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.
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.
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 !
© Cathy Yeulet