Book Review: Au Pair by Zuzana Burikova and Daniel Miller

Au Pair, by Zuzana Burikova and Daniel Miller, 2010, Polity Press
Paperback, ISBN: 9780745650128,

Au Pair is one of the first books to analyze this unique institution of domestic labor. Au Pair focuses on the experiences of Slovak au pairs working for British families in London, in the mid-2000s, (around the time Slovakia became a member of the European Union). It was co-written by two anthropologists, a British man who has employed a number of au pairs to help care for his family, and a Slovakian woman who became interested in the number of her compatriots who decided to become au pairs in the UK. Using fieldwork, interviews, and some content analysis of media related to Slovak au pairs, the authors explore the au pair experience – how they decide to become au pairs, how they view themselves and are viewed by their host families, and the consequences of their decision.

Miller and Burikova studied specifically Slovak au pairs in London and its environs as they are probably the largest ethnic group of au pairs in the city, a shift from French or Scandinavian women who previously dominated the field. The research also took place at the time when Slovakia became part of the European Union, so that an original motivation for becoming an au pair – gaining a visa to the UK – was no longer valid.

The authors worked with fifty au pairs who represented eighty six host families (the numbers are not equivalent as the au pairs sometimes changed families. Based on their shared ethnicity and language, Burikova interviewed all of the au pairs, and spent most of her time with them, both socially and helping them with their domestic tasks. Miller interviewed many of the host families who employed the au pairs in Burikova’s group as well as others from his own network. Even though it is an ethnographic study, this book is written in a unique style, which is somewhat informal and with no academic references in the main text. Each chapter is written in a different style, featuring a combination of individual stories and analysis, which explore different aspects of the au pair experience. Beginning with the stories of four women and why they decided to become au pairs, Miller and Burikova then describe on the relationship between the au pairs and their host families (this chapter is titled “An Embarrassing Presence”) through a material cultural analysis, which focuses on the au pairs attitudes to and experiences with their rooms, food, and cleaning (cleaning seems to be a major part of the au pair’s job, more so than childcare.) Subsequent chapters describe the daily work of the au pair (with both the au pair’s and the host families’ perspectives), racist attitudes of the au pairs and the host families, the au pairs’ leisure activities, and their relationships with men. The final chapter evaluates the au pair experience through the lens of a rite de passage (rite of passage) and also sets forth recommendations by the authors of how to improve the au pair experience on both sides of the relationship. The final chapter of the book, the appendix, is a literature review devoted to academic studies of domestic labor.

According to the authors, au pairing started from a tradition in which middle-class German and English families sent their daughters to live with French and Swiss families to improve their French language skills. It is supposed to be a “pseudo-family arrangement in which the au pair is supposed to be incorporated within the household more as a member than as a labourer” (2). Most au pairs decided to leave Slovakia for work as au pairs in London due to issues with personal relationships (romantic or parental) or life decisions (deciding whether or not to continue on in a graduate program). Economics was a large factor in the decision, as au pairs can earn substantially more in the “pocket money” they are paid in London than in wages for a “regular job” in Slovakia.

Miller and Burikova found that, similar to the mother-employer and caregiver dyads that Macdonald studied, the au pairs and their host families often had completely diverging accounts of their relationship. Almost all of the au pairs felt that their employers exploited them, and made them work more than the 25 hours as specified by the law. Burikova’s observations confirmed this inequity. Yet most of the host families believed that they were very generous with their au pairs and treated them well. The host families (it is mostly mothers who are quoted) seemed to have little understanding that how they treated their au pair could affect how their children were treated by her. Miller and Burikova conclude that the parents are generally don’t believe that they are exploiting their au pairs and this helps them to not worry about how their children are being treated by them.
One of the most provocative chapters of the book, “Sort of English,” describes the prejudicial attitudes of both the au pairs and their host families. Many families think of “a cross between Heidi and Mary Poppins” (p.87) when they consider hiring an au pair. Similarly, most Slovak au pairs presume that their host family will be like the Banks family (of the Mary Poppins story) – white, Christian or secular, well-off, and urban. The reality, as the authors show, is very different for both sides and can lead to some difficult interactions. A little over a third of the host families fit the “Banks family” template. The rest were Jewish and a mix of South Asian, Black, Iranian, other European and American – these were the “sort of English” families.

