Updated: Apr 23, 2022
In March of 2020, our au pair, Marielouise Widmann, arrived in the United States. Keep in mind that prior to this journey, we were like most of the people who we talk to when we say that we currently have an au pair. We would receive a similar response every time.
“A what?” The second being: “Oh. Like a nanny?”
At first, I would scoff at this. “No, she is not a nanny,” I would say, exasperated. Although, it was apparent that anyone I would be speaking to never meant anything by it. It was just the only thing that they could think of to understand the concept. After the 300th time I got that response, I just began to find it humorous and would even laugh and say, “Yes. Like a nanny,” when I heard it. There are obvious reasons that one attributes an au pair to a nanny; it is one of the closest cultural translations. I have found that the best way I have explained it best since then is: “Think foreign exchange student. But one that cares for your children.” It’s not completely false as au pairs are also attending classes to get college credit while they are in the country. When you Google it, it states that an au pair is “a young foreign person, typically a woman, who helps with housework or child care in exchange for room and board.” That is, essentially, the deal. Six months into this “au pair nanny foreign exchange student tenant” part of our lives, I can now say that this definition does not match, even to the slightest, what this experience has been for us and our family.
Marie recently celebrated a 22nd birthday, is German, and lives in our home with our family. She has a private bedroom upstairs, has a vehicle provided by us for her to drive, and came with an intention to care for our children while we work during the day. Her basic duties would be taking our six-year-old son to and from school and care for our one-year-old son (now two years old) during the day. She would then be “relieved” when we return home from work. There are monthly cluster meetings in which she is encouraged to attend to develop relationships with other au pairs in the area, etc. At a basic level, that is all that is required outside of changing hours due to needs in the household.
She is not to work more than 45 hours per week, must get one weekend duty-free a month, gets paid weekly, and is allowed 14 days of “paid vacation” typical of many full-time jobs while we cover living expenses.
Our experience is simply based on a series of random, seemingly-coincidental and unexplainable circumstances. The “why” behind our decision is, and was, for a lack of better words, “written.” That being said, it might be difficult to explain why specifically we did what we did because we don’t really know either. It all goes back to a parenting class that we attended at Preston Trail Community Church in Frisco several years ago. In that class, we met several couples who we would get to know better and keep up with. Scrolling through Instagram one fateful evening, a member of one of these families would plant the first seed into getting the ball rolling. She posted about her “au pair.” So, naturally, I went to Google and entered what one might call a wormhole of sorts. This included articles, blog posts, etc. detailing some of the experiences that people have had—not all positive. I learned that there were multiple programs and agencies. I also learned that there was a wide-ranging community that I never knew about. So, why had I never heard of this? This was a great idea.
While I had no clue of the details, it is an understatement to say that I was interested. Selfishly, sure. Intrigued. Before understanding the process and details of the financial commitment to the au pair program, it was purely a financial interest at first for me. My oldest son was not in kindergarten yet, and we had an infant. We were, at the time, paying $2200+ a month for childcare, which, to put it simply, equates to an additional mortgage payment. It seemed far more affordable to choose the au pair route: case closed. Then, life continued. Time passed. A night with friends celebrating a birthday would lead us further into the process. At this point, I had not mentioned anything about my previous Googling session to my husband.
That night, he would have a conversation with a neighbor about, you guessed it, the au pair who they were going to welcome into their home soon─having no connection to the original source. He was talking to me about the conversation that evening, to which I explained my very little but somewhat knowledgeable understanding. We Googled it together, me detailing him through what I had found previously, talked together, whatever, and were basically toying around with the idea and signed up to find out more information. It seemed too good to be true. If everything we thought was actually true, why wouldn’t every parent in America do this? This is not to say there are not parallel opportunities locally, but we were focused on the idea that this person would be solely committed to our unique family in our own home.
