My daughter is "launched", having successfully completed her first year of college. A kid who never liked to leave home for more than an overnight with a friend, she welcomed change with curiosity, an open mind and excitement. The year went well for her on all fronts, as she plunged into new friendships and new academic challenges in a culturally vibrant city. What else could a mom want? Happy kid, happy mom...
We have always been close, but we are becoming friends of a different sort now. At the same time, as her mother, I still feel a sense of responsibility and protectiveness towards her. How to balance these roles cannot be premeditated and planned. The balance strikes me emotionally, as it teeters back and forth depending on context and circumstance.
This summer, our daughter decided to become an au pair in the UK, where we have family. I admired her ability to take charge and find a job in a country where she has never lived, and yet has citizenship. Refusing most of my offers of help, she planned her journey, found the host family, and ultimately took on the responsibility of caring for 3 young children, ages 4 and under for 6 weeks. Yikes! Just the sheer number of children would drive me crazy! But shortly after she arrived, adding additional stress to this scenario, the family dynamics went very sour and she gradually realized that she had to get out. My husband and I had planned a visit in the middle of her stay, and as the time drew nearer, we realized that the purpose of our visit was to help her extract herself from the situation.
The job of an au pair is well-defined in many countries, but my guess is that the majority of au pairs operate outside of any regulations. According to the British Au Pair Agencies Association:
"The au pair programme is an internationally recognised Cultural Exchange Programme. It offers a young individual the opportunity to travel and live/work with a host family in a new country, learn a foreign language and experience the country's culture. The au pair will work a set amount of hours for the host family, usually doing a mixture of childcare and light housework. The au pair may have some childcare experience, but an au pair is not a nanny and should also not be treated as a housekeeper."
In our daughter's situation, the work hours grew to 12 per day, and the children came to rely on her nearly exclusively for their most basic needs as well as constant love and attention. As tension between the parents grew, their dependency on her grew as well
In her study of what she calls the "shadow work of nannies and au pairs," sociologist Cameron MacDonald says,
"Contemporary working mothers and child care providers are actively involved in a process of redefining motherhood. The nexus of this redefinition involves the negotiation of child-rearing practices, of who does what and what that division means."
In our daughter's host family, the mother wanted an egalitarian marriage and the father felt that it was his wife's "duty" to be primary caregiver. They both seethed with resentment. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild says this phenomenon is the result of a stalled gender revolution, in which women are changing and men haven't yet caught up with them. The "mum" in the host family rebelled against her husband's views by going out partying with single friends at high class clubs (there's a class element here as well, of course!), and the dad rebelled by working long hours, going to the pub with his mates, and indulging in his obsession with watching car racing and playing golf. Meanwhile, the children were neglected by their parents, who preferred spending money on their vocations instead of their children. Consequently, the children were emotionally needy.
The parents were high earners, but when it came to paying our daughter, they were stingy, nickel and diming her for cash she fronted for their children, and at times questioning the number of hours she worked for them. Since they were avoiding each other, there were times they didn't seem to know that she was the one caring for their children. And yet each of them confided in her about their marriage. Of course, it is their children who suffer the most, and as their caregiver, our daughter wanted to protect them. At the same time, she had to protect herself.
She learned that it is difficult to leave a job, particularly one in which young children are involved. She was lucky because she speaks the language, has family nearby and parents who were there to support her. But this is often not the case for au pairs... and therefore they may be vulnerable to exploitation. Au pairs become part of the family dynamic, which in a good situation can be very fulfilling, but in a negative situation, can be emotionally wrenching, as the child caregiver becomes closer to the children. It was hard for our daughter to leave, but ultimately she knew that it was time to go, and we helped her do it. Not an easy situation, by any means.
As a visitor to this host family's home, I was infuriated at how the family was taking advantage of her, but also awed by the amazing job our daughter did, providing love and security to the children and standing up for herself in the toughest of situations. To be honest, it also felt good being "mommy" again. And there is my challenge - finding the balance between a growing friendship with my young adult child and still maintaining the protective role of mother. Supporting her to walk away without telling her to do so...