“I Don’t Know Why My Kids are Like This!”: My Experience as an Au Pair in Turkey

When I decided to go work as an au pair in Turkey, I was well aware of the fact that it was a risky decision. Going to a country as culturally different as Turkey is from Canada, working under the table and without a contract, being far away from friends and family, and being dependent on people I’d barely met was enough to make me a little anxious about the trip. But I reasoned with myself. The only thing I had to lose was money. And money is just money, unless you don’t have enough. I did have enough, so I decided to take the risk and go.

In the end, most of the things I risked happened, and eventually I even quit my job. Actually I “voluntarily stepped down.” It was a good decision.

Sermin* and Aziz* were the couple I’d agreed to live with as an au pair in Turkey. They had three sons: Adem was the oldest. He was six. Yigit was the middle one. He was two and a half. The youngest was eleven months, and was called Berk. I was to be teaching the two oldest English and French until I left to do my Masters at the end of the summer.

When I first arrived at Sermin and Aziz’s home, I played soccer in the garden with Adem, we ate dinner, and I swam in the pool. I met Katerina, a young woman who helped them with cleaning and childcare. Sermin was warm, a constant barrage of hospitality. Are you hungry? Do you want dessert? Do you want tea? Do you want coffee? Her concern and desire to make sure I was provided for seemed totally natural to her, and I thought “this is going to go really well.”

In fact, Sermin was enchanting. She was always happy to see me. She was the life of all parties – and she went to a lot of them in those first few days. She felt nurturing, and she explained a lot about Turkish culture. It was validating. It was exciting. I loved it.

The enchantment didn’t last, because it didn’t take long before I began to see another side of Sermin. I do believe that she was being honestly kind and happy when she was behaving in a kind and happy way. She wasn’t pretentious. Her self-reflection skills, on the other hand, were . . . lacking.

Lying in my bed the second or third night, I heard Sermin screaming at her oldest as though he had just killed a beloved pet. Not quite sure what to do (is this an okay time to go upstairs? Do they care if I hear them yelling at the children?) I cowered in my bed and hoped that I wouldn’t have to hear that kind of yelling often.

The next day, the children’s reception towards me was cool. The oldest was more interested in watching television than in talking or playing with me, and the youngest played with me only a little bit. And the yelling continued. And continued and continued. Every single day Sermin spent a good deal of time yelling at the children, especially Adem, for a myriad of offenses. Often she would do this after allowing her children to eat large bowls of ice cream or other sugary treats.

Adem spent a lot of time crying and acting petulant and uncooperative, especially with me. In fact, he wouldn’t even talk to me. If I sat on the couch with him, without saying a word, he would silently get up and move to a different couch. If I said “good morning,” or “hi,” he wouldn’t respond, though I knew he knew those words. If I tried to get him to do any sort of homework, he would scream and cry as if I had stabbed him. And if he spilled anything, he would yell “Katerina!” and tell her to clean it up instead of doing it himself.

Retrospect is 20/20, as they say, and if I could go back in time, I would have liked to have reacted differently. As it was, I didn’t know how to react at all, especially when Sermin raised her parenting concerns with me. “When I went to America, the kids were so well-behaved. Turkish kids are never like that. I have a friend who is Turkish but who lives in the United States. She tells me that you can always tell which children are Turkish because they are always yelling. I wonder, why is that?”

I think I do remember saying something about how in Canadian culture, it’s not really appropriate to yell, so probably kids do it less. (Although, I reassured her, Canadian kids still yell and fight each other. I did, anyway.)

“How do Canadians parent their kids?”

I said, “Ummm, they use time-outs a lot.” What was I supposed to say? I don’t have kids and I’m not a parenting expert.

“Adem has always been like this. I don’t know why. It is so hard to get him to do anything.”

I said, “hmmm.”

I was reserving judgement. You can’t decide if the chicken or the egg came first within the first few days of knowing someone. I’ve seen children with behavioral issues that have good parents, where a problem is the result of factors other than poor parenting. I’ve seen children with behavioral issues where the parents are inattentive or abusive. I wasn’t willing to call foul on this situation quite yet.

