I was an au pair in Finland – and I survived
Their house was so huge I thought I wouldn’t be able to find my way around it. I started to entertain the idea that this family had in fact more than a baby and two older kids: children kept appearing from the most unlikely places and there was something eerie about their presence. Finally, they left me in the bedroom to unpack and settle in.
Being by myself made me feel relieved. I was so tired I could’ve gone straight to bed, but duty called, so I started to place all my items on the bed in an orderly manner to get a full sight of them and decide how I’d organize them in the closet. I put my laptop and my tiny iPod shuffle on the desk. I carefully studied the wardrobe: I wasn’t sure whether I should put my winter underpants in the mid-right compartment or in the one below it. This was going to take a while…
And then, it happened: the two older kids came to my room, completely naked, and started to jump on the bed, making an unavoidable mess with all my clothes and other personal items. As if that wasn’t enough, they even started throwing things around, including my treasured iPod. I had one clear goal in mind: to get rid of them. I thought if I put them back on the floor they’d get the hint. They didn’t. I was clueless about what to do. As a kid, I wouldn’t have ever dared to open some stranger’s bedroom door, let alone come in and start making a mess with their stuff. Sure, this was play, but they also knew they were being annoying and malicious. Kids aren’t that dumb. And then, it hit me. Being an au pair meant living at my workplace. As it turns out, the kids couldn’t be switched off during my off-duty hours.
The parents eventually came to remove their little goblins out of my chambers, leaving me alone again. This time, however, relief wasn’t what I was feeling. I looked out the window, and all I could see was thick, daunting darkness. There was nothing out there, nothing but a frozen lake covered in a thick layer of snow which the moon stained in a blue hue. I could hear a whistling and whooshing sound, but the trees were standing completely still. No one else lived there, no one but whoever lived on the other side of the lake. I could see some light coming out through the windows of a tiny house, but it could’ve very well been a ghost in there. I felt an inner sense of agitation when I realized I was alone in the middle of nowhere, left to the mercy of two strangers. I felt trapped, and then the panic set in.
Illustration by Lauri Kinnunen
In February 2010, when I had recently turned eighteen and graduated from high school, I decided to travel to Finland for the first time to work as an au pair. I was originally planning to work with the family for seven months, from mid February to mid September. As usual, things didn’t go as planned. I left the family in May, after having been with them for only three months, and moved to an apartment in Helsinki, where I stayed until I had to go back to Barcelona to start my university studies.
During the three months I lived with them I gathered a collection of anecdotes that had no relevance on their own, but together left a bad taste in my mouth. I thought I would turn some of those not-so-positive moments into funny stories in hopes of making at least one person laugh. So, without further ado, here are six stories for you to enjoy.
The premise for my au pair job was that the stay-at-home mum was busy taking care of their new baby, so someone had to take care of their three-year-old boy and six-year-old girl.
One fine winter morning I was told to take the kids outside, same as every day, no matter how cold it was. They liked to ride a plastic sled down a short hill next to the house. Sometimes we would play hide and seek between piles of snow. But this one particular morning they spotted snow-covered, frozen stairs that went from the terrace located on the second storey to the yard, and decided to use them as a slide.
Seeing the potential calamity that could unfold, and considering that if anything were to happen it would be my fault, I decided to inform their mum about her kids’ genius intentions. I had two options: I could either go inside the house and look for their mum, which would involve leaving the kids on their own to do something remarkably dumb, or I could stay with them and yell her name at the top of my lungs. I chose the latter.
When she finally heard my yelling, she came to see what the matter was. I explained with worry what her kids intended to do, and she simply told me to let them play, to which I replied that if anything happened to them, it wouldn’t be my responsibility.
They climbed up and slid down the stairs over and over again. I can’t recall exactly how it happened, but I ended up on the top of the stairs myself. I’m not sure how I managed to get back down alive, but I do remember being stuck for ten minutes building up the courage to take the leap. Meanwhile, the kids stood down there looking and laughing at me. I sat there looking at their tiny mean faces, and I tried to examine the frozen, slippery surface, trying to find any dips and bumps I could use as footholds, but I was soon forced to face reality: I looked at the horizon, closed my eyes, and tried to slide down the stairs as graciously as I could. When I was lying face-down in the snow I gave myself a pat on the back for at least trying.
It was the end of March, and the entire family and I were going to spend a week visiting the mother’s family, who lived in a small town close to Oulu. The car ride was going to take more than eight hours, so the mother decided to travel by train with the baby. She left early in the morning, and the father, the two other kids and I would be leaving in the afternoon, when he came back from work.
I had been working there for a month and a half, but that was my first time completely alone with the kids. The father had given me clear instructions: when he got back home, the kids were to be dressed, with a clean diaper on, pooped, peed, hair-brushed, teeth-brushed, and fed. When the father came back home, however, he was faced with his two untamed children, who had been running around the entire day without clothes, unwashed and with their hair resembling a bird nest.
I can’t tell you how many persuasion strategies I tried, but they would not, for the love of Pete, put their diapers on. Instead, they thought of their nappies as toys, so I had to put them out of reach and let their butts be exposed to clean, crisp Finnish air.
