Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ecole maternelle blues

We're lucky here in France. I know this. When I explain what makes our quality of life so great in this country, free*, high-quality education from age three to university almost tops my list.

(It comes right after government-funded health care. After working in the tech industry in the US, where I had good health insurance but also the constant fear of losing coverage because of a layoff, I cannot take this for granted.)

Yes, you got that right: free nursery school. I've been looking forward to this for the three years since le Petit was born. I thought that once we got to September 2010, we're be temporarily free of child care-related headaches, and our son would be taking his first steps on the golden road of the French educational system. We even tried to plan a second baby to arrive a few months after le Petit was well-established in his new school, so that I could take a year's mostly unpaid leave and still give an infant the same focused care I gave le Petit.

Well. You plan, and the universe laughs.

One of the requirements of French nursery school -- l'école maternelle -- is that children be propre, or potty trained. We've been working on potty training for what seems like an eternity, and making undeniable but slow progress. Unfortunately, current status is far from perfect, and not, in our executive opinion as parents, sufficient for the start of school next week. We agonized about it over our vacation, often making ourselves and le Petit miserable because of it, which was counter-productive and just plain stupid in retrospect.

So le Petit won't be starting la rentrée with the rest of the class. The current plan is for me to take my last two weeks of vacation (Reason Number 3 I'm grateful I live in France: generous vacation time) to spend two weeks at home with le Petit, enjoying one another's company and -- oh, yeah -- working on the potty thing. And if all else fails, searching for another nanny for the five weeks that will be left before my maternity leave starts. Since we'd assumed that le Petit would start school in September, our beloved nanny has found a new gig. Great for her, inconvenient for us.**

Out of respect for le Petit, who will grow up and may be, heaven forbid, embarrassed by this blog, I won't say more on the potty subject. I will say that he may come by this recalcitrance honestly. Although my parents have forgotten all the details of potty training me, they do often maliciously repeat that they were certain that I'd wear Pampers to the prom.

So, ignoring the potty training part for the moment, I'm surprised at how much ambivalence and even anxiety this is stirring up for me about school in general. Back when I was pregnant with le Petit, I predicted that having a baby in France would tie me to the country in a completely new way. It turned out not to be true: I'm no more French than I was before. But having a child in school in France, that, on the other hand, will assuredly pull me into a new part of French culture. My son will be entering a system I don't understand. In fact, he may understand it better than I do in a matter of months, and be able to decipher acronyms like CP and CE1 that still leave me puzzled. Sure, my French husband can interpret things for me, but how can I, le Petit's mother, fill my role as his advocate? Will I do things wrong? Will I embarrass him?

Other fears of mine are universal mother fears. My "baby" will be walking into a classroom with other kids his age, or older, or bigger. He'll no longer have the close, nearly one-on-one adult attention he's had until now. How will be adjust? Never mind that every child makes it through this transition and most of them grow up happier for it, I can't help but be terrified.

My husband called the school director today, who spent a long time on the phone discussing things frankly and reassuring us. In the flurry of e-mails we exchanged afterward, my husband said rightly, "The stakes are not as high as we think."

A few messages later, I wrote back:

"What stresses me is making the right decision. I should know by now that there isn’t any “right” decision in this parenting gig anyway -- or if there is, you’re spared any certainty of it in hindsight, at least if you’re honest with yourself. I’ve been second-guessing myself since the moment I chose to get an epidural ten hours before he was born, and frankly, I’m sick of it. The important thing is that he grow up happy, and he’s much more likely to do that if he doesn’t see his parents in constant cycles of stress."

Easier said than done. Right?

* University isn't free, but the cost is so low compared to the US that it seems practically free to me.

** If anyone has any good ideas for a parting gift for a nanny, I'd love to hear them. We'll be giving her a bonus (in part mandated by her contract, but still), but I'd like to give her something personal, too. But somehow "you took care of my child for two and a half years, which is priceless; here's a gift certificate" doesn't cut it for me. And gift certificates are kind of not done in France, anyway. I'm at a loss!


Aubergine Kenobi said...

Regarding the gift, what about something that Le Petit made? A picture frame (with a picture of both all of you) or something else that will remind her of Le Petit?

My own little one is also starting kindergarden this September (here in Belgium they can start from 2.5 years, and you won't find a daycare that takes children older than 3), and as you, feel lots of ambivalence about it: we'll finally be able to take more part in our community activities (great!), how will I ever be able to help him with his homework? (bad!), the school is within waking distance (great!), I have no idea of how the system works (bad), and so on. And although the stakes are not as high as we think, it still is a big step in our children's lives, one that will undoubtedly change the way they see their world, our job is to guide their way and reassure them that everything will be OK, even if we're holding our breath while doing it!

paola said...

It took me a while to understand the ins and outs of my son's 'scuola materna', but will probably only have everything down pat by the time he leaves in Sept 2011. Still that means I'll be clued in a bit better when Zoe starts in Sept.

