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YEAR ABROAD TALES: the highs and lows of au pairing

Mhairi MacLeod

Tuesday, 24 May 2022

Have you ever considered au pairing in a foreign country? Not sure what it actually entails or if it is an experience for you? Our Deputy Editor, Mhairi, shares her rollercoaster experience of au pairing in Barcelona and the realities that come with it.

After my term in Peru was cancelled due to the dreaded Covid, I found myself desperately reaching out to the Spanish family that I worked for in the summer of 2019. My friends and family thought I was crazy as all they had heard for the last two years was how I absolutely hated au pairing and that the pressure of looking after two feisty Spanish boys had formed stress lines on my forehead at the young age of 19. I would never do it again. I shouted this from the rooftops whenever anyone asked about my experience of au pairing. Yet here I was sending a jumbled WhatsApp message to the same Spanish family asking if I could come and live with them again for three months.

A week later, I was unpacking my suitcase in the same spare room as last time. The room where I had cried so many tears on FaceTime to my parents saying I just wanted to come home (who knew a 4-year-old could make me cry). All I can say now is that I am so glad that I took the risk to go back as my memories of au pairing had been heavily overshadowed by the occasional bad moments back in 2019. I had forgotten just how incredible the experience had been, the friends and memories made, and the huge improvements to my Spanish.

There’s nothing like being sat around a dinner table with what seems like hundreds of tíos y tías, primos y abuelos, all talking over each other in their fiery Spanish. In the middle of their heated debate, in an attempt to acquire some backup, one of them would ask ‘the English girl’ what she thought. What felt like hundreds of heads would turn to stare as I tried to form a coherent sentence in Spanish without crumbling from embarrassment. It really is a humbling experience and made an oral exam seem like nothing. Oh, and did I mention that I was living in a huge house in the middle of Barcelona, with a beautiful garden and pool? Now it doesn’t sound too bad at all.

Like many things, the experience of au-pairing has its highs and lows. When I first stayed with the family in 2019, the two boys were four and six years old. For a 19-year-old, who didn’t have much experience looking after children, I was plunged straight into the deep end. How was I to know that a four-year-old could cry over his sandwich not being cut the right way? Or that the six-year-old was actually very fast and on several occasions decided to run off down the street and cause me to look like a crazy lady chasing him?

It probably took around two months to settle in properly and for the boys to get used to me. After that, it got easier and in hindsight was really great fun. I discovered that the boys were hilarious, whether they knew it or not, and despite their tantrums and meltdowns, they were actually sweet children. Some of my favourite memories are teaching them to swim in the pool and singing Calma by Pedro Capó with them every day. The parents were also the kindest and most accommodating people I have met, who always wanted to make me feel at home. They took me on their multiple family holidays, to the mountains in the Pyrenees, their family home in Cadiz, and weekend trips to beach houses, they really were so generous. I got to experience the local version of Spain and I was made to feel like one.

When I returned at the start of this year, the parents were even more welcoming and kind. They constantly praised me for doing a great job with the children and if I looked tired, they would offer to help or tell me to have some more free time to relax. My work schedule was so convenient, and I had so much time to explore the city again. I would wake up at 6 am and get the kids up and ready for school. They would leave for school at 8.30 am (or thereabouts, it was always a bit of a stampede) and later I would pick them up at 5 pm. That left me with a whole day to do absolutely whatever I wanted.

I filled this time with language lessons, exercise, exploring the city, and going to the beach, the list was endless. At 5 pm I would walk to their school and look after them until their bedtime at 9 pm. Just in time to go out and have dinner and drinks with my friends in true Spanish local time. The weekends were also my time off and the family often went away so I regularly ended up with a free house and some much-needed peace and quiet. On the occasion that they didn’t go away for the weekend, I had a fun time explaining what a hangover was to the kids, and that ‘yes I don’t look well’.

This second time around with the family was an incredible experience, despite the occasional tantrums and meltdowns. The kids were now six and eight years old, they were more independent and welcomed me into their little lives like an older sister. I also cried considerably less than the first time, which in au pairing terms is a great sign. I now have such a good relationship with the family that they treat me as one of their own. They are constantly messaging me to offer up their various houses in Spain for a holiday or telling me that if I am in Madrid I need to visit this amazing bar, visit ‘tío Pablo’ who will give me a lift to the airport, and meet ‘cousin Paz’ who will take me on a night out.

The Spanish really do have family everywhere. It sounds funny to say but I feel like I have a second Spanish family and I know that should I ever need their help they will always be there. I got to know Barcelona incredibly well and felt like a local, giving city tours and guides to my friends and family from home. On top of this, I met some great people from all over the world at my language school, some of who I now consider some of my greatest friends.

I realise how lucky I was to have such a great experience with this family, as I know it is not always the case for other au pairs. For me, the experience of au pairing was something that made me grow up very quickly, there is a lot of responsibility and suddenly you are the adult answering all sorts of questions from two very inquisitive children. My favourite was the classic ‘how are babies made?’ to which I swiftly tried to change the topic by pointing to a dog on the other side of the road.

Make no mistakes, it’s tiring and when I say tiring, I mean truly exhausting. I remember being dropped at the airport after three months with the family and falling asleep at the airport gate from sheer exhaustion. At times it’s not glamorous and it will make you question why you ever signed up for it. However, I can truthfully say that it is an invaluable experience and in my opinion one of the best ways to learn a language and experience a foreign culture. Whilst it wasn’t my ideal year abroad, Covid-19 has meant that we must be flexible and adaptable. Oh, and let’s not forget the other spanner in the works called Brexit. It is ok to feel disheartened that things have not gone how you may have wished however, this is proof that sometimes the ‘worse’ option can work out for the best.


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Barbara Dawson

average rating is 3 out of 5

Lovely tasty dish. Try it you won’t be disappointed.

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Aunty Liz

average rating is 3 out of 5

Very tasty and cheap. I often have this for tea!

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Being a bilingual family (French mother and British father,) living in France I thought your article was extremely interesting . Have you research on bilingualism ? It seems that when the mother is British and the father French and they both live in France their children seem to be more bilingual than when the mother is French and the father is British . This is what we called mother tongue , isn't it ?

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average rating is 3 out of 5

Such an interesting article!

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