Monday, April 28, 2008

Travailler plus...pourquoi?

Travailler plus pour gagner plus. Work more to earn more. This was Mr. Sarkozy's battle cry as he triumphantly marched his way to the French presidency last spring. He brought promises of modernizing the French employment system, lightening the employer tax on overtime and undoing or updating the infamous 35-hour work week. Enterprising employees everywhere would soon be free to work hard and prosper.

One year later, no one seems to care any longer. Two weeks of April school vacation ran merrily into May, the happy-go-lucky month of sunshine and long weekends. Suddenly no one in Paris is at work, or if they are, they are either on the web planning their August vacation or standing outside the office with coffee and a cigarette enjoying the mild spring weather.

To those in the US who view May as just another month, at least until Memorial Day and the official start of summer, know that in France the month holds four national holidays: May Day (la fête du travail), Ascension Day, the 8th of May (Victoire 1945), and Pentecost Monday. If, as this year, May Day and the 8th fall on either a Tuesday or a Thursday, everyone takes the "bridge" days off and heads out of town for two consecutive four-day weekends.

Meanwhile no one seems to notice that Pentecost Monday is no longer officially a national holiday. Recent legislation, enacted after the 2003 heat wave that caused the deaths of many of France's elderly, had declared it a journée de solidarité and all earnings from that day are earmarked for caring for the elderly and the handicapped. The French have shown less than unanimous enthusiastic solidarity about the idea, despite such a worthy cause. After exception after exception, some as ridiculous as the SNCF adding 1 minute and 52 seconds of working time per day, companies are now left to their own devices -- or rather, left to fight with their unions -- to determine which day of the year to give back.

My company's solution was to note that Ascension Day falls on the first of May this year. Two holidays, one stone. Pentecost Monday can therefore be kept and the question put off until next year.

I was not planning to take much time off in May this year, so soon after my return from maternity leave. I figured I would take the "bridge" days, which with my Wednesdays off, still made for five- and six- day weekends. Then my project was canceled and at the same time an administrative glitch meant that some of the vacation I had built up from last year couldn't be paid and had to be taken before the beginning of June. The result? I'm taking the last two weeks of the month off as well.

My boss has never approved my vacation so cheerfully. "You want another week in May? Take another week off in May!" he suggested with a smile and a shrug. He's off in Alsace for two weeks at the moment. And me? Well, I'm headed for the Loire Valley on Wednesday. A week later we'll be off to visit family in either Troyes or La Rochelle. The end of the month promises ten days in the Gers, the land of milk and honey. And the week before that? That may be my real vacation: I will have a week just to myself, while le Petit spends his days with la nounou.

All this brings me back to travailler plus pour...quoi ? Exactly why was it that we were supposed to work more again? I seem to have forgotten.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Fog

I knew it would happen sooner or later, and sure enough, it happened yesterday: the first Bad Sleep Night on a work night. Le Petit woke up at quarter to midnight, fifteen minutes after I fell asleep. I was philosophical about it, and even enjoyed nursing and cuddling him in a rare moment of calm with my now constantly-in-motion baby.

And, I figured, the wake up of the night was over, so I snuggled back into bed sure I'd be able to sleep until morning.

But no. He woke us up at quarter to five and stayed awake until 6:15-ish. My husband, bless him, took a long shift as la java du petit matin stretched up to a mere thirty minutes before I was supposed to be getting up for work.

I missed the alarm (or subconsciously and deliberately failed to notice that I hit the snooze button a second after my husband turned it off) and slept until ten to eight.

Late, grumpy, and with a tired ache behind my eyes, I noticed as I dashed for the Métro that sleep deprivation had made my vision blurry.

It took me an embarrassingly long moment to figure out that I had run out the door and forgotten my glasses.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Keep on talking, I'm listening

Now that le Petit is old enough to visibly ignore our instructions, simple though they may be ("No, don't eat Daddy's shoes!" "No, do not stand up in your high chair!") and dismiss our helpful suggestions of alternative activities ("Why don't you chew on your rattle instead of the book?" "Come on out into the living room, it is so much more interesting than the kitchen!") I've learned some new French vocabulary.

