A recent incident involving, of all things, footwear, got me thinking about all the ways in which I take excellent care of my family, particularly my daughter, but not myself. I book appointments around nap times so she gets enough rest, keep her carnet de santé up to date, and am religious about hat-wearing for warmth in the winter and for sun protection in the summer. But when it comes to myself, I am often a sloppy caretaker.
The other day, as my two-year-old daughter and I were walking home from the nounou, she lifted her foot and cried, “Mummy, feet, sore, shoes fait mal!” The next day, we were in the shoe shop, measuring my child’s feet, and getting comfortable new footwear the next size up. As my eyes watered at the exorbitant prices that seem to be the norm for little shoes, I looked down and realised that my own feet were actually rather sore too, and that my flimsy, old and now rather unfashionable ballerines were not actually comfortable at all.
“They all hurt me – and until now I would just sort of grin and bear it. But I wouldn’t put our daughter in shoes that gave her blisters, would I? So why would I do that to myself?”
Yet I had, and I am quite sure I’m not the only mother, indeed parent, for whom taking care of others is paramount, while taking care of oneself falls by the wayside.
The recent trend for preaching self-care has produced a slew of articles emphasising the importance of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others. But what does that really mean when applied to the kind of rich/busy/full/hectic lifestyles we lead in the City of Light? You can book a massage, reserve an evening out with cherished friends, or make time for date night with your Beloved to remind yourself that s/he is more than just the Other Parental Unit. These things are important, but they don’t make up the quotidien of your average mother.
Here are the ways in which I resolve to do better for myself.
1. Lighten your load
I’m already worried about the huge cartables I see French schoolchildren lugging around and the impact one might have on my child’s spine. But I’ll happily fill my handbag to cracking and cart it around with me, Atlas-like, until my shoulders plead for mercy. No more! It takes two minutes to remove the unnecessary items from my bag in the morning (or better still, in the evening), keeping only what’s required for the day, and I’ve bought miniatures of the cosmetics that I like to have with me (hand cream, sanitizer, etc.)
2. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it
Remember the song? Well, he has a serious point. I wouldn’t dream of letting my child out in warmer months without sunscreen. So, I’ve replaced my face and body moisturizer with factor 50 for the summer and bought a small tube of cream to keep in my handbag so I don’t get caught out. Burning is not an option.
3. Take a look at your plate
My daughter’s dinner is always comprised of three things: protein, vegetables, carbs. She eats three leisurely meals a day, usually at the same times. So why do I rush through the ironing once she’s in bed then inhale a pizza and a glass of red before jumping up to deal with emails? Making my own eating as healthy as hers isn’t hard – I still have some pizza (and, sometimes, a glass of the red stuff), but there’ll be a side salad and fruit for dessert. The ironing will just have to wait until I’m fed. Ironically, by making her my role model for healthy eating at regular times, I become a better one for her.
You can keep tabs on how much your children drink since most kids’ cups and bottles have handy oz/ml marks up the side. Keep track of your own two litres a day by filling up an empty mineral water bottle each morning and making sure you get through it by bedtime. Job done.
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5. Make TV mindful
I feel brain dead and kind of depressed after too much television but I still sometimes manage to veg out for hours in front of mindless rubbish. My daughter, on the other hand, gets a single episode of Peppa Pig a week (usually to allow us to complete the dreaded task of cutting her nails). Making my television viewing as mindful as hers – though perhaps not quite as limited – frees up time for other things and ensures I truly choose and enjoy what I watch (GOT night is now an even bigger deal).
6. Keep warm, my dear, keep dry
Alanis had it right (Morissette, that is – for anyone reading who wasn’t an angsty teen in the late 90s). How often have I failed to bring a cardigan or worn silly shoes when it’s threatening to rain because I can’t be bothered or just think, “Oh, I’ll be fine”? The French are a bit nutty about their courants d’air and wearing une petite laine, and much as I mock them, they’re right. Keeping warm and dry are basic human needs. Don’t neglect your own.
7. Book your check-ups
Baby has a carnet de santé with its handy list of check-ups and vaccines to consider. Create your own by making a list of all the medical visits you need to book per year and putting them in an eternal calendar, or on your phone or an app. This way, you’ll remember to make a dentist appointment every May and see the gynecologist each time the rentrée comes round. Consider making a preventative osteopath visit part of your yearly routine, and don’t put off going to the doctor when you have a problem. Going back to the old oxygen mask image, you can’t help with homework if you’re in toothache hell, and you can’t even carry your baby if your back is in agony. On the latter subject, I speak from painful experience.
