The Au Pair Life

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We’re ten weeks in, and I am back to tell you about our au pair experience thus far. Our new au pair, Dohanis, arrived here from Colombia in February to live with us for the next year as part of a cultural exchange program. Here’s the scoop on the funny stuff, the challenges, and the highlights!

Colombia to Montana!

In the first weeks, I was struck by the cultural change Dohanis was experiencing coming all the way from Colombia. As an au pair, you are moving your whole life here alone, and everything is different. In the beginning, there is no comfort zone! I am amazed at the boldness it takes to choose such an adventure, and also acutely aware of how difficult the adjustment must be.

The Funny Stuff

In those first weeks of cultures colliding there are so many funny moments, little things you can’t anticipate that make you laugh. Here are just a few!

The first week Dohanis was here many of the foods were new. She would ask what we were serving, and always had a great attitude. One of the nights I told her we were having “salmon.” Sounding very similar, she thought that we would be eating “semen”! She looked confused and surprised and tried to clarify without chuckling too much. She was very relieved to discover that I was talking about fish!

The first week Dohanis arrived, every time we would say, “Let’s go!” she would head down to her room and take a quick shower. Finally, after a week, we asked about typical showering practices in Colombia. She said since it is always hot there it is normal to take a quick shower every time you leave the house. Most people shower about four times a day. That makes perfect sense and explains so much. We explained, with the snow and cold weather, most people only shower once a day (sometimes less). She laughed and said she had noticed that she rarely gets sweaty here. This was a funny lesson for all of us.

The Challenges

After all of the funny stuff gets worked out, there are still some obstacles that remain. For us, the language difference is probably most challenging. We did several Skype interviews beforehand, so we had an idea what to expect. We also talked to several other au pairs with similar English levels, and they all reported language improves quickly in a fully immersive context. But, that still doesn’t make it easy. Around the dinner table, it is no problem to talk and make simple conversation about the day. The kids seem unhindered by the language barrier and easily connect. My daughter Mia loves to be the “teacher” often taking on the role of repeating sentences slower and more clearly for Dohanis, so she better understands. 

Where it gets tough – if the kids are fighting, it is much harder to understand fast, yelling, crying English than it is slow, clear English. Initially, it was hard for her to understand and intervene during kid drama at our house. We were mostly able to solve that problem. Mia said, “I think she needs a whistle!”

Beyond dealing with fighting, I see, especially more long-term, how much language is a part of close connection and relationship building. Tactically, Google Translate and hand motions make it pretty easy to communicate logistics, but I sometimes sense the isolation. In a crowd, it is hard to perceive what is happening. Even with a smaller group, it is difficult to pick up the nuances without understanding all of the words. And I think it must be harder to share intimate moments about personal situations without the full use of words. I love to hear Dohanis talk with her mom and sister on the phone. With fast flowing words, I can see the fullness of her personality that we don’t quite get to experience yet. Her English has indeed improved A LOT since her arrival. We hear that four months is a turning point, so we are looking forward to more conversation and closer relationship as the year progresses.

The Highlights

Among the many delightful moments in the past months, I think the best parts are the in-between moments, where work ends, and we are living life together. It feels like we’ve added another person to the family. The part that is different is that my kids are developing a genuine relationship with this person outside of a daycare setting. They seem more settled and at rest with this setup than they have with other scenarios.

A couple of sweet stories with each of my kids…

The second week Dohanis was here, my husband was gone for the night to play basketball. Dohanis was finished for the day, so I was on my own for bedtime. I was taking my littlest (almost 2-year-old, Aurora) on the rounds to give everyone a hug goodnight. When I got to Dohanis, Aurora wanted to give her a big bear hug. After over a minute, she still wouldn’t let her go. Finally, I said, “Do you want mom to put you to bed or Dohanis?” She lifted her sweet little head up from the hug and pointed to Dohanis. So, that night Dohanis rocked her and put her to sleep instead of me. It felt like a beautiful relief for my little one to have that kind of connection and trust with another person.

Or with Mia…The other night after dinner she wanted to go into the hot tub. I was too tired but told her she could ask someone else. Dohanis said, “I will go with you, Mia!” So they went out there together, just the two of them. I loved looking out the window to see them smiling and talking; spending time together and connecting just because they both wanted to.

It didn’t take Dohanis long to crack the code with my son Judah (who loves games and is super competitive)! The first week she arrived I suggested “Uno.” Judah was pretty sure she would not be able to play. Beating him in the first round, earned her a high spot in his book. Now, it blesses me when I hear him talking smack or saying things like, “Let’s play basketball. First to 200 wins.” She obliges. #saint Or, when we go to the trampoline park, I am waddling around expecting a baby in a few weeks, and she will happily do the ninja warrior course on repeat with him for over an hour.

