Oliver, Kirsten, Chris and Soren

Oliver, Kirsten, Chris and Soren

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Oliver is Off to Kindergarten

It's a new era for our family.  As of today, we officially have a school-age child.  Sending any child off to kindergarten is a big deal, but being that we were a family with four non-school-age children, it's kind of a relief to send one child off to school.  I know I'm very much in the minority when I answer with an honest no to everyone who's asked me if I'm sad about Oliver starting kindergarten.  With his fall birthday making him older for his grade, he's more than ready for something more challenging. 

We had applied to both our neighborhood school and the Twin Cities German Immersion School (TCGIS) and were very lucky to get spots in both schools.  The day after we got home from China, we received the call from TCGIS that Oliver has gotten a spot in the lottery, and even though the school was our top choice and I should have been jumping with joy, the best I could do in my jet-lagged state was politely thank them for the call. I had no idea how lucky we had really been.  A friend with an older child at TCGIS informed me that 110 children were wait-listed and that this might be the first time in the school's history that some children never make it off the waitlist.

So off to German school Oliver was headed.  Our first morning was pretty hectic as we prepared for seven of us to get out the door in the morning.  Chris and I arranged to take the morning off of work so we could take Oliver to school, and of course Celina and the rest of the kids had to come too.

Our au pair made Oliver's first day of German school special by making him a Schultuete, which all German children receive on their first day of school.  (They receive theirs in first grade since kindergarten is part of preschool in Germany and first grade is considered the start of official schooling.) The cones are filled with school supplies and lots of chocolates and candies.  As a special treat, Oliver's Schultuete included some German chocolate Celina had brought from home for this purpose. 

Once we got to school, we found our way to the wing of the building with the kindergarten and first grade classrooms.  It was already hot and humid, even so early in the morning, and it was even more stifling in a hallway packed with anxious parents and anxious children.  We found Oliver's locker and then walked him into his classroom to meet his new teacher. 

I was thrilled when I found out that Oliver would be in Frau Suter's class because his teacher and I actually go way back.  We met when we were counselors at the Concordia Language Villages, when I knew her as Uschi, her German camp name, and we not only taught together, but were even co-counselors in the same cabin. I really admired her for how well she spoke German and her ability to connect with our campers.  We lost touch over the years and I had no idea she became a teacher, let alone at TCGIS.  The four summers I taught at Waldsee seem like a lifetime ago since I was single and childless then, so it's both surreal and awesome to have Uschi, I mean, Frau Suter, end up being my child's kindergarten teacher. 

We knew Oliver was nervous, but he held it together until it was time for us to leave and then the tears started.  My friend's daughter, who is in first grade, tried comforting him by telling him that she was sad last year too when her parents had to leave, "but the rest of the day was pretty awesome."  With that ringing endorsement of kindergarten, I decided it was a good time to give my final kisses goodbye and assure Oliver that he would be okay.  As much as I had not been sad about Oliver starting kindergarten, I was suddenly on the verge of tears, especially has my crying boy thrust both palms in my face to receive two "kissing hands".  We had read The Kissing Hand the night before about a little racoon whose mom kisses one of his hands so he could take her love with him when he went to school.  Oliver had informed me last night that he was going to ask me to kiss both hands so he wouldn't have to worry about forgetting which hand contained my kiss. 

When Oliver hopped off the bus this afternoon, I was relieved that he was in good spirits.  As one can expect from a five-year-old, we didn't get a whole lot out of him about what he thought of his first day.  Everyone was nice, but he couldn't remember anyone's names.  They sang a "hello" song, but he couldn't remember the words.  He learned the German word Tschuess, which means goodbye.  He kind of liked lunch, and rattled off everything that came in the school's hot lunch today, but then later begged me for a cool lunchbox so he could pack his own lunch.  The drama teacher walked them out to the bus and the older kids aren't as good at listening as the younger kids because his teacher asked them to move out of the way in the hallway and she had to ask them three times.  Despite the vague report from his day, I think it overall went well. 