8. Watch your mouth
Do you often insult or belittle your children? I hope not. Now, how often do you put yourself down? “God, what an idiot I am, I didn’t think of that!” “I’ve got a memory like a sieve.” “Crikey, I need to lose weight, what a heifer!” Watch what you tell yourself and others because your self-talk can be self-fulfilling. Why would you let anyone, including yourself, speak to you so disrespectfully?
I’ve no doubt you cherish your children, husband, and family life as I much as I do – so in order to continue giving them the best of yourself, remember to take care of yourself too.
When I was a child, my mother worked part-time. Because of this, I gained an early appreciation of the wealth of options offered by flexible working hours. Indeed, I made elaborate plans for my future career. Or should I say, careers? When I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was always some variant of the following: “I want to be a doctor and a singer. I also want to write for a newspaper and be an actress. In my spare time (ah, such innocence!), I’ll be a criminal psychologist.”
When adults, perplexed, would ask how I planned to achieve these myriad goals, I would smile sweetly and say, “I’ll do it all part-time, of course!”
Now, as an adult and a mother, I actually do have something resembling this life I had planned out. I work part-time to have Wednesdays with my daughter, plus weekends and evenings, and do volunteer work once a month on the weekend. I also write, practice yoga, attempt to maintain some kind of social life, and spend time with my husband. I occupy a multitude of roles, and I find that in Paris, that is the norm. Women are expected to return to work after having a child.
“You’re pregnant, congratulations! Which crèche are you planning to register with?” No one raises an eyebrow if parents continue to have evenings out, and it’s mandatory to prendre soin de soi. But whereas child me envisioned clear demarcations between each job (Monday at the hospital, Tuesday as a journalist, Wednesday on stage…), adult me knows that my arrangement is more fluid than that, a constant juggling act where roles merge and meld, and I wear several different hats each day. I doubt I’m the only woman to experience this feeling.
And I like it. I’m told it’s because I’m a Gemini that I like diversity and can juggle with relative ease. Whatever the reason for my chameleon-like nature, I don’t want to change it. The part that can be a struggle, however, is making the switch between roles. Turning off coach brain when I go to pick up my daughter. Resisting the urge to pop into a children’s clothing shop to buy new pyjamas for la petite when on my way to a client meeting. Stopping myself from mentally composing my latest article while watching a film with my husband. So, I have developed some techniques to help me move between “jobs” throughout the day. If you, like me, are managing multiple roles, maybe they can also help you make the switch.
1. Mentally close your files
At the end of your work session, always make a list of what’s to be done when you sit down to your next work session. Get the list out of your head so you don’t need to “carry” it with you. Then, as you make your way from work to the crèche, mentally close your work files – picturing actual files is better than electronic ones. Visualize yourself putting away the papers, putting the binders into a filing cabinet, closing the drawer and locking up. This exercise, which you can do as you walk, drive or ride the bus, can really help you get your head out of the office.
2. Change your uniform
Taking off your work outfit (and maybe even having a shower) and putting on “Mom” clothes when you get home can really help you mentally leave your desk behind and step into your evening. Simply changing your hairdo can help you transition from the work day to an evening out with friends. I actually have a casual jacket that I only ever wear on days off. It’s now become so synonymous with “family time” that just putting it on helps me to change my mindset from pro to perso.
3. Give yourself a moment
So often we drop off bébé, jump on the métro to work then plunge straight into emails and sit in meetings all day. Then we finish work, down tools, run to the nounou, charge home, start cooking, rush to the gym, come back, plop on the sofa, then fall into bed. How often do you take a minute to really experience each transition? What if each time you change roles (worker, parent, partner, exerciser), you took a few seconds to breathe and step into your next activity? Contemplate what you’re about to do; consider how you want to be (professional? loving? fun?) and what values you want to honor as you embark upon the next part of your day. Giving yourself a moment to mindfully step into each role you occupy helps you stay present and enjoy each moment.
