“The American Dream?” by Lisa (USA 2009)

This is a true story. For privacy reasons all names have been changed.


Early morning in July 2009 I set off to the Vienna airport. My bags were packed and my visa was in my pocket. Friends and family were hugged and kissed, parting words mumbled and tears wiped away. Facing forward I stepped on the airplane. For the first time in my life I was on my own. All new, all doors open, all paths possible to be explored.

Once in New York ‘au pair school’ started. Within one week we could meet other au pairs and received a crash course in childcare and parenting. Most of the au pairs I met there were placed on the east coast. I was envied by other au pairs, as my host family lived in Los Angeles.

During that week I called my host parents a couple of times. The family consisted of Judy, Ralf (who was originally from Switzerland) and my two host kids Brian (10 years) and Shelly (7 years). I was incredibly nervous before each phone call, partly because my English was wonky, despite studying English for many years at school. Also, I wanted to leave a good first impression.

After a very emotional week at au pair school with home sickness and many hours of learning about other cultures and people, I headed to L.A. My host family welcomed me at the LAX airport. The kids were there too and welcomed me with excitement. I was examined, hugged, looked at, questioned and finally escorted to the car. On our way to Redondo Beach I was invited to eat some ice cream, then we arrived at my new home. They showed me the house, and introduced me to the dogs for whom I would be responsible from now on too. My room was very nice with a huge, comfortable looking bed in it. On the bed were flowers and pictures the kids had drawn for me. I was very happy about my welcome, the perfect start!

Weeks passed by rather fast and I picked up on things quite quickly. My daily schedule soon became routine. I got up in the morning, woke up the kids and fixed their breakfast and some sandwiches for school. Then I woke up Shelly again as she was a true morning grouch and drove the kids to school. I even had my own au pair car. Afterwards, I took care of the dogs. I had to feed and walk them. I cleaned the house, did the laundry and took care of the dishes. In the afternoon I picked the kids up from school and helped them with their homework. The rest of the day I was off and able to meet up with my au pair friends.

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Once we all had gotten used to each other and no one tried to impress one another, I noticed that my host mom started to turn away from me. More and more I felt left out. Ralf, the host dad, talked to me in German when we were alone. He assured me that his wife was just having a rough time right now but not to worry and that it would be over soon. It was very important for me to hear that, as I knew now that Judy really was acting differently around me. Why that was nobody could tell me.

The kids’ behavior changed too. Nothing I did was good enough anymore. The whole thing didn’t work anymore. I was surprised as I just couldn’t tell what exactly I was doing wrong or what was the deciding reason for this major twist. Judy wasn’t only moody towards me, but also towards her children. I felt I was treated very unfairly during that time. I tried everything I could to reconnect with them again. On weekends I cleaned the house instead of hanging with my friends at the beach, for example. I cooked dinner that actually no one ever ate as the family spontaneously headed out for dinner that night (without me of course). I surprised Brian with a hand made board game at his birthday and attended every single dance lesson of Shelly’s. In the end my relationship to the kids became stronger again, what made me really happy as minding them was my main duty anyway.

Later the kids told me that Judy said, that they should make life difficult for me. The world no longer made any sense to me.

I contacted their previous au pair and she told me that I am the sixth au pair within 2 years now. Hearing this took a load off my mind as I’ve already started doubting myself and my qualities. My precursors were running through the same cycle: A happy and nice family is welcoming you, but the tables turn rather quickly. From that moment on I was only half-heartedly at mind. To me all of this didn’t make any sense at all. During that time I was skyping with my loved ones back home fairly often and my mom encouraged me to hang in there. I honestly wanted stop right there, pack my bags and fly home.

One morning things escalated. I was about to drive the kids to school when I suddenly heard somebody slamming a door in the upstairs followed by angry footsteps. Then I heard Shelly screaming before she got dragged down the staircase by Judy who was pulling her hair. The situation got frantic. The dogs started barking, Brian talked insistently to his mom and Shelly yelled. Judy screamed at us that we were too late. She commanded Shelly to stop crying and as Shelly couldn’t calm down she got a resounding slap. After that Judy kicked us out of the house. In a state of shock I drove the kids to school. During the whole car ride I didn’t know what to say. You could clearly see the handprint on Shelly’s face. I had no idea how on earth she would explain that in school. My hands were shaking. Once the kids got out of the car I called my au pair agency and asked for a rematch. I didn’t care where.

