Au-Pairing As An Introvert
A Carousel in Toulouse, France
(I began writing this post on July 31, 2016 and completed it on the first of September, 2016)
If you have been following Lace & Lilacs for any length of time now, you are most likely aware of the fact that this summer I am au-pairing à Toulouse. Though I’m not certain as to when I’ll actually publish this post, I’ve made the decision to write it in the present-tense, from the point of view I have at this very moment: I am exactly 28 days into my time here, with a total of twelve more to go. So, there you have it, a ‘lil frame of reference.
Also, I am, as I’m fairly certain you’ve surmised by now, a total introvert. I may not be in the least bit shy, but my god, I freaking LOVE alone time. I need it. I cannot survive without it. People are wonderful: chatting, gossiping about celebrities, and squealing over adorable puppies on the street with friends are favorite pastimes of mine. But again, I must stress: I literally live for time all by mah-self. No shame.
As far as my history with childcare: I have officially been babysitting since the age of fourteen, though my responsibilities where ‘lil ones are concerned began long before that, around the birth of my second brother Jack in 2004. I was seven at the time, and Jake, the first of my two younger brothers, was three. In other words, I have essentially been filling bottles and entertaining babies for about a decade or so now. I suppose because I have siblings younger than myself, I’ve never questioned the space/role childcare has, as a ‘job’, taken within my life. It was always assumed (by just I) that babysitting would always be a fallback ‘occupation’; an easy-peasy way to earn a little extra cash whilst falling short on it.
I initially did not intend to au-pair this summer, or honestly to care for children to any extent, but this past December, while still à Paris, I realized a few things that eventually led me down this path. 1) I wanted to actively continue pursuing French over the summer. 2) I needed to earn a part of my tuition, rent, and living expenses for the fall academic semester. 3) I did not want to spend the entirety of my break at home in California.
Essentially, I was in need of an opportunity to earn money, improve my French, and travel without spending a significant amount of my own money. The only solution to this conundrum (that I could think of, or am still able to think of, for that matter): au-pairing. Euros – Check. Français – Check. Travel – Check.
These are the reasons why I ultimately decided to become an au-pair.
The thing is: there are a couple of crucial qualities/desires that an average American au-pair typically has that I, shortly following my arrival, came to realize I totally lack.
- A deep hunger to experience as much of the culture as possible within the span of their time abroad
I absolutely adore French culture and am certainly more than devoted to learning and becoming familiar with their rich lifestyle and history. Truly. But my time in France is not limited to the six weeks I am spending with this family in Toulouse. I essentially live here now, practically year-round, and have ample opportunity to acquaint myself – at a relaxed pace – with the French way of life. Of course, I believe in seizing moment and occasions that present themselves to you, but self-care, rest, and proper boundaries are also highly valued by my-self.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is this: I am in no rush to experience every aspect of French culture this summer. I partake in what I want to, when I feel like it, and often to be polite, but have also felt the need to assert myself by proclaiming ‘no, no, non, merci‘ when I’d prefer to read a novel (in English, oof), watch an episode of 30 Rock or two, or text a friend while not ‘on the job’.
- A desire to connect with people, as an extrovert
I love people. I adore people. People are fascinating! Everyone has a unique, engaging story to tell, and I can easily chat for hours and hours with friends about topics we mutually find interesting.
BUT. I am not an extrovert. After that riveting conversation, I need to go home and recharge for, like, two hours to overnight. It’s just the way I work; it is just who I am and I heart myself for it.
I can see why extroverts are especially attracted to au-pairing, however: you are essentially around people all the time as one. The child (or children, in many cases), the parents, various relatives and family friends. As an introvert, it is difficult. Quite, quite difficult to maintain proper boundaries while at the same time not coming across as rude, self-absorbed, or, well, just plain weird.
Also worth noting is that it helps to have a naturally high level of energy as an au-pair. Some families and children operate on a higher level of energy and intensity than you might. I, for example, (despite taking iron supplements daily), am by nature a human who tires, very, very quickly. My mother is the same way; it is just genetic, I suppose.
And, just as it is difficult to be apart of your true, related-by-blood family at times, meshing comfortably with another household is tough, to say the least. Within my immediate fam-bam, for example, my mother, Jake, and I are not what I’ll refer to as ‘big-eaters’. We don’t eat very much, and the three of us tend to be astonishingly picky. The benefit of this situation is that among each other, as well as with other family members, there is total understanding. My father won’t pressure my younger brother and I to try a creative dish of his or press us for an explanation as to why we’d prefer to not have second helpings. Being thrust into this French, heavily food oriented family was, therefore, a bit awkward on both their end and mine.
Now: how have I, as an introvert, managed to survive this six-week period of caring for an eight year old child, exchanging words daily with her parents (in French, more often than not), living in the same home as the three of them, and nurturing my introverted self at the same time?
Well, it hasn’t been easy, kids.
First of all, if you’re an introvert and are on the fence as to whether or not to become an au-pair, I highly recommend that you go for it. It is an experience that you will in no way regret, trust me. So. Here are my tips.
- Communicate with the family as much as possible before your arrival, and be sure to clearly negotiate the hours you will work each week, your duties within the household, and your salary.
I am so glad I had the foresight to discuss these matters with the mother of the family well in advance. Introvert or extrovert, this is a crucial point, but especially so if you have a tendency to falter while negotiating in person. It’s important to know not only how long you’ll be working each day (and whether or not you’ll have days, such as weekends, off), but also what is to be expected of you – housework? Pet care? Etc. etc. etc.
- Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’.
Declaring this two-letter, one-syllable word has always been difficult for me in situations where I am eager to please whomever happens to be asking for a favor. (I am consciously working on my ability to guiltlessly proclaim ‘no’ at the moment, and have been for quite some time now.) During my work hours I happily perform all the tasks the family requests of me, but throughout the evening hours and on weekends (days I officially have off), find that I sometimes have to refuse invitations in order to take the very best care of myself. Which is totally, 100 percent okay.
- Do occasionally make an effort to be social and learn from the culture
Because, sometimes, even if you would truly prefer to say no, you would be missing out on socializing, learning, and (in my case) practicing a foreign language if you did. Prepare for these occasions in advance, if you must, or if you happen to have an unexpected burst of energy or desire to converse, just go for it. Take advantage of this amazing opportunity you have to engage with kind people in a beautiful, unfamiliar (in a good way!) environment.
I am at last completing this post on September 1, 2016. My au-pair job has long since ended, and I have had the most beautiful few weeks traveling from Toulouse to Rome to home in Paris. My mother was here for quite a while, as well, and it was so lovely to spend time with her. We really do take our parents for granted as children and young adolescents, don’t we?
So, there you have it my darling friends. I’m wrapping this up fairly quickly, but time is passing (school begins in under a week!) and I have been meaning to share the above thoughts for quite a while now.
I’ll be back quite soon with Toulouse photographs, more on London, a bit more Dublin, some analog shots from Roma, new outfits…. I could go on and on. This academic year is going to be utterly wonderful.