4. Be here now
If thoughts turn to work while you feed your baby, or you find yourself completing your online shopping when you should be coming up with new marketing strategies, gently remind yourself to “be here now”. Forcing yourself to focus on the task at hand will help you avoid the dissatisfaction of never feeling like your mind is present in your body – that nasty feeling of “I fed the kids, but now that they’re in bed, I realize I never gave them my full attention”, or the annoying “I could have done the report quicker if I’d actually concentrated.” Your other tasks will be waiting for you when you finish what you’re doing, and you’ll finish what you’re doing faster, better, and in a more fulfilling way if you give it 100%.
From the moment one becomes a parent (and I mean, from the second we know that sperm has successfully met egg), at least 10% of one’s brainpower at any given time is taken up with worrying about one’s offspring. Health, happiness, brain development, achievement of key milestones, eating habits, socialization… and, the biggie: education.
I say “the biggie” because that’s the thing I worry about most. Indeed, I’d say 10% is actually a conservative estimate. But who can blame me? Education is the key to a child’s future. Living as an expat in Paris compounds the problem as we are usually dealing with a school system we did not experience first-hand, and doing so in a language that – no matter how well we master French – isn’t our langue maternelle.
A while back, I had a period of strange and obsessive worry about my daughter’s education, mainly brought on by the acute realization of my lack of knowledge about how the school system works here. A lack of information makes me anxious. So, I took action. I called the school board and found out which catchment area we’re in for lycée, collège, primaire and maternelle. We discussed dérogations, when to apply for schools, the LOT! At one point, though, faced with my barrage of questions, the lovely lady on the phone stopped mid-sentence and asked la question qui fâche:
“Madame, just how many children do you have, and what are their ages?” My red-faced reply: “Well, erm, I actually just have the one daughter, and she’s, ahem, 10 months old”.
Yes, readers, I was that crazy lady asking for university application forms for a child who couldn’t actually walk yet.
Which language to speak?
Now, in my defence, in Paris, you basically have to register for a place at the crèche as you’re leaving the gynecologist’s office having confirmed your pregnancy. And even then, they’ll ask you why you didn’t think to send a post-coital email to pre-reserve your spot. So it’s not that odd to worry about the deadline to register for nursery school. And at least now I know the when, where, what, how and why – information is power!
Of course, on top of the classic questions about education that all parents consider, expat parents have to take into account the language(s) elements of their children’s upbringing. Whatever the configuration of languages in the household, there are always choices to be made about language priorities: Who will speak which language to the children, what will the family language will be?…My husband is French, I am British, and we live in France. I have spent hours agonizing over whether my speaking English to our daughter will be “enough”; yet more time weighing up the relative merits of international sections, bilingual schools, and supplementary private tuition; and even longer researching extra-curricular activities that take place in English.
The Positive Approach to Education
I know I’m not the only one out there with these worries swirling around her brain, so if you’re identifying with any of the above, take heart. It’s totally normal (hey, we weren’t using that 10% anyway, right?). But instead of undirected and anxiety-inducing worry, why not try to channel your concerns by asking yourself the right questions? Powerful coaching questions that, instead of just causing more confusion, will help you identify what’s best for your children and your family as a whole. Here are some starters that should help you get to the bottom of what’s right for you:
- What do we want our children to take away from their schooling, overall?
- What values do we want our children to learn at school?
- What natural talents are our children displaying and how do we want to support those?
- What difficulties are my children experiencing and how do I want to support them?
- What did I enjoy/not enjoy in my own education? What would I like to reproduce?
- How much support are we as parents willing and able to offer our children with homework?
- How much do we as parents want to be involved in the life of the school?
- What level of bilingualism do we aspire to for our children, and to what end?
- What will bilingualism do for our children, and what will our children’s bilingualism do for our family as a whole?
- How much work are we as parents willing and able to put into our goal of bilingualism?
- What are we willing to sacrifice for this goal? What are we not willing to sacrifice?
- What other values are important to us in our children’s upbringing and education?
- What values and objectives do we have for our family’s lifestyle generally?
- How do our other values fit in with our educational and bilingual goals for our children?
It’s normal and right to think about your child’s future. But it’s better to ponder the matter in a way that is productive, constructive and empowering.
When I was pregnant, my mother offered me a single piece of priceless wisdom about raising a child: “Everyone will have an opinion on everything. Don’t feel obliged to listen to anyone.” I heard her advice while huge and happy on pregnancy hormones. Now, with an active 16-month-old, I heed that advice on a daily basis – in fact, every time I step out in Paris.