A few days later, about a week into my au-pair in Turkey tenure, I went down to the soccer field with Aziz and the children to run around and do fun stuff. Aziz and Adem started playing soccer. I was tasked with making sure that Yigit didn’t get in the way, so I chased him in circles. Eventually Yigit decided he wanted a piece of the soccer action. He ran to kick the ball and got between his brother and Aziz. Adem, ever jealous of his younger brother, walloped him on the head. I pulled Adem away by his arm, and he whacked me as hard as his 6-year-old arms could.

What happened next will be burned into my retinas for the rest of my life. Aziz, a medical doctor with advanced knowledge of human anatomy, slapped his son in the face, multiple times. Then he hit him on the head, hard enough to potentially cause a concussion.  Adem fell down; Aziz started kicking him in the stomach while he was down. All this time, he was screaming “Say ‘I am sorry!’ Say ‘I am sorry!” at his son. I was yelling “It’s okay, it’s okay, he only hit me once!” but I don’t remember at what point I got over my shock enough to start yelling. Adem was having trouble breathing between sobs. Eventually he managed to get out an “I am s-sorry” before Aziz marched him back home. He ran straight into his mother’s arms, told her the whole story. She said, “Tamam, tamam,” (okay, okay) and Adem cried all evening. I ran to my room to get away from it all.

In retrospect, I don’t know why I didn’t think about leaving when that happened. It may have been because I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a regular occurrence, or because I hoped that things would get better, or that my presence would act as something of a deterrent to the parents to treat their children badly (noble . . . I know.) But I really don’t know.

Part of the reason, I think, was that I didn’t have a good idea of how to go about getting things in Turkey. Sure, in the very touristy areas like Istanbul where I’d visited my first time in the country, it was easy. Public transit was easy. Everybody spoke English – at least enough to hit on you and point you in the right direction. But I was in a small town. Nobody spoke English. I didn’t know the neighbours yet. I didn’t have internet access, so I couldn’t look for alternative employment, or even change my ticket and hightail my way back home. I didn’t know if this type of behaviour would be considered appropriate in Turkey. In Canada, I might have stuck around long enough to know if I should call Child and Family Services or not. But I didn’t know the name of the Turkish equivalent. I didn’t know if this was a case they could take, or if this type of behaviour was culturally normative. I only knew one other Turkish person at the time. I did have a Turkish phone number, so I called him. He said, “You never know, it might get better.”

The other part of the reason – and I don’t know how I feel about this at all – is that it was very confusing for me. Sermin was so warm when I was around. She was warm with everybody except her oldest. It was – and is – impossible to hate her. Active malice wasn’t, and isn’t, her thing. She never really smack talked people. I never heard her complain about her friends behind their backs. But she had a temper to scorch the innermost circle of hell.

Anyway, I stayed.

Corporal punishment that could cause potential internal injury was not a routine, and for that I was grateful. There were two other incidents where I heard slapping, but I didn’t go running to the scene of the crime to watch. And there was lots of hair pulling, which I was less shocked by because it carries no risk for internal injury.

A few weeks before I finally left, Sermin, I, and the two oldest boys were driving to Izmir. Adem got into a snit about something unimportant. Sermin started to yell at him, first in Turkish, then in English. “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” Sitting next to her in the passenger seat, I froze. I later realized I should have said something. I wanted to. But I didn’t, and I didn’t later either.

As I grew to understand more Turkish, I started to understand some of the things Sermin was yelling at her son. I never learned how to say “I hate you,” in Turkish. I did hear her calling him “köpek,” which means “dog.” You can use it as a term of endearment, but when you yell it’s more appropriate for situations of level 11 road rage, not for your own son.

Another issue I had was that, though Sermin and Aziz ostensibly wanted me to speak English to the children, they did not make an effort to make this an easy job for me. The biggest culprit in this whole sad saga were the televisions. The two big screen TVs in the living room and kitchen were nearly always on, and the children’s eyes were affixed to them as though somebody had taken crazy glue and applied it to their eyeballs and then explained to them that if they closed their eyes – or even so much as moved them – they could run the risk of never being able to watch television again. The television got turned on as soon as the kids woke up, and if I tried to turn it off, I could expect to have to deal with a half hour temper tantrum before the two-and-a-half year old forgot about it and would play with me. That was only if Adem wasn’t around – because he was old enough to understand that it was I who had turned off the TV in the first place. Sermin and Aziz were in the habit of telling Yigit that the TV turned off because of power outages – because, while yelling and screaming abuse at your kid is A-OK, telling them that they can’t always get what they want is an unacceptable parenting technique.

