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The many practices of au pairing

5. The site of au pairing and mixed and messy methods

6.1. The many practices of au pairing

The articles in this thesis shed light on the organising principle and definition of

‘au pairing’, as well as on wider issues connected to domestic labour and the gendering and ethnicisation of labour, migration and migration routes and strategies, and cultural conditions that produce or encourage some narratives, acts and understandings over others. In the thesis, I move between this social level – the lived realities of my informants in their day-to-day lives with the host families – and cultural representations of au pairs. Through interviews, participant observations and film analysis, I discuss the way in which culturally circulated ‘truths’ and preconceptions of au pairing affect au pairs in their daily lives, and the way in which au pairs deal with and negotiate their situation. To direct my research, I carried out in-depth interviews with current and former au pairs as well as participant observation where this was possible, and I made a conscious effort to recruit informants from around the world, living in different parts of Norway. This means that I spoke to informants who were relatively hard to reach and who presented knowledge about the au pair scheme that may have been slightly different from the knowledge held by Filipina au pairs in the urban areas of Norway. Thus, when I asked the questions ‘How is au pairing understood by au pairs?’ or ‘What forms does agency take for au pairs?’, informants’ answers broadened the existing knowledge of au pairs in Norway because their voices came from different places than those usually researched. These voices were contextualised by the film analysis as well as the other supplementing material I drew on, such as au pair agency websites, au pairs’ online profiles and newspaper articles, in order to produce highly complex knowledge of au pairing as it is currently practiced in Norway.


Interviews and participant observation were effective ways to gain insight into the way in which au pairs understood their own situation, their labour, their agency and their strategies for labour negotiations, as I discuss in the methodology part of this thesis. Yet documentary analysis allowed for a different perspective on the social backdrop – the context – in which au pairing took place for my informants. Against this backdrop and the fantasy figure of the au pair that existed within it, my informants had to negotiate their place in the host families and in society, in general. This culturally circulated figure may have also shed light on the stories my informants decided to share in the interviews. The supplementary film analysis allowed me to address a wider range of questions regarding the cultural meanings of au pairing in Norway. Through my analysis of the documentaries, as presented in the article ‘Framing the au pair’, I was not only able to show how au pairs are represented in the media as victims of sexual abuse, labour exploitation and trafficking, but also to argue that the documentaries frame au pairs by drawing on global care chains and an Orientalist notion of Asian women. Furthermore, the fact that the films only depict Filipina au pairs highlights the highly gendered and ethnicised notion of au pairing in Norway. The films produce an image of au pairs that working au pairs must deal with. The representations also shape and reflect the way in which au pairing is understood in the public sphere, as can be seen in relation to changes in au pair legislation.

As I argued in the beginning of this introductory chapter, au pairs work.

However, the representation of au pairs in the documentaries suggests that au pairs not only work, but also work too much, with little or no compensation. This is well documented by previous research on au pairs, as is made clear in the discussion of au pair research. Yet some of my informants were concerned with distancing themselves from the idea that they work. I argue in the article ‘“It’s not much”’ that this is because their work has low status, and the au pair scheme allows for an alternative framing of au pairing as a gap year, as cultural exchange


and as a familial – rather than employment – relationship between au pairs and host families. Not all au pairs think that they work, or see themselves as workers, and it is important to acknowledge this. In the article, I point to one strategy used by au pairs to distance themselves from work: claims that the work they do is ‘not much’. Au pairing thus appears simultaneously as work and non-work. The distancing would not take place if the au pair were to genuinely not do work, but, for the au pair, acknowledging the work that she does possibly means compromising her sense of worth in the family.

Many au pairs want to remain in Norway upon the end of their contract, but this is not necessarily straightforward. As I show in the article ‘From intimate relations to citizenship?’, because au pairing is not intended as a migration route, the individual au pair is made responsible for carving out a way to remain in Norway – something that may seem desirable given that she has likely spent two years familiarising herself with the country and the language. This individualised responsibility, however, means that stories of current dating projects were prominent in au pairs’ stories of plans for the future. This may also be the case because au pairs formally lack agency as workers, and socially lack agency as family members. Dating could be a way for au pairs to gain a sense of agency.

What became very clear to me during this work was that there was a great deal of chance in terms of the agency my informants described, and I tried to conceptualise agency through citizenship. While formal citizenship rights provided au pairs from the EU/Schengen Area with a good starting point, these rights did not guarantee that they would be able to remain. I use the concept of

‘informal citizenship’ to conceptualise both what may ‘lack’ for au pairs with formal rights who fail to stay on, as well as the ability of those with few or no formal rights – those who have travelled from countries outside the EU and Schengen Area – to be able to find ways of staying in Norway through acquaintances, language skills, a sense of belonging, knowledge of the system and so on. Yet formal citizenship is always governed from above, and au pairing is not


intended as a migration route. As au pairs are not formally meant to stay on, the legislation can be seen as a mechanism of excluding au pairs from the nation.

In the theoretical discussion (part 4, ‘Intersectionality at work’), I theorise the au pair scheme through the concept of intersectionality as a way to both explore and explain the current practice of au pairing in Norway. I look at the site of domestic work as a particular place where different social categories intersect, and discuss how the categories of gender, ethnicity, race, migrant status and citizenship, sexuality, age and religion work together in the au pair scheme. Domestic work and carework carry meaning that tie this work to various social categories:

women, specifically, but also in the case of paid domestic labour, migrant women, working-class persons and so on. For au pairs in Norway, as I have argued, this categorisation is even more specific, and au pairs are imagined to be poor Filipina women. The labour has low status, and the bodies that perform the labour become associated with this low status, as well as the various social categories that the work is given meaning through.

However, discussion of categories must be done in a situated manner; while each social category has referents outside the specific context I discuss them in, I do not want to presume what the categories mean, or indeed how they mean. By emphasising the situatedness of the intersection of categories, I hope to avoid securing the meaning of, for example, ‘gender’, ‘ethnicity’ or ‘class’ and the way in which they intersect. In the specific context of au pairing, gender seems to be made invisible by ethnicity, as au pairs do not count as women doing ‘women’s work’ and do not threaten national gender equality as they do not belong within the nation. At the same time, au pairs’ ‘womanhood’ is taken for granted;

women’s presumed natural capacities as cleaners and carers are important reasons for the existence of the au pair scheme. Au pairs’ imagined poverty makes it acceptable for Norwegian host families to pay well below the minimum wage for their labour, through the logic that the labour of someone imagined to be poor is apparently worth less.