After signing up, it became clear that in my, shocker, far-from-perfect Google escapade, I was not fully aware of all of the financial information to understand how much it would truly cost. After breaking it down, for it to be actually a savings would be if we had three children needing care. Which we didn’t. We only had two. One who would be attending public school in the fall. However, my husband happens to be a “numbers guy.” After doing some budgeting and crunching of numbers, it was slightly more than what we were already paying. For some reason, though, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It came up multiple times. Leading to more conversations. Leading to a conclusive decision to do it. I would spend some of my time, unknowingly, just perusing available au pairs interested in starting soon. It would be, in our mutual minds, a rewarding experience. A learning opportunity. A way to open up our children to the fact that there is more than just us and our way of doing things, etc.
I would begin to pepper in and show him some videos of the ones I liked or found interesting. It would be a lie to say that I fully intended this to be an angle of persuasion for him to be on board 100%. He had reservations. It’s also important to say that I had initially signed up as an interested member through Au Pair in America (found to be the pioneers of the phenomena being backed by beginning in 1986), and with speaking with our neighbors who had already committed, signed up as well for another similar organization called Cultural Care. After consistent subliminal manipulation, undoubtedly, paired with an increased amount of research done by my husband, who is a man of logic, we would begin the search for our possible au pair. Who would we pick? How would we decide?
The Initial Concerns
My concerns, similar to my husband’s, might have steered me away from the tedious process if it hadn’t been something I felt like I was supposed to do. Would removing my son from daycare negatively impact his immune system? Would it deter his speech acquisition in the most crucial stage of his development? Those we shared the potential news with had questions. Would it be dangerous to bring a stranger into your home? Wait, so you would just trust someone with your kids? Don’t they just come here to get married? These are valid, sure. All possible reasons to err on the side of caution. However, we knew that it was important to get to know the person that we would choose and to make a decision that was right for our family not being swayed by naysayers. We first had to determine what qualities we found essential for our au pair to possess. And not settle until we were certain. We trusted ourselves also to, if committing, choose someone that we both had no hesitations about. If we were not to find that person, so be it, and we were prepared to move on if that person did not exist.
I spent hours sifting through both sites catering my searches to specific qualities, personality traits, and experience. We set up an in-home interview with a community counselor, which is a required step in the process. This person would “inspect“ our home, ask questions, provide information, and deem us “fit” or “unfit,” so to speak. We didn’t deep clean prior to her arrival. That would have been just completely off-base and not authentic. I for sure didn’t wear a super-cute outfit. This old thing? I totally didn’t apologize for how “messy our house was” despite its pristine and rare state. I did not purposely leave one toy as an outlier as I invited her indoors to sheepishly toss into a bin, my eager and perfectly-mannered child stating that it was “so nice to meet” her. This is a good opportunity to share, too, that I did not threaten my child to do this. He is far more polished and genuine when speaking to anyone but his own family. During the interview, my oldest child was playing upstairs.
At one point, during an important part of our conversation, I heard this: “10...9...8...7...6…” from upstairs. This was terrifying as I had no clue what this countdown was for. I sat there, not knowing if it was appropriate to race up the stairs and stop the impending trauma, yell up like a lunatic, or ignore it, simply chalking it up to the idiotic and rather short-sighted phrase “boys will be boys.” After a few moments, of closing my eyes as an attempt to thwart the inevitable, I politely excused myself, calm as to not have the woman invoke any nearing endorsement, and travel upstairs. Yes, he finished the countdown, yes there was a thud, and yes he had jumped off a piece of furniture, and yes he escaped unscathed. I silently condemned him and begged him to behave. I offered him a reward even though all of the parenting books steered me away from this as a means to an end. Maybe, I thought briefly, this would be a defining moment to prove that we might need an extra hand. One will never know. The entire experience, as I imagined it, felt like we were adopting a child. We passed and were deemed fit.
The Process + Selection
As I continued to search for the right person, choosing an au pair felt like a dating app. I would check boxes for who I was “looking for” and “favorite” those, just as I did several years ago to find my curated husband. I would read countless profiles, watch introduction videos, read interview transcripts for all those vying to be chosen as someone’s ideal au pair. I strayed away from young women who were, for a lack of better words, rather revealing in their “profile” photo. I for sure didn’t want my story to become a Lifetime movie. We had taken thousands of options, came to a conclusion that we wanted a younger individual, one that proved passionate and genuine, and someone who came from a country who already drove on the right side of the road, etc. Someone who had strong English-speaking skills already. We continued whittling it down to a shockingly small number of people not even big enough to provide one team’s starting players for six-man football.