Of course I had to tell my host mom about my plans who responded by rushing in her room and slamming the door shut. In the evening Judy sat down next to me in the little backyard. I was actually hoping for reconciliation. We talked about our situation, past events and especially misconceptions. During this open talk I also had the guts to bring up the previous incident. She got up and walked back into the house without saying a word. No explanation nor justification.

A few days later my au pair mentor came to visit. The domestic violence which I had witnessed was denied by the whole family as a figment of my imagination. They said I needed a reason to leave the family. Being accused of lying wasn’t new to me. It became clear that the situation could not be resolved. I got the chance to go into rematch and therefore look for a new host family. From there on all my energy went into looking for a new family. I didn’t want to give up just then. New chance, new luck.

A single mom named Carol, who actually worked for the au pair agency, got in touch with me. She lived in Burbank, California, and heard about my current situation. Luckily she was looking for an au pair for her two-year-old son Finn. I didn’t think twice about that offer, told my agency and in the end told my host family that I found somebody new. Funnily enough Judy was sad about my news or maybe acting was just in her system.

Right before Christmas I moved to my new host family. Saying goodbye wasn’t emotional, on both sides. I was very excited. Carol extended a warm welcome. During the first couple of days she introduced me to their small apartment, the area, the different restaurants and beaches. We became close friends immediately. Little Finn was a jackpot, too. He was very open and after a couple of days it wasn’t a problem anymore when mom went off to work and he spent the day together with me. One day we went to a toy store to check out all of their trains, another day we went to Universal Studios to visit Spongebob. Sometimes we were joined by grandma and grandpa (who lived separated), to which I had a very good relationship. We usually returned late afternoon where Carol would then put Finn to bed. Afterwards we sat down at the balcony, enjoyed the calm atmosphere and talked about everything and nothing.

On weekends the three of us would usually hang out. I always felt welcome to join them. Of course there were disagreements once in awhile or criticism I had to take, but overall I was just happy that I found this family.

One day in February, Finn and I returned home after spending some hours at the zoo. Carol was sitting in the living room, crying. She took Finn away from me without saying a word, sat down at the couch and cried. I didn’t really know what to do, stood there for a couple of minutes and finally holed up into my room. As I still heard her crying in the evening I got worried. I went back into the living room. Finn was sitting in front of the TV watching his favorite program, while Carol was laying on the floor, crying. I wanted to go to her, ask her what’s going on, hug her the same way she always did whenever I was homesick. She asked me to leave her alone and I did as I was asked. I respected that she needed some alone time and hoped that the next day would be better.

Over the next few days the crying didn’t stop. I started worrying about Finn as she kept the pair of them in her bedroom. I called Carol’s father who came immediately and got Finn out of the bedroom. He asked me to look after him as Carol is going through a rough time right now and therefore needed some rest. I did as I was told. I only saw her in the morning when I picked up Finn from her bed and in the evening when I put him back in her bed.

One day she came out of her room. It appeared to me as if she took some psychotropic drugs. She constantly laughed about stuff that wasn’t funny. I felt very sorry for Finn. He didn’t understand why his mom was saying all this weird stuff or started laughing out of nowhere. More and more he started to look up at me and orientate himself towards me. Things started to get worse, not better like grandpa had promised. Very often she was running around naked in the apartment. Even though very weird at the beginning, it became somehow normality.

Events started to get scary when I wanted to head out one Sunday and the main door was locked. She explained to me, that from now on she was my slave and that I was not allowed to leave the apartment without her. As her ‘master’ I wasn’t allowed to make a move without her. I immediately wanted to call grandpa to tell him that things didn’t calm down at all, but she took away my phone. I panicked and ran into my room. She came after me and took away my room key in order to keep an eye on me, claiming it was all for my own safety.

The following days I barely had the guts to leave my room. I tried to watch TV and distract myself. I decided to not get in touch with my mom back home as she wouldn’t really have been able to help me anyway and I didn’t want to worry her, of course. Besides I knew that the danger was on a psychological level, not a physical. I went for a smoke on the balcony at nighttime. Once she noticed it she told me that I was only allowed to smoke in her presence. I had to give her one cigarette whenever I smoked. She put it in a ZipLock bag and stored it in the freezer. Still to this day I don’t know why.

