wanderlust motherhood series: christine shares on france

by Tania Z. in , ,

so i've started a really exciting series called wanderlust motherhood. each week i'll share a story from a woman that lives in a place entirely different or possibly similar to you, and we get to see what it's like to parent there. i hope you enjoy this as much i am enjoying reading all these amazing stories. 


Christine and I crossed paths in Jakarta, Indonesia, two expatriate children at the Jakarta International School. my first year in an American curriculum for 8th grade after being at a British International school and British based international curriculum for most of my life (this my friends is where my british accent caved and extinguished due to social peer pressure!) I was to continue there for a while and onto college prep in the IB program there, but it was pretty heated times politically, and with a revolution, the school shut down early and many of us fled to Singapore and never returned, so I never got to say goodbye to Christine, and many other great friends I had! No year book, BIG deal for a middle schooler! We did have a bit of fun when a huge part of my eighth grade class stayed at the same hotel, running around the mandarin oriental trying to figure out who was staying there. Huge detour here, but this is the context for how I know Christine. She now lives in France with her sweet little family, and I'll leave it at that so you can dive in a small peek into what it's like to be a mommy in France!

"Towards the end of my first year at university I got a job teaching english. It was mostly business men, but the following september I started teaching a class in a government prep school. Such fun teaching a class of 25 boys around my own age... I dated a guy from a different class, and becoming friends with a few others. The guy ended up cheating on me, and François was really there for me. We became inseparable as friends for a while, and ended up moving in together the following summer. We never really "dated", we just slid from being friends to being "us". We've been together over 9 years, married for almost 2 and have a 8 month old son. My husband and I are both civil servants, he works in civil engineering for the government, and I'm a legal council for the regional government. Just before I got pregnant we decided to move, as there was a great professional opportunity for my husband, and the location was very appealing. So from the outskirts of the 2nd biggest city in France (Marseille) we moved 200 km north to the southern part of the French Alps (Gap - which you might have heard of if you follow the Tour de France!). We love it here, and are very thankful to be able to raise our son in such a great environment. I took 6 months of parental leave after my maternity leave to care for my son. Unfortunately, since we decided to move I still haven't been able to find a job, so as of the 1st of August I returned to my job in Marseille part time. Thibault and I spend 2 nights at my parents' house, and they take care of him while I'm at work.

 On birth and maternal healthcare in France...

I think in France we all take for granted the great health and social security system we have. I literally paid for nothing, not one doctor visit, or any part of my hospital stay. We have complimentary health care insurance, so I even got a private room at the hospital for no extra charge. Another great thing about our system? Only about 10% of births are performed by an OB. I never saw one, ever. I was followed by my regular gynecologist for the first 5 months. Then she referred me to the hospital where I would be delivering. And there I only ever saw midwives. The approach to maternal health is quite holistic, and "natural" medicine is quite commonplace here. Most people use homeopathic treatments regularly, see osteopaths or physical therapists. Personally I hardly ever see the doctor, except for an orthopedic surgeon that I see yearly as I have a serious hip malformation that will require a total hip replacement when I'm done having children. But we always hear on tv that the french population is hooked on medication, especially antidepressants, so I was quite relieved that I didn't have to ask for alternatives when I started suffering from SPD because I was given a prescription for a homeopathic treatment. There was never any pressure to decide in advance if I wanted and epidural or not. During one of the 6 prenatal classes given by the midwives, the anesthisioligist came and showed us all the material that he uses and explained the different procedures. Another of those classes was focused on breastfeeding. All in all I found the whole approach to childbirth very relaxed. I was confident in myself and trusted the medical staff. 

