In the previous part, Anje talked about her experience as a South African au pair in America. She also shared 5 tips on how to help with homesickness. She really opened up and talked about a lot of personal things. I’m sure her journey/story will help someone. All of her links will be below. Now, without further ado. Let’s jump straight in where we left off last time.
You’re balancing a full-time job and being a student. Can you tell us more about this experience?
Yes, so I started studying online for a few months after arriving in the US. It all started when I had told my host mom that I was thinking of going to Canada as an au pair after I finished my contract in the US so I would be able to save up more money for my studies. My host mom took this as an “Oh no, she is going to leave us,” and immediately started researching colleges I could apply to while in the US. So the next morning she comes down and tells me about a college in South Africa that offers a three-year online course for a Bachelor’s degree in social sciences. With her encouragement and assistance in the application process, I got in. I soon had to adjust to having a full-time job and needing to study. I would work from 8 to 5, then immediately go downstairs and study until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. Every few weeks I would have assignments and essays to do, which meant a lot of the weekends I was in my room or in Starbucks working.
It also became extremely important for me to budget and save most of my salary. What definitely counted in my favor was that I was paying for my college in Dollars and seeing as it is about 14 South African Rand for one Dollar, I was definitely saving a lot of money. That doesn’t mean, however, that it was always easy to save the money. I would make around $800 to $850 each month, and my studies came around to about $500 in the first year, and $650 in the second year. So needless to say I had to budget really well. I started prioritizing the necessities, making monthly lists of things I needed. Luckily I didn’t have to pay for my own food, so it was mainly just personal things, like clothes, shampoo, school books, etc. I would also work a lot of overtime, which helped a lot. I soon became used to it and was still able to enjoy my time in the US. If I knew that I wanted to do something or go somewhere, I would work overtime and save up until then.
It wasn’t always fun, there were days when I wanted to give up, but I am so happy I pushed through. I am now in my third year and after this, my goal will be to get my Masters and maybe even a Ph.D. as a clinical or child psychologist. Right now I don’t have any debt or student loans, which will help me so much.
Unfortunately, you struggle with anxiety. Can you tell us more?
Anxiety is actually still a pretty new concept for me, though I’ve had it for most of my life. During high school I would often wake up with such a strong feeling of dread and panic, it often felt like I couldn’t breathe. I would have this weight on my chest and begin to feel so extremely stressed, even if I wasn’t doing anything stressful. When I told my mom one time she told me that I was probably just stressed about school, not having any other explanation I accepted it. That following year I went to the Netherlands to be an au pair and things seemed to be getting better. I still experienced that feeling, but whenever I traveled or explored a new place, it went away.
When I came home I did not adjust well at all. It felt weird being back, I missed the family, I missed my best friend. It was just really strange, so I became really moody, easily annoyed, and would have these bursts of anger I couldn’t control. I would lie in my bed for most of the day, not having any energy to get out. I then got a call from my aunt, she lives in Johannesburg which is about 2 hours by plane from where I live. She owned her own mobile grooming company and wanted me to help out. I jumped at the opportunity, eager to get out of the house and feel as though I am doing something meaningful with my time again.
I went there thinking that she would only need me to work for her for about a week or so. When I actually arrived she told me that it would take more than a few months, I didn’t feel great about this, but didn’t argue. In all honesty, the first day was probably the best day of my whole time there. She showed me the work that needed to be done, we went out for lunch, had dinner at her friend’s house. It was great, but then the next day came and it was like she was a completely different person. As the months went by things got worse and worse. She would often yell at me about emails that were sent out, even if the date of the emails was before I had even arrived. She would talk about my family in such a negative way, telling people who were complete strangers to me about how my parents are struggling financially and how bad things are back home (she was lying). She would often call my grandma and tell her how ungrateful and spoiled I am, she would say I demand things and tell her she needs to buy me things (she was lying). She would tell me how I was ruining her business whenever I made a mistake and how I was causing her to lose a lot of money (surprise, surprise she was lying). She would also make comments about my weight and say that having a fat belly ran in my family on my mom’s side. I often cried myself to sleep, waking up with such intense dread and worry. Whenever I heard her drive up to the house, it would feel as though I needed to run away. I was so stressed and anxious, though I still didn’t have a name for how I was feeling.
