Monday, September 26, 2011

Working Girl

Last Monday I set my alarm for 6:30 a.m., got up, showered, dressed, hastily ate breakfast, and took a bus, a train, another train, and another bus. My badge still opened the front door. My computer password, however, had long disappeared from my memory. It turns out that changing it via the VPN in a postpartum haze a month after you've given birth is a good way to ensure you'll forget it. The african violet on my desk was still holding on, barely, a near victim of my colleagues' collective well-intentioned but overzealous watering. People seemed happy to see me.

For my part, I was happy to be back. I don't know yet if I'll ever love my job, and there are days I certainly don't like it very much, but last week I absolutely loved being back. I had more energy than I've had in years, and even tales of system bugs and incomplete functional requirements couldn't dampen my uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Irrational exuberance, perhaps? Still, I can't wait to dive back into the project head first. I'll find out soon enough if I'm standing at the shallow end of the pool. I'm just ready, I guess, to turn my thoughts to something other than my children, adorable as they are. To work on a project with other adults. To leave the apartment without pushing a stroller in front of me.

Everyone's been asking me if it is hard to be back. I don't know if this is a cultural thing, and I'm curious, do people in the US ask this as well? Or is it just blindly obvious that after the short maternity leave most US mothers have, going back is quite likely to be a challenge? Honestly, I don't know what to think. No, I tell them with a genuine smile, it isn't hard. Nine months at home was just right for me, personally, and I'm happy to be doing something else now. It helps that le Petit is happy to be at school and Mademoiselle seems content with the nanny. She cries a bit when my husband leaves in the morning, but she's far from the wailing wreck her brother was at first when I went back to work when he was the same age. When I pick her up in the afternoon, she's busily, happily playing. (This is usually when my questioner starts to tune out. Yes, I am one of those mothers, who goes on and on about their kids long after everyone's stopped listening.) In my self-analysis, I end up feeling a bit guilty for not feeling guilty, if you know what I mean. But I fundamentally feel that every mother has a different amount of time at home with a baby that feels right to her and it can be long or short. The baby is happiest, the entire family is happiest, when Mom gets to choose; I'm exceptionally lucky to have a country, a culture, a career, and a personal economic situation that allows me this choice.

I wonder, why does no one ask a dad -- a dad who, even in France, has to go back to work after only two weeks of leave -- if it is hard to go back to work after the birth of a child? How different is it for men, really? I'm not sure how much of the biological programming argument I'm ready to buy. If you're an involved parent, working and parenting at the same time is hard. It is most often a necessity, too, of course. For many of us, it is also somewhat liberating.

I prudishly left one detail of my transition back to work until the very end of the week: mentioning to my boss that I was pumping breast milk so he wouldn't be surprised when I disappeared briefly from my desk twice a day. I told him as matter-of-factly as I could, but I was embarrassed, even though I remembered vaguely that it wasn't so hard last time around. I must have been channeling my inner lactivist back then or something, for I clearly remember proudly explaining that I was pumping to any colleague who happened to ask about the mysterious soft-sided cooler I toted around with me. I also wrote a long blog post detailing how I'd worked out the logistics.

My boss' response: "Yeah, of course, I figured you would." And he went on to tell me that another woman in the office did the same for her baby, after first asking him how I'd organized things, so my inadvertent, indiscreet publicity had paid off. This may sound not like much, but I assure you that in France you have to be both exceptionally motivated and impervious to raised eyebrows to dare pump breast milk at work. At the same time attitudes will only change as more women just go ahead and dare, and anyway, as a foreigner, people expect me to be eccentric. I don't know whether it was my daring or my eccentricity or the mere fact that I figured out that the shower/dressing room near the exercise area could serve as a discreet pumping location, but my lactivism helped gain one to the cause.

My boss and I went on to talk about how in general it is easier for women in France to combine motherhood and career than it is in many other countries. I expressed for the umpteenth time that week how thankful I was for the time I got to take off, and how happy I was to be back.

"Attitudes have changed. Now long maternity leaves are accepted, are even the norm," my boss observed, "But... it isn't easy to have to make due without [Parisienne] for a year. Not easy at all."

French bosses are notoriously parsimonious with praise, so that statement totally made my Friday afternoon. Then I had to run. My family was waiting for me. I skipped off to the bus, took a train and then another train, then another bus, picked up Mademoiselle and took her home -- le Petit was later delivered by conspiratorial grandparents -- and met my husband, who poured me a celebratory glass of wine.

