Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Path

Today I met the adjoint maire in charge of the municipal day care system. She gave us very little reason to hope for an opening anytime soon. She did deign to tell us our theoretical position on the waiting list, seventh, though she couldn't give me any idea of how long a wait that might entail.

Somehow I knew in advance that the meeting would be useless. This afternoon my mother-in-law, le Petit and I walked together to city hall, a 19th century overly-decorated wedding cake of a building in the middle of a square filled with immaculate flower beds. Le Petit and I went in alone together, as my mother-in-law feared (and probably correctly) that if I didn't show up alone with the baby the Powers That Be would question my right to child care.

Once inside, I tried and failed once again to accept the pompous marble and polished brass interior without thinking in disgust, with a very American reflex, "this is how they're spending my tax money?" It didn't help that the building was undergoing what was clearly a very expensive renovation and that despite the dust and paint fumes, a cleaning crew was polishing the grand staircase.

When I arrived, the woman at the welcome desk was busy talking to a couple who was apparently considering moving to town. As they left she handed them a pile of glossy brochures and the spiral-bound municipal directory. "Oh, and don't forget this," she added, "It's the early childhood services guide."

My natural timidity and my lack of self-assurance in spoken French just barely prevented me from adding sarcastically, "Oh, with that, don't bother."

Once the couple was warmly seen off she turned to help me. She fawned over le Petit, who was calmly looking on from the Bjorn, while I explained I was here to see Madame l'adjoint so-and-so. "Oh, it's for the crèche?" she asked sweetly. "Yes," I said, and almost added, "I suppose I'm the tenth unfortunate candidate this week."

We were directed upstairs to a hallway lined with thick, red carpet and with a view through leaded glass to an inner courtyard. I glanced at the lush garden below and decided it worthy of a palace or at least a royal botanical garden. A row of heavy oak doors faced the windows, each with a polished brass plaque with the name of an adjoint maire.

I knocked on the door labelled Madame so-and-so. No answer. As I stood waiting, I kept thinking stupidly of the old light bulb joke and decided I'd translate "how many adjoint maires does it take..." into French for the benefit of my mother-in-law.

Eventually a trim, fifty-something woman opened the door and motioned for me to follow her inside. Her brusque manner evaporated the meager hope I'd mustered before arriving. She sat down and frowned over my file.

Le Petit was doing his best to seduce her by staring at her serenely with his big, brown eyes. "Oh my," she said, "So this is le Petit? He certainly is alert and observant, isn't he?" The obligatory moment of tenderness over, she started her dry, rehearsed refusal routine.

Yes, she explained, everyone wants day care. Even if you sign up a year in advance, there aren't enough spots, don't you understand? He will have a place eventually. Maybe in a month, maybe next year, maybe in two years, although that's when they start school, you know? So just be patient. And have you looked into a nanny?

I explained, my French and my confidence faltering, that I was not interested in a nanny. I didn't -- and couldn't -- justify why, because nannies are the number one solution for parents of young children in Paris. Most are assistantes maternelles who work out of their home and watch one, two or three small children at a time. They are licensed by the state and monitored for quality by official neighborhood early childhood centers (although I've learned that, like many things "official" in France, the monitoring exists more on paper than in practice). Yet as in most of the western world, and France is no exception, child care is undervalued, and it appears to me that most nannies in Paris have chosen their profession by necessity rather than choice. Many are recent immigrants who have received very little formal education or training and have few other careers available to them; although hiring a nanny is expensive for parents, their salaries are still relatively low. How can one place a price on mothering, especially in the first year?

I know parents who adore their assistantes maternelles, and I am certain wonderful, loving nannies exist. I am utterly terrified of trying to find one, however. The idea of leaving le Petit at a tender five months of age all day at someone else's house, someone I will barely know, makes my stomach cinch.

After the fear comes the guilt: all those other mothers do it, why can't I? Am I simply too lazy to go back to work? For years I belittled women who for what I considered a lack of enterprising feminism wanted to stay home with their children. Now I see how silly I was to criticize, for I've caught myself feeling the same way. It would be so easy for me to just take another few months of leave, to wait for le Petit to be a bit older. Sure, my employer would be extremely unhappy, but I'd have every legal right, and my husband and I could handle the arrangement financially. I am lucky, I'm blessed with a choice, but it still isn't an easy one to make.

I called a friend this afternoon whose parenting advice I value. Whenever we speak she basically repeats back what I've told her, adds her insights, and tells me to follow my instincts. What more can one ask for in a friend? Before I hung up the phone, I had a revelation that I shared with her. In twenty years' time, what do I want to be remembered for? Do I want some former colleague to tell me I was a pretty damn good programmer (which I wouldn't believe anyway)? Or do I want le Petit to tell me I was a really great mom? Obviously the latter, but how do I get there?

The ideal solution -- the one I hope exists in that better world we're supposed to be building for our children -- would be a day care center close to my office where I could drop by a few times a day, or at least at lunch, to nurse le Petit and remind him that I'm close. In a years' time, he'll be happier playing with his little friends than hanging out with Mom, anyway. I'm desperately searching for a private day care center near my office, but they are few and far between in France.

As I nursed le Petit to sleep tonight, sitting in the dark leaned up against the head of my bed, I turned the problem over and over in my mind. I looked for the words to describe my feelings, even if I knew that I couldn't yet find the right action to take. As my mind wandered, I imagined le Petit and I on a path together in a forest. At first, that is right now, I carry him in my arms. Soon he'll walk and I will walk beside him, holding his hand. Before long he'll race out in front of me and I will do all I can to run to keep up. I cannot see ahead of me, but I know the path turns, forks, and loses itself in the fog, and I'll never be entirely certain I've made the right turn.

Is there anything more terrifying than being a parent? Is there anything more joyful? For the moment, perhaps I'll just keep le Petit close, cradled in my arms, and forget about finding the map... that I'm pretty sure doesn't exist anyway.

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