Fortunately, their dad wasn’t angry at all. In fact, he told me he had zero expectations of my capability to be alone with the kids, which I didn’t take as a personal critique, but as a sign that he knew his children very well.
Every once in a while the mother wanted to go shopping in the nearby town, and she would leave me with her kids in the playground so that she could be alone with her baby. They quickly overgrew the park and one day decided to explore the uncharted wilderness beyond it, which involved jumping over a fence into a heavily snowed field.
That winter is known for having had heavy snowfalls, and even though Finns are experts at skillfully removing snow from roads and walking paths, snow is never removed from forests and other areas with lots of trees.
So there I was, looking at them from the other side of the fence, blaming whoever designed the park for not having been able to design something that would keep kids interested for long enough, and wondering how I was going to get them back. I tried to convince them to come back with well-thought arguments on how alluring the swing looked like, but for some unexplainable reason that didn’t work and they preferred to keep running around with the snow up to their chest.
Luckily for me, no one was there to watch me climb up and down the fence. Once I was on the other side, submerged in the snow up to my knees, the hunt began. First, I went after the three-year-old boy: he was the smaller one and thus easier to carry. Then, with him on one side, I chased and caught the six-year-old girl. I carried them like a pair of heavy potato sacks to the edge of the fence. It wasn’t an easy task, but I finally managed to get them both back to the playground just in time, thirty seconds before their mother appeared down the road in her car. She found us playing on the slide as if nothing had ever happened.
Illustration by Lauri Kinnunen
The following two stories illustrate the great influence older siblings have over the younger ones.
As mentioned in the previous stories, I was never home alone with the kids, because their mother was always there with her baby. This was mostly a positive thing, given that the two older kids were not used to interact with people other than their parents and they were a difficult pack to take care of. In other words: I was there to lend a hand but had no authority over the children whatsoever. This made being alone with them a difficult task, especially when things had to get done, such as that time we had to get ready to travel to Oulu, or the time the mother had to take the baby to the doctor’s and I had to make lunch.
Now, I made lunch almost every day, so this was nothing new to me. Usually, during lunch-preparation time, the mother would sit at the kitchen table and talk to me, read some stuff, take care of her baby, or prepare baby food, while the kids would stay in their toy room until lunchtime. The mother was there to make sure her two kids wouldn’t do anything dumb.
This time, with the mother and the baby gone, the energy in the house felt weird and I could tell something was off, but I brushed it off because I couldn’t hear a single sound. My inexpertise in parenthood caused me to mistakenly believe this was a good sign, so I proceeded to chop an onion with the largest and sharpest knife when, all of a sudden, I noticed a breathing sound behind me. One second later, two sets of milk teeth sank into my butt.
As the sensible, rational human being that I am, I understood the potential threat of the situation and stopped chopping onion right away. I tried implementing every strategy advised by any “How to deal with children” manual, but nothing worked. As soon as I would get back to cooking, I would feel a stinging pain in my butt again. To be honest, there was nothing that could be done. The older girl knew she was being nasty, and she’d encourage her little brother to continue, who thought the entire thing was just a friendly game.
Given that the only plausible solution, that is tying them up in a chair, seemed too aggressive, I stopped cooking altogether. As a result, when the mother got home, lunch wasn’t ready yet and I had to explain to her how it was impossible to cook when her kids were, quite literally, a pain in the ass.
As I explained in the story Extreme sports, I had to spend time outside the house with the kids every day. During the winter months that was okay, provided they didn’t have any silly idea such as using frozen stairs as a slide. Snow was fun to play with, on, behind, and even below. But then came spring, and with it the temperature started to rise and, as a consequence, the snow started to melt, and what I thought was a huge pile of snow revealed itself as a pile of sand that had been covered with snow. At first, I didn’t give it a thought, but soon enough I started to notice the kids were drawn to it, so much so that our daily outside activities involved playing with the sand.
The older girl probably noticed that sand is one of my least favorite things in this world, so she, being consistent with her mischievous nature, inspired her little brother to throw sand at me. At that point, I was already quite fed up with her. I had been living with them for three months and was planning on moving to Helsinki as soon as I found a room and another job, even though the plan was to work with them for seven months.
The first time I tried to react as if it was a game, so I gobbled down my hatred for sand and I threw some at her as well. The little boy seemed to enjoy it, but her reaction told me this wasn’t a game. She didn’t like having sand thrown at her, which meant she told her brother to throw some at me with the only purpose of being annoying.
For three consecutive days, our outside time didn’t last any longer than five minutes, and it always ended up in me carrying the kids like potato sacks, much like in the Running wild story. Because I was done having to deal with the kids, I didn’t even try to change the situation. Instead, I simply carried them back home. The third time I showed up with the kids, their mum told me I was fired.
Given that I didn’t know how to tell them I wanted to move out, getting fired made me feel more relieved than hurt. In a way, they did the hard job for me. As an au pair, I was allowed to stay there for two more weeks, but I didn’t see the point in staying so I left that same afternoon and moved to Malmi with a Catalan-Finnish couple who were kind enough to let me stay at their place until I had to go back to Barcelona. They even helped me find a job at Rautakirja.