As for undertanding what happens in the rest of the school system, well I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. You will probably find that through relationships with other mothers of kids at school with Le Petit,or through the teachers and directors themselves you'll start to piece things together a bit more. Well that's what I have found anyway.

I'm sorry to hear Le Petit will not be starting school with his future classmates in September, but it really is not the end of the world. My son actually started a full 4 months after the academic year began ( on his 3rd birthday) and he actually got extra attention from his teachers because he was the baby of the babies. I remember the moment he walked into the class room, a couple of the older kids took him under their wing and shoved some toys in his face, which he was thrilled about.

All this is to say that both you and Le Peitit will eventually handle the System. And one day, you will be the old hand. As I am now :)


Cloud said...

Does Le Petit know he needs to be potty-trained to start school? We have a friend for whom that was the magic ticket to potty-trained bliss. The kid found out he couldn't start preschool until he used the potty and BAM! he was trained in a weekend.

Other than that, I have nothing, since one glance at the washed out clothes hanging in my bathroom will tell you that we're clearly not potty training experts.

Mom in France said...

All I can say is: This too shall pass. He will potty train, and he will go to maternelle and all will be forgotten quickly. Easier said than done. We're getting in just under the wire: While Boo day-time trained more than 1 year ago, he's been lazy about giving up the nap-time/night-time diaper. I only JUST managed one full day without it. I'm determined to send get him through the next week sleep-time dry and just see what happens when the stress of school hits.

Good luck!

Sarah said...

Bonjour! Just found your blog today via Ask Moxie and I am SO impressed. I spent my son's naptime reading through your archives! I'm adding your site to my blogroll right away.

I'm also wondering if you'd let me interview you on my blog, Bringing up Baby Bilingual, where I post profiles of families raising their children with more than one language. It just involves answering questions about your motivations, strategies, resources, what works (and what doesn't), and so forth. Interested? Check out the others through the label "Profiles" in the sidebar of my blog and email me at babybilingual (at) gmail (dot) com! I'm especially interested in hearing about other French-English families. Merci bien!

Alison said...

Hi! Just touching base with you before we head to the states for 6 weeks...It sounds like your have a good plan for le Petit - don't stress, and you'll be on maternity leave soon and can really take your time. We've just started the potty training here, and it's going about as well I expected (i.e. it's not). FYI, from what I understand, the Jardin d'Enfants is an alternative to the maternelle and does not require the children to be propre. Take care and I'll get in touch with you when we get back!

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

Update: This weekend is going great on the potty front, and it looks like school may be a go, after all, at least for partial days; we'll make a final decision after talking with the director tomorrow. I'm taking a week or two off to try and manage all the possible scenerios. The rentrée is this Thursday... yikes...

@aubergine: homework? In nursery school? Egads! One of the things I'm so looking forward to are the art projects le Petit will bring home. I can't wait for the first homemade Mother's Day present.

@Paola - I've been thinking about what you said once about one of your kids eating Gorgonzola in the school cafeteria. Le Petit just discovered Roquefort and *adores* it... and my husband tells me that it is a staple of the French school cafeteria! Just another reminder of how foreign can be good, right?

@Cloud - we've tried the "gee, this is for school!" thing with limited success. I think because it is so abstract to him -- this seems to work better, from what we've heard, with younger siblings who know about school from their older brothers or sisters. That's also partly why we're thinking we'll try to send le Petit partial days for a week or so and see what happens... that way, if he likes it, it'll be incentive to keep up the potty progress.

@MIF - we're not even working on the nighttime thing just yet. Le Petit doesn't take naps any more with us at home, so that's no longer an issue, luckily. I'm beginning to understand, at least intellectually, that all these seemingly insurmountable parenting crises are truly temporary. :) In six months I'm sure I'll be worrying about something else...

@Sarah - thank you! I will check out your blog!

@Alison - have a great time back in the States! By the time you're back I should be on maternity leave and I'd love to get together... and bon courage for the potty training. I wish I could offer advice or something, but obviously I've got nothing!

caramama said...

Thinking of you and hoping that either way, you guys are doing well. If he goes, then I hope it goes well. If he doesn't, then I hope that relieves some stress.

As for gifts, I felt like a genius when I figured out what to get as a Goodbye/Thank You gift for our nanny! She would drink at least 2 cups of tea everyday at our house, so I got her a really nice teapot and mug with some special tea from Teavana. I don't know if your nanny likes any specific drink or food (French cheese perhaps?), but maybe that's an area to think about for gifts.

hush said...

Glad to hear things are progressing on the potty front. Sounds like you are both handling it beautifully.

I bet that your American-ness will actually be an asset when if comes to future communications with his school. Your foreignness might give you more leeway, more flexibility to question things, to even say the wrong thing, as the need may arise.