The contention that “blood is thicker than water”, originally proposed in an ancient German proverb, may well be true, in a rational, physical sense. But reality is that shared familial experiences can create and expand family ties and bonds well beyond those dictated simply by an accident of genetics.
A few years ago, my daughter Pip changed us all by inviting a succession of young women into our lives, and our family. Initially ‘sold’ as a childcare solution, the au pair system allows kiwi parents to ’employ’ a young visitor from abroad, providing board and lodging, and a relatively modest fee in exchange for 40 hours a week of not just childcare, but love, discipline, entertainment and mind expanding learning experiences for their children.
The au pairs – generally young women aged 19-22, and a few young men – invest their own savings in what they no doubt hope will be a grand adventure. The system should provide them with not just a small wages to fund their New Zealand adventure, but a loving, caring safe “home base”, from which they can venture out to explore the best of our wonderful country, while at the same time experiencing the reality of being part of a “real” kiwi family.
Of course, there is really no such thing. The parenting styles that parents will no doubt exhibit when their own kids reach their late teenage years are quickly revealed when they find themselves “in charge” of young au pair, and often unprepared for the reality of having a young adult not just caring for their kids, but living in their home.
Sadly, over the past few years, our wonderful young women have brought home newfound friends, and tales of others, who are being treated as little more than servants, being subjected to crazy ‘rules’ and, the thing perhaps that upsets me most, not being given the family experience for which they saved so hard and paid so much.
The organisations that facilitate the matching are naturally predisposed to take the parents’ side in any conflict – after all, the parents represent “repeat business” paying a placement fee every 6-12 months for their new au pair, while the au pairs pay once, for a one-off experience, be it good, bad or downright ugly.
We’ve seen girls refused permission to entertain their friends at home, fired because they didn’t wash the windows well enough, forced to walk the children to school and kindy and after school activities in foul weather, despite having a drivers licence and there being a perfectly good and very ordinary car sitting idle in the garage! We’ve transported girls denied the use of the spare car outside their working hours, seen one left at home with the baby for a week while the rest of the family go on holiday, another denied the option to take her leave in blocks of more than a few days at a time. All of this, I put down simply to lack of employer experience on the part of the host parents, and a failure of the au pair organisation to fully brief them on their responsibilities as well as their rights. These are not bad people.
But to paraphrase an old nursery rhyme, when it’s good, it’s very very good, and so it has been with us – at least from our side of the story. Our first, the lovely Alexandra from Denmark, was embraced as a friend , a younger sister, a surrogate daughter, so much so that years on, she is currently back in our home, as a six-month-boarder for the summer, seeing a bit of the NZ that she missed the first time around. Alex brought sanity to my daughter’s household, a competent nanny for baby Matthew and consistent guide for Isabel.
Next came Sarah from Sweden – completely different, but somehow just what the children needed at the time. Quieter and more circumspect, she controlled Matthew’s impulses, providing Isabel with encouragement to venture out into the wider world.
Carly was Pip’s next choice, unusually from the USA, and a bundle of positive energy. Sadly a medical condition intervened, giving us only a few short weeks to get to know her before she had to cut short her New Zealand adventure. We continue to follow her quests to use her life to make a difference, with love and admiration… And treasure the brief moments during which we were all part of that.
Nina had a different approach to the experience; her mission was to experience New Zealand to the full, and that she did. Her calming influence and firm hand with Matthew came at just the right time, and we loved having her here – of all our girls so far, she was the one who left most sure of her place in the world, most convinced that her homeland is where she truly belongs. My sense (and my hope) is that being with us made her more certain of herself.
And so I get to Tea, the lovely Tea from Sweden (though as we keep reminding her, a part of Sweden that has more often been part of Denmark than of Sweden). Seeing her and Alex converse in what we have come to call Dwedish surely confirms this to be so. Tea has truly “been here, done that” packing more into her experience than any other. She has gathered friends – not just other au pairs, but young kiwis, including nieces and nephews and their groups of friends.
Both Tea and Alex, I think, are testing out the idea that one day they too could be “kiwis by choice”. They have embraced not just the immediate host family, Pip, Howard and the kids, but become part of our wider rambling and enormous whanau, comfortably navigating the grandparents and great grandparents, the aunties, uncles and cousins, with all the vagaries, quirks and family weirdness.
For more than any, Alex and Tea have become my Scandanadian daughters, the younger sisters that Pip hasn’t had till now. Recent visits from both their mothers have cemented our relationships even more – every mother wants to know that her daughter has a mothering influence in her life, when she cannot be there in person.
And so we build our family – and so we build a private, personal diaspora of international family; a world wide net of more-than-friends for Matthew and Isabel to visit, and to enjoy one day when they head out into the wider world.
Wouldn’t it be great if Izzy could one day have her own au pair adventure, caring for the children of one of our Scandinavian daughters? Meanwhile, I take joy, and pride, in the way these young women, all of them, have become part of our family, and allowed us to become part of their present and hopefully future lives.