In Shadow Mothers, Macdonald showed how the mother-employers of all background had stereotypes about caregivers based on their ethnicity. Miller and Burikova’s fieldwork reveals similar negative characterizations on both sides. The host families thought of Slovaks as “…part of a generic Eastern European lake which stretches without significant differentiation from Estonia to Macedonia, from which they fish for au pairs” (94). Host families typically described Slovaks as hard-working, conscientious, natural with children, yet also lacking ambition, from a peasant class, and not cultured or intellectual (despite the fact that a number were university graduates). Interviews and fieldwork among the au pairs revealed that they thought that “Asian and black families would be both dirty and lazy, and Jews would be mean and calculating” (88). More ominously, the researchers discovered that how the families and au pairs actually behaved had little impact on these stereotypes. Each side’s experiences were filtered through their racist beliefs.

A chapter on men is also a unique feature of the book. While au pairs are almost exclusively women, 10% of the au pairs in the study were male. Initially the male au pairs experienced suspicion from their host families and were viewed as very unusual. The few male au pairs who had successful placements were effusively admired: “… the host mothers felt as though they had discovered a hidden treasure in the world that had brought them untold blessings” (151), that is, someone living in their house that could help with moving large items, doing repairs, and gardening.

Similar to most paid domestic work, the au pair experience is not regulated in any way. Miller and Burikova are very critical of the lack of oversight and accountability by au pair agencies. After the au pairs and host families are matched (often with conflicting information about the other), au pairs are not informed about issues such as laws regarding working hours or how to resolve disputes with host families, and there is essentially no support for au pairs if they have problems. There is no organization or government agency which regulates the work and living conditions of au pairs. The authors conclude that the structure of the au pair institution, which is defined as temporary, informal, and based on “foreignness,” accounts for the mismatched expectations (and subsequent difficult relationships) of the au pairs and the host families.

This was one of the most unusual scholarly books I have read. While it was somewhat refreshing to read an academic book without footnotes, the lack of references to other scholars and theories of domestic labor was disconcerting. The authors explain their rationale for the book’s style by claiming that they wanted to the book to be a “good read, uncluttered with constant external referencing” (1). Yet there were times when I wanted a footnote or some sort of source when the authors were making a claim. While there are many quotes from the au pairs, the information from the host families is conveyed in a more offhand manner. For example, this piece of data was offered: “At dinner parties, Mrs. Christie’s friends could talk for hours about the behaviour of their au pairs…. “ . Does that mean that most of this information was gathered at dinner parties? The informal prose was also a bit jarring. Phrases such as “girlie time” (without quotes in the original text, describing the female world of au pairs), or, “It’s like – where do you go in Beddlingham?” inserted a too-casual style to a serious topic. There should be a way to write readable academic prose without sounding so laid-back.

One of the oddest features of this book is that even though it is devoted to caregivers, there is virtually no discussion of the au pairs’ relationships with the children of the host families. Even the cover of the book demonstrated this absence – it features a couch, a vacuum cleaner, and a pair of shoes, and nothing related to children or childcare. The few references to children are decidedly negative, such as this au pair’s view: “”She was starting to appreciate the old joke about au pairing being the best form of contraception. A few hours with the Christies’ children was enough for her to lose those sweet teenage illusions about babies and motherhood. As an au pair you were expected to give the care, but without the reward of a child’s love” (p.67).

Compared to Shadow Mothers, in which the caregivers were the more sympathetic figures, I found myself disliking many of the au pairs portrayed in this study. Whether it was their racism toward their host families, their focus on shopping and the minutiae of their friendships and romantic relationships, they seemed to reflect the worst stereotypes of vapid girls. I understand, as Miller and Burikova explain, that part of why the au pairs act the way they do is because they are strangers, isolated in a foreign country, saddled with unappreciated domestic duties. Yet their behavior and attitudes made me wonder how parents could actually feel comfortable with a caregiver who was untrained, had limited language skills, and living in their home!
Au Pair is another book about care giving that reinforces for me my discomfort with in-home childcare. Despite its conveniences, I am too private a person and to uncomfortable being a “domestic employer” to have someone I don’t know live in my house. Yet this view into the au pairs’ world is a valuable book for those interested in domestic work, especially from an international perspective.
au pair cover image

Explore posts in the same categories: Childcare and Domestic Work, Uncategorized

3 Comments on “Book Review: Au Pair by Zuzana Burikova and Daniel Miller”

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