Cause toujours, tu m'intéresses.

Translated, it means something like a sarcastic, "keep on talking, I'm listening." Yeah right. Roll eyes. Sure, what-EVER.

So when grandma tries for the nth time to keep the little guy from disassembling a pile of magazines, she gives up and tosses him a "cause toujours, tu m'intéresses" with a laugh.

If only someone had taught me this useful phrase back when I was a teenager.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Behind door number one

I knew something was up on Thursday morning when the new head of the R&D department searched us out for a private meeting in his office. In the formal and hierarchical context of a French company, the Big Boss doesn't just invite you by for a casual cup of coffee.

I knew the news would not be good, but I was hardly expecting, four days after I came back from maternity leave, to learn that the project I've been working on for the past four years had been canceled.

My first thought was I've left my son with a nanny, screaming and unhappy, for this?

My boss looked sheepish and chagrined, and a bit apologetic. He had just learned himself on Monday. The details of why and how the decision was made are not interesting, just a bad combination of a slipped schedule, some unfortunate design choices, and a bevy of bugs, along with a lethal dose executive-level politics. Nothing that should have been insurmountable, in my humble opinion. But we had all been watching The Powers That Be for some time and waiting for the other shoe to drop. It just so happened that it landed on our heads.

Thus I have suddenly and dramatically lost much of the motivation I brought with me this week. But the strange thing is, I still don't regret going back to work. I don't know what I'll be doing in a few months from now, but I am fairly certain I'll end up on working on a closely related project. I'm not concerned about my job, which will probably remain more or less the same. And there is something seductive about starting afresh on a new project that is not persistently tracked by failure.

I feel guilty admitting this, but I don't even regret leaving le Petit to go back to work. He and la nounou get along well now and I know that he is happy most of the day, even if he still cries when we leave him in the morning. Huge progress was made this week, and I am relieved. She even found a way to get him to nap, O miracle! Meanwhile, I'm discovering that I relish my time "off." Being responsible twenty-four-seven for the care of a small child is draining, even when you have the best imaginable backup from husband and family, as I do. Now, with regular forays into the world of adults, I feel I have rediscovered some part of myself I hadn't realized I had lost.

It is too soon to tell how it will all work out. I am pretty sure that I will have days when I hate and dread going to work, and days when I find parenting to be the hardest job of all. But if I'm as comfortable now as I am with my decision, it must be because I'm on the right path after all.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Learning curve

Even at nine months I find myself getting all nostalgic. I've already forgotten how hard it was when le Petit was born, or only remember it in the same sort of imprecise and impersonal way that you remember the plot of a movie you saw a very long time ago.

While talking to my husband last night, I reflected on all that le Petit has taught us about parenting. We've learned to follow his lead and trust our instincts. When I'm honest with myself I still recall that he once seemed incomprehensible and demanding enough to drive me to tears many times a day, but now we've reached a joyful symbiosis. It's something I'd like to think that even toddlerhood or adolescence will not fundamentally shake, and if I'm naive, I'd prefer not to know just yet.

I started waxing poetic about the rightness of it all and how each child is destined to teach their parents important things about themselves. I started in on some wild theory of reincarnation, that perhaps our souls were fated to wind up together in this family this time around.

"You see, it's all for a reason, and there are lessons that only le Petit could teach us," I insisted, forgetting that I'm normally too rational for such runaway trains of thought. "When I think of all that we have learned in the past nine months. . . don't you think?"

"Uh-huh." My husband barely looked up from the stove. "Like me, I've learned to cook."

