Home' Z!nk Magazine : Fall 2014 Contents IGNITION
GROWING A BACKBONE ABROAD
At 20, I was very naive.
I returned home from University in the middle of my junior
year after battling a devastating depression for two years. I was
beyond recognition, exhausted and utterly hopeless. For six
solid months, I focused on nothing but rebuilding myself from a
disease that swallowed me whole. Finally able to function, I was
working and feeling human again and I decided to do something
completely wild: I would leave.
My adventurous side was itching go and leave the negativity of
my past behind. With my background in childcare, I met with an
agency to educate myself on the job and the process. There were
phone calls, emails and work details exchanged as I decided on
a family with two children who lived just west of London. They
were lively, loved to travel, lived abroad many times and were
constantly vacationing and said that they would take me on trips
with them too. I was thrilled and we organized an employment
agreement and I agreed to stay for a year. After confirming
and completing the rigorous visa process, I packed my bags
and boarded a plane to Heathrow London Airport. I was not
nervous, not even walking through the packed arrivals gate as I
was looking for a sign with my name on it that belonged to the
family whose home I would be a par t of for a whole year.
My job detailed 35 hours of work, waking the children up and the
morning routines and driving them each to school and coming
back to do chores. I had a break mid-day until it was time to
begin dinner prep and picking the children up, activities, dinner
and homework. It also included 2 nights of babysitting a week if
need be. As I was more experienced, my rate was £100 a week,
roughly $170 USD.
My first week was great. They lived in a remote area right on the
River Thames. I learned my way around town, how to handle
the currency and convert it quickly to my native Canadian dollar
currency that I was used to and met the other au pairs in the area
who were mostly German. I was excited to travel and explore the
country with my new friends. Then everything went downhill.
The family went on a skiing trip to Switzerland with their
extended family, and drove there in the family van. I was left
alone with the dog for ten days with no transportation. The hot
water tank broke a few days earlier, which meant no heat or hot
water. I discovered an infestation of moths and ants. I spent
days cleaning out shelves of food with insects throughout.
As the weeks and months continued, the façade of the
employment agreement disintegrated. My responsibilities
increased and now included trips to the mechanic, taking the
children to the dentist and doctor and even the parent’s personal
banking. I had to take the money out of the mother’s account to
pay my own wages.
Tr y in g to guide my employment back to the initial agreement
many times, I began writing what I did each day. My hours
quickly added up to over 50, 60 and sometimes even 80 hours
a week. The mother told me when I babysat at night that she
would pay me the hours until the children went to bed — as if
my job was just done once they were in bed! I ran the house as
the father worked and the mother seemed to be everywhere but
The final straw was the parents’ overnight trip to Switzerland.
The one night ended up being 5 nights, and on their return
they left for the weekend to visit family and forced me to cancel
plans to watch the dog. I spent that weekend contemplating my
worth. I knew that I was being taken advantage of but was so
committed to being a good worker and staying for the entire year
that I slowly accepted everything along the way. I went through
a lot of emotions in the six months that I stayed, but I never fell
back into depression. Working hard gave me personal validation
that anything can be accomplished with enough focus, and
sometimes too much determination.
When they returned, my bags were packed at the door. I was
paid for my overtime at my hourly rate — £2.86, and flew home.
I loved the United Kingdom so much that I returned a year later
to au pair again. I was confident in my abilities with children and
that I could assert myself in any situation. That quickly turned
south and I left in a week back to my original au pair town the day
of the Royal wedding. This time instead of going home straight
away, I went on holiday to Spain for two weeks.
KAITLYNN E-A SMITH
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