Posts Tagged ‘Kids


The Extreme Au Pair Challenge 2009

We love winter.

Ladies and gentlemen, my time as an au pair has officially come to an end. There have been ups and downs, blue skies and thunder storms, laughing fits and crying fits. (I’m referring to the children, of course.) Overall it’s been a truly great experience, but I can definitely say that I’ve tested my limits in more ways than one.

My beloved family has of course found a replacement au pair to bring into their home, and have asked me to spend a week with her and the kids to aid in everyone’s adjustment. She arrived today, and as it’s a Wednesday, she’s lucky enough to spend the entire day with yours truly while the parents are at work.

To give her a proper initiation into this world, I thought about giving her what I’ll call the Extreme Au Pair Challenge. She ought to know what’s in store for her, after all. Before I relinquish my bedroom, cell phone, bike keys, Rabobank account, Dutch language textbook, and position in the family, I thought I’d have her do a test run first with the following assigned tasks and high-pressure situations. This way, the family would know whether they can count on her, she’d know what she’s getting herself into, and, well, I would have a little fun.

Timed Challenges:

  1. A planned route on the bakfiets that includes conquering steep hills, criss-crossing repeatedly over tramlines, dodging strategically placed pedestrians, navigating narrow lanes between traffic traveling in both directions, and negotiating sharp turns and awkward driveways.
  2. Morning prep: Changing poopy diapers and helping the 3-year-old in potty training on the toilet before applying socks, shoes, sweaters, coats, hats, mittens, persuading each boy to choose only one small toy to bring to school, and strapping them both into the selected vehicle of transport–all without provocation of tears.
  3. Getting both children to sleep without resorting to extra bottles of milk. Extra hugs may be administered.
  4. Removing them peacefully from the playground equipment at school using negotiation only, not bribes or force.
  5. Sweeping all crumbs, grains of rice, bits of play-doh, piles of sand, leaves, dead bugs, and plastic yogurt lids from the kitchen floor without disposing of any cherished toys in the process.
  6. Reading Yertle the Turtle in its entirety, without skipping a line and without brushing aside earnest questions from the 3-year-old.
  7. Mastering the pronunciation of Dutch words, gezellig, gelukkig, and achtentachtig.
  8. Making a friend your age.


  1. You are preparing dinner for 5. There are 4 chicken breasts cooking fast on the skillet and no back-up food in the fridge. One kid is down the hall crying, having peed his pants and soaked his jeans, socks, shoes and the floor with urine, about to walk through the house in distress. The other kid has fallen down in the backyard, and is crying loudly over a very mild knee-scrape. The doorbell rings; it’s the grocery delivery man and his truck is holding up traffic on the street outside. Prioritize.
  2. You are giving the kids a bath. One is covered in soap and crying because water got in his eyes. While dealing with this, you notice a gigantic turd float by and realize the other kid must have sneakily squeezed one out during the commotion.  The water, and the children, are now contaminated. Take the plastic toy bucket and proceed.
  3. You are home alone with the kids, eating dinner together at the kitchen table. It’s a stormy night. The 3-year-old stops eating and looks behind you through the big glass doors into the dark garden and asks, “Who is that?” Investigate.
  4. You’ve locked yourself out of the house with both children and no money an hour before dinner needs to be on the table. Both parents are at work and the neighbors are out of town. Frantically curse the universe and your own foolishness for several minutes, then solve.

I thought about putting her up to all this, but of course she’ll experience her own set of challenges, screw-ups and personal triumphs in good time, so I’ve decided to keep my own to myself. Maybe they can make the Extreme Au Pair Challenge a reality show on TLC or something. Instead I bought some flowers for her room, took her out to lunch, and will spend the rest of the week doing my best to make her feel welcome and prepared. She’s a very nice girl and I’m sure she’ll do a great job.

As for me, I think I’m ready to pass on the torch.


The Guessing Game

I’m nearing the end of another Thursday, typically my toughest and most tiring day of the work week, and here is how I’ve spent the afternoon: watching Finding Nemo on the couch before settling down at the kitchen table to play with play-doh and listen to Mika. Did I mention that I have a college degree and this is what I’m being paid for? Awesome, right? They call something like what I’m doing a “year off” for a reason, and I don’t deny that life is mostly fun and games for me (with the occassionial bout of homesickness or I-can’t-stand-these-kids-another-minute sickness mixed in).

Of course, as with anything, there is a flip side. As it turns out, doing things like playing with play-doh, giving baths, cleaning up toys and making family dinners does not leave me feeling very fulfilled or accomplished. I’m happy and proud of the relationships I’ve formed with this family and the care I am able to give the boys, but at the end of the day I’m exhausted and have nothing to show for it. Nothing, that is, except two little kids safe and happy in their beds. While I don’t discount the value in this, it’s just a very different kind of achievement than what I was used to in school and college sports. I’m not getting hard-earned A’s on any papers, not rowing for 2 hours before anyone else I know has even gotten out of bed, not making any progress for myself.