After watching what seemed like a hundred hours worth of videos of people vying to be chosen, I began preparing for initial contact to express interest, Marielouise included. I set up an interview with Applicant 1. Applicant 1 didn’t show up to the interview, later apologizing and requesting another time to be chosen. Not a good look. Applicant 2 didn’t respond. I chose to remove Applicant C due to some concerns with how little experience she had with driving and the age groups I felt she excelled in working with. Applicant D would soon become an extension of our family. Before reaching out to her, she sent me an email.
Initiative. Interest. I can work with that. I set up a time to chat with her first alone. Then, if I felt like she “passed,” I would set up another time to meet with both me and my husband. Her second interview, if you will. I will say that what stood out about her in general was just that she didn’t choose to create an elaborate, seemingly-desperate highlight reel that seemed scripted. While I understand why some would do this and how necessary this opportunity might be for some, it didn’t feel right for us. She didn’t have video effects, music, and all that. She sat down in a comfortable place and spoke about herself, in an even and confident manner. That gave me more of a sense of who she was than any other video I had seen. It didn’t seem like she showed what she felt people wanted to see. She simply was herself, a normal young lady with a dream and a sense of stability and tact. Her favorite show was “Friends.” She had dreams of visiting the United States since she was 10 years old, of living here, of moving forward with a possible career as a midwife. A caretaker of others. In which I just so happened to have an acquaintance who was an active midwife who I also met at Preston Trail Community Church. We set up a time, and we talked. I won’t use the cliché that “it felt like we had known each other for years,” but it felt like we had known each other for years. We both liked Taylor Swift. We had opinions and shared interests in similar hobbies and quirks and senseless yet noteworthy knowledge, we felt, on the lives of specific celebrities. She already had Snapchat. We shared a similar take on the world being realistic over excited to the point of delusion. We purchased tickets to a Harry Styles concert even prior to her arriving and meeting in person. She even responded to my jokes (which we can all agree that being able to handle and understand my humor was one of the most important attributes). I had already decided that she was it. She was who I wanted to share our lives with. I refused to consider anyone else. I immediately sent her an embarrassing email about how interested I was and that I wanted to invite her to speak to both me and my husband to possibly further the process as soon as possible. And then I received this email in return (see image).
I don’t even have to go on to explain how perfect and adorable her response was. I felt scared that someone else would snatch her up and was jealous as I considered she had other families she was interested in. No. No one else. Live with us.
My husband and I sat down to talk about it. We came up with some questions that we felt were important to hear answers to. I asked her to do the same.
Was this all a successful and well-executed ruse to just find a husband? So, are you just wanting to end up getting a K-1 visa and be on the cast of 90-Day-Fiance (which we are mutually obsessed with and would watch together frequently)? How do you respond to stress? What might homesickness look like; are you concerned about it? Have you worked far from your family in the past, and how did it go? Have you ever lived with anyone else, and are you a nightmare to have as a roommate? What type of support do you need on the “bad days?" Would you be interested in being part of trips or dinners or activities outside of “working hours," or will you just hole up in your room? Are you a morning person? Do you party because eww? Do you cook because I would love some traditional German cuisine, which I would later realize isn't that great and seems bland to me? Are you athletic? Do you have pets? Are you allergic to anything? Are there hobbies that you already have and hopefully it isn't wailing on a trumpet? Are you interested in pursuing other hobbies because I would enjoy having a second shooter on photo sessions that I do not have to compensate financially? What are experiences that you wish to have while in the United States? Are you into hallucinogens or other hard drugs? Are you afraid of heights, and I would later realize that you are terrified of elevators? Are you an annoying person? Do you lie a lot for no reason? How do you respond to sarcasm because I'm the queen of it? Are you messy because, gal, that ain’t gonna work? What kind of music do you like? Are you a shitty driver? What is your relationship like with family members; have you been exiled from holiday events? Do you have enough emotional baggage to go on a month-long, backpacking trip through the Australian outback? Do you realize that Texas can be 241° on a Monday and -14° that same week and end with a F4 tornado to really seal the deal? Are you high maintenance; this ain't gonna be the high life? How do you feel about passive aggressive family trips to the park because I am annoyed that it takes 11 hours for everyone to be prepared to leave the house? How will you respond when my kids are assholes? What are your thoughts on discipline? Are you an ugly crier when you don't get your way? Would you sing karaoke with me, or at least be a devoted audience member while I sang?