If Adem were watching television and I turned it off, he would pitch a fit. If I didn’t guard the remote control and the television, he would turn it right back on. As you can imagine, this is not the greatest environment for children to be learning English through osmosis, unless the English they are learning is “No. No. You can’t watch TV. I’ll sit here all day if I have to.”

The other thing that would happen often is that the kids would tell their parents that they didn’t to spend time with me. For example, Sermin would say, “why don’t you boys go to the park?” Adem would say, “not if Kate comes with us.” Yigit would imitate his older brother. “Yeah, Kate can’t come.” Sermin, instead of explaining that this was not appropriate behaviour, would say, “Tamam, tamam, she won’t come.” Though she would occasionally remind Adem that I wanted him to be happy, capitulating to his and Yigit’s dislike of me was more common. One time, Yigit fell down on the other side of a room I was in. He started screaming and yelling “Kate yaptɪ! Kate yaptɪ!” (Kate did it. Kate did it.) Sermin and Aziz said, “tamam, tamam, she won’t do it again.”

I understand why you might not think to correct this behaviour with a child is as young as two. However, this kind of reaction was common, and it set a bad precedent that prevented me from doing my job.

About two weeks before my scheduled departure, I was sitting at breakfast with Sermin, and she said, “Kate, I’ve been thinking. I don’t know what the problem is, but the kids won’t come to you. Everybody else’s kids will, but I don’t understand why mine won’t. I am really sorry about this because you’re my friend, and it’s really not your fault. And I was talking to my husband, and we were thinking that – because you came all this way – it might be better for you to take the last week off and travel because who knows when you’ll be back here?”

It was an awkward moment. I said I would think about it, because we were both conscious of the fact that I was essentially being asked to voluntarily step down to protect my dignity. And I was conscious of the fact that this decision would most likely involve a pay cut of some kind – but it isn’t like you can accuse people of trying to stiff you before they’ve actually come out and told you as much.

I thought about it for 24 hours, and then I said, “Sermin, I think it’s a good idea for me to leave early. I would like to go to Greece. But I was just wondering – if I do, are you still planning to pay for half of my plane ticket? That was part of the original agreement.”

And as I had imagined, Sermin said, “Errrrrr,” like she was about to say something really awkward, and then she said, “Ok, yes we will pay for half the plane ticket, but I was wondering – because you were not able to do much work for us, I was wondering if we could subtract $350 from your last paycheque? I mean, you did travel for two and a half weeks while we went on vacation.”

And I said, “Uhhhh, ok….” and I thought “Shit! This is the point where you’re supposed to stand up for yourself and tell her that that’s really not ok, and that you shouldn’t be penalized for travelling for that amount of time because you didn’t take weekends or days off for the whole summer. Don’t get me wrong – I was fine with that arrangement – as long as that travel time counted as my weekends. I traveled 17 days in total. Eight weeks of work has 16 days off. So it works out. Right?

But that’s not what I said. And when she asked me if it was alright again later, I said, “Well, obviously, it’s not ideal, but it’s not like I can really do anything. I mean, I’m used to it. Every time I work in childcare, it’s the same. You can’t count on the money until it’s in your hand.” As reactions go, this is a bit better, but still not as good as, “no, that’s totally inappropriate. It’s your fault that the kids don’t like me, and the fact that you’re doing this to me a week before my scheduled departure means that I will spend as much money in living expenses for my last week here as I would to change my ticket and go back to Canada right this second, so if you wanted to stiff me, you shouldn’t have been such a pansy about it, and you should have done it a month and a half ago.” Anyway, I did get some vindictive satisfaction out of her reaction, because then she said, “Oh, with me it isn’t like that – I don’t cheat people who work for me. It’s just bad luck,” and her face did that thing that people do when they know they’ve done something wrong.