After a while I left my room whenever I heard that she was in the bathroom. I have no idea what exactly she did in there, but it usually took an hour. During that time I was able to look after Finn who didn’t go short. He was allowed to watch TV, drink out of his baby bottle and eat whatever he wanted. Once in awhile I checked the front door – it was still locked.

On another day she was in good spirits again and told me that we would eat out that day. I was enthusiastic as it would give me the chance to take off and get help as grandma lived close by. When I saw that Carol was wearing a collar, I sensed that something bad was about to happen. She attached a leash to the collar and I had to swear that I would hold on to her otherwise she would run off into the street with Finn, like a dog. I promised and we took off. We didn’t get far though and returned as Carol insisted we were being followed. At that moment I realized how serious the whole situation was: Carol was sick and would stay sick if nobody helped her.

Once she caught me changing Finns diapers as she didn’t consider it necessary anymore or wasn’t able to do it anymore. She got angry at me and forbade me to change him. I continued to do it, secretly.

One morning the smoke alarm in my room was chirping – meaning that the battery was low. Carol warned me that it was a bomb and that I was strictly forbidden to touch it. At this point I was mentally battered. I was scared and when she forbid something I listened as I didn’t know what the consequences would be. I barely slept during the night as the chirping sound was very penetrable. But I became used to it eventually.

Once Finn got a bloody nose from the bathroom cabinet. It was the only time we left the apartment. Even though she had a car, she put Finn in his stroller and we walked to the ER. Meanwhile my hand must touch the stroller. We walked for 3.5 hours and got there in the middle of the night. There, they couldn’t really help us as Finn didn’t have any injuries so they sent us home. Sometime in the morning we arrived back home.

After that Carol had locked themselves up in her room for two days. Meanwhile I was looking everywhere for the keys. I couldn’t find them, but I found a cell phone. I called grandpa who had been on vacation and therefore didn’t check in on us. He came with the spare keys, I unlocked the door and told him everything.

He explained that Carol was bipolar. It seemed that she had stopped taking her pills. Grandpa gave me a cell phone and told me to hide it from Carol, but this way I was able to contact him. He wanted to talk to the police before a team could bring her to a special clinic. Grandpa wanted to take care of everything and fill me in once the plan was all set.

Two days later grandpa finally called. He told me that everything was set up, a team was waiting and I should quietly unlock the door. He entered, told me to wait for his sign, get Finn and run. The sign was unambiguous and I reacted immediately. I opened the bedroom door to a horrific scene. Grandpa was lying on Carol pressing her down as she fought back. The room was full of rubbish. There were clothes, boxes, food debris and diapers all over. I recollected myself and grabbed crying Finn. There I looked in Carol’s face which was full of hatred. Once she realized that I was about to run off with her son, she bit grandpa’s hand. While fleeing I noticed four people heading towards the apartment I just left. I assumed they were the clinics team who was supposed to take care of Carol.

Outside grandma was waiting in her car. We drove off but stopped after a while in order to put Finn in his car seat. He wept bitterly, was dirty and wearing diapers that haven’t been changed in a while. We tried to calm him down pretending that this was a race like we usually did with his trains and we were the winners.

We drove to grandma’s house. There was a nice toy room so Finn was occupied with his trains for a while. Then we came to know that Carol escaped through the backstreet once she was able to wrestle down grandpa. He was in the hospital as he was suffering from heart problems. Carol was missing and I asked myself what the role of the clinic staff was.

When grandma wanted to leave to get some diapers and clothes I begged her to stay as I was scared that Carol would show up. She took off anyway promising to be back very soon. For my own sake I pushed a cabinet in front of the door and closed all the curtains so that no one was able to look inside. Once grandma was back she told me that Carol was caught on her way to grandma’s house. Grandpa was still in the hospital but doing better. It seemed like he went in the apartment too early so the team wasn’t ready. The police got involved and were able to spot Carol.

We stayed at grandma’s place for a couple of days. Meanwhile Carol was put in psychiatric facility. We agreed on me moving back in with Finn in Carol’s apartment. There, all family members would help, assist and support me.

Entering the apartment felt weird. I had to check if Carol really wasn’t there anymore. Finn was also looking for her, but for different reasons. He missed her.

