Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Thoughts on child care, or how I got it all wrong

Something I wrote a while back has been bothering me. Back in fall 2007, a few months after le Petit was born, I chronicled our disappointment at not getting a spot in the local municipal day care center. Given the scarcity and cost of private centers, our only options were to either find an in-home provider or a share a nanny with another family. Since there is a limit of three children per in-home provider imposed by the government licensing authority, the solutions were functionally similar. We chose the latter option, after I took an extended nine-month parental leave, since serendipity had it that a neighbor of my in-laws with a baby le Petit's age had already found a nanny and was looking to share.

Many months before this happy solution landed in my lap, I recounted here my frustrating meeting with an official at city hall:
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 shudder when I read it now. It was classist, disrespectful, and could be interpreted as xenophobic or anti-immigrant, too (something that, as an immigrant myself, but one who largely escapes the anti-immigrant discrimination in France, I'm growing more sensitive to). What exactly did I mean by "price on mothering?" Why did I assume that the only reason someone would want to choose child care as a profession is because no other options were open to them? Taking care of small children is hard work, and although the salary isn't truly equal to the importance and the strain of the job, the pay is honest. In France, employing a nanny includes paying into the state benefit system, so that they have the right to the same state-sponsored health and retirement coverage as all other employees. And generous subsidies and tax credits help make paying a fair wage affordable for families like ours -- not much more expensive, in fact, than a public day care center when a nanny is hired jointly by two families.

And for that well-spent money, I leave le Petit with someone who is consistently there for him every day I'm not, and who knows him so well after one and a half years that she can decipher his ever-changing toddler moods or detect the first flush of a fever as accurately as I can. Le Petit rushes to the door to welcome her when she rings the bell in the morning, yelling, "C'est M!" She has introduced him to more neighborhood children than I have (they've got a regular social network at the local park) and convinced him when I couldn't to overcome his fear of the merry-go-round. I leave for work confident that he's in good hands, and suspecting I won't be missed for a moment until I walk back through the front door.

Of course, there are good nannies and there are not-so-good nannies, just like in every profession, and there's a higher risk of a bad experience when you decide to trust the entire task of caring for your child to one person instead of a team. However, I am now convinced that the rewards are higher, too. Le Petit had the chance to bond with one trusted, loving caregiver in a calm environment. M is his "home base" when Mommy and Daddy aren't around, and this was especially important when he was an infant.

M was also able to understand him and adapt her routine to meet his needs, even as she was far better than I at organizing a solid routine, thanks to her years of experience. She got le Petit to nap in his crib at nine months old when no one else could by calmly staying close and rubbing his back until he fell asleep, a feat I can't imagine possible in a day care center where a single staff member is responsible for up to five children. And during the very first days after I went back to work when both le Petit and I cried and cried non-stop, M never lost her calm, empathetic patience when most day care centers would have kicked us both out on the street.

I'm so happy, in fact, that next time around (a subject that's on my mind a lot about lately), I probably won't even request a spot in municipal day care. Alas, I have no guarantee that M will be free to take care of a potential numéro deux, since I'm planning to take a year of maternity leave, and with the glowing reference I will give I'm sure M will be employed again immediately after le Petit starts full-day public nursery school next September.

Above all, I am grateful that I have the options I do here in France: extended parental leave, subsidized child care, free public nursery school from age three. And I formally apologize to all the people who work so hard taking care of small children every day. I maintain that it is a job that isn't justly appreciated, since it can't be measured in palpable terms, in numbers or results or return on investment. That may be why choosing day center-based care seems like a safer bet to parents like me: it feels controlled, standardized, "industrialized" in a certain sense. There are other reasons of course: cost (nannies are often prohibitively expensive in the US), convenience, logistics. But for me, choosing one person to take care of my child meant taking a leap of faith and trusting a human rather than an institution for the most human of tasks. Looking back, I wonder why it was so hard.


Cloud said...

I think it was so hard because it is very hard to transition from working woman to stay at home mom to working mom, and we make this transition in a short period of time with very little guidance.

