When I graduated university and suddenly found myself in that very uncomfortable limbo space of being 23 and not wanting to join my friends on the corporate treadmill, I was unsure of where my road would lead me.
I started that year with big expectations and ideas. I was hired as an intern at a feminist start-up and I was moving into Johannesburg. Everything was going to plan…or so I thought. After a few days at the start-up, I realized that it was not a happy environment and that I needed to get out of there pronto.
The shiny plan that I had crafted for myself came screeching to a halt. It suddenly dawned on me that I now had no income, no clue what to do next and that if I didn’t move quickly I was going to look like a failure. After a solid month of just about every person I knew telling me to “just au pair,” I decided to sign up with an au pair agency and found a job within a few days.
I had next to no experience with little people and yet I was the proud new caretaker of two little girls (ages two and eight). “How hard can it be?” I thought to myself.
Not only was it physically exhausting driving to and from school and then to sports (and then extra swimming and extra ballet and extra maths) but it was emotionally taxing on a level I had never believed possible. This kind of work is so much more than playing taxi – you become an integral part of their little world. You become their stand-in mom. A title like that means a lot of tears, tantrums at every and any corner and baby poop (so much baby poop). But I also got to be a part of the milestones, the giggles and secrets, the games that no one else knew or understood and those little hugs around your knees.
But the reality is that you are an au pair and therefore are not their mom. You are underpaid outsourced help with little to no authority. You are privy to some very uncomfortable family dynamics, for which you must remain invisible. You may not agree with their parenting style or discipline techniques (if any) and you can do absolutely nothing about it, which is terrifying because when you’re raising little kids you feel like everything you do or say is shaping them into the people they will become. That’s a massive responsibility.
This was a full-time job but I still found myself constantly having to justify what I was doing, when questions like, “so when will you get a real job” would pop into conversation with friends. I quickly realized that so many of my peers didn’t seem to think that being an au pair was “real” work and, moreover, that it was easy work.
Why do we look down on service jobs when the reality is that the service sector is something we come into contact with throughout our lives? We’ve all heard similar remarks about teachers, nurses, nannies, housekeepers and hairdressers. These jobs are invaluable to society, yet we continue to look down on them.
If working as an au pair taught me anything, it was that, contrary to what I previously thought, I actually love working with children and helping people. I learned a lot about patience and gained a hell of a lot of respect for all the moms of the world.
But this job is most definitely not for everyone, even I quit after a while. We need to stop pushing young people into caretaker positions because we think it’ll be “easy.” My stint as an au pair was anything but “easy.” It was, however, a learning experience, preparing me for the real world in a way no corporate job ever could.
So, next time you find yourself asking someone when they’ll get a real job remember to hold your tongue because being an au pair is most definitely a real job (it sure as hell kicked my ass).