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 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 (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. »
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.
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. 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 realize 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.
You know he’s tired when your husband confuses you with your daughter… of eight months.
Last week, I plopped down onto the sofa, baby in arms ready for a feed, and asked my husband to pass me a bib. Ever obliging, he brought it over and proceeded absentmindedly to tie the thing around my neck. Once I realised this was not a joke and got over the hysterics that ensued, it struck me just how tired he must be. And how tired I am. All the time.
I can’t really blame sleep deprivation – Alice is a pretty decent sleeper. So I don’t need to read yet another book/lecturing tome with a catchy title like “How to get your baby to sleep wherever and whenever you want, including 15 hours a night plus at least five daytime naps”. The truth is that even when you sleep well, the very act of being a parent is itself tiring. Pushing the buggy, carrying the increasingly heavy baby, tidying toys, endless loads of washing, the constant vigilance any time you put the baby down, the permanent nagging worry about [choking/illness/normal brain development/school options/inappropriate friends] *delete as appropriate.
So the only way forward is to accept the tiredness and to adjust life accordingly. Because fighting fatigue is itself exhausting.
Here are the fatigue-accepting commandments that work for me:
1. I no longer stay up late.
Other parents of small children are not merrily quaffing Bordeaux in front of a good film until midnight. They are, like me, falling asleep in front of the TV using their spouse as a human pillow. Suck it up, record the movie, and go up to bed while you still have the energy to brush your teeth.
A sub-section to that: I limit my alcohol intake. Pre-children, most evenings involved a glass of wine with husband or a friend – we live in France, for heaven’s sake! Now, that glass of wine will cause me to pass out even earlier than usual, so it needs to be kept for weekends and occasions.
2. I lighten my day.
I am a list person. And I like getting through my list each day. I now accept that what I can and cannot get done is no longer solely dependent on me; and that I usually won’t get it all done. And that’s ok, because the unwritten task on every list I’ll ever make from now on is “take care of child while doing all the other stuff”, and if that one gets done well, then we’re doing all right.
3. I choose when I do my thinking.
I’m unwell, daughter is ill, husband is away for work, and sleep was a pipe dream last night. Now is not the time to start finding solutions to the Great Babysitter Conundrum. Nor is it the moment to consider school choices (did I mention she’s eight months old?), examine our financial future, make a new business plan. Because, in a sleep-deprived state there are no decent schools; we’ll be penniless, destitute, by the time we’re 40. And my business plan looks rather like the Titanic – a great idea that will ultimately lead to my doom. I put those issues to one side and tackle them once we’ve all had a bit more sleep and a calming cuppa.
4. I have stopped talking about the tiredness.
The above notwithstanding. One day a coaching client was in the middle of a diatribe about how shattered she was when it occurred to me to ask, in all sincerity: “Is talking about it helping you?” I am not recommending we “lean in”, but does complaining to the spouse or competing with other mothers (“I was up all night – got about 30 minutes sleep – not even sure how I’m still alive, really”) make you feel any better?
So, in a definite case of “Coach, coach thyself”, these are my strategies for coping with a fatigue that I have accepted will be with me for at least the next 21 years.
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 !
© Cathy Yeulet