It finally came to the point where I had had enough. I told her I needed to talk to her, so we sat down and I explained that I wanted to come home. She immediately started guilt tripping me, saying that I wouldn’t make as much money back home and that my parents are struggling with money. She said I would only be making it harder on them. Something you should know about me is that I am very sensitive when it comes to things like that, especially revolving around my parents. So I gave in. I went back down to Cape Town for three weeks as a holiday soon after that. It was amazing, I felt relaxed and at peace. When I found myself on a plane going back to Johannesburg again, the dread and panic returned. The second time around was even worse, I think it is because I was more aware of her emotional abuse and what she was doing. As the days went by I felt worse and worse. I’m not going to lie, suicide crossed my mind every now and again. I just thought about how easy it would be to end things. How I could take the pain away. I think what made everything worse is that I kept most of what was happening to myself. I didn’t want to burden my parents or anyone else for that matter. Tensions rose with every passing day, fights becoming a very regular thing, though they were often very one-sided. Growing up I was taught to respect those older than me, especially when it came to family. So, for the most part, I stayed quiet. But it hurt, a lot. Her verbal assaults became even more personal, as she targeted everything from my personality to my eating habits. She once sent me out to go to the store for her, which I didn’t mind but it turned out to be a complete disaster. I got lost more than once, seeing as I didn’t know the area well enough and Uber was a new concept to me. But I got everything she needed, at least, though my feet were full of blisters from the walking and my shoulders in pain from carrying everything. That night she went through everything I had bought and, of course, she wasn’t happy. Apparently, I had bought the wrong color fabric for the bandanas she made for her dogs, even though I had called her and she said it would be fine. For a whole week, yes a week, she continually brought it up. Telling me how careless I was and how I’m too used to having my parents do everything for me. Another incident I remember is when we went to her friend’s house for dinner, wanting to start a conversation I just asked her “so what do you think she made for dinner?” Of course, I didn’t mean this in a rude way, I was simply curious. She immediately went off to tell me how rude that was, how my parents should have taught me better. She again said that I was spoiled and too use to things being given to me. As always, I allowed it.
It was only once I was matched with a family in the US, that I finally decided I was done. Again I went to her, we sat down and I told her I wanted to go home. I told her how I felt in the nicest, most respectful way I could. She didn’t care for it, at all. I think it must have been half an hour of her telling me how ungrateful and spoiled I am. How the whole situation was my fault and how I needed to work harder in life. Her words cut deep, but not because they were true, they weren’t, but because after months of me putting in everything I had into her business, after crying myself to sleep for most nights, after giving everything I had, it wasn’t enough.
I booked the plane ticket for two days after that. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but I already felt like crap so I barely noticed. When I got back, again I felt a thousand times better. But it was only temporary. The dread and panic now came back regularly. It was only once I had begun studying when I finally had a name for it. I had anxiety. I don’t blame her for it, even though she definitely contributed to how bad it got, I know it was always in me. Being able to call it something definitely helped, I now knew why I was feeling like that, which made it a lot easier once I started getting panic attacks.
One thing I had to accept is that most of my family does not understand why I sometimes behave differently or why I get overwhelmed by certain situations. It is, unfortunately, a part of it. I wish I could say that I have conquered anxiety, that I no longer feel as though it is controlling me, but then I would be lying. I have accepted that it isn’t something that would one day just not be there anymore. I now know that some days are going to be better than others. I also know that I am strong enough and that what I am feeling is valid. I hear too often about how people are told to “get over it” or “just be happy.” This completely invalidates how they are feeling, which is beyond wrong.
I don’t really know where I am going with this, the words just kind of spilled out. But just know, if you are struggling with mental health, you are not alone. You matter. Your feelings matter. And you are strong enough to get through it. Focus on yourself and do what makes you happy. Be unapologetic about who you are and what you need in order to be happy.
What is your favorite quote?
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
I’ve thanked her privately but I’m going to thank her on here as well. Anje is the kindest person I know and I’m so incredibly grateful to have her in my life. She has been with me through the bad and the ugly. She is my sister. I’m so proud that she opened up and shared her struggles with Anxiety. I’m sure doing so made her feel anxious. Please show her some love on her Instagram or in the comments down below. I will send it all through to her.
Thank you so much for reading and I will see you in a click!