It’s not as though I babysit all day and then just sit around staring at the wall the rest of the time; I read, I travel, I explore the amazing city I’ve planted myself in. But the other 35-40 hours a week, the hours I spend at the playground or changing diapers or breaking up little fights, leave me physically and emotionally deflated while my mental and intellectual needs are left almost entirely unmet.

People often ask me if being an au pair has turned out like I’d expected it. I tell them yes, that my job is almost exactly what I imagined it would be. What I predicted inaccurately was my own level of contentment. I chose to seek a position abroad as an au pair because of both the limited financial impact and the fact that it would be easy. Fun. Games. I would just get to play all the time. I figured I’d been working my ass off for four years, so why not give myself a break and see Europe while I’m at it? And while this has been an overwhelmingly positive experience thus far in almost every aspect, it turns out that the very thing that appealed to me about this decision is the very thing I now struggle with most.

I did not see that one coming.

Maybe I’m an idiot, or maybe I just guessed wrong. That’s what we’re all doing anyway, isn’t it? Guessing? Those of us recently out of college or approaching graduation all face similar questions and doubts about the future. As confident as some might seem in the “life path” they’ve chosen, the goal they’ve set and the means they’ll use to get there, I would bet good money that they really don’t have a clue and are just hoping they’re pointing themselves in the right direction.

I gave myself some extra decision-making time by using a year while I’m young to see Europe, something many will never find the time to do when they’re older. But now that year is halfway over and I find myself staring the future in the face – mocking me with teeth bared – once again.

What I can do now is make the most of my situation and use what I’ve learned to make a more educated guess next time around. And I shouldn’t say that my hours spent with kids leaves me with nothing to think about. Like the scene in Finding Nemo (no, not “just keep swimming”) when Marlin and Dory are clinging for their lives to the upturned tongue of a whale, debating whether or not to let go and plummet to the uncertain depths of his dark, cavernous throat. Dory yells to Marlin,

“He says it’s time to let go! Everything’s gonna be all right!”

“How do you know? How do you know something bad isn’t gonna happen?”

She thinks for a second, then:

“I don’t!”

And they let go.

I have to admit that when it comes to Dory, the free spirit and hopeless optimist, and Marlin, the over-cautious worrier, I swim in the current of the clownfish. But we could all be a little more like Dory, and I can definitely say that as far as big decisions go, I have yet to regret just letting go when the time came and seeing what would happen.


Bottomed Out

There are times when I ask myself what I’m doing here. One of those times was Thursday morning when Noah, the 1-year-old I look after, surprised me with an explosive crap. I apologize for being graphic, but there’s no other way to say it. We were in the kitchen as I cleaned up after breakfast and made sandwiches for a picnic lunch…and when I started to smell something foul, something stronger than anything confined to a diaper might be, I knew I was in for it.

Tiny spots appeared on the floor.. spots of something that I couldn’t remember having served for breakfast. I left the PB&J open on the cutting board and got to the bottom of things – literally. The yellow sludge had oozed out of his diaper, down his pant legs, past his white socks, and into the world.

It was far more than baby wipes and a changing table situation could handle, so I took everything off, threw the toxic waste and contaminated goods in a garbage bag, and placed him in the tub for a hose-down. His 3-year-old brother, Alex, stood nearby and watched while enjoying a box of raisins and I sat there pumping baby soap into my hands and scrubbing between Noah’s fat rolls thinking to myself, I’m thousands of miles from home in a place where I have basically no friends and don’t speak the language for…this?

It was about 45 minutes before Noah was finally clean and upstairs. I was afraid to dress him again lest it should strike twice, or – heaven forbid – three times. Not wanting to hang out in the bathroom all day waiting for another eruption, though, I dressed him and we set off for the day. First stop was the famous cheese shop down the road where they know the kids and always offer a free taste (to the au pair as well). Then the patisserie across the street that has been voted best in the city in past years. We each got a bite of chocolade as I paid for our little brown paper-wrapped package of sweets.

Worried that chocolate and cheese would only feed the yellow sludge monster, I dropped the groceries off at the house and set off for the park nonetheless. It was a perfect sunny day and we sat at a picnic table, the three of us lined up in a row on the bench eating vruchten (fruit), boterhams (sandwiches), and of course, koekjes (cookies). WIth the sun on my face and two little smiles shining up at me from the picnic bench, I felt like the day was looking up.

We saved all the discarded crusts in a plastic bag so the ducks could eat lunch too, so we headed over to the pond, Alex helping unstable Noah trudge through the muddy grass. The ducks ate, Alex squealed in delight, and Noah was so interested in the water that he almost fell in. All in all a successful trip to the park. I put the two boys, with faces happy and dirt-covered, into the stroller and made it home in time for their nap.

There were no other explosions that day, and I realized that when it’s as bad as it was, it’s pretty unlikely that it’ll get anything but better. Plus, the risk of running into shitty times is worth the chance that you might get to have a picnic in the sunshine.

Oh, and also the family took me to Switzerland the next day.

"Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!" -Henry James, The Art of Fiction
January 2019
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