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!