Problem child…

first_img            For the equivalent of my first term, I loved it. Apart from having to pretend to be an adult for a large portion of the day, I adored the freedom. I had no deadlines, no pressures. Everything was new. Even going shopping for food was fun, because the shelves were full with unfamiliar boxes and products. When I was off duty I relived the recklessness of Freshers’ week, trying to survive on five and a half hours of sleep a night, drinking wine with friends into the early hours of the morning, attempting to sleep off a hangover on the Champs des Mars in the September sunshine.            But then I came home for Christmas. Suddenly I was surrounded by close friends and family and marmite, and I realised how superficial my Parisian paradise was. I missed the British banter, not being an outsider, being able to use all my favourite English words and phrases (the senses of which were inevitable lost on my international friends). I revelled in being the looked-after, rather than the look-afterer, and the debt of gratitude I owed to my parents for twenty-two years of care became acutely apparent.             The lifestyle and skills needed to be an au pair could hardly be more different from those needed for university, although being woken by the patter of tiny feet skidding round the house at 7am on a Saturday morning isn’t all that different to being woken at 3 am by kebab-laden Park-Enders, singing their way home. My abilities of close reading and essay writing have not been used. Instead I have been called upon to develop a new range of skills: how to iron without ruining clothes, how to distract a child from a tantrum and how to change a nappy without gagging. The closest to literary criticism I got was doing the voices while I read the kids bedtime stories. This time last year I was smack bang in the middle of finals. Amid the hyperventilating over quotation learning and the shopping for carnations, I had another occupation to fill my hours in between exams: job hunting. When I came to the end of my exams, I would also be reaching the limits of my life-plan. No divine inspiration had steered me towards one employment sector or the other, and consequently I was still perusing the Oxford University Careers Service website daily, hoping to find the answer.But lo, on one weekend in May, I spotted one occupation that looked more interesting and frankly less work-like than the rest. “Au Pair in Paris for One Year”. My mind whirled with images of picnics on the Seine, romantic walks by the Eiffel Tower and a job full of fun and laughter: I would be as competent as Mary Poppins, as creative as a Blue Peter presenter. Finally a job that didn’t involve a desk or a management strategy! It would be like an extension of university, just without all the essays. I’d always liked children, so I was sure that my lack of concrete experience would not be a problem, so I applied, and after a couple of weeks of communication by email and a quick daytrip to Paris to meet the family, I got the position.             Of course, the reality was more than just a little different to the daydream. My hopes of delaying my encounter with the ‘real world’ of work were swiftly disappointed. Granted, I did get to go to French school for 8 hours a week, and thus play at still being a student, but the rest of the time when I was working, I was suddenly skyrocketed into the elevated position of a ‘grown up’: a far more demanding place to be than behind a desk. For the first time ever I truly understood the illusion that is adulthood, the superficiality of the omniscience brought by Age and Experience. With four little pairs of eyes looking up to me, expecting me to be able to help them with just about everything, I realised how little I really knew. I had been placed, unexpectedly, into a position of extreme responsibility.            There were the simple everyday challenges: getting three children and a pushchair to cross the road without anyone getting flattened, getting a three year old dressed fed and delivered to school on time. I only just learnt how to do that for myself recently. The other thing I had to accept was that grown ups often have to do things that they really don’t want to, because if they don’t, no one else will. I’ve had to put my hand down blocked drains, wipe up spilt wee and even managed to change the vomit-smeared sheets and pyjamas of a child without waking them up. Other responsibilities are more complicated: explaining to a child why someone is begging on the metro, why there is a bird ‘lying-down’ in the road. The kids I work with really do believe and take in everything you say, and it can be difficult explaining the world to them sometimes.center_img             My return to Paris was difficult. With the magic of the city fogged by homesickness, the weight of looking after someone else’s children seemed much heavier. The novelty of the school run had long since disappeared. Now however, several months later and only weeks from my ultimate departure from Paris, I am glad to say that the decision I made this time last year was not a foolish one; the time here has not been wasted. Apart from dramatically improving my French (and my ironing) I’ve learnt more about children and adulthood than I thought possible. And even though my ability to navigate JSTOR and to whip off an essay have been lying dormant for twelve months, the knack of blagging your way through a tutorial when you haven’t read the books isn’t so different to convincing a five year old that you know how to work a washing machine.last_img

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