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Au Pairs Reveal What They Really Think of Their Host Families

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 by Edina Stone

"I would like to say I am delighted that someone has made the effort to actually read this book and not misrepresent it and we hope that this is genuinely useful to anyone who wants to have a better understanding of au pairs. Thank you Edina."  Dr. Daniel Miller

Fifty au pairs from Slovakia were interviewed by Zuzana Burikova and Dr. Miller for their new book, Au Pair, an academic study of not only what it is like to be an au pair, but an examination of the entire cultural exchange process:  the decision to become an au pair, one's self-identity as an au pair, and its affects long after young woman's cultural year abroad.  Dr. Miller refers to his study as an ethnography, which is the methodology used by anthropologists to study people. 

According to Miller and Burikova, they undertook this year-long study for two main reasons:

  • To understand if and how families tend to take the institution of au pairing for granted and what are the consequences for all involved in the relationship between au pair and family members.
  • To reveal the "exploitation and inequality" found in hosting an au pair and examination of the "intimate issues" of living with a strange family in a strange land:  "embarrassment, humiliation, mutual misunderstanding and uncertainties" experienced by the 50 au pairs in their study.

As a former student of anthropology and holding a Masters degree in psychology, I wanted to comment on the book, Au Pair, and some of the unfair media attention it has received.

Journalists have jumped eagerly on this academic study to glean glaring pieces of sensationalism for articles with such titles as "Fathers are Sleazy and Mothers are Lazy," "Au Pairs Hate Us?  Its Mutual and I Should Know, I have had 12," and "London Mums and Dads are Swines." 

A few of the news articles in England (where the study and book was written) read like a soap opera!   The stories focus on how the au pairs harbor grievances and are highly critical of the UK's host parents way of life, how they parent and how they keep their homes. 

The academic study focused on 50 Slovakian au pairs placed with host families in London.  Slovaks are one of the largest groups of au pairs working in London today compared to the norm:  in the past decades au pairs came into the UK from Western Europe and major cities, such as Paris and Stockholm.  One of the areas the authors wanted to examine is how this cultural shift or trend affected the institution of au pairs in the UK.

Two major factors emerged from the study:  one, au pairs coming from Slovakia have different motivations and two, UK families may not "see Slovaks within the same egalitarian framework" as they do au pairs from France and Sweden. 

The authors examine the daily life of au pairing through the eyes of the 50 au pairs and in one chapter, narrate a "day in the life" of an au pair, describing the work she does throughout a typical day, followed by the "completely different interpretation" of the same day by the host mum.

Chapter 4 addresses one of the most difficult areas for the authors, that of racism, as seen from both the au pairs and the host families.  One chapter describes the "leisure activities" of the au pairs and their relationships with men.  In the final chapter, the authors discuss their recommendations that they believe would improve the relationships between au pair and host family - and how they would help curb "tendencies towards exploitation." 

I have the study, all 203 pages of it, and it is a comprehensive and impressive work! 

The book, Au Pair, is not a "tell all" sensational piece of non-fiction. 

It is a serious academic study of the lives of Eastern European au pairs living and working with urban, highly educated and well-bred English families and the exploitation and expectations and cultural misunderstanding that lies underneath these complicated relationships. 

The study represents a full year of interactions with both au pairs and their families followed by honest, well-researched and intelligent conclusions. 

Next time you see a sensational title about this study, think hard about what the real focus of the book is - and not the superficial journalistic tricks of the trade to get your grab your short attention-span so you will click onto their Website! 

The academic study is available on Amazon, Au Pair, by Daniel Miller and Zuzana Burikova and it is now available in paperback, which costs $22.00, just last week it was in hardcover, costing $60.00!

Here is the link if anyone is curious or wants to see more inside the book:  www.amazon.com

We are looking forward to interviewing Dr. Miller and we will share his insights regarding Eastern European au pairs, how to improve your relationship with your au pairs, etc., with you in the near future.

September 13, 2010

Positive Reviews of Dr. Millers' book, Au Pair:

"With its fine-grained ethnographic detail, skillfully presented in vivid prose, this book illuminates every aspect of the hopes, fantasies and frustrations that constitute the frequently troubled ties and misunderstandings between au pairs and their employers. A huge pleasure to read, Au Pair provides a definitive, indispensable text for addressing this increasingly prevalent facet of family life, with its own suggestions for improving the lives of both au pairs and the families in which they reside."

Lynne Segal, Birkbeck College and author of Why Feminism?

"A long overdue book that deals sensitively with the experiences of both au pairs and host families. It moves between individual stories and their social context to reveal the tensions and the potential of this unique relationship.

Bridget Anderson, University of Oxford

"Miller and Burikova's criticisms are all too real"


We posted our New & Exclusive Interview with University professor and au pair expert, Dr. Miller!  Enjoy.

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