As parents, we are besieged by child-rearing advice via the Internet, television, radio, and an ever-growing wealth of literature on the subject. Medical professionals all tend to have pretty strong (and gloriously divergent) views on things like sterilizing bottles and controlled crying. Our friends and families offer their input on everything from breast-feeding positions to when to buy baby’s first shoes. It can be overwhelming. And to top it all, with alarming frequency, perfect strangers — people whose only claim to acquaintance is their proximity on the métro — will happily weigh in!
Now, I’ve never raised a child anywhere but in France, so I can’t really judge whether this is a particularly French phenomenon. I have heard expat friends express their horror at the traditional French style of parenting (supposedly strict and parent-first), so I can imagine that us child-centric Anglo-Saxons must come in for a fair bit of judgement from certain of our Gallic counterparts. I also suspect that the open sharing of that judgement with the parent in question (the bit that riles me) is less likely to occur in Britain than in France, simply because of our reserve compared to the French love of la franchise, or frankness. Don’t get me wrong, Brits’ll judge you, but they’ll maintain a polite silence about it!
Sample exchange: A hot and crowded bus carrying at least five prams (including mine), all covered with sun-blocking muslin squares. A baby starts wailing.
Random stranger: “Oh Madame, do pick up your daughter and cuddle her – it’s so hot!”
I think (but don’t say – I’m British, remember?): Cuddle her? In this heat? That’ll only make it worse. And anyway, I’m standing up on a moving bus. Holding her is the most dangerous thing I could do right now! Are you a total moron?
I say: “Well, we’re getting off soon. And, er, it’s not actually my baby crying. It’s that boy over there.”
Or the classic, when your child starts fussing or – God forbid – crying in a public place: “I’ll bet s/he’s hungry?” My fantasy response to this catch-all diagnosis of any tears is, “You bet she’s hungry! I haven’t fed her for two days – if this doesn’t slim those chubby cheeks down a bit, I think we’ll start her on Baby Atkins.” I’d love to say it, just to see the reaction. But I don’t. I grit my teeth, smile, and say something genial like, “Oh, she’s fine, I think she’s just ready for a nap.”
When these offerings of totally unsolicited advice come my way, I do try to remember that, for the most part, it’s well-intentioned. But I can’t shake the feeling that the basis of the advice is an assumption that I’m not coping and that the meddler, I mean the person offering their opinion, knows better. It doesn’t help that the advice is usually, at best, outdated or inappropriate.
So, since I’m generally a polite and friendly person and don’t want to snap at people, I’ve come up with a few strategies for remaining gracious when under fire from “advisors.” Maybe they’ll help you too…
1. Flip the table and use it as a learning opportunity
Use the situation to ask the person about their experience of child-rearing. Especially good with older people. As in: “Oh, was that the advice you received when your children were young? That’s really interesting!” By asking to hear more, you’ll have changed to conversation from advice to anecdote and flattered someone who clearly wants to share their experience.
2. Seize the chance to share
When people offer me advice that runs contrary to my own views or today’s medical wisdom, instead of silently seething, I now say politely but honestly, something like, “See, I’ve heard that theory before, but my doctor advises against it because…” or, “Actually, the latest research shows that bilingual children don’t start speaking any later than monolinguals” (expat parents, can I get an “Amen”?). While I used to feel judged and irritated, this approach changes the conversation to one where two equals are simply sharing their differing views. No one is right or wrong.
3. Think about kissing frogs
Sometimes you have to kiss a few frogs to find Prince Charming. And sometimes, among the onslaught of random advice you’ll receive when you’re a parent, you’ll hear a total gem. Like when a friend told me “On good days, don’t be smug – it won’t last; on bad days, don’t despair – it won’t last.” That one has helped me through some long nights. Listen carefully and you might not only hear something useful, you may even find a grain of wisdom in the unlikeliest of places.
4. When all else fails
Smile and gaily chirp, “Merci! I’ll think about that!” Then change the subject.
Remember that people are usually just trying to share what they know, help out, and make a connection. One of the lovely side-effects of having a child is how I now get chatting to total strangers much more frequently and can connect with people with whom I previously had very little in common. If that opportunity to connect with my fellow man comes via some off-base advice, I figure that’s a small price to pay for a world in which people actually speak to each other on the train, in the doctor’s waiting room, and – whisper it – even in elevators!