I’ve been wanting to do a collab with someone else since I started my blog. I’m so happy to share that my best friend in the entire world agreed to answer a few questions of mine. I’m going to take this opportunity to announce that come April 2019, Anje and I will be releasing the first chapter of the book we’re co-writing together. It will be posted weekly on here every Sunday starting April. If you’re as excited as me and wish to check Anje’s writing out, please go show her some love on her Wattpad profile. She just released her new book called Abnormal Roses and I’m obsessed. She also has a traveler Instagram account where she posts about all the places she’s been too. And the girl has traveled the globe. All the links will be down below. Now that everything is out of the way, let’s get started!
I’ve reached out to Anje who I felt could share a part of her journey with you, my readers, in hopes that she can help someone out there who have gone through this experience even if it’s just to show that you’re not alone.
Can you tell me a little about yourself? Just a little introduction before we jump into the topic at hand.
Hello everyone, my name is Anje, I am 22 years old and currently living in South Africa. I often find it hard to describe myself other than saying I am a socially awkward introvert who absolutely loves to travel and experience new cultures and people. A bit of a contradiction if you ask me, but true all the same. I am a very heavy reader, my all-time favorite author being Arthur Conan Doyle, and my favorite novels being the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series. My passions in life are writing, archery, and chocolate.
The probing begins…
How was your experience as an au pair in America?
I absolutely loved it! The States completely blew away all my expectations, which honestly surprised me a lot. I think what had helped me a ton was that I had already been an au pair the year before, though I had been in the Netherlands, I still understood that being an au pair wasn’t just all fun and games and some days would be better than others.
Anyways, back to America; when I arrived in New York for a three-day orientation, it was the night before America was to find out who their new president was. Needless to say, it was quite crazy, but nothing could have ruined my time in New York City. It’s insane, loud, and slightly stinky, but it is beyond amazing. As we zipped through the streets, passing yellow taxi cabs and towering skyscrapers, I just thought “wow, I am so lucky to be here right now.” Having to deal with jetlag was annoying, but you got so busy with orientation and training, you barely thought about it. After the three days, I finally hopped on a train and went to what would become my new home; Washington DC. After about a three-hour ride, I stepped off the train and into Union Station, which is arguably one of the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen. My new host family was there, greeting me with welcoming signs and warm hugs, then we hopped into their car and went to their house. They have three children, when I had arrived they were aged 4, 2, and 6 weeks. Needless to say, I knew I had my work cut out for me, but I was beyond excited to start.
The host parents are some of the nicest people I have ever met. Me being a very awkward and shy person, I worried about being able to develop a proper relationship with them. But boy oh boy was I worried for nothing! They welcomed me into their home with such kindness and excitement, there was never a time I felt unwelcome or even uncomfortable about being in a stranger’s house. It wasn’t before long when I became very close to my host mom, we often laughed about how our relationship was closer to that between sisters than of an employee and her boss. They never treated me like “the help,” and always asked my opinion when it came to the kids.
I know that I had hit the jackpot with them, as I believe that a host family can really make or break your experience as an au pair. This is also why I always tell people who are considering being au pairs, that if they are uncomfortable with their host parents based out of actual concerns, for example, they ask you to work overtime but don’t pay you for it, or the kids treat you like dirt and the parents encourage it, then transfer to a different family! I had a friend who was completely miserable, to the point where she even began to hate America, because her host family was horrible to her. This being said, it is also extremely important for the au pair to understand that this job is anything but easy. You are basically helping raise kids, it is going to be exhausting, it is going to be hard, but it is also worth every minute of it. I’ve had au pair friends who became an au pair with the notion that it was going to be a lovely gap year, filled with relaxation and parties, but of course, that is not reality. I found that these friends often struggled the most with adapting to their new environment, generally becoming miserable as they didn’t expect to actually work.
But please don’t be discouraged from ever becoming an au pair, it is an amazingly fulfilling job, where you get to experience a different culture, country and meet new interesting people. Just keep in mind that it isn’t always going to be easy, there will be days where you want to give up, but push through, it is worth it.
