An Au Pair Horror Story
Having visited Berlin twice, I knew I wanted to live there for some period of my life. In 2013, after living in South America for a year, I wasn’t ready to go back to the US. Some friends told me they had wonderful experiences as au pairs (live-in babysitters). When I found a modern family with German, Turkish, and African heritage, living in a darling kiez (neighborhood) of Kreuzberg in Berlin, I was thrilled!
They had four beautiful children, aged 20 months to 9 years old. They all had names that started with a “J,” just like me! They went to a bilingual school with children of American expats and German diplomats. The mother was young, cheery, and absolutely loved my personality. We really hit it off over Skype. I couldn’t wait to just be there, cooking German and Turkish food for the little ones. I pictured myself sewing my own dirndl (German peasant dress, like the kind you see at Oktoberfest) with the machine in my new room. I was going to be like Julie Andrews!
In all my excitement, I failed to get the whole story.
From the information I had on the family, I couldn’t imagine them being anything but happy and financially stable. But when I moved in, I learned the parents could barely stand to be in the same room, and had planned on separating for months. They had spent the last year fighting in front of their kids. They worked so hard to afford the necessities that the kids were neglected, and turning into verifiable monsters.
From the information I had on the family, I couldn’t imagine them being anything but happy and financially stable.
The 4-year-old taught me every German swear word imaginable. The 20-month-old screamed when I touched her. The 7-year-old wet the bed every single night. The 9-year-old was suffering from depression. My heart broke multiple times a day, and I was supposed to stay for 5 months.
Honestly, I tried. I stayed when I found out the parents were separating because it wasn’t immediately obvious how terrible the kids were. My au pair friends assured me that the kids would be bad at first no matter what, so I persevered. Plus, I was forming a close bond with the mother, and it seemed easier to stay than find other work in Berlin.
But the kids’ behavior made it hard to trust their mom, who always left me alone with them. They jumped on counter tops, and screamed when I asked them to get down. When it wasn’t TV-time, and I turned it off, they threw tantrums. They ran away from me when I took them to the park. Did I mention that I was still learning German? After only two weeks, I told their mom that if she didn’t help me enforce what she claimed were her rules, I would have to leave.
She improved slightly, but after a month of irregular schedules, long hours, and daily criticism from the kids and mom alike, I didn’t know if I had the strength to stay.
An Au Pair Horror Story
I was lucky to get some advice from their previous au pair. She confided in me that it had been even worse for her. I realized the mother had been manipulating me, and I saw her for what she really was: a disinterested mother. She was even having an affair, and lamented to me the fact that because of her kids, this man would never love her.
I resigned the day after meeting with the other au pair. I gave 6 weeks notice, so that they could find proper childcare. I was too generous, I know, but I was brainwashed to think that the kids were depending on me. And honestly, I was afraid of upsetting the mom, based on what her last au pair had told me.
While I was in the process of moving into an apartment and looking for a job, my mother decided to visit, using flyer miles from a friend. I stayed at her fancy hotel for a night, hoping for some relaxation.
At first I didn’t think my envelope of euros was missing.
The next morning was the 7-year-old’s birthday party. I had asked my mom to bring him a copy of Goodnight Moon, a bedtime classic, and I was excited to give it to him. I awoke to a call from the kids’ uncle, who said he had arrived at the apartment, only to find it had been broken into, and the family was nowhere to be found. Then, I taxied over, and helped with the police report.
At first I didn’t think my envelope of euros was missing. I had just moved all of my things to my new place, so when I didn’t find the envelope in their ransacked apartment, I reasoned that I had simply taken it with me the day before and had forgotten. But it was nowhere to be found. I was disappointed, but what was more upsetting was what I discovered weeks later.
The mother had staged the burglary. She faked the damage to her own home in front of her kids, and used my money to buy the birthday boy a new mattress from Ikea.
I was too generous, I know, but I was brainwashed to think that the kids were depending on me.
I got my money back eventually, but it was hard to let go of the two-and-a-half traumatic months I spent in that situation. As it turns out, I was so fortunate to have friends in Berlin, who helped me see the positives—keeping up with those kids had really accelerated my German skills! Not to mention, though it was a horror story, things could have been a lot worse.
Now, I’m much more careful about trusting people. If that sounds depressing, then you have it backwards—it’s empowering!
Some people have a “little voice in their head.” I don’t have that. I have a freaking loudspeaker.
An Au Pair Horror Story
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Photo credits for An Au Pair Horror Story by Jessica Shen.