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.