Homesickness and culture shock are real and can be incredibly hard for au pairs, especially in the beginning. Not everyone experiences this, but most au pairs do at some level and they often underestimate it. Of course anyone can experience homesickness and culture shock, but somehow au pairs seem to be dealing with it a lot more than for example people who are just traveling abroad (or even working and traveling).
Every morning I felt like I had woken up in a complete nightmare.
When I went to the USA to be an au pair in 2006 I got extremely depressed. I don’t remember much from this time, but I know I felt very disoriented, desperate and in a complete shock. I had just turned 18 and never spent much time away from home. Even though I had always been very independent.. this was too much for me. Too far out of my comfort zone. The emotions were intense. I kept asking myself “What the hell have you done?!”. Never will I forget that feeling of waking up every morning and feeling like I had woken up in a complete nightmare. I wanted to go back to sleep.
Looking back I should have handled things completely different. For one I should never have stayed alone with the kids. It wasn’t responsible as I was feeling so completely out of it. I also should have talked to the agency and my host family. I’m pretty sure they knew something was wrong but I was their first au pair and I think they had no idea what I was feeling or what to do about it.
But I was young and unexperienced. I didn’t have the right tools to get myself through this situation. I didn’t know how to ask for help. At the time I thought I was the only au pair to experience this since I had never heard of other au pairs going through such an extreme period of shock. After a few weeks I decided to go back home. I felt like I had failed.
Looking back I can honestly say that this has been one of the worst but also one of the best things that ever happened to me. This is a story for another time but let’s just say I returned a completely different person and it has shaped my life ever since.
After graduating from college four years later I decided to be an au pair again. That wish to see more of the world and live abroad for a while was still there and this time I knew what to expect. I also had a better idea of what to look for in terms of host family and location.
Something was different this time. I was prepared.
I spent a year with a host family in California. Again when I first got there I had moments of homesickness and was still asking myself “Why the hell did you do this again?”. Something was different this time though. I was prepared. I knew this could happen again and I knew how awful it could be. But I had told myself no matter what happens this time you’ll get through it. After maybe 3 to 4 weeks these moments of homesickness got less frequent and eventually they went away completely.
Being an au pair is an emotional rollercoaster. But completely worth it.
I just finished another au pair year in Sydney and I can honestly say that, even though there have been a few challenges, I haven’t felt homesick once during this year. I guess practice makes perfect. I’m a bit older now, have more experience and I knew what to expect. Looking back at both experiences in California and Sydney I still would have done some things differently. But I guess that’s how life in general works. Live and learn. Even though the last two au pair experiences have been wonderful, none of them have been easy for me. It’s an emotional roller coaster (homesick or not), but I’ve learned a lot about life and about myself. I don’t regret any single moment of it and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
What (not) to do when you’re feeling homesick / experiencing culture shock
During my last 5 months as an au pair in Sydney I also organised the au pair meetings for my agency. It gave me the opportunity to talk to lots of new au pairs. To share my experiences and to listen to their stories. To try to help them wherever I could. I’ve learned that homesickness and culture shock happens more often than I had previously thought. I’ve met au pairs who were completely fine right from the start, but I’ve also seen some of them completely break down, burst into tears and even go back home.
These feelings of homesickness and/or culture shock come in waves. Especially in the beginning they can take a long time. Sometimes up to a few hours at a time and even a couple of times a day. As time passes they become shorter and less intense. It can take up to 2 or 3 weeks to notice any improvement. Give yourself time. Allow yourself to have a good cry now and then. There’s no use in trying to fight it.
- You can tell yourself that if you don’t notice any improvement in how you feel after a month then you can allow yourself to think about going back home. This is not as overwhelming as thinking you still have maybe 6 or even 12 months to go. You’ll see that after a month you will feel much better and don’t want to leave anymore.
- A great tip that I got from another au pair: before you leave write down WHY you want to be an au pair and all the positive things you can think of. What do you want to learn? What are you grateful for? Keep this piece of paper with you to look at when you’re not feeling well.
- Try not to contact your family and friends in your home country too often. As comforting as it may seem, most of the time it will only make you feel more homesick. You want to focus on building a new life and that’s really hard if one foot is still in your home country. I personally found that one Skype call every two weeks worked best for me.
- Talk to your host family. It’s good for them to know what you’re experiencing and it could be really helpful to have someone to talk to. It will also help you bond and create a healthy communication. Communication is key!
- Go out and socialise! This might be one of the most important things you can do. It’s easy when you live in a big city. Just go online (Facebook groups are great for this) and see if someone wants to meet up or see if your agency has any au pair meetings.
- Have a look at my other blog post for more tips on how to meet other people, especially if you’re living in a somewhat remote area: How to meet new people during your au pair time.
- Check the website meetup.com to meet likeminded people in your area!
- Start writing your thoughts in a journal. Putting your thoughts on paper might help you get through the difficult times. You can even try meditation if you think that might help. There are plenty of guided meditations on YouTube that can help you get some piece of mind and make your thoughts and emotions less overwhelming.
- Bookmark this article and read it when you’re feeling down. Sometimes all it takes to get through the difficult moments is to know that you’re not alone in how you feel and that it’s perfectly normal.
After a while you will get used to your new environment and you will start feeling much better. Just keep that in mind!
If you’re an au pair or if you ever were an au pair and have some experience with homesickness and/or culture shock then please leave a comment below. I would also love to hear your experience and tips. It could be really helpful for other au pairs going through the same thing :)