Monday, August 24, 2015

Our Au Pair, a Fellow Blogger

Our new au pair, Celina, started a blog so she could share her year in the U.S. with her friends family and boyfriend back home.  I was super excited and immediately asked if I could read it, you know, as a fellow blogger.  As soon as the words left my mouth though, it occurred to me that she perhaps wouldn't want her host mother reading her blog.  It's hard enough to live with your employer and perhaps she'd want some semblance of separation between us and her private life.  And then I panicked when I wondered what she'd have to say about our family.  I know we're not perfect, but to read about our imperfectness is another thing. 

However, when Celina shared the web address with me, curiosity got the best of me and I immediately started to read.  And I loved it!  Of course I was relieved (and flattered) that she had nice things to say about her experience living with our family, but what I most appreciated was reading about her perspective on things, like what she finds cool and interesting and what she thinks of all her new experiences in our city and our country overall.  I like hearing her side of the story of shared experiences, such as when I had her drive the minivan for the first time.  I could tell she was nervous, but she did great.  Not until I read her blog did I understand just how nervous she was!  After I read her account of the differences in driving laws and customs between the U.S. and Germany and how she affectionately referred to our minivan as "the boat", I had a greater appreciation for her driving skills. 

I also enjoy Celina's blog because it's in German and it's a fun way for me to practice the language.  Although I'm quite rusty speaking German, I was surprised by how few words I needed to look up and how effortlessly I read through her posts.  If you also know German or don't mind using an online translator, you can check out her blog as well:  ceeelina.wix.com/12months

I hope Celina continues to blog even as her time in Minnesota gets busier and she has less time to write and even after the newness wears off and she doesn't think she has anything cool to write about anymore.  I know her words are precious to everyone reading back home and that she will appreciate having written down her thoughts during this life-changing year. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Transitions

Transitions are a fact of life when you participate in the au pair program.  The au pair contract is for one year (they can extend six to 12 months) and then it's time to say goodbye and welcome someone new.  

Families hosting au pairs have different preferences for handling the transition from the outgoing au pair to the incoming au pair.  Some purposefully schedule an overlap by contracting the new au pair to arrive a couple of days, or even a week or more, before the outgoing au pair departs.  Others want no overlap at all, often because they prefer to train the new au pair themselves or want to do things differently with the next au pair, but sometimes because the outgoing au pair wasn't stellar or developed "senioritis" at the end of the year and they don't want the new au pair influenced by bad habits.  Host parents with lots of vacation time or alternative childcare will sometimes choose take a week or two break between au pairs so they have more time to say goodbye to the outgoing au pair and prepare for the next arrival.

With a small house and no affordable full-time childcare alternatives, our transition plan was decided for us.  We needed as little overlap as possible, without any gap in childcare. Even though we left it up to Marcel to decide when he would leave for his travel month, he had to be out of his room by the morning Celina arrived and sleep on the couch in the basement after that. In the end, we had a one-night overlap.   I spent the morning of Celina's arrival furiously cleaning and running last-minute errands while Marcel took the kids to preschool and then to the Children's Museum.  Then the entire family and Marcel sprinted to the airport where I'm now 0-2 in being on time for my incoming au pair's flight. 

I give both Marcel and Celina a lot of credit for how maturely they handled the transition.  Even though they only overlapped one night under the same roof, they've been a presence in each other's lives for longer.  Marcel interviewed Celina, and after we matched, was a resource for her as she prepared to come to the U.S. Because Marcel was from the same country and spoke the same language as Celina, he took on more a mentor role than your average outgoing au pair. I was thankful for Marcel's maturity, because it's not unusual for outgoing au pairs to feel jealous of the attention the new au pair is getting or feel like he or she is being replaced. That was never the case with Marcel and not only could I talk openly with him about our plans for Celina's arrival, but he was a resource for me as he clued me in on what Celina must be feeling and what she would want in her room.

Celina was equally as gracious and was comfortable sharing the attention that would have been completely hers if her arrival had not coincided with Marcel's last night.  Instead of the welcome dinner I had planned in Celina's honor, we ended up spending her first evening on the lake so Marcel could go waterskiing one last time.  She listened with genuine interest to our stories of our year with Marcel and politely tolerated countless comments of Marcel liked doing this/eating that/going there and so on. 