First I cleaned and decluttered the whole apartment. Once the nightmare was over I got sincerely angry, but also sad. I was grieving for the Carol she used to be: My friend, loving mother and charming slob I liked so much. But I didn’t have much time for all these mixed feelings as I took over a new role. I became a surrogate mother. Unexpected and abrupt.

A few days later we unexpectedly got picked up by flustered grandparents. They told me that we had to go the the police which made me a little bit nervous. There we got split up into different rooms. Finn and I were both put into small interrogation room together. A police woman came in and started talking to Finn who was sitting on my lap. She obviously wanted to take him with her, but he didn’t even think about it. To make things easier for her I went outside with him as there was a kid’s corner. But he wasn’t interested in any of the toys. He was holding on to me as he was probably scared to lose me too. Therefore I had the questioning with Finn on my lap.

I was told that I could be prosecuted for child abduction and that custody was uncertain due to Carols insanity. We talked through many things and the policemen left the room a couple of times, then reentered with more questions. Eventually I was allowed to leave, having left a statement and answered all the questions they had.

In the car grandpa explained, that the clinic staff got questioned too. Apparently they couldn’t arrest us as we were acting on their behalf to get Finn out of the situation.

Of course my au pair agency realized after a while what was going on, as Carol worked for them. I was contacted by an assistant and we arranged a meeting at a cafe close by. Meanwhile Finn stayed with grandpa. I wasn’t sure what I should or could tell her. The lady introduced herself as Myra and seemed very friendly to me. She explained the different options I have. I told Myra everything that had happened and the current situation. I told her that I wanted to stay with Finn as he had become so used to me over the last two weeks I could barely leave the room without him becoming upset. At that moment, it was unthinkable for somebody else to take care of him, including grandma and grandpa. As I was thinking this, grandpa entered the cafe with crying Finn in the stroller. He reached out for me, I unlatched the belt and sat him on my lap. He stopped crying immediately. Grandpa said hello, apologized for the interruption and sat down looking very exhausted. Myra approved that I could stay Finns au pair.

We worked out a daily agenda in which we scheduled exactly how many hours I was allowed to look after Finn and how often and how long the other family members (grandma, grandpa, aunt Charlotte or aunt Tanya) had to look after him. Myra wanted to check in on us weekly, but for whatever reason she never did.

Grandma and grandpa were very happy that I was still allowed to look after Finn. They had a difficult relationship with each other and to their daughters Charlotte and Tanya. In addition, grandpa had started a life with a new wife while grandma was busy with her male acquaintanceships. Indeed we were showered by money and fare, but they passed all the responsibility onto me, a twenty-year-old foreigner. Looking back at it they pretty much left Finn and me in the lurch, as we couldn’t really expect any assistance from them.

Finn and I were able to settle back in after a while. He was able to let go of me eventually. Nobody stayed to Myra’s schedule though. Finn was with me basically at all times. On weekends I was usually off and really enjoyed the time with myself.

It was difficult to get back to something like a rhythm or daily routine. Finn had to learn to go to bed at night and get up in the morning. He gave up his bottle, learned how to brush his teeth and was potty trained. We were very active and visited aunt Tanya quite often who lived close by, was married and had two kids herself. Child protective service had decided that Finn should be in her custody.

Mid May, Carol was allowed to come home on weekends. As I panicked just thinking about her we decided that it was time to move in with Tanya. I was sad as I got used to a life in our own apartment. But of course I understood that Finn had to get familiar to living with his aunt. It seemed like Carol wouldn’t get back guardianship anytime soon.

We moved on a Thursday. Grief and relief mixed to an indefinable feeling when I left Carol’s apartment. Luckily aunt Tanya was about to head to Hawaii with her family so I was able to settle and organize myself without any interference.

Finn got used to the new living situation rather quickly and I worked hard to stick to our routine. Only sometimes I thought about Carol who was probably sitting in her apartment at that moment thinking where her son was. Once in a while grandma and grandpa came to visit; we played soccer in the backyard, went to the zoo or visited the Travel Town Museum.

One and a half weeks later we were still home alone. Aunt Tanya and her family would come back in four days. By then Finn was already very good with our daily routine. I read his favorite story to him and he immediately fell asleep. After a few minutes in front of the TV I fell asleep too. Suddenly I woke up because lights were flashing through the windows. I thought of burglars and ran to the window. With horror I saw that the front yard was full of police cars and policemen flashing their flashlights towards the house and garden. I called grandma and asked her to come by immediately. I ran down the stairs and opened the front door. The policeman, first astonished, asked me then if everything was alright. He also asked me if his colleague was allowed to check on the child. They explained that they had an anonymous call that said that there was an infant’s body in the house. At first I thought that they must be at the wrong address, but then I figured that Carol must have been the anonymous caller.

