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More than solving the pressure of time

Dinah eases the pressure of time for her host family but Jørn thinks that if that is your only motivation to have an au pair, you don’t really deserve to have one.

Dinah (28) has tried skiing, no longer freezes in the winter and is learning Norwegian. Last Christmas, her entire host family from West Oslo travelled to the Philippines to celebrate Christmas with Dinah’s family. More than just your average cultural exchange then.

(Text: Linn Stalsberg Photo: Werner Anderson)

But why an au pair? Isn’t this just very great interest in the Philippines?

– I have two children from a previous marriage and I almost made having an au pair a precondition of having more children. Having small children can be very stressful and I feel that that stress had already contributed to the breakdown of my first marriage, says Jørn. 

He doesn’t hide the fact that having an au pair relieves the pressure of time on the family but adds that if this is the only motivation for having an au pair, you don’t deserve to have one, as the au pair scheme is about more than saving time.

– Now that Dinah’s here, it’s become much more than that, we’ve become friends. We have an sensible, adult person in the house to help us, Jørn says.

Decided to use an agency

Dinah sorts 2 year-old Adam out in the mornings before having breakfast with him and taking him to the playgroup nearby.

In an airy kitchen, Dinah (28) is already up with two year-old Adam, serving him breakfast and English phrases. Adam’s father soon comes up the stairs, tired after a sleepless night with Caleb of six weeks. Mamma Kim is still asleep and soon it will be time for Dinah to wheel Adam to playgroup. 

– I had a friend who worked as an au pair in the Netherlands but who thought it was the same as being a home help. I didn’t know to start with that it was supposed to be about cultural exchange, says Dinah, who came from an agency in her home country and was given courses about what Norway was like and the Norwegian au pair scheme.

Jørn and Kim found Dinah through Atlantis Utveksling. There was no question of their not using a professional agency when they decided to have an au pair.

– The au pair has responsibility for your house, your child and all your property. I think it would be madness to find an au pair through private advertisements on the Internet, thinks Jørn.

Both Dinah and he are satisfied with the support they received from Atlantis, both to start with and once they’d begun, not least because some of the regulations may seem somewhat unclear and then it’s good that both parties have someone to ask..          

Don’t forget where they come from

Last year, the host family from Oslo took a two-week holiday in the Philippines. First they took Dinah and her brother to a holiday resort before staying for a week in the house belonging to Dinah’s aunt. At the same time, they were invited to the brother’s wedding.

– I’ve travelled about more than most people but this is probably the most important journey I’ve made in my whole life. We met Dinah’s friends and family and we understood more about Dinah and where she comes from. Dinah’s house has one electric light and consists of two rooms where the rain comes in. These are much simpler conditions than you find in Norway but the smiles and joy in life are enough to make any Norwegian jealous. She sends home just about everything she earns so that a younger brother and a cousin are able to study. She takes enormous responsibility, says Jørn

And this, he thinks, is something we Norwegians could do well to learn about: Family unity and the responsibility they take for each other.

– Many Filipino au pairs in Norway barely buy a cup of coffee, Jørn tells us. He has heard of many instances where au pairs prefer to walk to town rather than use the money on  a bus ticket.

– Nearly everything they earn is sent home for many of them come from very poor backgrounds. In Norway, on the other hand, we’ve got money but have lost many other things. We really should be ashamed of ourselves, Jørn thinks.

In other words, Dinah, Jørn and Kim have experienced a cultural exchange greater than that of most others. They have learnt about another culture through Dinah and seen their own through her eyes too. And Jørn cannot recommend it strongly enough to others.

– We live in an area where there are lots of au pairs. We’ve encouraged other host families to visit the Philippines and get to know their au pair’s home country, but I’m afraid it doesn’t happen very often, says Jørn.

He says that a lot of his friends would like to have what they have got but that they can’t quite manage it.

– My advice is to stop always thinking about the au pair as a solution to the pressure of time; rather that they get the opportunity to meet a fantastic person with views about service and family that we could learn a great from, says Jørn.

Mutual respect between the au pair and the host family is an important pointer, as well as genuine interest in the person, he thinks.  

Dinah is part of the family with Jørn, Kim, Adam and Caleb. – She’s like a sensible grown-up daughter who helps out at home, says Jørn.