I remember when I first got there everything seemed so different and new. The food was bigger, the people greeted me on the streets, and when you pay for your meals at a restaurant the waitress takes your card to the machine. My host mom, who was still on maternity leave, showed me around the city a lot. We drove past the white house, countless museums, and visited her parents in Arlington, Virginia. I honestly didn’t have such a big issue with culture shock, other than having to use a few different words to describe some things (Not the boot, but the trunk, not a costume, but a bathing suit). I think this is because Cape Town, where I grew up, had a lot of American influences. That and we typically watch American shows, meaning I was always exposed to the American culture and kind of had an idea of what to expect.
This doesn’t mean I didn’t have to deal with being homesick. I’ll admit, during my first year I was completely fine, but close to the end of my second year, things got a little tougher. It is, unfortunately, part of the job, but I do have some tips that worked for me, should you ever have to deal with being homesick as an au pair or traveler. Small disclaimer, though these tips did help me cope, it isn’t to say they will work for you. As you live and experience the new city you are in, you will start to realize what you enjoy doing during your free time and what helps you relax, do what makes you happy. But anyways, some things that helped me:
Skype with my family, even if it is just for a few minutes. I would catch up to what was happening back home and tell them how things were going with me. I often found that telling them about my day or week was a great stress reliever. It also allowed me to get excited again, especially when I told them about something new I did or saw.
Talk to your host family or friends. Finding someone who you can rely on for support is vital, not only for your mental health but your experience as an au pair. It is great when you can talk to your host family, but it is also good to have someone else. With a friend, you can complain and rant about the things that annoyed you about your day and lean on them whenever you feel homesick. I remember after a particularly tough day of work, it was a snow day so all three kids were home, I messaged my friend and she immediately told me to meet her at Union station. We then had a lovely time walking around the snow, taking pictures in front of the capitol building, and grabbing some dinner at a nice restaurant. When I arrived home I felt amazing, talking about my day had taken away so much stress and I felt ready to face the next day of hard work.
Go for a walk. This is a wonderful way to help clear your mind and take a step back from everything going on around you. You can listen to some music or just enjoy your surroundings, I found it often calmed me down a lot. This can even include exploring a little, whether it is going to a museum, a mall, or even nearby coffee shop.
Self-care. As an au pair, this is extremely important!! You will basically be taking on the role of mom and therefore will be tired and have little time for yourself while you are working. Self-care can be anything from going to bed earlier, taking a relaxing bubble bath, reading your favorite book, or listening to music while stuffing your face with chocolates. Self-care differs for everyone, do what you feel works for you.
Be sad. Yes, this sounds absolutely depressing, but part of being human means having feelings and emotions. We would be doing ourselves a disservice by completely ignoring how we feel, invalidating our own feelings can cause us even more distress. I had learned this the hard way, sadly, as my number one coping mechanism is to hide behind “No, I’m fine,” while actually falling apart inside. Then the smallest thing would happen like my favorite tv character would die (RIP Khal Drogo) or I would knock my elbow against the wall, and everything would just come crashing down. One night, after bawling my eyes out over having found a cricket in my bathroom, I had decided to think more about my feelings and to validate my emotions. Now when I am sad or angry, I go through those emotions, I allow myself to feel, no matter how hard it is. But it helps, when I had worked through the emotions they eventually fade away and I am able to move on from whatever had troubled me.
Now back to my time as an au pair. So in my first year, a typical day would be waking up, going upstairs at 8, saying goodbye to the oldest girl when her dad took her to school, and begin making breakfast for the 2-year-old. My morning would be spent entertaining him, while also taking care of the baby. My host mom luckily worked from home, which helped a lot seeing as the baby refused to take the bottle during the first month or so. One day, when my host mom had to go into the office, the baby had a 6-hour hunger strike. I tried everything to get her to drink, but she outright refused. It was also during this time that we were trying to potty train the 2-year-old boy. It was probably one of the most disgusting things I had ever experienced in my life, but luckily we all got through it. The months passed by rather quickly, the boy now 3 and the eldest now 5. Summer break then came, catching me slightly off guard. It was so humid outside we were confined indoors for most of the time. I kept them busy with science experiments, baking, art projects, and dance parties. When summer break was finally over, the 3-year-old also started school, meaning it was just me and the baby from that point on.
