frenchmen with children.

In other words, I was the newest addition to Au Pair World dot com.

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Au pairing was a backup plan, on the advice of my business-manger boyfriend. I’m not so good at initial plans, not to mention backups. I have rarely had too many choices.

But there I was, lingering around my hometown, waiting to hear back about a teaching job in France. Though I’d received a positive response to the candidature spontanée I had sent to a small school in Provence, it had been several weeks with no further correspondance.

My other job applications had gone unanswered. After a flurry of emails, I learned I could not enroll in a university in Nice. Trop tard. I’d missed the deadline.

I was content to wait around–at least I thought so–because combing through Indeed.com does not my favorite activity make. I was a bit stressed due to a lack of direction, but largely at ease, ensconced in a cocoon of novels and homemade cookies, with the distraction that comes from again living with a family.

Victor, living in the real world as he does, shattered my illusion. He reminded me that opportunities weren’t going to fall into my lap. It was only June, but it would soon enough be September–la rentrée, back-to-school time–and if I did nothing, the laissez-faire approach would surely leave me with just that. I (begrudgingly) appreciated the reminder.

Victor asked me if I’d considered au pairing. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. That was one job I knew how to do. It would provide me with a change of scenery, some security, and the chance to figure out a next move from within France: making the future job search a lot more fruitful.

My profile went live, and it wasn’t long before messages from interested families came rolling in. Several days later, I had my first Skype meetings.

Just like in the dating world, this was all based on chemistry. We smiled and asked each other the same few questions–what are you looking for?–but what we were really doing was looking for chemistry. More than any perfect response, the important thing seemed to be intuition, the pursuit of le bon feeling.

I got a little nervous before each new date, checking myself out in my laptop’s camera. Then I would laugh at the reflex. When you’re dating families, you don’t want to look alluring and attractive. Those are not the right words. Mary Poppins, maybe, is the right word. I needed to look polished, responsible, and like I was the kind of girl who could pull lifesaving, boredom-killing objects out of my sizable purse on a whim.

I did the interviews, quite a few of them, scrambling to keep the information straight.  There were several families that didn’t play hard-to-get. They told me straight-up: we’re interested. Call me. My experience with teaching, interest in the Montessori method, and ability to figure things out on my own (since I’ve already lived abroad) helped me stand out as a reliable candidate. And my status as an American citizen was in-demand.

And so all of a sudden, I had options. Offers. I could say yes, a well-considered oui, and my life would change. 6 months forward, I imagined:

Paris. Two little girls. Parents not much older than me. We hang out, drink wine on lazy evenings. With the girls, I sing silly English songs. We make gâteau au yaourt. I master the metro. I take classes at the Sorbonne. I ride a bike, shiver in the brisk Paris winter. (I make a note: I’ll need a new, warmer coat.) Victor flies up once a month to visit. We stroll around Montmartre, red cheeks and chocolat chaud. 

There it is, the skeleton of one future. Parisien me could be reality. She was close enough to capture with keystrokes. The funny thing is, almost all decisions are significant. It’s just that we usually don’t know that at the time. Sometimes we never put the pieces together. But I have always loved working backwards, identifying the little decisions that led to the massive change. Pulling apart the what-ifs.

Finding an au pair family felt like choosing my future. Like knowing, for once, what my decision might bring. Sure, it was a bit of an illusion. Still there was an agreeable feeling of power to it. I could research people’s lives and have total freedom to decide whether I wanted to drop in or not. How often do you get to choose a city, living situation, bedroom, and family in one simple move? The future was in my hands. Plus the pressure that went along with that.

I kept scouring profiles and doing interviews. I continued my rêveries, now with an outdoorsy family in Bordeaux, a big family living just across the German border, a single mom with two little boys living in a renovated farmhouse in the Alps.

I could be in Nice, (somewhat) warm all year round. Or I could have a red nose from ski sunburn. Or a big group of friends, students in Lyon. Or the ability to while away whole afternoons writing in a hidden Parisien garden.

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It all tempts me.

I see a dozen pictures. This would be your room! They tell me. Would your boyfriend like to come visit? Do you like cats? Do you like to cook? We hope you enjoy wine. We want you to speak English with the kids. We want you to speak French with the kids. Come to Portugal with us. Don’t worry about the housework. Do worry about the housework. We’d provide a bike. We’d provide a car.