Add in the weird mixed messages we get about motherhood and working motherhood and the silly idea that there is one "right" way to do things, and it is just a recipe for anxiety.

I was pretty nervous about our child care arrangements, too, and had several bouts of "we should have hired a nanny!" during the first year. (We're at a day care center.) Now, though, I'm very happy with our arrangements- they are what work best for our family.

Julie said...

K is in daycare 5 mornings a week right now. I remember feeling positively awful about making the decision to send her there. We agonized over whether we were doing the right thing. But all turned out well...we are very happy with the way things worked out. It's a facility run by a local public school district which has a fantastic reputation (the reason why our taxes are astronomical here in Northern NJ). It's a warm and caring environment, and she loves going there M-F.

Now in retrospect, I wonder why it was so terribly traumatic. Probably has a lot to do with what Cloud said re: ideas about motherhood. I read an article recently that said there is a tremendous amount of pressure now to be supermommy...a perfect mother in all respects. The article posed the question, whatever happened to the "good enough" mother?
Of course we all instinctively want to the be the best mothers we possibly can be, but I guess the point is that mothers these days feel too much guilt.

So glad everything worked out so well!

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

I of course don't mean to imply that day care center care is somehow inferior. I do think that it wouldn't have been very well-adapted to le Petit at 9 months, given what a high-needs kid he was (*cough* impossible to get to sleep *cough*), but now I'm sure he'd love interacting with other kids and going to "school". But he gets plenty of interaction with other kids at the park with M, from what I hear, and he'll be off to nursery school next year anyway. I just love seeing how attached and happy he is with M.

So, there's no one-size-fits-all solution, it all depends on the kid, and the family, etc. etc. I just was wrong to have completely written off hiring a nanny at the beginning. Just another humbling moment of motherhood, right? Won't be the last time I'm wrong.

@Cloud and Julie - yeah, I hear you on the terrible pressure moms are under. I just keep reminding myself that a) perfect is detrimental, really, and b) that if le Petit is happy (he clearly is!) I must be doing something right. I am pretty sure that staying home full-time past a year is not for me... I think I'm a better mother when I get some off time.

Sylvie said...

So you're planning for numéro deux! Wonderful!

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@Sylvie - planning as in I'm planning to drink plenty of wine and eat plenty of foie gras and sushi in the next couple months so that I can give them up shortly afterward. :)

Mom in France said...

Two comments:
For me, it was hard the first time exactly because it was the first time. Becoming a mom was so overwhelming and life-changing it was hard to imagine the child care arrangements and leaving Boo. But, like you, I am SO grateful for our nounou. I've learned so much about parenting from her and Boo (and now Little Guy) are the better for it.

The second time around on this topic is a breeze. We have the same nounou (which isn't always so easy) and he's been 4 times and although it's tiring for him,there's no trouble emotionally for anyone (except maybe big brother who's had his space invaded).

Comment #2:

You're in the stage we called "Thinking about thinking about it." Enjoy the holiday wine/fois gras/cheese/oyster/champagne binge! I missed it last year so I'm looking forward to some moderate participation this year.

And good luck :-).

caramama said...

It was so hard to figure it out the first time around. I agree with why the other said it was, but I also would add it is because it's a whole new area! It's like picking which college to go to... Before you go to college, you really have no idea what you are even looking for in a college. Same with child care. It's a whole new world with implications that you simply can't forsee.

The Pumpkin's first year she spent with my mom and niece, with the babysitter coming over to care for the kids in the afternoons. It was a good arrangement, but it turns out that having the babysitter as a nanny at our house full time for just our girl was even better. We did that for the second year. Like yours, she was not a good sleeper and the nanny was the only one who could get her down for a nap at all.

Now, the nanny watches the baby while the Pumpkin is in pre-school, and this turns out to be as close to the perfect arrangement as we can get at this time. Even though we are barely scraping by financially, having the nanny stay for the baby while paying for the pre-school for my daughter has been SO WORTH IT for us.

Glad that you guys found what works well for you, and I'm excited to hear about your thinking about thinking about having number 2!