The policewoman checked on Finn who was fast asleep in his bed. Meanwhile grandma arrived and took over. The police left and I looked after Finn who luckily wasn’t affected by this event.

The last couple of weeks of my stay went by smoothly. Finn was signed up at daycare. Additionally he got his own room and many new toys. As I had more free time I found new friends. Tanya took me to concerts and other events. She proclaimed several times how thankful she was for me.

Slowly but surely we had to separate Finn from me which was hard but necessary. Two weeks before my departure I drew with him a map and explained that I will be heading home soon by an airplane. To him this was very exciting, but he didn’t really understand what was going on. To me it was very important though that I had told him myself.

When I left we all got up very early and gathered in the hallway. I tried not to burst into tears when Finn asked me if we would go to the zoo today. I negated and told him again about the big airplane that would take me back home. He understood. I kissed him goodbye onto his blond hair and he gave me his most beautiful smile. With that mental picture I left L.A.

My travel month started at the east coast. I was traveling alone which was perfectly fine. With an easy mind traveling felt just great. I saw the Niagara Falls, travelled to Washington D.C. by bus, visited a friend at East Hampton and ended my travels in New York. Flying back home was really difficult, despite all the exertions, as Finn became very dear to me.

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It’s been many years since my au pair adventure ended and I don’t regret anything. Once in awhile I am in touch with Carol or Tanya. I was told that Finn still talks about me and he even has a picture of me hanging in his room.

When I think back about Carol, I still ask myself how she could stop taking her meds, as she was supposed to carry responsibility for her son and me. I am sympathetic about her illness, but don’t plan on ever seeing her again.

Also the agency missed out on taking responsibility and supporting me. This way though I was able to do what I found was right to do, including taking over the maternal role for Finn.

In conclusion many things didn’t go the way like a common stay abroad and in the end cast a shadow over my au pair year. A lot of things I couldn’t do as I had obligations. But I am still glad about the experience and wouldn’t want to switch with anybody.

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Thank you Amanda for proofreading.

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7 thoughts on ““The American Dream?” by Lisa (USA 2009)

  1. Pingback: Why I became an Au pair in the first place #1 | Au Pair Joys

  2. Pingback: How I matched with my host family #2 | Au Pair Joys

  3. Hey Lisa. I had a similar experience, my hostmom was bipolar too and nothing I knew about after it was too late and things already escalated. Totally understand you, i had a 3 year old boy and that love I have for him today is amazing. Feels like I know him better than his parents. Even though their family situation shocked me I wouldnt change with anyone. Thanks for sharing your story. Feels good to know that im not alone and that every au pair experience is different and sometimes not always so perfect. Take care! 🙂

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  4. Hey there, although my current situation is not as bad as your experience was, it feels good to know that I am not the only au pair out there not having this “magical” experience. I am in Rematch just hoping for the next family to be better.

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  5. Oh no 😦 that honesty seems HORRIBLE. Personally if my host parents were locking me up somewhere, I’d probably do everything i can to escape (including breaking windows, doors, sending out flyers out of the window where I’m asking for help, shouting out of the window)… tbh this story kinda motivates me to learn how to pick locks. I’m honestly sooo sorry you had to go through this. It must have been the most traumatic experience! How did you recover from it?

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  6. The agency violated USDOS guidelines. Under USDOS rules, the agency MUST interview and inspect any home where you are placed, and confirm the suitability of your hosts. This sounds like the agency bent the rules on behalf of the second host family. And it is understandable why you felt you could not report up to the agency in that situation; she was a representative!

    Please, help other aupairs by reporting what happened to you to USDOS.
    The violations abound.

    What is especially sad is that in each incident, the extended family took advantage of you. This is an exchange program, and they should have connected with your agency and gotten you out of the situation.

    The outcome I would sincerely like from the USDOS investigation would be to train aupairs on safety, and how to get help if there is a bad situation – not just to the agency, but with police, with agencies.

    I am so very sorry as a host family that this happened to you, and hope you will assist in improving the program by reporting that agency.

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