To which, in this life at least, I had no response but chuckling admiration.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Working Mom

As I walked across the bridge on the Seine on my way from the train station, I saw my office building and a lump formed in my throat. I wasn't too worried about le Petit, or far less than I had been the two previous weeks; I was confident that he would be okay with the nanny, even if he would not be perfectly happy. No, something different but oddly familiar was bugging me. Inexplicable, irrational and plainly stupid worries assailed me. Will I still remember how to do my job? Will they like me? What will I say when I see so-and-so again? And what will they all think of my new haircut?

Then suddenly I understood what was wrong with me. It felt just like the first day of school. As a teenager, I relished summer vacation when I could escape from my geeky, misfit persona of the pimply girl that no one talked to unless they needed help with their math homework. An exaggeration perhaps, but the worries of "Oh no, what will they think of me this year?" and "What if I'm no longer even all that smart, where does that leave me?" were very real. Fifteen years, a continent and an ocean away they were still tailing me. Mixed with that anxiety was the excitement of a new beginning and the chance to reinvent myself.

So to my surprise the first day back at work felt like Day One of sophomore year in high school at first, but that odd feeling faded quickly, the familiar grind set in, and all went fairly well.

The hardest part of my day was not going out the door this morning, although in retrospect, I felt that as I did I betrayed le Petit just a little. He clearly had no idea where I was going and gleefully waved his arms up and down and smiled at me from his father's arms as I said goodbye. But I knew that I had to be as confident and cheerful as possible as I left, for all three of us.

The hardest part of my day was not winding my way through the Métro, and I was surprised how automatic the commute was after almost a year's break. I instinctively knew where to stand on the platform to grab the best seat and be the first to jump out and head down the hallway to catch the commuter train. Without skipping a beat I remembered to glance up at the television screens and check the train status. A l'approche flashed; my train was arriving, so I hurried my step, swung my purse by the Navigo card reader at the turnstile, pushed my way through, and ran down the escalator to hop inside the train just before the doors closed.

The hardest part of my day was not the awkward greetings when I reached the office. There were a lot of new faces. We've acquired a long-haired Linux geek on the team, as well as (yes!) another woman. (On our almost all-male team it was getting to be ever-so-slightly Lord of the Flies before I left.) I stumbled through the introductions as poorly as I usually do, and then spent most of the day wondering to whom I had forgotten to say hello. But I was pleasantly surprised at how warmly I was welcomed back. People went out of their way to talk to me, ask for news of le Petit and wish me bon courage for the hard transition to working motherhood. And only one person -- a man, of course -- asked me if I was well rested after my break.

The hardest part of my day was not finding a discreet way to pump milk at the office. At three o'clock I slipped away and locked myself in the individual shower and changing room that I know so well from my days of running at lunch. I sat down on the bench, took out my wonderful new Medela Harmony breast pump, and twenty minutes later I was finished. No one noticed I was gone, and the only colleague who mentioned my little backpack cooler asked me if it had le Petit's food in it. "Yes," I answered with a smile, knowing he thought I was carrying strained peas or puréed carrots.

What was hard were the awkward phone conversations with la nounou, when I realized that she was immersed in the day-to-day care of le Petit and I, so far away, had little advice to give. His morning went well. He only cried for five minutes after my husband dropped him off. The afternoon was harder, for by three o'clock he was exhausted and any small thing made him melt into tears, but he characteristically refused to nap. The nanny was clearly upset by this, and at my guess also worried that I would think less of her for being unsuccessful at getting him to sleep. My husband picked le Petit up at five-thirty and he immediately fell asleep in the stroller halfway through the five-minute walk home.

All in all, it was a successful beginning. It will take some time for it all to be familiar, and le Petit will need more time to adjust, that is clear. But I do not regret my decision to go back to work. It feels like the right first steps at the right time.

Stay tuned, for one day is still hardly anything. A suivre...

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Nine Months

Ca y est, le Petit has now been living outside of the womb for as long as he lived on the inside.

It has been nine months since his birthday, and since he showed up a mere nine minutes before his due date, the halfway point is approximate but close enough.

It took him nine months to grow into joining the world outside, and nine more months for me to grow into being his mom. Not that I've got it all mastered, mind you, but the important part about learning to trust him and trust my instincts is starting to sink in.