It's not bad being a working girl again.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

And that, my friends, is why I'm going back to work

I picked up le Petit at four o'clock today.  By letting him skip After Care for the first time this week, I felt like I was breaking him out of jail. He goes willingly to the cafeteria at lunch each day, but he was clearly glad this morning that for once he wouldn't share the fate of the majority of his classmates and be led off to the centre de loisirs at the end of the afternoon with the dim promise of snack time.  Cantine, mais pas goûter, as he explained happily to his teacher at drop off.  I wonder if he understands that it's all over on Monday.  If he wants to skip out early from now on, he'll have to rely on his grandparents.  I'm having fun imagining Grandpa calling over the playground fence as he arrives for an early pick up, "Hey, don't worry, kid, I've got a plan to spring you outta this joint."

By contrast, Mademoiselle was in no hurry to leave when I arrived to pick her up.  Sharing a nanny with another family means a whole other home to explore, with all manner of interesting new things to put in her mouth.  She was applying herself to the task diligently, but didn't I realize this was twice her normal workload?

The three of us walked home with le Petit doing his best to maintain our slow, dignified pace by dragging his feet and practically hanging off the handles of Mademoiselle's stroller.  When I'm not in a hurry -- and luckily, tonight I wasn't -- I find it fascinating to walk with le Petit and watch him discover the city street at preschooler level: there are metal plates with cryptic letters, grates that cover mysterious holes, and curbs, ledges and lines that all cry out to be walked along.   Today he stopped and planted himself in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the window of a real estate agency.

"Look!"

I followed his gaze inside to a knee-high model of an apartment building that was presumably under construction.  There were tiny little windows, tiny little balconies, and tiny little plants hanging off the tiny little balconies.  I let him look as I tried to push the stroller off to the side a little, since we were blocking the sidewalk and irritated people in a hurry were huffing and pushing around us.  I acknowledged le Petit's enthusiasm.  He wanted to go inside and take a closer look.

"No, hon, because if we go in there, they're going to want to sell us a big, expensive apartment that we can't afford," I explained lamely.  There were about a million valid reasons I was not going to talk to a real estate agent tonight, but none would make much sense to le Petit.

Le Petit thought about my excuse as I tugged on his arm and he reluctantly followed me to leave.

"Mommy?"

"Yes?"

"You're going to have to see a lot of clients."

My husband, you see, works as a technical consultant in the sales department of a software firm, something utterly uninteresting and incomprehensible to a four-year-old.  So we've explained that Daddy "goes to see a client" when he leaves in the morning.  Especially when he leaves in the morning wearing a nice suit that no one may touch with hands stained with butter and jam.  For a while this spring le Petit liked to ride his toy car around the living room and pretend to visit clients, and I even made him an imaginary laptop computer out of piece of folded cardboard and a spare ribbon.  I program computers and beat up databases for a living, but that's even more abstract.

"I'll have to see a lot of clients... and why's that?" I inquired.

"Clients every day.  Every, every day... except... except the days when I am at school."

The notion of time is still fuzzy, so he puzzled over this a bit before eventually adding:

"Yes.  So that you can make lots of money."

"Lots of money, and then?"  (It was almost impossible for me not to finish his thought.)

"And then you'll make lots of money, and we can buy a nice big apartment in Versailles, and we can come back and see the inside of the little house!"

 And to think, I was worried my children might not appreciate it when I was once more off to work.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

J - 4

I'll be going back to work in four days.

In the meantime, I have two days of relatively freedom while le Petit is at school all day and Mademoiselle is with N, her new nanny. I'm running around getting frivolous things done for myself (pedicure! new shoes! haircut!) and less frivolous things done for the house and kids (fix broken shower head! buy new toilet seat! pick up Mademoiselle's passport!).

Mademoiselle is still waking up three or four times a night, and I'm wondering how I'll muddle through my days once I'm back at the office. But I'll be able to go for a run during my lunch hour, and take a yoga class once a week, and honestly it seems like so many people in the world, from those close to me to those I read about in the newspaper, have real big problems. I'm feeling a bit selfish, and useless, and helpless about that. Like I can't do much but the little I can do I'm not doing.