I've followed from afar the whole "Obamacare" thing. I'm not even American (half french half scottish - but grew up in Jakarta from ages 4 to 15 so have more American cultural references than anything else), so I have no opinion on that. But personnally, I'm so very thankful for our social security system in France. Health care costs next to nothing (aside from our extra health insurance which means we have extra coverage for things like eye and dental care). Maternity leave is 16 weeks here, with full pay, for the first 2 kids (longer from 3 up) - 6 weeks before EDD and 10 weeks after. I received social benefits for 6 months after that because I decided to take parental leave. Sure I didn't get much compared to my salary, but it was enough to get by and allowed me to fully enjoy this time with my son. Parental leave is a right for the first 3 years of the child's life. Working part time is also a right, and cannot be refused by your employer during the same period of time. 

My actual birth experience was pretty normal, I laboured at home as long as possible (after sending my husband to work that morning to get him out of my hair!). We headed down to the hospital after speaking to the midwife on the phone twice. I was admitted at 4 cm, opted for an epidural, had my water broken and pushed twice to bring my son into the world.
The big down side on giving birth here is the hospital stay. There are no birthing centers here, so you have the choice between a public hospital and a private clinic. With the budget crunches on the hospitals, the time spent in the hospital is slowly getting reduced. Some places send you home after 2 days and then have a midwife visit you at home a few times, which I think is really great. I gave birth monday night and was released early friday afternoon. The reduction in funding also has huge impacts on the quality of care after birth. The midwives didn't really have time to communicate with us, and I was frustrated especially concerning the tests done on my son (my water wasn't clear so he had an extra blood test to rule out any infection - but no automatic antibiotics here ). I quickly learned that it was the night team that I had to turn to for help. There was also a lot of pressure concerning the weight of my son. From research I had done during pregnancy I knew that if we received IV fluids during labour this could exaggerate the baby's weight loss as he took on and then eliminated fluids too. But he ended up putting on a bit of weight and we were sent home. 
I should also add that my hospital was very breastfeeding friendly. The midwife helped my latch my son less than an hour after he was born. During my stay I got them to help me perfect different feeding positions. I was never offered formula, even with the pressure about his weight. On the contrary, I was advised to feed more often, and buzz them if needed.

On breastfeeding...

I've read that the breastfeeding stats are supposedly better in France than in the States. But I'm pretty sure that probably is only true for the first couple of weeks. I have one friend that continued to breastfeed when she went back to work, and up until her daughter decided she was done. So like pretty much everyone else I'm constantly confronted with two extremes. One one hand I get alot of older people cheering me on. Mostly random older people too! The other day we were picking out a new car (because pretty much all we could get in the old one was the stroller!) and a guy probably in his 60s was waiting too, while I waited for my husband to get the car seat in the car for a test drive. The guy comes over to chat with my incredibly social little man, and says to me "I could be mistaken, but I'm pretty sure that's a breastfed baby". I told him he was right, and he said he could tell by the happiness radiating from my son. Cute, but I'm pretty sure my huge boobs were a bit of a clue... On the other hand I get alot more people that have no understanding of breastfeeding. Pretty much everyone has asked me at least once when I'm going to stop. I generally answer "when he's 18", cause I have no idea myself! When my little man decided to stop sleeping through the night, my breastfeeding was immediately to blame, and everyone kept telling me that he was hungry. Thank god for the internet, and all the ressources and support you can find. Even my doctor, while she has never openly said anything negative, always asks if I'm *still* breastfeeding. But once the initial surprise has passed, I'm pretty sure that most people have decided that my "extended" breastfeeding (my son is 9 months old) is thrown in with the rest of my "weirdness" that people put on the account of me being a foreigner, even though I'm half french. 

On Parenting beliefs...

I didn't read the book, but I've read alot of interviews of the lady that wrote "Bringing up Bébé". Though I think most of it is exaggerated, there is some truth behind the french "principles" that she evokes. We're quite hands on as parents, but it's true that my son spends a good amount of time playing by himself. But when he was little he spent a good majority of his day in my arms. Big no no in France. Feeding is also a big thing here. Our doctor asks us every month how many times Thibault nurses. I usually have no idea. I remember one visit where she suggested we should be nursing around 6 or 7 times per 24 hours. Hmm 6 or 7 times before noon would probably be closer to our reality! Now theoretically we should be down to 4 meals a day. Yeah right! Most of the time I stay evasive on this subject, or lie, because I know that breastfed babies are different than what she's used to. Thibault's weight is perfect though, so it's not an issue for us. 