I think that if you could ask him, and if he could remember the way-back-when-before, he'd say that he's pretty happy out here with the rest of us. A better view, certainly. Right now he observes everything, smiles at everyone, and easily and mysteriously breaks into laughter.

He is so joyful. I wish so hard for him to never lose that joy. It feels like something that has grown with him, inside and now beside me, and he gives it back to me each day as a gift.

Friday, April 11, 2008

We return to our regularly scheduled programming

Today was the last day of the parenthesis that was my maternity leave. It has been almost eleven months since I suddenly and unexpectedly stopped working. From what I've heard the office is still there along with the majority of my colleagues, who have obligingly left some of my favorite bugs in our software untouched and uncorrected for my return.

There's still work to do, and they apparently still want me to do it.

Le Petit spent Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday with the nanny and seems to be adjusting. He cries when I leave or when something reminds him that I'm gone, but he spends most of the day crawling and playing and keeping la nounou on her toes. When I come to pick him up she gives me the lowdown on all the mischief he's gotten into. Today when I arrived she'd rearranged the living room furniture to create a barricade in front of the crates of CDs. There's a smile in her voice when she talks about him, and it makes me happy.

So today I enjoyed what was my first and last day off for a very long time. I met my husband for sushi at lunch, then wandered off to Paris. On my own. I found that the Métro still has the same smell of crowds and damp concrete, and Paris is still beautiful on an early spring day. There were groups of high school students lounging on benches in the sun and office workers lingering in doorways with coffee and cigarettes. But how many others felt as light as I did, with nowhere in particular to go, no office, no school, no obligations?

What does a woman do who suddenly finds herself thus? She goes shopping, of course. It wasn't glamorous shopping -- I bought a breast pump, a cooler for transporting milk, ice packs. I did buy some cute shoes... for le Petit. With frogs on the toes.

Now no matter where I go there is always an invisible line linking me to le Petit. I don't worry about him, but he's somewhere in my thoughts, along with the light but persistent weight of my responsibility. So although I hopped on and off the Métro free as a bird (okay, a little less so since my Navigo Intégrale pass was not yet reactivated), I was still very much Mommy.

As I strolled up Boulevard des Capucines from the Madeleine, an idea for one last stop formed in my head. I wanted to go to Galeries Lafayette to buy something special for me. Makeup I thought initially, a useful splurge since I should try to look presentable for the office. But as I wandered the maze of cosmetic counters unable to find what I was looking for and suspecting that any real parisienne worth her salt could instinctively find her way, I changed my plan. I headed to the jewelry counters. I decided to look for a necklace, something to fascinate tiny fingers and sturdy enough to withstand tugging. I was looking for something that I could wear and think about le Petit.

I found it. On Monday, as I take the train that will take me as far away from le Petit as I have ever been in his life, I hope it may make it all a tiny bit easier.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Le Petit changes his mind

Finally, perhaps, just perhaps, la nounou is alright after all.

That's what le Petit seemed to decide today.

I breathe a huge sigh of relief.

I dropped him off at quarter to eleven. There were tears as he watched me disappear into the elevator, but la nounou immediately headed out with him for a walk and he quickly calmed down. He chilled out sufficiently to even wait patiently at the post office without a word of protest, which is more than I can often manage. Once back at the apartment he remembered he missed me and cried a bit, but soon a combination of music, distracting toys, and la nounou's constant attention won him over.

He was happy the rest of the afternoon. He held onto the couch and danced, he chased empty water bottles around the living room, he tried to empty crates of CDs. When I picked him up at five o'clock, he was in top form and la nounou was relieved. Exhausted, but relieved.

She was a little perplexed that he didn't nap at all the entire day.

She'll have ample time to try and figure that one out later.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

If le Petit ain't happy...

...ain't nobody happy.

