What never ceases to amaze me is the lack of tact that one can find as an Au Pair. Being as vague and unspecific as possible, I will attempt to explain.
I find that Au Pairs are pretty much in three different categories. We have, "family Au Pair," "business Au Pair," and "Slave."
Family Au Pair-Lucky you! You have found a family that understands the nature of Au Pairing, and will simultaneously teach you about the culture while keeping to the limits that were originally specified in your contract. You will do few babysittings, and any house work or extras will at least be acknowledged by a "Thank you." You will discipline the children as needed, and the parents will work with you with the children. The family will ask, rather than tell you when you work extra and will be completely open to helping you with any issues. The children may or may not be well behaved, but they will probably respect you on some level. Extra bonus--you will be invited on vacations! Expected to work, but will not be asked for gas money or payment for accomodations. Downside, they may be bewildered as to why you want to see other people on your free time. They also tend to be a little newer, and make mistakes such as, not paying you on time, or assume that you love their children as much as they do, etc...
Business Au Pair-Luck you! You have entered a relationship with a family that has several years of Au Pairing experience. They've had many different girls, and are pretty adaptable. You probably get paid more, and they see you a bit more of a Personal Assistant. You run errands, cook dinner, and basically have free range to manage the household as you want. The parents probably will be traveling more, but it won't be that big of a deal, as your children are most likely older and can entertain themselves. Another bonus, they will understand your need to flee on your time off. You will a hundred percent definitely be working more than the usual Au Pair.
Slave-Lucky you! You get the opportunity to live en La France! You are considered a person with feelings and needs HALF of the time you are working!
Ah, the rich. They will spend several thousand euros on a new car they dont need, and several more to send their kids to expensive school, and yet several more to impromptu trips to South Africa, or Asia, and you see how they can afford it. They nickel and dime the SHIT out of their nanny. They search out Au Pairs, who are cheaper than Nanny's, but expect the same amount of hours/dedication. Most families have at least one aspect of the job that sure makes you feel like a slave. For me, it was Fridays last year. Some examples--being required to work seven days a week, working on Sundays with no notice, phone calls at seven am to come home on a Saturday to dress an infant, leaving class to come home to pick up a sick child, and the list goes on. I think that least sometimes, the parents are just really out of touch, and actually believe that you have nothing in the world better to do than come and raise their children. They have a hard time believing that you are in France to SEE France, not to see the inside of a playroom.
The real problem comes when you are in the awkward position of a family who has kids they don't really have an interest in. Perhaps Dad is older, and never really wanted kids, but was beat down by Mom. Or maybe both just find that kids give you status. Or maybe they just don't know how to deal with kids. Either way, sucks for you, Au Pair. Because you're going to be left with kids who have no idea how to deal with life or show love, and take out all their anger on you on a regular basis.
There's no perfect situation, just like there is no perfect family. What you learn to do is weigh the positives and negatives. Usually your weekends, friends, experiences, etc will make up for the shitty things. Sometimes they don't, and you take off in the middle of the night, leaving your key in the mailbox.
I truly believe though, despite the ups and downs of taking a year to do this, it is worth it. I also believe that the best way to deal with things, is to separate your freetime and your job. If dinner gets burned, or we're five minutes late for basketball, who cares? It's not life or death, and it's best to not get caught up in the small things. If you're in a family who will bitch at you for it, then screw them.
Case in point--I was with VH last week going to golf. We were supposed to go pick up his friend from his house and drive together. VH was having a bad day, and it took forever for him to get his things together and we left at 1:20. Golf starts at 1:30, it takes twenty minutes to get there. It was impossible. I was getting really frustruated with VH, so he decided to move twenty times slower to show that he was in control. I was really annoyed and talked to him sternly about how important it is to listen to me and it was overall a bad afternoon. Then I just sort of realized, "This doesn't matter, at all." It's not my fault, and this has no bearing on my self worth. So after a few minutes of fuming, I decided, ok let it go, and now we know for next week. And sure enough, later when I told VH we needed to leave, he got right up and went. Bam, problem solved. He understood it was his fault for being late, so he knows I know what I'm talking about.