Wants a distinction between home help and au pair

An au pair is not supposed to work more than 30 hours a week. This can be a challenge both for the family and the au pair, say both Dinah and Jørn.

– It can be a problem because many Filipinos maintain a culture of always saying yes even when they mean no. It can be difficult to set limits to the work from both sides, says Jørn. He says a number of Filipinos have a work ethic which can turn out to be self-detrimental if one is not careful.

– We were warned about this in advance by Atlantis and chose Dinah because, among other things, she seemed rich in initiative and self-confident enough to speak out, says Jørn.

He thinks being able to employ home helps could well be a lot easier, because the current arrangement means that the au pair scheme may easily gain a poor reputation when it is misused. A clearer distinction would be better, he thinks. He is also critical that JURK, among others, have called for an end to the au pair scheme.

– Those who think the au pair scheme should be stopped haven’t really understood how important the scheme is for cultural exchange, Jørn pints out. He sees the scheme as very important in helping many Norwegian children – and adults – to understand that Norway isn’t the navel of the world.

And, in addition, an au pair might well save many marriages, Jørn thinks, through the bust years with young children.

– But possibly just as important is helping Norwegian children to grow up more tolerant than they otherwise would have been, he says.

Small challenges in daily life

Jørn says that it is important to talk openly about the many small things that crop up in daily life: What happens when the host parents have an argument? When is the au pair welcome in the living room and when not? When is she the older children’s friend and when helping to bring them up?

And apropos ’she’. Jørn finds it strange that so few host families choose a male au pair.

– There’s always people worrying in the media that children get fewer and fewer male role models at playgroups and school, he says.

He also thinks it rather sad that may regard having an au pair as most important when the children are very small.

– Just look at us, says Jørn;

– In the weeks when they’re with me, my girls of 10 and 12 get much more out of Dinah than the two boys of 6 weeks and 2 years. Both have learnt to speak proper English and gained a much wider view of life, far beyond the local environment. And of course the pressure of time and logistics doesn’t get any less when you’ve got school-kids, he points out.

Jørn also knows of au pairs who have experienced unpleasant issues in their meeting with Norwegian families. He tells us of an au pair they know who was brought in largely because the grandfather in the host family wanted a young wife. It ended with her running away and having to get help.

– One weekend, we agreed that Dinah could invite 20 of her girl friends home onto to the terrace while we were away. When we came home earlier than expected, many of them were clearly frightened. We were quite happy for them to be there but it made us wonder what the situation was like in their host families when so many were scared to see us, says Jørn.

All their wages sent home

On a normal day, Dinah sorts out 2 year-old Adam in the morning and delivers him to playgroup. After that she does a few household tasks and then her time’s her own. In the afternoon, she makes dinner that they all eat together. Sometimes at weekends she chooses to stay with the family, at other times to be with friends. On Sundays she often goes to church with her host family and frequently goes along if they are visiting other family members.

Dinah tells us that she earns more money being an au pair in Norway than her brother does as an engineer in the Philippines. Every month she sends her money home so that her little brother can study at university. No-one has asked her to do so but she is proud to be able to give him an education.

– I talk with my family every day on Skype. They often talk to Jørn and Kim too. They miss me but I’d already left home when I left to become an au pair, so they’re used ot it, she says.

Most of her friends in Norway are au pairs or Filipinos who are married here. Many of these were au pairs when they met a Norwegian boy and decided to stay. Dinah tells us that they talk a lot about their experiences as au pairs when they meet up and that a number of them are not simply having a good time. This most often concerns working far too much or the host family – particularly the host mother – being terribly strict about keeping things clean and tidy at home. Some are home with the kids all day – impossible within the bounds of a 30-hour week – or have to work at weekends.

– One problem is that many don’t know the rules. Some go to Atlantis or the Philippines Embassy for help, Dinah says. Jealousy also occurs sometimes, when comparing what the respective host families have, she says.

Dinah’s time as an au pair is coming to an end in 2013 but she is going to remain living with her host family while studying in Norway. The family wants to help her further in exchange for a little help at home. Because she has a bachelor’s degree in health work from her home country, Dinah is able to get a student visa for Norwegian studies and further education in Norway.

Dinah has become familiar with Norwegian culture and hopes to stay for a good while longer. She no longer thinks Norway is a cold country.

21.12.2012 | Tine Solberg Johansen