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:
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.