The Motherhood Diaries : Master Juggler of Home, Family and Work

The Motherhood Diaries : Master Juggler of Home, Family and Work

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 “Mum” 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%.

Originally published on Inspirelle.com.

The Motherhood Diaries : Take Care of Yourself Like You Take Care of Them

The Motherhood Diaries : Take Care of Yourself Like You Take Care of Them

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.

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.

4. Hydrate

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.

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.

Originally published on Inspirelle.com.

To find your groove in Paris, get networking!

To find your groove in Paris, get networking!

Are you in a rut? Do you feel slightly stuck, or maybe a bit lost? Perhaps you’re actually doing fine, but you have that feeling that you could be doing better. Maybe there projects you want to start, but you’re finding it hard to gain momentum, or you just don’t know where to begin. Whatever your situation, there is one thing you can do that pretty much guarantees some kind of progress, especially here in Paris where, in my experience at least, la bouche à l’oreille is essential: le networking.

Networking is not a four-letter word

Many people feel shy about networking, feeling there’s something self-serving and shameful about it. And I must agree that the expressions “working the room” and “schmoozing” send shivers down my spine. Who wants to be that woman who leaps across the top table at her cousin’s wedding, spilling champagne on the bride, in order to press a crumpled business card into the unwilling palm of the best man as he’s half-way through his speech just because he happens to mention he works in HR? Not me. I’m guessing not you either.

Genuine, honest networking is about meeting new people and developing existing relationships. It’s about being sincerely interested in learning about another person’s projects and seeing if there’s any way in which the two of you can help each other out. It’s a two-way street. To be effective and avoid falling into schmoozing territory, it needs to be totally shameless in the positive sense of the word (yes, there is one). Consider the difference between:

“Wow, you’re studying shiatsu! I’ve always wanted to try it. Maybe I could come by for a session some time. I guess it’s really expensive, though? Yeah, money’s a little tight at the moment. So I reckon I’ll have to wait for a while before calling. Do you offer discounted rates for friends of friends? Haha, no just kidding…” Cue awkward silence.

and

“Hi, Jane told me you’re studying shiatsu. Listen, I’ve always fancied trying it, but I can’t afford it at the moment. No pressure, but I wonder if you’d be interested in discussing a service I could offer you in exchange for a session? I’m pretty good at setting up websites, for example, and have often babysat for friends. If either of those interests you, here’s my number, let me know. And of course, I’ll totally understand if you’re not into it.”

Which exchange would you prefer to have?

Effective networking should also always begin with the (unspoken) question “what can I do for you?” Go into it with the goal of meeting people and seeing if any of your knowledge or contacts can be useful to them. It takes the pressure of you and puts people at ease knowing that you’re there to offer as well as to accept a coup de main.

When done openly and in the right spirit, good networking can really make a difference – obviously, it can boost your career, but it can also help you achieve personal goals and up your chances of creating a fulfilling life for yourself, particularly if you’re new to Paris and still trying to find your groove. Here are four reasons to put yourself out there and attend a networking event near you!

You will widen your support network

Developing a wide circle of friends and acquaintances is crucial to feeling rooted and connected. Maybe you won’t meet your next employer at a networking event but you might make a new friend (already an excellent achievement) who, three months down the line, hears about a job opening and passes it on to you. That same friend might then share the name of her babysitter with you, giving you and your partner a much-needed night out. She might also become the person you call at 3am when you just need to talk. She might invite you to join her book group. The more people you know, the more people you know…

You will find new sources of information

Simply talking about your stalled project with someone new can give you ideas you may never have come to otherwise. You’re telling someone how you wish you could get back into rollerblading like you used to, and someone in the little group you’re with, someone you don’t even know, asks if you know about the big roller-outings organised on Sunday evenings in Paris. You haven’t asked for help, no flesh has been pressed, but you walk away knowing more than you did before.

You’ll open your horizons and gain new perspectives

When actively networking, you will talk to people you never would have approached, say, at a party. Perhaps people you wouldn’t be friends with. The beauty of talking to people from all walks of life is that it’s often the people who aren’t like you – people that have different values and beliefs and who move in different circles – who will say something that gives you that “light bulb” moment. Those are the people who will think outside of your box. And vice versa…

You’ll get the feel-good boost that comes from helping others

Putting aside all the things networking can do for you, isn’t it delightful to find yourself in a position to help someone else? Especially when you’re feeling below par yourself. It is so gratifying to be able to say “Really? You’re looking for a private English teacher? I actually know someone who might be able to help”, or “I actually have a friend leaving Paris soon and her apartment will be up for grabs – shall I put the two of you in touch?” Personally, I am known among my friends for my willingness to “matchmake” in this way. I love lending a hand like that. The bonus is that because of this, lots of my friends are now friends with each other (which incidentally made my wedding extra fun), plus friends are always willing to return the favour.

