Victoria Jelinek


The Baby Diaries 14

If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you. Calvin Coolidge

French babyAfter putting my son’s name on the waiting list for the crèche (nursery) when I was four months pregnant with him (almost a year ago), and intermittently popping by to say ‘hello’ to the Directrice of the creche, show her my growing belly, then my new baby, and reiterating my desire for a place when there was one available – we have been given one! Hooray!

But in addition to keeping myself on the forefront of the Directrice’s mind, there’s an official process. I quickly had to go to my ‘fixer’ – an Irish woman who knows the French systems of bureaucracy like the back of her hand and gets paid by expatriates to delve into these waters on their behalf. In order to employ the services of the crèche, and an assistante maternelle (nanny), I must show that I earn income and, more importantly, pay taxes to the French government. So, she set me up as an auto-entrepreneur (self-employed). It quickly gets you into the system, which is why there has been a huge amount of criticism in France about this scheme and its supposed abuse by foreigners. But, for the moment, it exists. I must report income every quarter and then pay around 25% of my income, give-or-take.

For the crèche, my husband and I must produce an Avis d’Attestation (official breakdown of earnings) for last year, utility and bank bills proving we live locally, a letter from the doctor declaring our son is fit to be in collective care, as well as an ordinance, or prescription, for Doliprane in case of a fever, proof that we have supplementary healthcare (for that 20-30% not covered by your taxes and the state), official paperwork proving that we have gainful employment (the letters from the organisation that oversees profession liberales, or freelance and contracted workers), and duplicated pages from our boy’s Carnet de Sante (a health book given at birth in France that records all health visits, vaccinations, hospital stays, etc.) proving he’s had his necessary vaccinations. The French love paperwork, but I’m freakishly organised, so compiling this dossier and putting it neatly in a binder is actually fun for me. It’s perverse, but it’s also useful in this country.

Then there’s the adaptation process. It is literally a period in which your child is adapted, or assimilated, into the crèche. If your child does not meet their expectations, for example, not eating and sleeping when they have that scheduled, then your child loses his place in the crèche and you must apply for a place in the following year. I agree with this in theory. I think it’s a great idea to slowly introduce your child into a new environment and its regimens and people and if it doesn’t work for all involved, so be it. But something in it also makes me think of the last person picked for a team during physical education in school. If you’re not accepted, then you’ve not fitted in, and regardless of what one may say about the entity that has rejected you, or the reasons for the rejection, you’ve been rejected.

The first day you go with your baby into the crèche and sit with him there for about an hour. The second day, you sit with him for an hour, and then leave him for an hour. The third day, you leave him for two hours, which coincides with either their eating time or their sleeping time. The fourth day, it’s three hours, which again coincides with their eating or sleeping schedule. The fifth day, he stays half a day. The sixth day, he stays the whole day. I found it exhausting and overwhelming, so I can imagine what my wee one thought. The women seemed nice enough, with the exception of one who was rather shrewish, though all of them would be coquettish with my husband and look me up and down with a cold, polite smile every time I came in. There are two or three women working on a given day, and eleven babies at a given time. I was amused to see that they have a wooden contraption that has four baby seats on it in a row, and they literally feed the babies a mouthful and move down the line at feeding time. The babies sleep on separate cots in a room together. They would let the babies cry rather than going to them- they’ll fall asleep on their own (or they should!). But dang! I was amazed and pleased when my baby came back to me tidier than when he went in – even his nostrils were cleaned!

At the end of the adaptation process, the shrewish woman told my husband that my son was ready, but she was not sure if the mother was ready (me!). She didn’t mention that to me when she told me he was accepted. But who cares? He’s in for two days a week (as the lovely Welsh assistante maternelle has agreed to take our boy three days a week!) and hopefully it will be the start of his French education and a great introduction to the best of its culture, to the lessons that have given birth to its auteurs, and its wonderful writers and philosophers, rather than the beginning of his training to be a clerk in a Balzac-ian society.

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The Baby Diaries 9

Everybody knows how to raise children, except the people who have them.

P.J. O’Rourke

angkor-watI took my baby boy to the lovely Welsh assistante maternelle today. She’s still undecided about whether she’ll return to being an assistante maternelle after the last three years in which she’s spent under the famille garder while raising her young son. Even so, she’s kindly agreed to watch my boy for a few hours a day, a few days each week, while my husband is away working as an accompagnateur, and I’m grateful.