The answers to these questions and any that she had for us was crucial. Would it be a healthy dynamic? We wanted to ensure that whoever we chose was not a forced decision and was a fit. I had the habit of becoming dramatically attached with no foresight. I also had history that shows I really enjoy ignoring red flags. As a matter of fact, I apparently imagine them to be a ski run. Just slalom right down the slopes. Zigzagging full speed, blowing right past 'em. Due to my, seemingly detrimental, emotional shortcomings, my husband, a logic powerhouse, would ultimately help to determine that any decision would be mutual, not forced, and an honest fit. After meeting with her, we both concluded that we wanted to extend an offer for her to be our au pair. It was not one-sided. We had chosen her. That being said, she had to be interested as well. Would she want to be our au pair?
Keep in mind that this was July of 2019. She had stated that she was unavailable to start until March, what she felt was likely a deficit as most families want to start in August. This, however, was perfect for us. We were in no dire rush as we had childcare set up anyway, and with my husband being a financial analyst, once again, he wanted a chance to get finances in order so that it wasn’t such a hit signing a check of that magnitude to cover initial travel expenses, etc. It was unanimous. It was time to move to Phase 3 of our interview. This was not a requirement, but we are extra: a time to meet with her and her family. It was important to us, as well, that we had support from those closest to her and that there was comfort in who she would spend a year with for them. After meeting with her family, despite a language barrier remedied by her being a translator, we saw the bond and why she had grown into such a wonderful young lady. Her parents were incredible, caring, funny, and supportive of their daughter in her choice to be a part of this program. It turned out that we didn’t scare them off either (I was on my best behavior). We requested to “match.” This would mean that it was an offer that she could accept or decline. She responded almost immediately. We had chosen each other.
All of the arrangements were made. And the waiting began. We spoke almost daily, getting to know each other well. When I think of other families and how they choose to get an au pair, it seems that, far too often, there is little time between matching and arrival–making getting to know each other difficult. We were able to communicate for months before she would get here. She had a chance to get to know my kids better. Our family. Our lifestyle. To feel comfortable before she even arrived. She got a tour of our home, to see my kids in an authentic real-life scenario. I wanted her to know that this wasn’t going to be a fairytale. It wasn’t going to be a perfect experience. High, unrealistic expectations would only disappoint both parties. I also explained that she would absolutely not be waltzing onto the “Friends” set and to remember that those characters were indeed fictional. And that the American life can look different in so many ways. We weren’t necessarily a family with structured, daily, sit-down dinners. We didn’t have any sort of “game night” set up. We didn’t frolic in fields of flowers holding hands and laugh together while doing so. We didn’t share sundown technology-free picnics in the park. We were, indeed, for a lack of better words, the ultimate American shitshow. It would be hard sometimes. And that was ok. That we could be here to support her in any way that she needed. And that by communicating openly, we could avoid trivial issues that might come up.
A pandemic would soon engulf us, though, almost cancelling her entire trip and ability to enter the country. Little did we know, our lives would look even more different than imagined. We had obviously not accounted for this, nor did anyone. She arrived a week before the borders were closed. It couldn’t have been better timing. After finding her at the airport, second guessing it was even her and fearing that I would approach the wrong person, I panicked and walked up. In true Erica fashion, we exchanged an awkward handshake and an embrace mimicking an incomplete hug. And then me being, like, "Hi, how was your trip? Are you tired? Ready? Come this way. I parked over here. Do you need help carrying anything? Hi. Did I say that?" All of this was, unfortunately, coupled with a tiny giggly laugh thing. I needn't even mention the shirt I was wearing. That's right. "Hello." In German.