Because that’s the basis of all non-schmoozy (yep, I’m making up words now) networking. There’s a positive karma to it when done with the right intention. You help, advise or inform someone just because you can. Then they either help you back or they pay it forward. Whatever happens, you have added something good to the world and that will always do you good.

Originally published in Message Paris magazine.

Stretching yourself: doing things the ex-pat way

Stretching yourself: doing things the ex-pat way

In any Paris exercise class – be it Pilates, Gym Suedoise or the unappealingly named “Body Attack” – there is always a moment when can you spot the other ex-pat(s) in the room. It’s at that point when the instructor says something like (here I take an example from my own yoga class): “Now, if this isn’t enough of a stretch, you can make the posture more challenging by extending your left arm, raising your foot and taking hold of your big toe”. It’s then that you see a gleam in the eye of the ex-pat: “Oh goody”, she’s thinking, “I can make it harder for myself!”

The road less travelled

Because let’s admit it, folks, ex-pats, and even more so, ex-pat parents, are not people who have chosen the path of least resistance in life. We’re people who choose – either by looking to move or by deciding to “follow” a spouse – to build a life in a foreign country, perhaps in a foreign language, usually with few friends to start off, often with little knowledge of how the system works… I’m that kind of gal myself. I arrived in Paris with two suitcases, a part-time job as a language assistant, and a metre-squared room in a foyer de jeunes filles. I knew nobody. Friends starting well-paid jobs in London, moving into flat-shares with good mates from university, and taking their washing home at the weekends thought I was mad. But you – yes, you the masochistic ex-pat like me who’s chosen the road less travelled – you know that I just had to do life the hard way. It’s in our nature. When choosing a book for my holiday, not for me a nice Marion Keyes page-turner that looks really fun; no, this is the perfect opportunity to attack Les Misérables! And I don’t just have the easy chocolate Advent calendar. We’ll get one, sure, but I think I’ll also hand-sew a perpetual calendar with little motivational quotations in the pockets that I’ll write out in coloured inks. The school bake sale asks for parents to bring in a cake per family? I’ll make 30 frosted cupcakes instead, plus a Victoria sponge for the teachers!

Raising a child as an ex-pat is a whole other world of self-inflicted “hard way”, isn’t it? It raises questions about giving birth in a foreign language, sometimes learning vocabulary you weren’t even sure of in English, making choices about bi/trilingualism, learning about the school system, perhaps facing differences in approaches to bringing up children – with a foreign spouse, foreign in-laws, and society as a whole. It’s a minefield.

A life lived on purpose

I’ve always found that intrinsic to life as an ex-pat is the fact that everything is slightly more intense, or rather that you live everything more intensely. The highs are higher, and, boy, the lows are lower. So, on days when we’re feeling strong and life is going well, we are aware that what we’re doing is difficult, we get a kick out of it, and indeed, we respect for ourselves for choosing to be challenged. But on days when there are comprehension problems at school, the bank screws up an international transfer, and you have to do battle with the La Poste to find the parcel your aunt in Australia sent you, you can wind up shaking your fist at the sky and wondering why you’re inflicting this life upon yourself.

It’s in those moments that you take a breath, have a cup of tea (the British panacea!), and ask yourself the following powerful coaching questions:

  1. What have I learnt since my arrival in Paris and how has that expanded my horizons?
  2. What personal growth is my life here allowing me (and my family) that wouldn’t be available back home?
  3. Who/what/how am I in Paris that I couldn’t have been at home?
  4. What would I miss about my life here if I were to leave it tomorrow?
  5. If I had never moved here, which people would I have missed out on meeting and/or befriending?

No matter how hard you might be finding life in Paris right now, you have without a doubt learnt and grown since your arrival. When it all seems just a bit too hard and not worth it, take a step back, ask yourself these questions and give yourself a break. Even us “push-yourself” ex-pats sometimes need to do just the minimum – the simple yoga pose, the gaudy-cover beach book, a Kinder calendar – and, yes, God bless Marks & Spencer for that pre-iced sponge cake that will sometimes just have to do.

Originally published in Message Paris magazine.

The Motherhood Diaries : Turning Worry About Education into Productive Thinking

The Motherhood Diaries : Turning Worry About Education into Productive Thinking

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.

Confession time

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.

Originally published on Inspirelle.com.