That much was clear today. Remember what I wrote yesterday about his limited attention span? Oh, how I underestimated him! The child cried on and off the entire time I left him with the nanny today. He kept crawling to the front door where I'd left him to look for me in vain.

La nounou filled me in later with the play-by-play. Drop off at quarter to eleven with the expected screaming fit. During a quick outing to the park le Petit calmed down briefly, but soon more cries and a hurried return to the apartment. Le Petit cried through lunch (although it didn't prevent him from eating well; he clearly takes after my husband). At around one o'clock I called to check in, he was still crying and la nounou was starting to sound concerned.

We decided that he was tired, and she successfully put him down for a nap that lasted a very short thirty minutes. When he woke up his cries redoubled, and nothing la nounou tried would console him. He wouldn't take a bottle of my milk. He wouldn't calm down when she held him. He wouldn't fall asleep. She eventually called me at quarter to three and asked me to come and pick him up, two hours earlier than we'd planned. When I arrived he was bundled up in a scarf on her back, sobbing.

The second I took him from her he stopped crying and started to smile. He cooed, he babbled, he grinned at me, but when la nounou or even my mother-in-law tried to take him, he clung to me and would not budge. Only when we left the other family's apartment and went to my mother-in-law's did he accept to switch to her arms.

He nursed, he finished the bottle of milk, and all was rosy in le Petit's world for the rest of the afternoon. He played in his playpen for a long time. Then I tailed him as he explored the living room, pulling himself up on the coffee table and joyously grabbing at our collection of remote controls. It took him longer to fall asleep than usual just as it did last night, but he otherwise didn't seem too upset about the whole thing.

Which is more than I can say for myself, my husband, or la nounou. Despite her years of experience, not being able to calm le Petit all day had clearly shaken her, and she seemed genuinely worried about him. Which reassures me, oddly enough, because I know that she truly cares about the children she looks after.

Meanwhile, I am at a loss. Yesterday I'd called my boss to announce my return next Monday. Tomorrow I may have to call him to push it back a week, which will irritate him and may do nothing to help le Petit. If only I knew if a week would be enough to make a difference. I am reminded of the first sleepless months, when I was living from day to day wondering when things would get better and doubting they ever would. Now I have the perspective I lacked back then, but I still am stumbling into the unknown. All I see now is the sobbing, miserable little guy that I leave and pick up and hear in the background when la nounou calls.

Calling it all off and not going back to work would be difficult. What's more, I've made my peace with going back now and I think I'm ready. If it weren't for le Petit's difficulty adjusting, I think I'd honestly be looking forward to it at least a little. As much as I wanted to believe that a solution working from home or part time might be possible, I doubt that right now I could negotiate it. My forty-something, childless boss does not understand where I'm coming from and hasn't even been able to find a discreet place for me to pump milk during the day. His response to my woeful tale of le Petit with the nanny? "It's normal, he's spent too much time with his mother. He'll just have to get used to it."

I do not know what to do. So I fret. And I write. And I worry.

Meanwhile, for le Petit it is all clear, he knows what he needs to be happy. La nounou is fine, and a new apartment to explore, why not? But Mommy'd better stick around while he's exploring. The closer I am, the better.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Empty nest

I discovered that an hour is about the length of my lovably determined son's attention span.

That's how long he misses me, or at least how long he will throw a tantrum to demonstrate it. One hour. That's a long time for an almost-nine-month-old. I'm flattered. But by Friday it had decreased to forty-five minutes (at which point he fell asleep from the effort), and today he held out only as long as it took la nounou to strap him into the stroller and head for the park.

When they returned an hour or so later and he saw the other family's apartment, he recognized the scene of his previous abandonment and protested again. Une petite colère, said la nounou, the petite indicating to me that the fit must not have lasted more than fifteen minutes. He then found a water bottle to play with on the floor and that was that, maman was temporarily forgotten.

So it appears that things are going better, albeit slowly.