I learn that some families are looking for a big-sister character. Others, a full-fledged nanny.

I meet a family I fall for. The kids have my heart with their smiles. I am at work imagining a future. I am ready to cease searching and commit.

The very next day, I receive an email from the school: “thanks for your patience,” essentially. “We’d really like to talk to you about that job.”

use your words: confessions of a part-time parent

They turn their tiny noses up at most of what I eat.

I eat coconut chips and turmeric lattes, sautéed greens and tomatoes sprinkled with salt. I try to share. An experiment with some zucchini ends with the zucchini reappearing in the toddler’s mouth after an uncomfortable three seconds where she looks at me as if I have betrayed her. I fetch a napkin, wondering if there was a time I was so averse to anything green, anything strong, anything with…flavor.

My groceries reflect my time with the kids. After a day of serving macaroni and cheese, carrot sticks, my bags don’t include dinosaur-shaped fruit snacks or flavored yogurt. If I shop after a day spent with them, invariably my cart includes black garlic hummus and punjabi eggplant and Gorgonzola piccante so sharp it nearly burns the tongue. I sneak up the stairs, “late,” 9 pm when everyone is sleeping, and I stir turmeric and ginger and honey into hot milk. I sprinkle bright goat cheese onto salads and whisk tahini with olive oil for a dressing. For a midnight snack I sometimes eat kimchi from the jar.

It’s a curious thing, to live in a house with the children that you care for. They depend on me: for a set number of hours each week. I experience moments of tenderness, gently rocking the toddler as she drifts into sleep, and moments of relief: they are not mine. I will now descend into my basement lair and leave the tears and tantrums to someone else.

Taking care of a five-year-old and a toddler, at times I feel impossibly old. No longer the child, I am charged with putting someone else’s needs first, all the time. Their problems are so easily solved, their worlds small. They don’t understand, not really, that I, too, am sometimes scared and confused. That I sometimes long for a hug from my mom. That popsicles and band-aids don’t fix everything.

It’s strange to realize that I am not quite a person for them, or not in the way that I have learned to see people. The complicated interior life. The hopes and dreams. They have seen me cry and their faces don’t change. I wonder what they’re thinking. Empathy, I guess, is something we teach, something we learn.

In some ways, spending time with children is like spending time with people from another culture who speak a language you haven’t quite mastered. They will not understand, or maybe care, about the specifics of your day or just exactly what you think about the book you’re reading. And you, despite trying, cannot express these things. You learn quickly that political debates are out. Quoting The Princess Bride is out. That great pun you thought of, you’ll have to keep to yourself.

So, here, language fails you.

It’s frustrating. It’s strange. If you are really language-oriented, like I am, you’ll wonder who you are without your words. You’ll feel like a paper doll.

And you’ll find that it’s kind of refreshing.

Maybe you kick a ball back and forth or splash in a pool or dance or help cut vegetables for a pizza or play a board game: all things I did with my host family before I attained fluency in French. What I thought about these activities didn’t matter so much. I just did them.

So many times I swallowed that witty comment and I missed the joke and I contributed nothing verbally. And robbed of my words, I found I still existed. I was still appreciated, and loved.

I suppose that it is similar with the children. They don’t know what I feel or think, not really, not usually. But in this case I am not a mute but I am a provider. Of love, of instruction, of fun. Of cheese sticks and open arms and coloring books. Of discipline and library visits and tiny tiny portions of zucchini.

I feel impossibly old sometimes. But I hand them over and head downstairs and I feel young again, the kind of young where I can still be selfish and it doesn’t hurt anyone. The change from my college years is that for the first time, I don’t take this for granted, my freedom.

I can spend an hour on my hair. I can buy new and extremely impractical shoes. I can take my hair and my shoes and a new book to a lounge at a high-rise hotel, and I can sit and watch the sun set, the city a backdrop to my cocktail. And I can do this on a Monday if I want to. I can make last-minute decisions and I can stay up all night. My friends can do the same.

Juxtaposed with the responsibility of caring for the children, though, this stage of life seems for the first time finite. And it’s all the sweeter for it.