Lastly, for me, I felt extremely grateful the other weekend. My husband was out of town for five days. My youngest went on a nap strike, so Saturday night I was tired with no plans; trying not to sulk while I sat on the couch. Then, Dohanis and Maria (the other au pair from Colombia) came upstairs after spending the day together and said, “We are thinking of cooking some Colombian food. Can we make you dinner too?” This was the highlight of my day! I was so grateful not to be alone at my house and loved getting to see them in their element hosting me.

We currently have three au pairs here in Billings. Here is more from them on their experience here in Montana.

Photos courtesy of Whitney Cherie
  • What made you want to be an au pair?

Dohanis (Colombia)- I decided to be an au pair because I love the idea of ​​experiencing a new culture, a lifestyle different from mine, learning a new language, seeing new places, and becoming part of a new family.

Elke (South Africa)- I’ve always had a strong passion when it comes to the topic of children. I love being around children; watching them discover life, as well as themselves. They inspire me with their honesty, creativity, and their ability to see beauty in life. When I realized how much I’d be able to grow through this experience and have the added bonus of teaching, guiding, and helping developing the future generations mindset/eyesight, I saw that it was too beautiful of an opportunity to pass up.

Maria (Colombia)- First of all, I have always dreamed of learning English, and second I love to travel. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to do both things at the same time. I’m part of a big family in Colombia with four kids at home. I also had some experience working as a teacher in a school with kids 4-6 years old. Also, I truly believe that life is about taking risks, being fearless, and embracing the present. One year ago I was at home thinking about changing my life, and I did it!

  • What has been the most challenging part for you?

Dohanis- No doubt, the most challenging part is the language. However, I think the weather has also been pretty hard on me; I never thought it could be so cold. Nothing could have prepared me for this Montana winter.

Elke- The most challenging part has been separating personal life from work life. We [au pairs] are blessed in the fact that we live with the family. This takes care of a lot of expenses and hassles that would come up if we were to be living elsewhere. However, this then provides means for one’s life to become blurred. You either feel as though you’re not working at all hence do not realize the importance of your daily activities, or you feel as though you are working 24/7. Although I am a part of an amazing family that has allowed me to distinguish the difference in an easy manner, it was still a challenge to clarify personally.

Maria- Being away from your family and friends is one of the most challenging things about this experience. And of course, the language takes a while to get used to it.

  • What have been the best / most valuable parts of being an au pair for you?

Dohanis- I have felt the support of my host family. They try to help me learn new things every day about the culture, new words, games, and local activities. But, besides my host family, the most valuable part for me, is that in this time I have gotten even closer to God, because when I need my family, my friends, my church, or just remember something from my country, God renews my strength.

Elke- The most valuable part of being an au pair is being able to witness all the children’s growth and character development. Personally, the best parts for me are when we’re talking about past events spent together. It reminds me that the good outweighs the bad, always.

Maria- I got the chance to meet wonderful people that I will always carry in my heart. I learned tons from every person I had the pleasure to share with. I grew up personally (more responsible and independent) in a way I’ve never thought I could.

  • Any funny stories about cultural difference?

Dohanis- Definitely food and people. In my country, it is terrible to eat pizza for lunch. Colombian people are very happy, loud, extroverts, and they love dancing. The parties are very noisy with a lot of food, and people talk loud and laugh hard.

Elke- Let me take the attention away from children for a moment and place it on the au pair’s living environment. Coming from Johannesburg, South Africa, where safety is a large concern, it continues to shock me how friendly and comfortable I feel here in Billings.

Flying in from NY (where my training took place) I had roughly a 43-minute layover in Denver before boarding a flight to Billings. My first flight was delayed; hence the probability of me catching my second flight was slim. I ran best I could, but when I got to my gate the boarding doors were closed. It was such a heartbreaking moment when I could see my plane right there, but I had no means of getting on. So, as I’m walking away to book another flight, which would have been an 8-hour wait, I hear a lady attempting to pronounce my wonderfully unique name. She was calling to tell me that the plane was waiting just for me. So they reopened the gates for me, and I was able to meet my Host Family as planned!

Maria- In the beginning, I understood almost everything through sign language (no kidding)! I appreciate that my host family was really understanding and loving towards me. I used to think every night that the next day I was going to forget what I had learned! Of course, I didn’t.

Once, I was making tacos for the kids, and my host boy asked me for “salsa,” and I said, “You’re not supposed to put salsa on tacos!” and he said, “Of course we do!” Here’s the thing, in Spanish the word “salsa” means “sauce” like ketchup or even mayonnaise. So I gave him both kinds of “sauce,” and I was pretty sure I was right. Then he went to the fridge and showed me the real “salsa” (the spicy one). Then I had to laugh at myself!

about the author…Jenna Jones is a local mompreneur. She is mom to 4 little ones! She is also a web developer and owner of Jenna Jones Design. In her writing, you will find Jenna getting honest about the hard stuff, and in all of it, finding some humor and some hope.

Originally printed in the pages of Simply Family Magazine’s June 2018 issue.
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