Becoming a parent for the first time is like that moment on a roller coaster as it crests the top of the first hill and then just takes off. Forget about getting your bearings, you are just holding on for dear life. The moment your stomach settles there’s another unexpected turn, loop or exhilarating climb. At least parenthood felt that way to me. I had no idea what I was getting into, and Baby John was an infant who rarely slept for more than an hour at a time.
A few months in I was so tired I could hardly see straight, but I wanted to return to work at the small consulting firm I had joined two years prior. After exploring several childcare options, including a nanny share with a family who owned a large dog the nanny needed to watch as well (no thank you), and a daycare in my Chicago neighborhood inside a repurposed, dingy middle school (nope), we settled on the au pair program, which pairs young people from other countries with placement in U.S. families as childcare helpers. I knew the program was also intended as a cultural experience for the au pair, but I had no idea how deeply attached I would become to some of the helpers who were placed with us over the years.
When we shared our plans to host an au pair with friends, many reactions were along the lines of, “You’re ok with a stranger coming to live with you?” Honestly, I felt like we already had a little stranger living with us, this tiny being who would cry for no reason and hated to be put down. If the new stranger could provide me and my husband with some relief, and even better, form a bond with my child, then I was all in.
The most valuable possession you can own is an open heart.Carlos Santana
After initially matching with a young woman from Peru who dumped us for another host family soon after we matched, we were paired up with Wanda. A recent college graduate from Thailand, Wanda grew up in a close-knit family in Bangkok. When she first arrived, Wanda’s initial knowledge of Chicago was limited to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, but she was friendly and intelligent. More importantly, she loved babies. She seemed to exude endless warmth and patience with John. When I asked if she was bothered by his crying in the night with her room so close to his, she said no, she loved knowing he was nearby.
Still, Wanda’s overseas move was a significant adjustment for her. She encountered her first Midwestern winter and learned to navigate American customs. In time, Wanda shared more with me about her family, friends and a boyfriend back home who was upset that she’d chosen an au pair program over him. The distance from her loved ones was painful for her, but we grew close. With John’s dad away on periodic business trips, I began to appreciate how much love and warmth Wanda was adding to my life too. She was kind, flexible, genuinely loved John, and her homemade Thai food made me the envy of my officemates.
When February of 2008 rolled around, it was time for Wanda to return to Thailand. By then, she was a part of our family. Her departure was heart breaking for us all. She even asked if she could keep one of John’s small monkey blankets so she could hold on to it when she missed him. We stayed in touch, and she kept me posted on changes in jobs and boyfriends.
How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.Winnie the Pooh
Wanda’s tenure with us was immediately followed by two additional au pairs, but it was she who defined our early years as an au pair host family. She is a valued ‘family friend,’ an honorific reserved for only the closest of friends, further solidified when I attended her wedding in Bangkok in 2012. The bride insisted on meeting my plane when I arrived in Bangkok with my cousin Patty at 1 am, 36 hours before her wedding. She brought along at least eight members of her extended family and a birthday cake! My 44th birthday had occurred in flight as I crossed the international dateline, and I was thrilled to have this impromptu airport gathering to celebrate my day.
The morning spent at Wanda’s family home as part of a traditional Buddhist wedding ceremony was unforgettable. We had a great time that evening at the more Western-style wedding reception, with speeches and one of the best buffet dinners I’ve ever had. A beautiful multi-tiered wedding cake was displayed near the front of the reception hall. The Thai tradition is only honored guests are served slices of the wedding cake, with the bride and groom presenting those personally. After they served their parents, I noticed them approaching my table and I was so touched to receive a slice of their special cake.
Taking a chance on the au pair program, and Wanda in particular as our first match, opened our lives and hearts to several women who have become a treasured friends that I would never have otherwise met. My boys will always remember their first European trip in June 2019 to visit Germany and spend time with two former au pairs. We explored Munich with Lilith, and then the small village of Rottweil to see Anja, who had joined us in mid-2015. Our first six weeks of living with Anja is a story deserving of its own essay, but for now, let’s just say we went on to form a bond that led even Anja’s mother to call me her daughter’s ‘American mom.’
Our trip to Germany was filled with many unforgettable experiences, but perhaps the highlight fell on June 13 when we celebrated Anja’s 23rd birthday with her family at their home. After a week in Germany, Anja knew my boys might be missing a bit of Americana, and her ground beef Old El Paso tacos hit the mark. Once again, this thoughtful gesture of an au pair made me feel doubly blessed. Not only did we have many years of high quality, flexible and loving childcare providers, but I gained several true friends, and the boys gained additional aunties cheering them on from around the globe. Happy 25th Anja, we love you!!