But this morning, after a crazy scamble to get ready and out the door due to a malfunctioning alarm clock and four-year-old reluctance to put on the damn shoes already, my husband dropped le Petit off at school. The teacher, who has 30 students, one helper, and approximately ten seconds to devote to small talk with parents in the morning, complimented le Petit on his English. Twice a week, now, they have an English teacher spend thirty minutes with the class, and on the first day they'd already discovered that le Petit has a perfect accent, an impressive vocabulary, and is eager to talk. I glowed at the news. My husband just wanted to say, "Well, duh." (He has a decent grasp of American slang, too, you see.) But part of me had been worried that he'd hide in the back and not say a word. So, I guess I can give myself some credit for something, right?

I'm delighted, too, that Mademoiselle is adjusting well to spending her days far from maman. N is experienced as a nanny and seems quite gentle and maternal with Mademoiselle, even in the struggle to get her to nap. When I pick Mademoiselle up in the afternoon she's often still at the park, perched on N's hip and surrounded by N's local nanny friends and a giggling group of children of all ages. She seems so surrounded by warmth and happy activity, I'm sure her days go by quickly. N also takes care of two school-aged children from another family in the afternoon, so Mademoiselle has some big kid playmates.

So here we are, in the starting blocks for another year. I'm ready to take off at a sprint, but as a seasoned distance runner I know I need to pace myself from the beginning (especially on so little sleep). I also suspect that I need to remember to slow down, stop, look around, and be grateful from time to time, too.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

La rentrée

It's a good thing le Petit is now a big kid in the moyenne section of his nursery school. It's also a good thing that it's my second year with a kid at la maternelle and I know the ropes. Otherwise, I might have been just a tiny bit terrified when I dropped le Petit off at his new classroom for the first time on Monday morning. The teacher, barely looking up long enough to match a name with a face, checked le Petit's name off a list. She noted that he'd stay for lunch but go home before snack time, and handed us our notebook for official school correspondence.

"Will there be nap time after lunch?" my husband asked politely, almost timidly. We're both disproportionately intimidated by nursery school teachers.

"No, of course not!" the teacher answered sharply. This is moyenne section, after all, she seemed to say. Ca ne rigole plus. We're no longer joking around here, people. Not that we were hoping for nap time, mind you -- le Petit hasn't taken a nap regularly for at least a year and a half.

A line of parents and children was forming out the door, and the teacher was clearly overwhelmed. The classroom aide hadn't arrived. She had thirty students. I decided not to worry too much about how things would go. Instead, we cheerfully and briefly said goodbye to le Petit and left, and he readily popped inside, more than happy to leave us. It was his first full day at school, first day at the cafeteria, first day with a new teacher. What could possibly go wrong?

(I didn't try to answer my own question there, hoping the change of clothes I'd sent him with would cover any eventualities.)

When I picked up le Petit at four o'clock he was ecstatic, and, I noted with relief, wearing the same clothes. I heard more details of his day on the way home than I'd heard all the year before, and they all came out in a fascinating jumble. Four-year-old stream of consciousness is so damn cute. I learned that they'd had recess on the playground on the roof (ah, urban elementary schools) where men with tool belts were building new toys. There were two new helicopters, both blue. They'd read a story about a bear in the woods. There were lots of new kids, and they sat together on a big bench -- big, but not as big as the Viaduc de Millau that we saw on our vacation this summer. They played some sort of game with chestnuts, separating the marron inside from the spiky part on the outside.

The most involved story involved recess. First, he was playing with a small red bicycle -- small like this, he said, holding his hands close together -- which was claimed by another kid while he went off to use the potty. Luckily, however, someone then gave him big yellow bicycle -- big like this, he said, holding his arms as far apart at he could -- and they all turned it upside down and pretended to make chocolate milk.

Hearing this I was tugged back into the imaginary world I created at recess thirty years ago, where we turned toys into machines, kitchens, and hot lava fields, and turned blades of grass into magic potions and improbable recipes.

So, you know, turning a bicycle upside down to make chocolate milk made total sense to me.

It made sense to my dad, too, when le Petit narrated his first day of school later on Skype.

"You know what? When I was a kid, I turned my bicycle upside down and pretended to make ice cream," he shared with le Petit.

Le Petit thought about that for a moment. Our vacation was somewhat of an ice cream tour de France. Thanks to indulgent parents and grandparents, le Petit sampled ice cream everywhere we visited, always the same two flavors, pistachio and raspberry. And on an outing to Versailles with my in-laws last week le Petit visited le hameau de la Reine, the mock country village created for Marie Antoinette on the grounds of the chateau, and saw the "dairy." "That," my father-in-law had explained, "Is where Marie-Antoinette made her ice cream."