Judging from the previous six stories, one might think being an au pair meant living in constant chaos and frustration, and while there’s some truth to this statement, I also had lots of fun every now and then.
To tell this next story, I need to give you some background on how my brain works. To put it simply: I don’t function well under supervision, no matter what the context is. Given that my job involved having the mother, aka the boss, at home all day, my performance as a nanny was quite poor, because she watched me all the time interacting with her children.
Sometimes, over lunch, she would tell me that I don’t talk to or play with the kids enough. So afterwards we’d go to their toy room to play with them. It wasn’t a complete disaster, but she expected me to be lively and talkative to kids who couldn’t understand English, and the idea of having to say random stuff without getting a response in a language different from my mother tongue, with the added bonus of being listened to and watched by my boss, felt so awkward it simply didn’t work.
At that time, I didn’t realize I only had observation anxiety, and instead, I thought I was terrible at my job. Fortunately for me, there was one day a week I’d be left alone with the three-year-old boy when the mother would take the girl to her dance classes and she’d stay downtown with the baby until she’d have to pick her up.
Right before leaving, she’d tell me she had put on a movie for the boy, so he wouldn’t bother me while I was reading for my upcoming university entrance examination, and also because she thought it would be pointless to ask me to play with him for two hours. At first, I didn’t pay any attention to him, but eventually he got bored of watching movies by himself and came out of his toy room pleading for attention. I looked at him warily: I was used to his and his sister’s malicious plans. This time around, however, he looked harmless. We looked at each other in the eye and all I could see was pure kindness. And then I understood: it was his older sister who influenced him to act stupid. They made a terrible team. But the boy, alone and without his sister’s mischievous ideas, was like an angel.
Something clicked in me and I realized we were all alone and this sudden wave of courage came over me. “I could do literally anything right now”, I thought. So I walked closer to him, got down on all fours, and roared. He immediately understood what was going on and roared back at me. We spent the entire afternoon running around the house, shouting, laughing, and playing a dinosaur-like version of hide and seek. When the mother got back home and asked him what we had been doing, he said: “We screamed”. In fact, we didn’t exchange a single word, but we were still able to communicate with each other, play, and have a blast.
That was the day I learned I work better when I’m left alone to do things my own way without supervision.
Even though spending time with the kids isn’t the part I enjoyed the most about being an au pair, I still had a great time and do not regret having made the decision to come to Finland. After I panicked on the first day I started to look for flights back home, but thankfully my parents persuaded me to stay for at least two weeks.
Being an au pair took just a tiny portion of my day, and while it was my least favorite part of the day, I can say with confidence that I enjoyed the other parts. I loved playing with the baby, and I’m proud of having made him more sociable. Because the family lived quite isolated (from a southern european point of view), the baby didn’t have much contact with the outside world and was only used to his mother, who thanked me for having been persistent with him and not giving up as soon as he started to cry every time I approached him. Eventually he felt comfortable with me, and apparently this helped him be more comfortable with other humans as well. I’d have been more than happy if my job had been to take care of the baby and not the two older kids.
I also liked hanging out with the parents, especially on Friday nights when we’d have dinner and the father introduced me to lonkero, a Finnish alcoholic drink I liked to drink lots of and now, ten years later, have trouble understanding how that ever happened. Every second Friday we’d make sushi, which I had never eaten before, and that alone makes coming to Finland worth it. Sometimes I made them Spanish and Catalan dishes: I even went through the impossible task of cooking paella in Finland. And of course, I tasted many Finnish dishes and pastries. I’d have never thought adding cream and dill to a soup made out of salmon was a good idea, and I remember how surprised I was the first time I ate a laskiaispulla: I had never tasted cardamom before and had no idea what was going on in my mouth.
When we visited Oulu during Easter, I got to work for two days at the children’s grandmother’s small bakery. Not only was it a lot of fun, but I also got to take home some Finnish baked goods for free and I ate them all by myself without an ounce of regret. That trip was probably the best time I had during my au pair months. Not because of the free pastries and buns, which of course were an added bonus, but because I was on a holiday and I got to interact with new people and forget about the kids. The mother’s family was warm and welcoming and I had a great time with them. One night I got up at 1 am to pee and saw the parents and the mother’s siblings eating, drinking and playing cards. I asked them why they were eating so late at night, and they told me to join them. I was hesitant at first, but that night I learned to love some Finnish classics, such as Fazer blue chocolate and rye sourdough crackers with butter and black pepper fresh cheese. We stayed up until 5am talking nonsense but having a blast.
Probably the best part about having experienced one of the coldest and snowiest winters Finland has ever had was walking in the snowed forest all by myself, taking in every scent and sound, such as that made by the talitintti (great tit). Its titutitu or titituu twittering is a characteristic trait of the Finnish nature landscape during winter, and listening to it makes me feel like I’m wandering in a snowy forest.
Illustration by Lauri Kinnunen