As well as our transition went, I don't think I'd want an overlap of more than a night because it was an incredibly emotional time.  It was tiring doing all our "lasts" with Marcel while doing all our "firsts" with Celina.  It was easy to want to spend time all our time with the au pair who had become a family member, but then I'd feel overwhelmed by all that I had to get done with Celina, who had less than 72 hours before her first day of work.  

Two excellent au pairs are what got me through the transition.  We had had a great year with Marcel and as sad as we were for him to leave our family, the wonderful memories remain.  And then there's Celina, who I'm so excited is finally here and I look forward to getting to know her.  No matter how many au pairs have come before, the new au pair deserves a warm welcome and the attention as if she were the first.  With that, we proceed through the transition and focus on the joys of welcoming a new person into our family. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Back-to-School Shopping

Unbeknownst to the other, Chris and I were each obsessively checking the website of Oliver's school for the 2015-2016 school supply list.  With our oldest starting kindergarten in the fall, we finally get to relive the excitement of a new school year with rites of passage, like back-to-school shopping.  Once the lists were posted, we enlisted Grandma Nan to watch the younger kids so that Chris and I could take Oliver out to dinner and then go buy his school supplies together.  He chose Punch Pizza and afterward we headed to Target. 

Buying school supplies has changed a lot since I was a kid.  In the days before big box stores, I remember shopping at Binkley's 5 & 10 or Rite Aid, where I hoped to score a cool Trapper Keeper.  I remember picking out supplies that are still staples today - pencils, pens, folders and notebooks - but I have no idea if we were given a list. 

Kids get lists these days.  Your local big box store probably even has the list from your kid's school. Oliver's kindergarten supply list contained about $70 worth of supplies, and that was before we bought new shoes, clothes, a lunchbox and a book bag. 

We also discovered the lists are very specific.  We couldn't just buy any crayons or markers, they had to be Crayola brand.  We had to buy a 9" x 12" dry-erase board, but Target only carried 8.5" x 11" or 10" x 14".  We decided we'd look on Amazon at home and moved on.  Next on the list were "two black, thin-tip, low-odor dry-erase markers", but the only ones we could find came in multi-color packages of four, with only one black marker in each.  I relented on the Crayola brand even though the frugal part of me thought the store brand would sufficiently serve the same purpose, but I decided we weren't buying two packages of markers.  Oliver would go off to kindergarten with two thin-tip, low-odor dry-erase markers, but one would be black and the other blue.  A friend with older children had warned me that we might have to go to multiple stores because the last item on your list will be a yellow, three-ring, two-pocket folder and the only colors left would be green.  With the exception of the dry-erase board, we found everything we needed. 

Even so, Oliver summed up the school supply shopping experience when he exclaimed, "Why does this school have to be so complicated!"

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Bis Bald Marcel!

Our family's last night with Marcel was exactly how it should be, full of fun and laughter and so relaxed, as if the evening was never going to end. The storms that had cancelled Marcel's final water skiing outing the night before finally cleared and we spent the evening on the water.  We ate picnic dinners on the boat and Marcel got a last run on skis in.  We anchored at a popular sandbar where shallow water stretches for dozens of feet out into the lake and the kids and Marcel splashed around in the water and tossed a football around with friends. With his skin tanned from a summer spent as much as possible outside and cracking jokes effortlessly with our family, Marcel resembled more an American than the German who constantly needed to look up words on the translator app on his phone when he first arrived. 

Early the next morning, the whole family drove Marcel to the airport, waited as he and his girlfriend checked their bags and then hugged him one last time before they walked through security and onto the next adventure in their lives.  I'm the really emotional type, yet hate to have people see me cry, so I couldn't bare to turn around for one final wave because I couldn't hold back my tears any longer.

