Nearly twenty years ago, a young woman named Katrin traveled from her home in Germany to become an au pair with the Davis family in Illinois. Katrin now lives in The Netherlands with her own family, and she had much to share about what it was like being an au pair and the value of this unique cultural exchange program.
In the following Q & A, Katrin shares how her experience as an au pair forever changed—and continues to influence—her life.
Where are you from?
I was born and raised in Cottbus, in the eastern part of Germany. It is a medium-sized town near the Polish border, somewhere between Berlin in the north and Dresden to the south.
Where did you live in the U.S. as an au pair?
I stayed with the Davis family when they still lived in West Dundee, Illinois. It’s a town about an hour west of Chicago.
Why did you want to become an au pair?
After I finished school, I didn’t want to continue studying right away. First, I wanted to see and experience something else. Seeing something of our beautiful planet surely can be done in a thousand different ways. However, after talking to my brother’s girlfriend and one other girl who used to be au pairs, this program really seemed the best choice for me.
Getting to know a culture inside and out, while being a part of a family yet staying independent in a certain way, really appealed to me. Little did I know that I would gain friends for life and an extra family on the other side of the ocean.
What was life like at the time?
This was almost 19 years ago, still in the nineties. Times have changed a lot since then. In 1998, we did not have smartphones or internet wherever we went. When you called someone you usually did not ask “Where are you?” because you were usually at home, near the phone that most of the time still had a wire.
There was email, but it was not common yet to use. Google was a small and unknown website that just had got started. Facebook, WhatsApp or Snapchat had yet to be thought of. You wrote letters and made long distance calls. That was how to keep contact with your family and friends back home.
The biggest issue in was the Millennium bug which was feared would shut down all computers on January 1, 2000, because computers could not handle the date change from 1999 to 2000. It was big business to fix this bug.
On the radio Britney Spears made her entry. We listened to Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and Goo Goo Doll’s “Iris.” Meg Ryan was seen in movies like “City of Angels” and “You’ve Got Mail.”
1998 was before the Millennium change, before 9/11 and before the devastating Tsunami in Asia. The world looked different. Since then, a lot of things have changed. However, being an au pair stayed quite the same throughout the years.
What was your host family like?
When I was their au pair, my host family looked a bit different. But then again, it is some eighteen years ago. Time flies. Back then Jennifer and Dan both worked countless hours on their own business. They had two small children, a very smart four-year old boy named Austin and a cute little girl of twenty months named Hannah. One of the first things I remember is Hannah trying to tell me something about her favorite show on television with me actually understanding most of what that little girl told me and thinking how adorable she looked.
How did being an au pair change your life?
While at orientation in New York, Au Pair in America prepared us for a lot of things we could expect that year including child care in the U.S., our role as au pair and culture shock. But I was unprepared for the actual culture shock—when I got back home.
When I left home for a year and went abroad, I kind of expected to find a different culture and to be around people who did things differently. But when I went back home, I was not really prepared that life had gone on there as well. Things changed, but most of all I had changed. Or better said, I had grown.
My view on the world had changed. It had gotten wider, and I looked at things from two different perspectives. The one I always had known, but also my new view. I did not feel like I still fit in anymore. However, once I started studying, I met other people who had stayed abroad for a while, and they seemed to understand that feeling.
It took me a while to really find my place. I had learned that I could achieve whatever I wanted if I worked hard for it. And I had seen lots of different possibilities to live your life. Ever since, I try looking at things from more than one side. And if I really want something, I just go for it.
Maybe this is one of the reasons I left Germany fourteen years ago and now live in the Netherlands.
How did it impact your personal outlook and development?
As said before, being an au pair has helped me grow and see things from different perspectives. I learned a lot of things about me. But most of all I made friends for life. And I found a second family. Even now, after eighteen years, we still are in contact and visit each other.
Being an au pair did not have a direct impact on my study choice or current job. Even before I left home to be an au pair, I already knew what I wanted to study after I returned. Maybe studying tourism is exactly what you might expect of someone who loves cultures and travelling. So, my choice was not directly related to my year abroad but was a natural thing to do for me.
However, I was asked quite often by recruiters and HR managers about my au pair year. It surely is an interesting item on your curriculum vitae. And it definitely helped me with speaking proper English.