When school started it felt quite weird having only one kid, but I wasn’t complaining one bit. I took her for walks in the stroller, taught her some Afrikaans words, and helped her learn how to walk. It was around October, a day or so before my birthday, that my host parents decided to move to a different house. It was only a few blocks from the old one, but a lot bigger. It was also during this time that a particularly nasty stomach bug was slowly making its way through the whole family. As luck would have it, on moving day, the day before my birthday, I got sick. I was confined to my bed for almost three days, not even able to eat my own birthday cake. My host mom, however, decided that this was unacceptable and said that my birthday would move to that weekend, when I am healthy again. That Saturday morning the whole family sang me a happy birthday, bringing a cupcake with a candle. It warmed my heart, as I had told her it was a tradition of my family to do that on someone’s birthday. That day my host mom, her mom, the 5-year-old girl and I went out to get our hair done and have lunch at a huge mall. It was a great day, we did some shopping and had a lot of fun bonding.
Halloween then came around and let me tell you, it was amazing!!! Back home in South Africa, we do not celebrate Halloween, save for a few house parties some people throw, but we definitely do not go trick or treating. So walking down the street with the kids all dressed up, watching them fill their bags full of chocolate and candy, was probably a highlight of my year. That and the fact that I ate my bodyweight in chocolate that night.
Thanksgiving was also beyond amazing, we went to my host dad’s family in Rochester New York and his mom is a genius in the kitchen! She had like 4 types of pies!!! The amazing food aside it was also a great experience to be part of that holiday, especially when we sat around the table and said what we are grateful for. About a month after that it was Christmas, a holiday I thought I would be prepared for seeing as we celebrate it back home as well. But, boy was I wrong. America does Christmas like I have never seen Christmas being done before. I always said that America’s motto is “go big or go home.” Giant Christmas trees around every corner, beautiful Christmas lights wrapped around every building, green wreaths on every door, it was a kaleidoscope of color and cheer. It was beautiful and really makes you excited for Christmas. The day itself wasn’t at all different than how we celebrate it back in South Africa. The kids will open their presents that morning, the family will come over that evening for a delicious Christmas meal. It was strange being away from my family, but I skyped with them the whole morning and everyone at the Christmas dinner was so friendly, it made it so much easier.
So then New Years rolled around and 2018 marked my second year as an Au Pair. I had decided to extend with the same family, but that is a decision that depends on so many variables. For one thing, you have spent an entire year building a bond with these kids and their parents, you have a stable routine, you know how everything works, and you are comfortable with your surroundings. But on the other hand, there is a new adventure that awaits, a new State to explore, and new people to meet. I think it all depends on you as the au pair, if you feel that you want to experience a new family and city, then go for it, if you don’t, then stay. Just never feel as though you are obligated to stay in the same place, even if you don’t want to.
I think I also need to talk about traveling, definitely my all-time favorite topic in life. So when I was in the Netherlands I would only travel by train and use Couchsurfing. I traveled to so many places, I got to walk through the Colosseum in Rome, fell asleep on a beach in France, bought fresh fruit in Barcelona, and went up on the Eiffel Tower with my best friend. But I quickly learned that it isn’t that easy in America, obviously the US is a lot bigger and you need to use different ways of getting around. So my main form of traveling came in the shape of road trips. My friend and I would rent a car and go wherever we wanted. Keep in mind that if you are under the age of 24 you might have trouble renting a car or would have to pay a lot more. Also always get insurance, it might be a little more expensive, but trust me it’s worth it! We were also quite lucky being only a few hours drive from New York, but for that, we decided to take the bus. There are a lot of cheap busses in America, it might take you longer to get to your destination, but let me put it like this: A 3-hour train ride from DC to NY was around $60, while a 5-hour bus was around $15. I am a full-time student so saving money was important, which meant I was on the bus, rather than the train.
The best way of finding the cheapest ways to travel is by doing a lot of research! Go on different websites, use Hostels instead of Hotels, compare the prices of everything! It does take some time, but when you are on a budget it helps a lot. My all-time favorite website was Wanderu. Basically, you type in where you are and where you want to go and it gives you hundreds of options for busses and trains. It compares prices from a bunch of different travel services so you know you are getting the best deal.
In part two we will talk about how Anje balanced being a full-time au pair in America while studying. Part two will go up on Monday, so stay tuned. Please show her some love on her Instagram or in the comments down below. I will send it all through to her.
Thank you so much for reading and I will see you in a click!