I was sad Marcel's time with us had come to an end, but also so proud of him.  He had stepped way out of his comfort zone to move away from home for the first time to a place he had never heard of.  He had had to make new friends.  He had swapped his lucrative sales job for a year of taking care of four young children.  But to see him accomplish his goals was awesome. He could carry on a conversation with anyone and even make them laugh, while speaking a language he had once not considered himself good at when he took English in school.  He traveled a lot and got to experience the United States in a way different than if he had come as a tourist.  He will someday enter parenthood with much more experience than Chris or I ever had, notably, he knows how to change a diaper. 

What was even more special was watching Marcel learn about himself over the course of a year.  Like so many au pairs, he had chosen to "take a year off," as if he were putting his life back in Germany on pause.  The reality is that living away from home in a new country and speaking another language will change a person.  No longer able to rely on his soccer team for his social circle, he learned how to make friends and met people from all over the world.  He had left behind his family in Germany, but he discovered he has family in Minnesota.  He came here with clear plans of what he was going back to when he returned to his hometown only to decide he wanted to do something different with his life.  He had changed, and it was clear before he left that the course of this future had changed as well. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Farewell Dinner

Marcel didn't want a big goodbye party and he definitely didn't want anyone to make a fuss over him.  Instead he would have preferred to quietly slip away.  Of course we couldn't actually let him do that.  Even if he didn't need to officially mark the end of his year with a party of sorts, I needed that type of closure. So we did something we rarely do as a household of seven and that is go out to dinner.  Chris' mom, brother and sister-in-law were able to join us too, which was special since they've been an integral part of Marcel's extended host family.

While we waited for our dinner to arrive, we surprised Marcel with a video a friend's son made for him.  We all watched together in disbelief as Marcel's year flashed before our eyes.  Chris for how much Marcel did in just one year, me for how we really were going to have to say goodbye to this guy who's been part of our family for the last year and, and Marcel for how quickly a year could go by.

Marcel even had a surprise for us.  He had made a scrapbook of pictures of his year with the kids.  In a nod to having taught me how to use Instagram, many of the captions were hashtags. My favorite was a recount of Marcel's first conversation with Chris during a Skype interview. I had conducted all the e-mail correspondence, set up Skype interviews and vetted candidates, and when I had finally found our au pair, I told Chris he couldn't just trust my judgement and needed to at least Skype with the guy I was asking to come live with us for a year and take care of our children.  Even when I got Chris in front of the computer to talk to Marcel, he had exactly one question. I had forgotten about this brief exchange until I turned to the page in Marcel's scrapbook with pictures from the winter.
Chris: Do you care about a cold winter?
Marcel:  Of course not!  We also have a cold winter. #Ihadnoidea
The funny memories didn't end there.  Chris had given me the book Reasons My Kid is Crying for Christmas and while I got a kick out of it, the book had clearly resonated with Marcel.  Three whole pages of the scrapbook were dedicated to reasons my kids were crying! Although Marcel had consulted the moms at the playground to make sure I would think something like this was funny, he had nothing to worry about, because I laughed so hard I had tears streaming down my face.

Marcel printed the text in the scrapbook in both German and English. He signed the last page with, Es ist kein tschuess fuer immer, es ist ein bis bald!  It's not a goodbye, it's a see you soon!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Male Au Pairs

Our au pair, Marcel, gets a lot of strange looks and questions when he's out with our four kids.  Strangers recognize that he's not the kids' father, because that would be a lot of children for a guy only in his early 20s.  But if he's not their dad, then they can come up with no other explanation for why he would have four children in his care.  Given how close in age my kids are, I'm often asked whether I'm running a daycare.  Marcel thought it was odd that no one has ever asked him this and that's when I explained that the reason is probably because so few people think of men as caregivers.  The male caregiver concept is literally not among the array of possibilities in strangers' minds. 

Having a male au pair solicits a lot of intrigue and questions.  Male au pairs are admittedly in the minority, with only one in ten au pairs through our agency being men. Not many people even know what an au pair is, let alone know one who happens to be a guy, so I get that it's a new concept for people. When others learn that we have an au pair, one of their first questions is to ask where she is from and I correct them that the she is actually a he.  Some admit they didn't realize that men are allowed to be au pairs, some think it's really awesome and others, in an attempt to rationalize why anyone would choose a male au pairs, say they're probably a good option if you have only boys.  And as curious as everyone is about having a male au pair, many end the conversation with a declaration they could still never have a male au pair. 