We often look back at these first few moments and laugh thinking about it. It was the weirdest introduction ever, to be honest. Especially for us and our personalities. And it’s because I am a social nightmare when I feel uncomfortable.
She arrived at night after our kids were already asleep. Prior to this, I had imagined an elaborate welcome-home-style theme as she walked through the revolving door entering the baggage claim area. I imagined balloons. Speaking in fluent German to really drive it home with how committed we were. Perfectly-created signs. With maybe glitter, but probably not. Neither of us are glitter gals. With our whole family standing there, dressed in authentic German apparel. Running toward each other in slow motion. A professional photographer. A blimp flying by outside with her picture on it. A marching band. A flash mob. Me singing her favorite song on my karaoke microphone. Now that I think back on it, this was a far more ideal time for her to get here. She had just traveled so far, she was likely exhausted, and it was not the right time for her to lunge into meeting my kids. She was only met with one awkward hug exchange thing instead of four. Neither one of us knew what arrival would be like for her emotionally, so she was able to get used to a slight culture shock more privately, and she was greeted by me, who she had gotten to know oh so well. My husband’s first encounter would have been far more weird. She needed time to acclimate, to get home, to put her suitcases away, and get some rest in her new bedroom (which I have to admit was, um, so adorable).
On the wooden sign in her bathroom, I put the German word for “welcome,” which I spelled incorrectly. I offered to fix it, but that was her favorite part about it. Perhaps the daily reminder that her host mom is an idiot. I also had contacted her sister to collect family photos to frame in her room. I felt that it would be a good feeling to see something normal and “at home” help ward off any stress induced by the international travel and the “realness” of such a huge life decision.
The following morning, she met Kinsey, my, at the time, five-year-old son. He would only have time for a brief encounter before leaving for school. Initially, I wanted him to wait until he got home, but he made sure that was not an option. “No. I’m meeting her now.” He was sweet and excited and warmed up immediately. Wells, our one-year-old son was just fine and took to her well. This was a concern that I had. Would my kids need time to adjust? No. They needed no time. He was wondering what she would do on this first day. She told him she was going to first take a shower. “Can I watch?” he asked. I basically chalked this up to innocent curiosity. Regardless of the reason for this completely out-of-bounds request, I was mortified. At least we all found it funny,
and she didn’t immediately board a plane back to Germany. She also donned a shirt that had pictures of family members on it. She introduced Kinsey to who was featured on the shirt. That’s fine, I guess? Be yourself, gal.
I took the day off so that I could help her get situated, answer questions, take her somewhere if she wanted to, etc. I explained that I would be there if she needed me but understood if she needed time to unpack and settle in. We were the picture-perfect, American host family for about 8 minutes. Oh, we even set up a “weekly family meeting” every Sunday night. That stopped after, I think, two times. Once again, that just ain’t us. Dinner every night sharing stories about our day? Nah. We did do this, in some ways, don’t get me wrong. I really can only think back to recall about one relatively detrimental and angry family card game of Uno. The rest was comfortable.
It was unfortunate that we only had a few days in which stores and restaurants were open before the shutdown. She was, however, able to experience a trampoline park with us, KidZania, Target (obviously), and places that we could not wait on (um, can we say Whataburger? Chick-fil-A?). It’s funny to think back on it now and remember that what would occur over the next few weeks and months would have never been something that we saw coming. “Oh hi! Welcome to America! Sorry everything is closed and we really can’t go anywhere!”
Soon the schools would close. Both my husband and I would be working from home, a strange dynamic in which there is someone caring for the kids who happen to know that parents were also there but unavailable. It was also hard to figure out how much I should be involved when not teaching a class virtually. I felt guilty if I didn’t hang out with them, and I felt guilty if I didn’t. So I acted awkward instead, and no one should be surprised by that.