And then she said, “But I so want you to come back in two years when you finish your Masters. I think my kids will be a lot better when they’re a bit older.”

It was upsetting for a few hours, but eventually I came to feel happy about finally leaving a bad situation.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it’s probably more upsetting for the people reading this than it is for me. When I decided to au pair in Turkey, I was prepared to have an adventure – to do something a bit crazy and to indulge in a bit of escapism from my structured and plan-oriented existence.  I knew that I could lose money (and was financially prepared to do so – that was the last proper plan I made before I left!) I knew that I was moving to a foreign culture and might witness things that made me uncomfortable as a Canadian – I knew this was to be expected when it comes to foreign travel.

What I do feel the most conflicted about is why I stayed so long. Why didn’t I leave and tutor English? With the cost of living and demand for English instruction here, I almost certainly could have made it work.

The day before I left, Sermin told me she was going out, and to please make Adem study and to play with him and Yigit. As she had already turned on the television, I sighed internally, and then turned the thing off as soon as the credits for the latest show started rolling. As per usual, Yigit started to cry. He cried for about ten minutes, before Sermin, who had not yet managed to leave, came into the living room to shake him a bit – because everybody knows that shaking a toddler is a surefire way to make them stop crying. When the shaking didn’t work, she picked him up roughly and put him on the ground to take off his sweaty clothes. He was still crying, so after she’d taken off his undershirt, she started hitting him with it, a bit like she was a 14 year old with a wet towel in the locker room, except that she was a 38 year old woman hitting a defenseless toddler who, through no fault of his own, had become addicted to television.

As she marched him downstairs to change his clothes, I could see red marks in all the places where she’d hit him.

She finally left, and I managed to get Adem to finish half of his homework, and told him that we would complete the rest in an hour’s time. During that time, I sat in the kitchen with Katerina and Ayşe. Ayşe came in three times a week to cook. She didn’t speak English, but managed to communicate her kindness and good faith to me anyhow. She had two beautiful teenage daughters who were as gentle as she was. Over the summer, it was Ayşe who made the biggest effort to get me to understand what she was saying in Turkish. Because of her, by the end of the summer I was capable of having real conversations in, albeit broken, Turkish. We talked about how her daughter wants to get a nose ring, about the differences between schooling in Canada and Turkey, about Sermin’s endless diets, and about the status quo of the household.

That last day, I’d taken away the television remotes so that Adem couldn’t watch television until he’d finished his homework, so when Adem walked into the kitchen with an iPad, I told him he couldn’t have that either. He started to cry, so I told him I would call Sermin to ask her what she thought. Ayşe was kind enough to do the honours, and Sermin said that Adem could use the iPad and didn’t have to do his homework.

Whatever. It was my last day. Ayşe rolled her eyes, and said, “It’s always the same. Adem, what do you want? Tamam. What do you want? Tamam. What do you want? Tamam. And then he cries and they wonder why he acts that way? When Sermin and Aziz are gone, the two youngest are really good. When they are here, they pitch fits to get what they want. Sermin wants another child, but I told her three is enough.”

I don’t feel optimistic about the future of Sermin and Aziz’s children. Despite this, having Ayşe ’s solidarity made me feel a bit better. There are people in those kids’ lives that care, and who act like they care. Reading this, I know a lot of you probably feel angry for the kids’ sake – and you should. Some of you probably feel upset for my sake – and you shouldn’t. Life is a mixed bag, and so was my time as in Turkey.  Sure, Sermin is not the best person I have every encountered, and I have nothing good to say about Aziz. But if I hadn’t met them, I wouldn’t have spent the summer in Turkey, I wouldn’t have met the wonderful people I had the privilege to meet, and I might have stayed in the rut I was in the year before had this experience. Though I do have some regrets about my own actions, especially about the fact that I didn’t manage to do anything concrete about the abuse, I feel no regrets about having made the decision to be an au pair in Turkey.

As soon as I get my first Canadian paycheque, however, I’m going to give a donation to a children’s charity. Not all children get love from their parents, and childcare is an often thankless, low paying, and unstable job. Still, childcare workers are often saddled with the responsibility of being surrogate parent-figures for children who are not well parented or well-loved at home, and their efforts deserve reward. Anybody else with me?

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