Recently, my daughter had her first ever rentrée – an initiation to a fall ritual every mom in France must face. No uniform or stationery purchases were required (more’s the pity – I love buying notebooks); my 14-month-old simply started going to a childminder four days a week. We’ve been building towards this momentous event all summer, ever since we found our lovely assistante maternelle and signed the contract. I’ve been busily packing a bag with all her essentials and talking to Alice about her new adventure. When the big day arrived, we were ready.
We did a few trial-run days with the childminder over the summer which went well, but as I dropped her off on D-Day, I still steeled myself for some crying and clinging. To my utter horror, Alice simply gave me a kiss, let me put her down, and happily started playing with a ball.
I walked to the door, braced for a sudden scream. I turned to say a final “goodbye” to find her smiling and waving at me.
The childminder texted me minutes later to reassure me that all was fine and that Alice was banging a drum and shrieking with pleasure. That’s when the hysterical crying began – mine.
Now, I get that Alice’s cheerful and easy-going acceptance of the childminder is, in many ways, sickeningly ideal; and I’m very grateful to be spared the earth-shaking screams that some other parents experience at every drop-off. But, while it is a comfort to know that Alice likes the childminder, the fact that she’s taking the rentrée in her stride doesn’t mean that I am. I’m experiencing a host of classic feelings:
- GUILT (motherhood gold) at leaving her
- WORRY at our choice of nounou (agréée and apparently delightful, but Dr Jekyll looked perfectly normal too, didn’t he?)
- FEAR that my daughter will prefer the nounou/forget about me/resent me for leaving her
- a SENSE OF BEING INCOMPLETE without her – as if someone removed one of my limbs.
I doubt there’s a parent alive who can’t identify with some part of this, so, drawing on my own limited but recent and raw experience, here are my suggestions for dealing not with your child’s reaction to the rentrée, but your own.
1. Trust yourself
The first night after starting with the nounou, Alice’s sleep was rather disturbed. At around 3 a.m., my husband and I simultaneously voiced the inevitable thought: She’s clearly traumatised by the childminder! The only thing that talked us down from that particular ledge was remembering that we did lots of research before choosing our assistante maternelle, met with several, and spent some time getting to know the one we chose. We also just had a really good feeling about her. You undoubtedly did your due diligence when choosing your childcare – trust that and trust your instincts. (It turned out to be a molar pushing through that was keeping Alice awake, by the way. How foolish we felt.)
2. Give yourself time
Most new childcare requires a kind of easing-in period, the période d’adaptation. That’s not just for the kids, but for parents too. In those first days and weeks, expect to be emotional and off-kilter. It will take time to adjust to the new routine as this new chapter begins. If you can, try not to go to work on that first day. Returning to work after a break feeling emotionally wrung out is to be avoided if possible. Give yourself the day to be with whatever you’re feeling and prepare for your own rentrée. If that’s not an option, try to find time between leaving the crèche (French daycare) and arriving at work to sit calmly, let yourself feel, and then close the door on whatever happened at the drop off.
3. Accept that this is a big deal
Don’t mentally downplay the significance of leaving your child with a nounou, at a crèche or at school. For me, using a childminder was like adding a new member to my family – someone who will care for and influence my daughter, and who will have an important impact on our lives. That’s a big deal, so don’t be dismissive (or let anyone make you feel silly) when you have big emotions in response to what you’re doing.
4. Remember the benefits
Whatever your child’s age, and whatever your chosen form of childcare, you and your little one will — in some way, shape or form — benefit from this time apart. Without denying your fears and worries, make yourself a list of all the good things that will come from the situation. Note them down and keep them at hand.
You may feel your child is too young to be at crèche. Think about how being with other children sooner rather than later will stimulate and encourage him to develop.
You’re using childcare because you have a career you love and want to get back to, but you feel guilty about that? You’re a model of vocation and ambition for a child who’ll grow up to expect joy from the workplace – that’s invaluable!
When that little voice inside says “But, I’m abandoning my baby!” (or “I shouldn’t want to work”, or “I’m a bad mother” or whatever nasty thing your mind chooses to bash you over the head with), look at that list and bash the voice right back.