Sadly male au pairs receive not only a lot of unwanted attention, but they face A LOT of bias.  People think they're all gay, or if not, then they must be cold and not capable of being affectionate with kids.  Even that being affectionate part raises suspicions because in my conversations with other parents, worries about pedophiles comes up every single time. 

This worry comes from parents whose female au pairs have crashed the family car with their children in it, driven without their children in car seats, dated sketchy men, had those sketchy men around their children without the host parents' knowledge, lost their temper with their children and hit them. Of course those are the horror stories.  But my host family community is full of stories of au pairs who clearly do not like children or have no idea what to do with them, who spend the majority of their time on their phones, while ignoring the children, or nap on the job or who have left their young charges unattended in an unfenced-in backyard.  Women who can't cook, who are slobs, who lack common sense, who arrive back to their host family's house falling down drunk. Women with eating disorders or insecurities who have body image issues they are displaying in front of their host children.  The host parents complain to other host parents, and we all cry "Rematch!" and yet some host parents still give second, third or infinity chances. 

As awful as the thought of sexual abuse is, what's even more awful is when you think about all the other ways your children can be neglected, abused, ignored or have their lives put in danger.  I know that sexual abuse is most likely perpetrated by someone known to your children, but I also know it's still rare.  It's all this other stuff I worry about, the exact things host parents who have said they could never have a male au pair because they don't trust a person with a penis around their children, (yup, one host mom told me that) have reported their female au pairs having done to their children. 

Whoever you decide to have watch your children, there's so much trust you put in them.  You trust they'll keep them safe by properly buckling them into their car seats, holding their hands when they cross the street, never taking their eyes off them when swimming, not letting people you've never met into your house, not hanging out with people you wouldn't want around your children and the list goes on.  Thankfully, I've never had once iota of concern about my children's safety in Marcel's care.  

I don't know if I ever explicitly told Marcel that for anyone he meets, he becomes the poster child for all male au pairs, but he's probably figured it out given how often I tell him how often people ask me what it's like to have a male au pair.  He probably doesn't realize how much I sing his praises from the rooftops.  I brag about how he active he is with the kids and how he gets four kids packed up and picnic lunches made to spend the day outside somewhere.  In the winter when others were complaining their au pairs were spending too much time at home cooped up in the house, Marcel got my kids out of the house every single day, whether it was just to drive down the street to tot time at the local rec center or to really spend time outside with them by taking them sledding.  I talk about how calm and flexible he is.  No matter how often our plans change at the last minute, he cheerfully changes course.  I've never heard Marcel yell or lose his temper with my children, despite how I as the parent have not modeled the behavior I expect out of him.  He can be affectionate and silly with the kids, but will also discipline the kids according to how we taught him. 

My praises are preaching to the choir though.  So often friends report back to the positive encounters they had with Marcel, like how they saw him and the kids at the park and that he was playing with the kids the entire time.  These stories make my heart swell.

Marcel has been excellent as a childcare provider, but when you have an au pair, that's only half the equation.  Because au pairs live with you, they need to be good roommates as well.  I also sing Marcel's praises as an au pair with zero drama.  I attribute that to his personality rather than his sex, but either way, we have never heard a single complaint from him about how he doesn't like this or that or how another au pair has a better situation.  We have not heard one peep about a romantic relationship gone bad or a tiff with a friend.  He greets us with a cheerful good morning and makes a point of saying goodbye to us before he heads out the door to meet friends.  He's always been respectful of our home and our car and our rules. 

As we went through the matching process again this spring, I secretly hoped we would match with another guy.  Since our one and only au pair has been a guy, that's all I know.  I'm honestly just a creature of habit.  But we go into the matching process looking for the best match - male or female - and this time around, that person happens to be a woman. We are incredibly excited about welcoming our next au pair, but will always be thankful to Marcel who made our first au pair experience a great one, and who might possibly have changed the hearts of countless parents he met this year.