So today I dropped him off at hers for the first time, went home to write, and attempted to have something to eat at a leisurely pace. But all I could think about was how I really am a different person now that I’ve had my baby boy and this unsettles me. I feel as though I’m more emotionally tender, and consequently more vulnerable than I’ve ever been in my entire life. A little person depends deeply on me now and I am completely responsible for him. I realise, now, that my life has been relatively carefree thus far. I’ve cared about jobs, work, boyfriends, husbands, sure, but ultimately I’ve always been free to do as I wish. To go out to a dinner at midnight. To sleep till 10am. To miss the last train and take the night bus home or stay with friends. To travel to exotic places with my only concern being to get the correct inoculations beforehand. To leave a job or a place or a man because I’m unhappy. To do most personal things on an impromptu basis. To do most things selfishly.

I’d been so cavalier before having my boy about putting him into care as soon as it was possible so I could resume my professional interests. I was so cavalier about taking him with me on travels to places I want to visit and revisit in the second and third worlds. But now that he is in day care and not with me, I find myself feeling nervous, agitated, and I have an enormous, nebulous sense of guilt. As for traveling to obscure locales with him, I think ‘No way!’ I suddenly fear excessive heat, uncomfortable lodgings, bad water, food poisoning, malaria, typhoid and hepatitis!

I’m not the easy-going mother I’d hoped to be, taking my child everywhere with me and not particularly concerned about dangers, and more carefree. I fear I am conventional. That said, maybe things will change with time as he ages and becomes less vulnerable? Although, from what I hear from my elders, one’s child never really seems grown-up even when they are. Maybe as I learn to trust that my boy is happy in care, or at least not unhappy, I will be able to relax and concentrate on other things. Maybe with time I’ll better remember warm days and nights, exotic food, and the stars of the Southern Hemisphere, rather than its heat, poverty, and potential for bad stomachs.

 

 



The Baby Diaries – 8

I like children – fried. W.C. Fields

deep fryerIt may be difficult to get a place in the crèche for your child, but it’s even harder to find an assistante maternelle, literally translated as a mother’s assistant, or nanny.

The way the assistante maternelle system works is that she can take from one to three children between the ages of one and three into her home for childcare. At three, the child will ostensibly go to the local ‘maternelle,’ or public nursery school. The assistante maternelle is a person who has been certified and registered by the government to tend to children. The cost of an assistante maternelle is generally about six to ten times more expensive than a place in the local crèche. Being rather enlightened in the way of childcare, however, the French government subsidises the expense of an assistante maternelle for those who pay their taxes. At the end of each month, the employer of the assistante maternelle (that’s the parent of a given child) registers all of the hours, days and ‘indemnities’ the assistante maternelle has charged, on an online system for the entity Paje.fr (the entity that takes care of the subsidies). Shortly thereafter, the Paje partially reimburses the employer based on their taxable earnings and the cost of the given assistante maternelle.

The tricky bit is to find an assistante maternelle. There are ‘x’ amounts of them in a given area, and it is likely that a given child will be in the care of a given assistante maternelle from infancy until they are able to go to the local school. Because the law states an assistante maternelle can only have a few children being cared for in their home at a given time, there is little movement and timing is everything. My husband and I went down to the mairie (mayor’s office) and asked for a list of the registered assistante maternelles in the area. There were about 40. We then marked the nearest to us and called each of them to enquire about a spot for our son in the autumn. Not one had a place. We ended up calling every single assistante maternelle on the list – near and far- and only one had a space available in the autumn or, indeed, at any time over the next year. We went over to her house to meet her. She was French and nice enough, very patient with us as she explained her hours, her holidays, her rights and the time in which one must drop off and collect one’s child. Unlike the stereotype that French women are fit and slender, this one was rather heavy set. I noticed that there was a deep fryer on the counter, which probably meant lots of fatty foods. The assistante maternelle’s husband came in while we were there and he greeted my husband but did not meet my eyes or acknowledge me. I am a mere woman. Later, my husband and I discussed it and to be honest, we didn’t feel the house was very comfortable, and we both felt a little bad that our boy might spend days on end there, but we didn’t know what else was available or what the French households are really like, and we have to work sometimes without our boy and we can’t afford a private nanny. In the end, we rationalised that we liked that the household was French because it would be good for our baby’s assimilation into the culture…and perhaps in a year a place in the crèche would open up? Ultimately, ‘beggars can’t be choosers.’

