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Experiences

Life Lessons I Learned from Being an Au Pair

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

The core concept of being an au pair, or a “live-in nanny,” involves living with a family and taking care of their kids. You’d imagine it would be that simple. I certainly thought so when I left for Quebec this past spring, dreaming of exploration and travel in a new region. A young family (with two adorable toddlers) had hired me for two months and I was bursting with excitement. It was only once I came back home that I realized how much I had underestimated the absurd challenges au pairs face while living with complete strangers. I had to learn several lessons the hard way, but I hope that sharing three of them will help others, nannies and regular humans alike, navigate some of life’s difficulties.

Taking things personally is a complete waste of energy

Much of the time, people’s hurtful actions are not based on cruel intentions. They’re based on ignorance and miscomprehension on both the giving and receiving ends. As an au pair adjusting to life with a new, entirely different family, it was difficult to understand their rules, feelings and intentions right off the bat. Because I wasn’t as accustomed to their behaviour as I was with my own family, I found myself taking the smallest things personally. I interpreted a quiet dinner or a slightly cold tone as disappointment in the way I took care of the kids. The reality might have simply been that they were tired that day. If you’ve been hurt by someone, you have the choice of moving past your initial impression and pain to see the true, more innocent explanation for their behaviour. You’ll likely realize it was just a misunderstanding of each other’s intentions. I’ve learned that (most of the time) we truly do not seek to cause each other pain, that it occurs accidentally. Behind seemingly hurtful behaviour is often only a scared person acting out. To not take things personally, you need to have a bit of optimism and faith in humanity. Cynicism will only bring you down.

communication is essential

If you ever find yourself internalizing sadness, frustration or anger about people in your life, the best thing you can do is to voice your concerns. Keeping them to yourself only tightens the tension and thickens the plot. Retreating in your fear of having an important conversation creates a more devastating eventual impact. I admit, I retreated during my first month being an au pair, doing the exact opposite of what I now advise. I was scared I wasn’t doing my share of work around the house and that my host family was upset with me. Then I became comfortable with that fear and assumed that because I wasn’t being corrected, everything was fine. But it wasn’t fine: the family I stayed with, I learned much later, had concerns of their own about my performance and our situation. I only realized this when the internal tension finally reared its head, and both of our frustrations came to the surface, causing me quite a bit of distress, to be honest. It took an entire month to have an open, honest discussion with them about work and personal expectations on both ends. This was a difficult way to learn the importance of communication, but I’ll never underestimate it again. I encourage you to have the courage to speak up, for the sake of yourself and others. It’ll reduce everyone’s anxiety and improve your relationships. You may fear the outcome and of others’ judgments of you but overcoming this necessary fear will bring you clarity and calm.

There is not always a right or wrong answer to a problem

We always long for a black or white answer in any difficult situation, wishing to blissfully ignore its complexities. We silently hope we are told what to do so we don’t have to go through the dreaded process of figuring it out for ourselves. It is easy to be given instructions and to follow them. But navigating and adapting to the murky waves of nuance is a necessary step to success. If you want to grow and learn, it’s inevitable. Otherwise, you hide in your uncertainty, a comfortable but dark corner of life. Right and wrong appear only in the most basic ethical decisions, and in facts based on evidence. The rest of our ponderings are mostly unclear, no matter how much philosophical debate is involved. I know, I hate it too. But you just can’t avoid it. The sooner you embrace the uncertainty of a situation, the sooner you can also see the endless, beautiful possibilities spilling from its every corner. Living in a black and white world would be boring – we know this. Complexity is what makes things difficult, but interesting and worthwhile in the end.

I don’t regret any negative parts of my au pairing experience because I learned so much in the process, and I grew in ways I could’ve never imagined. These three pieces of wisdom are some of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned, but they only scratch the surface. For you to read this means that you’re at least a little bit interested in pushing your limits, in facing fears and in moving through discomfort to achieve personal growth. So, I urge you to not just incorporate these lessons into your own life but actively seek out challenging opportunities that force you to learn through experience. It’s terrifying of course. But fear is the only thing holding you back – that’s it. Seek difficulty because of your fear, not despite it, for it proves your strength and it delivers you the best of life.

Natasha Shantz

Wilfrid Laurier '25

Hi! My name's Natasha and I'm a writer for Her Campus Laurier. Writing had been a home for me since I was in elementary school, typing up fantasy and fairytale novels. I like to write about a broad variety of topics, such as self-improvement, social issues, literature and pop culture. When I'm not writing or studying, you can find me dancing to music in my room, sipping coffee in a cafe, or reading a book.
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