We had fun, though, above all else. We laughed a lot. I taught her what Dr. Pepper and ranch dressing was. I wasn’t aware that sweet tea wasn’t a common beverage. I began to understand and learn how some of my thinkless and normal routines were either completely unheard of or not common. Most of the “normal” I experienced on a daily basis wasn’t absent from where she lived, but a lot of it was considered non-essential. Some of the stereotypes of American living is, without a doubt, true. We are, indeed, living in a world in which constant convenience is a goal. Thus prompting a rather lazy culture, generally. And the only thing we really base anything on is deciding where to or what to eat for the next meal, sometimes while actually eating what would become the prior meal. It was a consistent reality check. There is no need to get up and turn off that lamp, gal. Just ask Alexa to do it for you. This served as an additional reminder of what I already knew.
This chick was far different from the girl I was in my early 20’s. Unlike the nightmare, emotional basket case I was, she is driven. Responsible. Goal-oriented. Mature. And has her shit together. At that point in my own life, I was probably going through my boyfriend’s phone or something. It’s refreshing to see someone like that at that age. It’s becoming more rare.
Now, we had confirmed that she was not, indeed, looking for a relationship, right? We had even basically promised her parents that there would be no boys. However, due to, what she claimed, boredom, she did end up finding a young man to date. How could she not? She spoke to me about it privately prior to meeting him in person. She had met him online via an app I refuse to share due to its rather unsettling stereotype (Bumble). We were able to navigate that appropriately and consider the safety of all parties as a family. Discussing it. Considering what boundaries we wanted to establish as host parents. Giving her advice about what, culturally, was the norm in terms of budding relationships. My husband and I did not want to be helicopter host parents but not allow her to go off the rails either. If we had "banned" her to date, she would just do it anyway. She’s grown; we had to have a little trust there and not be a roadblock in her experience. We wanted to make sure it stayed healthy. Thought through. Intentional. Paced. Our whole deal was, hey, if it does not interfere with the kids or her responsibilities, we were okay with it, and I probably need to apologize to her parents? Even though we had already seen who she was and that it would have been hard for us to imagine that she didn’t require stability as a character trait. So, yeah, I did a background check on this young chap. He passed. As did his family members. You can’t be too careful. They have been together for a long time now. And we did finally meet him. And he is great. He even says, “ma’am” and takes off his shoes when he enters my house. He is respectful. Makes her feel how she deserves. And, when speaking to us, uses the phrase, “I don’t want to overstep.” I mean, come on. He even likes my kids, and they like him.
I did test my theory, though, to make sure that she was not choosing potential love over my family or becoming ungrounded or distracted. At one point, we spoke about a possible Year 2 extension and whether or not she was considering it. I asked her: “What if you decide to extend and you match with a family across the country from where you are now? What about your boyfriend?”
Her response: “Oh, I’m not choosing where I live based on some boy.” Yep. That’s my girl. Although time will tell, now, won’t it? “Some boy, huh?” Let’s ask her about that again in February. By the way, if he hurts her, I will hurt him.
The Hard Things
I think the hardest thing for me, in our unique experience, is determining what role I need to play. In any given conversation or event, I have to figure out: What does she need from me right now? Who is she wanting to respond? Does she need me to be a mother? A sister? A friend? I ventured into all three roles at different points because, I mean, I dunno. That’s really it. The rest has been nothing short of incredible. I can even speak German now. I can say the days of the week, “bathtub,” “I’m in a parking lot,” and I can even tell her to shut up.
Our experiences led us to the moment. To decide to get an au pair. To choose her. And to be here right now. Right where we are supposed to be. Plain and simple. She is likely the sole reason I’m not divorced or in prison right now. That quarantine didn’t always treat me all that great, y’all. I love my kids. I love my husband. But that doesn’t mean I want them as a constant shadow, always there, blocking doorways and drawers.
The literal translation to “au pair” is “equal to.” And the most accurate. She is, and will always be, part of our family. As far as never doing this again, one must never say never. It’s not that we wouldn’t do this again; it’s that we feel like we can’t. It's hard to imagine there ever being another "Marie."