Or can they? It turns out that there is a woman in my book club who was an assistante maternalle. She’s Welsh and married to a Frenchman who is a fourth generation local. She’s taken three years out to tend to her youngest child, utilising the French system of famille garder, which is a very civilised scheme that allows a woman who has worked and paid her taxes to take up to three years off of work after having a baby and still receive monies from the government. Apparently, her son will be going to school in the autumn and she may then resume her assistante maternelle activities. We phoned her and set up a meeting at her house. She has two little boys, a friendly three-legged dog, chickens, a huge garden, and the parents, grandparents, and cousins all live on plots neighbouring her house and land. She cooks from the garden, believes in organic food and creative compositions, and she speaks both English and French fluently…which is a help, to be honest, as we can then discuss in nitty gritty detail, what happens with our child each day…she’s not sure that she will resume her previous profession, but she’s thinking about it and we’re to contact her shortly. Oh dear, I hope that she decides to return to being an assistante maternalle and, moreover, that she decides to accept our little boy. I know everyone would be happy with that placement…I’ll cross my fingers and hope for the best…



The Pregnancy Diaries – 10

“Guilt: the gift that keeps on giving.” Erma Bombeck

I recently went to the two crèches in the valley and signed my impending baby up for care – a crèche is a nursery from three months of age till they walk. There are only ten spots in each. Both tell me that their waiting list goes back to 2008!

I said that I’d take anything. I then went to the local mairie and got a list of names for all the certified assistantes maternelles, or ‘nounous’, in the valley. These are women who are certified to take care of children in their homes from zero-three years old.
Because they generally keep these children till they’re ready to go to school at three, they, too, are hard to come by. I called each and every one and discovered that all but one is full up for the foreseeable future and beyond (Chamonix valley could do with some more crèches and nounous, for anyone looking to be entrepreneurial).
Then I started talking to mothers about the childcare that they had for their kids here, or the childcare that they’d like (if they’re pregnant, like me). I’m startled to discover that the majority of women here in the valley have either stayed home with their kids till they were school age, or they intend to stay home until their kids are school age.
A few say that maybe they’ll get them in care a day or two a week. They tend to finish their statements of intent by saying something to the effect of, “but I want to spend time with my baby…”This makes me feel like a monster for already planning on putting my unborn baby in external care. So then I perused online to find other women who are not ‘monsters’ because they put their children in care, but who do want time to themselves to work – I believe that a happy mommy is a happy baby, and this mommy will not be happy if she’s a stay-at-home mom (besides, I suspect it’s harder than work work). In my search, I stumbled across the French author, philosopher and teacher Elisabeth Badinter. She’s written a book entitled The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. I found two articles about her – one in The Guardian and one in The Washington Post. Basically, Ms. Badinter says that more women these days feel a moral obligation to stay at home with their children, despite all the progress of feminist rights.
I quote from her interview in The Washington Post:
For several decades, industrialized nations have been seeing a change in our model of motherhood that is harmful to women. In the 1970s, all the talk was about the rights of women and their vital financial independence…today, the new imperative? To be a perfect mother who knows how to help her child reach his full potential, to raise a gifted, extraordinary radiant adult. Motherhood first, the rest second. The problem is that the La Leche League and a great many experts on childhood have made it their business telling women that they must give unstintingly to their children: their milk, time and energy. Women are urged to reconnect with their supposedly innate reflexes as female mammals to become the good mothers their children need. This good mother gives birth without the benefit of an epidural, sleeps with her child, breast-feeds on demand, and disdains powdered milk and store-bought jars of baby food as harmful relics of reprehensible egotism.
 
Result: The good mother stays at home with her child for the first years of a baby’s life. The main problem with this shift is that it is gradually imposing itself on all women as a moral obligation of the first priority. 
Well, these “modern” practices might suit some women, but not all of them, not by a long shot. 
If I criticize this model of an exclusive and guilt-inducing maternity, it is because the model springs from two assumptions I find aberrant. The first is that the perfect mother is an attainable objective. The second is the belief that women are led by their hormones, just as female chimpanzees.
 
If there were one change you could convince a modern mother to make, what would it be?
I would tell her never to abandon her financial independence. For two reasons. First, in our society, where half of all couples separate, it isn’t prudent to give up one’s job for a few years. 
A single mother raising her child alone is in a very difficult position, and many of them are reduced to hardship. 
Second, I would remind women that they now have a life expectancy of more than 80 years, while the normal activity of motherhood lasts for a decade or so. The children leave home — and then what becomes of the mother?
 
Amen, say I. I’m going to go online and order her book now.