Meanwhile, I find myself back at my own apartment unsure what to do with myself. I went to the grocery store, happy to shop without the weight of le Petit in the baby carrier or the inconvenience of a stroller; I made lunch, happy to cook without peeking periodically into the living room to entertain le Petit in his playpen. Yet the apartment feels empty and I feel a bit lost. Like I should earn this time to myself by doing something useful or inspired. Instead I fret.

Four more days.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Bedtime

One thing you learn about quickly as a parent is the importance of a bedtime ritual.

In our house, le Petit's bedtime ritual is:

1) Bath time, with Mommy's famous rendition of the 'Rubber Ducky Song'
2) Drying off and dressing for bed
3) A good and tiring calisthenics session of chasing toys around the floor of the bedroom
4) Bundling up in the sleeping bag
5) A final inspection of the bird mobile above the crib and the stars on the night light
6) Story time with Mommy
7) Last cuddle with Daddy
8) Nursing, with Mommy's comforting how-much-we-all-love-you monologue
9) (With a little luck) Sleep

It works pretty well at the moment.

Upstairs, our neighbors have three children all older than le Petit. Their bedtime hits right about when I'm settled in nursing le Petit in the recliner. It evidently consists of:

1) A stampede
2) A fed-up Maman screaming, "All right, that's enough, do you know what time it is?"
3) Family bowling night
4) Numerous flushings of the toilet
5) Sudden calm, and I assume, sleep

The ritual repeats in reverse at 7:30 each morning as I lie awake, hoping our little one will continue to sleep though it.

Oh, what I never noticed about my neighbors before the baby came along.

And now I wait

I dropped le Petit off with the nanny a half an hour ago. He was in tears. He was screaming, actually. For an idea of the decibels involved, know that the other day my mother-in-law heard him four floors down in the hallway of her building as the nanny was putting him into the stroller. (My mother-in-law and the family who shares our nanny live conveniently and not coincidentally in the same building.)

I am strangely calm. Something happened over the last few days that I can't identify. Perhaps it was that the nanny talked to me not just as the experienced child care professional that she is, but as a mother. She knows this isn't easy for me. She also knows that right now I have no choice but to push on through.

Perhaps it was a reassuring email from Moxie reminding me that this will improve in time and that I have options that hadn't occurred to me, like temporarily working part time.

Perhaps I've finally sorted out my priorities in my mind and discovered that I do at least want to try combining working and parenting. I now have a taste of being a stay-at-home mom. I'd like to know what it is like to be a working mom. I have the rare luxury of a choice, and I want it to be an informed one.

Not that I'm expecting to change my mind, either, and certainly not lightly or right away, but this experience will influence the path I choose with other jobs, and hopefully future pregnancies, over the months and years to come. An about-face is an option, of course, but one I now believe I can make calmly if necessary.

Now I'm sitting at my mother-in-law's waiting for a phone call where I may or may not hear a very unhappy le Petit in the background. I've heard nothing so far... so far I hope, so good?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Petit à petit

This week is all about baby steps.

I went to sign up for driving lessons and found out that it will take more footwork than I had expected. Not that I was particularly surprised. I now have a list of documents to furnish, including an official translation of my American driver's license. So, the next item on my to-do list is to find an official translator.

I also discovered that there is a three-month wait once my paperwork is completed, because at the préfecture nothing can be simple or efficient. That wasn't a surprise, either.

I haven't lost my motivation; if anything, it is redoubled. It will just take whatever time it takes.

Meanwhile, le Petit has started the adaptation period with the nanny. It started out rough, with plenty of his tears and even some of my own, but the second day went better. He is familiarizing himself with his new stomping grounds -- the other family's apartment -- and his new caretaker, la nounou. For my part, I'm gaining confidence as well. La nounou knows babies, and she talks to him gently and takes things slowly with a wisdom and intuition I can appreciate. She also knows how to reassure overprotective mothers.

Meanwhile, flush with my new confidence, I made a hair appointment for Friday.

Petit à petit. Little by little. My goal for the next few weeks is to keep things moving in the right direction, however slowly.