Le Petit misses nothing, saves up all that he observes and overhears to make brilliant statements of four-year-old logic when we least expect them. Like on the night of his first day of school, as my husband was putting him to bed.

"Papa?"

"Yes?"

"When I'm big like you, Papa, you know, there will be lots of toys on the roof of my school. And Grandpa G will have a bicycle and turn it upside down to make ice cream, just like Marie-Antoinette."

A parent sends their kid off to school for the first day and nervously tries to imagine all the possibilities.

But there's absolutely no way I could ever have come up with that.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Nine month sleep regression 1, Parisienne 0

The nine month sleep regression is beating me.

Down.

And kicking me, too, while I'm there.

I don't remember that le Petit went through sleep regressions as an infant, at least not the classic ones at four and nine months. His sleep was miserable as a newborn and gradually improved throughout the first year. By the time he was two or three months old he was only waking up to nurse once or twice a night, and that remained pretty constant until he was a toddler. He occasionally would wake up for several hours in a row and throw a party for the entire family between two and five o'clock in the morning, which was its own kind of bleary-eyed hell. He was also very difficult to help fall asleep at night, and a terrible napper. But frequent wake-ups were not his thing past two months old. I'm sure a skim through the archives would provide more details, but frankly I'm too tired.

When I was pregnant the second time around, I worried about sleep. What would it be like when Mademoiselle arrived? I figured that chances are it would be better, but if it were as bad or worse, at least I'd be prepared. What I didn't count on was that it would be neither... just different. A new brand of exhaustion.

If my memory weren't compromised by lack of sleep, I could count on one hand the number of nights she's woken up less than twice. When sleep is good, she averages three wake ups; when sleep is bad, that slides to four or five. What has saved my sanity from the beginning is that she'll usually nurse briefly and fall right back asleep, so with her crib still next to our bed (no third bedroom in our apartment, and we don't want Mademoiselle to wake up le Petit), I barely have to open my own eyes. I suspect that my own sleep cycles are even more or less patterned on hers now, so I am less tired than you'd expect.

Enter the nine month sleep regression. Mademoiselle learns to crawl*, and then to pull up and cruise furniture, and suddenly sleep is so last month, already. Four wakes ups, minimum. More often than not I lose count. I find her awake two or three hours after I put her down for the night, upright in her crib, gripping the bars and screaming. She's obsessed with mobility and she's staging an uprising, demanding her rights or something -- what, exactly? Oh, yeah. Two syllables:

LO! LO!

That's our cute word for lait, or mommy's milk. She can't say it yet, but she sure as hell knows what it means, and when she wakes at night she will accept no substitutes. We know because we've tried, most recently last week. On that fateful night, she woke up for the second time a half an hour after waking up for the first time, upon which I said something rude and handed her over to my husband. He tried to calm her down unsuccessfully while I pretended to sleep on the couch. By the time I intervened again, Mademoiselle was so wired that she wouldn't nurse down but instead wanted to sit up in our bed and clap her hands. She refused to go back into her crib without throwing a fit. I swear she would've started singing protest songs if she'd only had a guitar. After losing two hours in the middle of the night, we ultimately calmed her to sleep in our bed in between us, and in another hour, she was awake again.

Last night she woke up two and a half hours after I put her down, and then woke up roughly every hour after that. I was a mess this morning, barely rested after having cycled through strange dreams. Our apartment was stifling thanks to a late summer heat wave. Poor Mademoiselle had five new mosquito bites, a possible partial explanation for the miserable night we'd all had.

I was irritable all day today, snapping at my husband and le Petit for little or no reason, complaining, yelling. I'm coping -- barely -- by swearing loudly at things like household appliances and eating too much chocolate.

I don't know if I can or should try to "fix" anything. Mademoiselle will grow out of this. I'll head back to work in two weeks, and Mademoiselle will be starting partial days with the nanny on Tuesday. It will be hard enough for her soon without trying to nudge her into better sleep, even in the gentlest of ways. I guess all I can do is hang in there, knowing This Too Shall Pass, be thankful all day long my kids are healthy and happy, and post incoherent rants here and on Facebook.

And go off to sleep. Now. For an hour or two, at least.

* I realized that I didn't properly describe Mademoiselle's adorable method of crawling in a previous post. She advances her arms and then, with her left leg bent out to the side, propels herself forward by pushing with her left foot. She lets her right knee drag along the floor. She's gotten quite good at this, and stealthily heads off on her own to explore the apartment, so I've got to be fast these days. Which would be easier if I weren't so damn tired, but I digress.