The Au Pair Chronicles

au pair: noun, a young person (usually a young woman) from a foreign country who lives with a family and helps to care for children and do housework in return for the opportunity to learn the family’s language – merriam-webster.com

November 2013 – Exhausted. That’s what I remember. It was when my husband was traveling weekly, I had a newborn and two boys under seven, and I was teaching part time that my husband and I opted to dive into the world of au pairs. Soon thereafter, we were picking up our new housemate at the airport with a single suitcase and a stuffed bear. Jet lagged from a long flight from Poland, it was our young au pair’s first time on an airplane, first time in the US, and all of this with a single year of college English on her tongue.

poland-map

Our au pair, whom I’ll call Poppins, was from a university town in Poland and flew almost six thousand miles to San Francisco in January of 2014. She and our family signed a contract for 12 months through an agency called Au Pair Care. Although some people have coordinated an au pair from another country on their own, it’s a seamless process (and, ahem, did I mention legal?) to use the services of an agency. It is not, I repeat, not, cheap. However, it’s important to know that it is still cheaper than the price of a full time nanny.

The low down on the cost: Here’s a great breakdown on Au Pair Care’s website about the cost of an au pair. After the agency fees, we end up paying Poppins about $5/hour for three children, for up to 43 hours per week.

I think most people in need of full time childcare would go for this option with the exception of one tiny thing: you must have an extra bedroom. Poppins has told me a few (slightly horrific) stories about windowless rooms and makeshift basements. But most agencies require a home “inspection” before a contract is signed.

I do not think having an au pair is a sign of affluence, although often I’m embarrassed when mentioning it in conversation (I resort – sheepishly – to calling her a babysitter). I’ve come to understand that having an au pair is akin to living in a small village where the oldest child takes on the responsibility of being a third parent.

Poppins was 23 when she arrived. 23 is at that delicate age when one is an adult yet only recently finished their teenage years. Some au pairs are as young as 18, and maturity levels definitely vary. Here’s the thing, you can’t not want an extra child. Or maybe an extra dependent is better diction. Over the course of the year I helped Poppins sign up for English classes by driving to the local community college and applying in person, I took her to get emergency dental work, I watched her get her heart broken by an American boy, I’ve helped her buy her first iPhone, and I’ve taken her to the DMV for her drivers test(s).

au pair

With that being said, it’s amusing to have a young twenty-something in the house again. It’s always fun to see her get glammed up for a night at the clubs. Poppins is respectful about coming home quietly (many au pairs are given curfews, we chose not to), is never (obviously) hungover when we need her early on a weekend morning, and she pitches in with household chores even when she’s not on the clock.The kids treat her like a big sister/auntie and they relish the fact that someone will get down on the floor and play. We feel lucky since rematches are common. A rematch is when the host family and the au pair have agreed to go their separate ways before the term of the contract is over. For some this means moving to another city. But if an au pair cannot find another family to match with, she/he will have to go back to their home country.

Lastly, the international exposure broadened our family’s experience. We are all exposed to another language (which has huge benefits), culture, history, food and lifestyle. My middle son laughs so hard when Poppins slathers her pizza with ketchup, my daughter just stares when she microwaves her bowl of honey nut cheerios and milk, and my oldest son has convinced her to become a Cholula hot sauce fanatic. They have learned Polish tongue twisters, I’ve learned about her father who commutes weekly to Germany to drive a taxi, and she now loves the newfound delicacy of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

With all of this being sad, when it’s time for Poppins to return home we won’t opt to sign with another au pair. Our daughter will be heading to school and we won’t need as much help going forward. But someday we hope to make a family trip to Poland, and visit Poppins when she has her own brood to watch over.

Photo Credit: InterExchange USA via Compfight cc

The Au Pair Chronicles

Reflecting on My Experience with the Writing Club

Two years ago I launched The Writing Club, a creative writing program for kids. My students ranged as young as second grade up to fifth grade, boys and girls, and from public and private schools in San Francisco. I came away from it feeling great about helping those kids who were tentative about writing, those who needed a confidence booster, and conversely those who loved to write and wanted to spend more time storytelling than the traditional school day offered.

writing

My decision to launch my own private writing “club” came after I spent two years teaching with the San Francisco based after-school program, “Take My Word for It!” The program would join an elementary school’s after-school program and offer a 10-week creative writing class, mixed ages, for one hour per week. The class would expose students to poetry, prose, and literary craft elements like personification, onomatopoeia, figures (metaphor, analogies, etc) and more.

After teaching the “TMWFI” program’s curriculum, and understanding how to teach the lessons, I decided I could create my own curriculum and offer it “off campus.” In the summer of 2013 I conceived of the 10-week lesson plan, marketed the classes, and filled two sessions of 12-15 students each. Every Tuesday I transformed my dining room into a classroom, and on Fridays I worked out of my friend’s art studio.

After the fall of 2013, I offered winter classes, and then spring of 2014. We created club names for ourselves and a secret club handshake. I often created a theme for the course. For example, one session’s theme used San Francisco as our muse. We studied images of the fog and tried our hand at mystery writing, we wrote Beat poetry and performed it with a mic and beret, and we wrote odes to famous San Francisco landmarks. I created a “Dead Word Wall” where the kids would have to offer a synonym for an overused word (a dead word, like “said”). We also created “invords” or invented words by piecing together words and making up the definition. I posted their writing on Facebook.

Two years later, I had in total taught over 50 children.

It was thrilling to watch the changes. Some students would delve in and write pages and pages, and you could see that the weekly inspiration further enabled their innate passion. Other students, those who struggled, would open up and grow more confident, and I often had gracious feedback from parents. They could see the changes in their child’s attitude toward writing. At school at the parent-teacher conferences, the student’s teacher would note the change in the student’s writing. Parents often thanked me, and to have that kind of influence over a child’s growth and learning was surprising and wholly satisfying.

Writing is an important skill that crosses over and supports other subjects and brain function. Throughout the child’s academic journey, the ability to communicate through writing is invaluable. But I also focused on the child’s ability to let go of judgment and criticism and to be ok with whatever words spill out on the page. To not be embarrassed and to try his/her best to shake off that feeling of vulnerability. To be confident in their own voice and ideas, and use writing as an outlet for emotions, dreams and fears. To start by putting pen to paper…and let go.

Reflecting on My Experience with the Writing Club