I think that my au pair year shaped me and helped me to become the person I am today. So yes, of course, it has impacted my life in many ways. I have travelled a lot – with and without my host family. I saved most of my money for travelling, and so it goes that I have seen twenty-one states and also went to Mexico.
Since I have children of my own, I regularly remember situations of my au pair year that I seemed to have forgotten. Short flashbacks about how I handled certain situation back then and what worked and what did not work. I guess I took more home with me about childcare than I would ever have thought.
Have you been back to the U.S. since your time as an au pair?
I have been back to the U.S. a couple of times. The first time about a year after I left my host family. Back then I met the girl who had been the Davis’ au pair after me and the one that had been their new au pair. I am still friends with one of them.
The next time I went back to visit was about three years later. Jennifer and Dan had four kids by then. And I met their au pair at that point.
After that visit, it was another six years before I went back again. Meanwhile, I was married and had a son of my own. So, of course, I took my husband and son to meet my other family—who had six kids then.
Now, another seven years later, the tickets for our next trip to the U.S. are booked. This time I will be travelling with both of my sons and my husband.
It might not be a lot in eighteen years that I went to visit my host family, but whenever I did visit, it felt like coming home. I know I am welcome there at any time and that they love my kids just as much as I love my not-so-little-anymore host kids.
How do you keep in touch with the Davis family?
Ever since Facebook, it has become a lot easier to stay in touch, to see how everyone is doing and see them all grow up. This is one way to share my own life with them.
Also, my host family (or parts of it) also came to visit me and the other au pairs. Most of the Davis girls stayed a while in Germany with their former au pairs at a certain point. And now that they grow up, they also come to visit and travel Germany and Europe. They all know that they have a home abroad, just as I have a home in the U.S.
In 2014–2015, the whole Davis family, ten people in number, came to visit most of their former au pairs and friends. At New Year’s, they all, including two other au pairs and another friend, stayed at my house. Even though my house is not that big, it felt just right. We had great fun and built even more memories!
The funny thing is that I met almost all of the Davis au pairs. And if I did not meet them in person, we did get in contact somehow. It feels like we all belong to one big family. With some of them, I even became really good friends. We share thoughts, pictures and whatever we experience, and once in a while we even see each other.
Why do you think the au pair program is important?
Programs like Au Pair in America are a great opportunity for young women to stay abroad in a safe and friendly environment, meeting lots of new people, discovering a different culture, travelling and making friends for life. As an au pair, I learned so much about myself. I grew as a person, and it gave me so many wonderful memories, beautiful friends and a second family on the other side of the world. I would not want to miss any of this.
Any advice for people who are considering becoming an au pair?
If you feel like going abroad but do not want to do it all by yourself, if you love children and do not mind working hard, if you want to discover a different culture from the inside out instead of just visiting, if you are prepared to make lifelong friends and if you are willing to become a part of a different family, you should consider being an au pair. But be prepared. It is fun, but it is not all fun. It is travelling but only a couple of weeks. It is working hard, but it is rewarding.
Any advice for people who are considering hosting an au pair?
Hosting an au pair will have a huge impact on you and your children. First, there will be a complete stranger walking through your house, driving your car and staying at home with your kids while you may be somewhere else. So, it is important to get to know a potential au pair as much as possible beforehand.
All of a sudden, this stranger becomes a member of the family, adding two more helping hands on the adult side of your family. As time passes, this new family member might even cause slightly uncomfortable feelings—when your kids prefer your au pair to read their bedtime story or when she does things differently from you and your kids seem to like that better. That is quite confronting for sure. So be prepared to communicate with each other AND LISTEN TO EACH OTHER.
Share your thoughts and feelings with your au pair. Be honest and clear about what you expect from your au pair. Make a schedule. And try to understand the point of view of your au pair.
My host mom had written a whole manual on what her family life looked like, what my tasks were, what she expected of me, a whole bunch of information about the kids, the dos and don’ts, schedules, when to use the car and where to go. This was everything useful that helped me through the first weeks.
I really appreciated this manual. It made a lot clear, right from the beginning, and helped me out quite often. My host mom also took the time to show me everything: preschool, the grocery store, the mall, their church. She took me everywhere! And she made me drive while showing me everything. To see how I drove and also to help me finding my way around.
In the end of the experience, you surely will love your au pair as much as she will love you—family forever!
Learn about opportunities to host a great au pair like Katrin through Au Pair in America.