Recently, my daughter had her first ever rentrée – an initiation to an autumn ritual every mother 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 sens 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 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.
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.
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.
Recently, my husband and I undertook a major challenge. Now, just for context, you should know that we have both climbed some serious mountains in our time. I moved to Paris alone at the age of 23, we moved house with a one-month-old baby, and my best beloved is a fan of Bear Grylls-style hiking, for heaven’s sake! Yet nothing prepared us for what we did last month: We went on holiday with our baby.
For the first time.
Abroad, travelling by plane.
Friends warned us it would be hard. Some said the air travel would be hellish. Others cited disrupted sleeping and eating as reasons to stay home. One, on what I hope was just a particularly tiring day for her, told me simply to wait 18 years for my next real holiday. But, true to form, we rolled up our sleeves and decided to give it a go anyway.
And, do you know what? It was hard. But it was also fine. In fact, it was fun. True, the trip in no way resembled holidays pre-baby.
No lie-ins. No romantic late-night dinners. No real down-time to speak of, and a lot more stuff to haul around with us than usual. But it wasn’t the frazzled nightmare that I was led to expect.
It helped that I approached the project drawing on my work as a coach and had done some mental preparation in order to limit stress, disappointments and complications. I won’t offer advice on sun cream (other than to wear it) or whether to pack or buy nappies, but here are my tips for preparing your mind for the vicissitudes of holidaying with a baby.
1. Make reasonable choices
When choosing your destination, method of travel and accommodation, be gentle with yourself and your baby. Downsize wherever possible. For our first family flight, we ruled out anything over two hours. We also researched a resort that offered a particularly good set-up for children. I’m of Scottish stock, and my daughter and I are so fair-skinned that we’re almost blue, hence our choice of a spring holiday when temperatures wouldn’t exceed 25 degrees celsius. Which leads me to my next point…
2. Take into account what your child would choose
I always hear my mother’s words when I’m making decisions that have an impact on my daughter: “Children don’t choose to be born”. It was my choice to have a baby, and while that doesn’t mean I don’t deserve any rest, fun or relaxation, it does mean I have a responsibility to secure said pleasures for myself in a way that isn’t gruelling for my child. Yes, you may want to visit your friend in Argentina, but will the heat, the long flight and the time difference be too hard for your tot? If the kid is having a rough time, it’s guaranteed that you will too – why do that to yourself?
3. Prepare. Prepare.
Get as much information as you can from your travel agent or travel guides, friends and the Internet about the weather, the food, the journey. I phoned our hotel and got a list of exactly what was provided for my baby’s needs. Think through your child’s daily routine and make lists of all the things you use for each one. I had the dining table spread out by activity: in one corner, everything we’d need for Feeding (bottles, formula, bibs); in another corner all things Hygiene (nappies, wipes, cotton wool); and so on and so forth.
In short, make like a Boy Scout and be prepared.
4. Change your expectations
Do not go on holiday imagining that it will be anything like past vacations; you’ll avoid so much frustration if you can expect the unexpected. It’s like the first time I tried goat’s cheese. Yep, that’s the simile I’m going with, folks – humor me. I assumed it would taste much like cow’s cheese and so I hated it. Once I got my head around the fact that it was just a whole different thing, I grew to love it. Expect something new and you can’t be disappointed.
5. Be a team player
And make sure your partner is too. Take turns doing the post-pool bath while still in your own sopping swimwear. Give each other a break by taking baby out for a pram nap while the other person gets some afternoon shut-eye. Go back and forth on who feeds baby and who gets to eat their meal hot. These are all things we probably do naturally in the home environment, but on holiday it’s so tempting to just kick back and not notice your partner is slogging. Make sure you both pull your weight.
6. Remember you’re lucky
Whatever kind of holiday you’re planning, remember that you are lucky to be doing so. It’s so easy to bemoan the fact that babies have no notion of lie-ins, or that your evening apéro is somewhat less serene than before as you wrangle a wriggling toddler. But – without getting into gratitude diaries or counting blessings – think about the fact that you have the time and money to go on a family holiday and how lucky you are to have both that family and that holiday.
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%.
If motherhood were a competitive sport, the Olympic committee would be overrun with candidates…
I am not a competitive person. I get no pleasure from an activity when trying to do it faster or better or for longer than someone else. Example: swimming lessons. I loved (still do love) swimming, but when the teacher suggested to my mother that I enter competitions, I was out the other end of the pool in a time that would have made Michael Phelps question his achievements. I enjoy activities most when doing them for their own sake and without any form of comparison with others.
So how did I end up in the qualifying rounds for the summer sport of competitive mothering?
Because you are entered automatically from the moment you announce you’re pregnant – didn’t you know?
Every decision you make is judged by someone, and the worst culprits are other mothers clearly going for gold by comparing your pregnancy/delivery/baby/post-baby body with their own.
There’s the choice to breastfeed or not, whether you sleep-train, baby-led weaning, if and when you go back to work… And don’t even get me started on Montessori! I have seen powerful, successful women cower before others who casually drop into conversation that they have chosen to Montessori their kids “because we really wanted the best for her education, you know?” Translation: you are lazy, uncaring and your child will end up in the gutter if you don’t do the same. Every choice you make becomes another mother’s food for smug comparison. At best, it’s exhausting; at worst it’s disempowering and distressing.
However, for every mother sure that she’s standing higher on the podium than you are (and making sure you’re painfully aware of that fact), there’s another weeping inside from feelings of inadequacy at your wildly superior skills. Having a baby is unlike anything we’ve ever done before, and it can turn even the most confident of woman into a pile of self-doubt and anxiety. Faced with someone else’s certainty at deserving that coveted first-place medal, you can start to doubt even choices you know were right for you and your family.
The irony is that we are all at some point Mrs Smuggy McSmugface (“I make all my baby’s purées myself! I breastfed for longer than her! We go to more playgroups than they do!”). And we are all at some point that poor cringing creature convinced she’s not so much swimming as sinking (“She’s coping so much better than me… Her baby is crawling already… How did she lose the weight so fast?”).
So, what can we learn – and do differently?
I said before that I am not competitive. That’s not quite the truth: if I am to be precise I have to say that I am competitive with just one person – myself. I am always trying to do better today than I did yesterday: increase my knowledge, act with greater love, try harder. Applying the same logic to motherhood, I have found, is the only solution when faced with a Smugface or when resisting the urge to be one myself.
It’s hard to do, but the trick is to simply opt out of comparison with others and replace it with checking in with yourself.
Am I doing my best?
Did I make decisions that best served me and my family today?
Am I being kind to myself?
The answers will never be a unanimous, Welsh-male-voice-choir-style YES. But maybe you’ll realise that you did indeed play with your daughter and read her a story. Or you’ll admit that skipping playgroup this week and meeting a friend for lunch was simply necessary for your own sanity and will not cause lasting damage to your baby. Perhaps you’ll remember your son’s giggling fit as you made silly faces over breakfast and enjoy knowing you make him laugh.
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll find it in you to be a little less hard on yourself – and on other mothers. Now that would be a gold medal for everyone.