How My Au Pair Saved Me
At first, it was strange having her in my home. Another woman. A young, beautiful one living within the same four walls as my husband, almost two-year-old daughter, and me – very large and very emotional at eight months pregnant.
In those first weeks, I wondered if I made a huge mistake. Her English wasn’t as good as I expected. She was a terrible driver (automatic transmissions aren’t standard in Spain, her country). While she was 25, she seemed so young, so unaware of things like the importance of always bringing baby wipes wherever we went. And the woven bracelets around her wrists reminded me of a time when I was free, untethered by the anchor that is motherhood. None of this helped with what I recognize now as acute prenatal anxiety and depression.
We floundered around awkwardly that first month, the three of us (my husband wasn’t around much back then thanks to a grueling work schedule and tortuous commute). We were three species of different birds trapped in the same cage. My daughter, who struggled until recently with extreme separation anxiety, didn’t like being left alone in that cage with our new au pair. And the more upset my toddler became, the more upset Patricia got too (even though she tried to hide it I could see how rejected she felt). What was the point of having her come help us if I couldn’t even run errands by myself or do any freelance writing without my daughter freaking out?
If you told me then that Patricia, our 25-year old au pair from Spain, would soon become my village, I’d have laughed in your face and sworn under my breath that you were “f’ing crazy.” Because there were so many tears. Patricia missed home. I missed having my house to myself. My daughter missed having me as her primary caregiver.
But despite my fragile mental health, my frayed mama nerves, and the stubborn breech baby growing inside me who refused to change position, I couldn’t hate this girl. She was trying. Like the time she worked for hours in the kitchen attempting to make us a Spanish omelet, her mother’s recipe, only to drop it on the floor by accident, a dozen partially cooked eggs and half a bag of soggy potatoes splattering on the floor like a bucket of pig slop. Or the time she had me take her to the Social Security office twenty minutes away without her passport or proper documentation and couldn’t hold back her tears for inconveniencing me. I had chosen her because she had kind eyes, and she seemed to genuinely love children. She was and is a good person. I couldn’t hate her, but I definitely couldn’t picture loving her as much as I do now.
When my son was a week old, my husband went back to work, and my mother left. Without Pat there, it would have been me, a two-year-old, and a newborn in a town I’d only lived in for one year. Me, alone with two kids under two in the middle of the California desert where it would get so hot it could melt your shoes to the concrete.
There were great things about where we lived back then, like the good schools and our big, brand new home. But we were isolated. There was no buzz of city life around us. No hum of traffic. No coffee shop to walk to (it closed a month after we arrived but it was too warm most days to leave the house). What I blamed on pregnancy hormones, while partially correct, was also situational depression. I had great neighbors, but they were in different life stages. I had only one good friend who was a stay at home mom like I was and she lived thirty minutes across town.
Before Patricia arrived, I spent ten hours a day sometimes without any adult contact. Nap routines and snack clean-up and the parade of kid gear required to do anything kept me from getting out as much as I should have. I loved my daughter with every fiber of my being, but I desperately needed more. More friends. More time to myself. More conversation. More support. I cried all the time. I developed obsessive research habits, even creating a blog about the dangers of too much folic acid. Motherhood, and pregnancy, and suburban life had turned me into a person I didn’t recognize. And being alone all the time with a demanding baby blossoming into an even more difficult toddler was taking its toll.
Day by day, diaper change by diaper change, my relationship with Patricia began to change. It’s hard to define the exact moment when it happened, when this person edged her way into my heart where she will always, always have a place. We were thrown together by two very different needs – mine, to work again and go the store by myself occasionally, hers – to grow beyond the small Spanish town where she grew up. We transformed from strangers to friends. And then from friends to family. The private jokes and easy banter. The trust. The respect. The solidarity. We got it all.
I can’t even get into the beautiful relationships she has with my children without sobbing. The way my son greets her in the morning with his new found words. “Pop,” he calls her. The way my daughter lights up with confidence when the two play some ridiculous game involving Kermit the frog and a pillow fort. Pat is patient and creative in ways I never will be.
Preparing to say goodbye feels like I’m having my heart ripped out. What will I do without this crucial pillar in my little parenting village? And how do you thank a person who might very well be responsible for saving your sanity? For helping you be the best mother, you can be? For being there as you rediscovered yourself outside of your role as a mom? For loving your kids as if they were her own children, or siblings, or niece and nephew? How do you thank someone for helping you move – not once, but twice? For pouring your coffee when your hands were full? For supporting you through first illnesses and first steps and first baby teeth? For being the sister you never had? How do you say goodbye?
When Pat came to us, I was a convoluted version of myself, a mess with a baby and another on the way. In many ways, she was a baby too. Now she leaves us as both a member of our family and a mature, strong, capable, independent woman ready to take on the world. Maybe she had those qualities all along, or maybe we helped bring them out in her. Either way, I like to think that we gave her just as much as she gave us.
You know that saying, “Friends are the family you choose?” I don’t know if you have any choice in it all. I think there’s something magical about how people come into our lives. Sure, I chose Pat like we choose everything these days, online. But what choice did I really have in loving her this much?
The most important people in our coParenting villages aren’t always family. Members of our coParenting team can be the people we hire to take care of our kids when we can’t. They can be neighbors. They can be friends. They can even be teachers in our children’s schools. Who helps you coParent? We’d love to hear from you!