Many people express concern about socialising our baby too. Yes I cared for him exclusively for his first 8 months. Now he stays with my parents. So no he doesn't go to daycare with other kids. No I don't think this in an issue for his social skills or his immune system. He's very socially outgoing - always chatting to random people when we're out and full of smiles. Even at 9 months when we should be in the middle of separation anxiety. I may or may not have just jinxed myself by writing this though...
Our biggest issue is sleep. Thibault started sleeping through the nights at around 2.5 months, but stopped when we hit the 4th month wakeful. And still doesn't 5 months later. Most people don't understand why we won't just let him cry it out. They insist he's manipulating us, and that we need to set boundaries or it'll just get worse. He'll be walking all over you when he's a teenager they tell us. And when they find out that he often sleeps in our bed, oh gosh!! Quite unheard of here. Sometimes I'd just like to see their faces if I told them that we cloth diapered until Thibault outgrew the set that I had bought!

On being a working mother...

I went back to work on the 1st of August. I was surprised at how much I needed to. The days just fly by. I did cry when I got home to my son on the first day and he was so happy to see me. It pinched my heart when he cried the next morning when he saw me getting my stuff together to leave. But after that it's been great. I get to use my brain, and talk to other adults, and he gets to stay with my parents. The horrible part is that we're not together as a family for part of the week, but I'm sure it's harder for my husband than it is for us. Thankfully my parents are not too far from my work place, and have room for us to stay. 

I'm still breastfeeding, and I pump only once at work (with a pump loaned to me for free by health care) because Thibault won't take much of my milk during the day. I think it's great that my parents get to see Thibault so much, but I'd love to get a job closer to home for so many reasons. Obviously we belong together as a family, but I don't want to put a strain on the grandparent - grandson relationship. I'd like to keep things fun between them, and I'm sure that's harder when they are caretakers so regularly. I'm not sure if we'll go for a regular daycare run by the city, or a nanny when I finally do get a job though.

Because we moved while I was pregnant, and I don't have a job where we live, I was pretty isolated. It wasn't an issue during the first couple of months. My husbad took a month and a half off work when Thibault was born which was amazing. When he went back to work, the days flew by pretty quickly as we were still living the newborn life - change, feed, sleep and repeat. But after a while the days started getting pretty long. I got very frustrated that all I had to do was take care of my home and my son, and I had absolutely no social life. 

What we do...

Like I said before, we made a real decision to raise our children in a better environment than where we were living before. The Marseille region is really polluted, and though we were close to the sea, we never went as we're quite "bearlike" as we'd say in french. Both my husband and I aren't fans of crowded areas, so the beach is pretty much torture around there. We really love where we live now. What we love the most is being able to walk in the counrtyside. It's so calming to be able to enjoy each others company while taking in the beautiful setting, all the while being in the shade and not dying from the heat! We also look forward to getting a seat for our bikes to take him out on bike rides. Another advantage of staying with my folks is the pool! Thibault loves it. I'm a big water person too so I'm happy to share those moments with him regularly. 

As for rituals, meal time is really important to me. Growing up, meals were always a moment that we shared as a family, a great moment when we talked about our days. So even if Thibault has already eaten, if he's awake he sits in his high chair at the table with us. When Thibault was first starting solids I was kind of worried as he refused most of what we offered. But when he decided he was ready there was no looking back! He loves his food, so I'm sure that's something we'll always share as a family.

I also really enjoy reading to Thibault. I try to read him a few board books before his naps and before bed, unless he's tells me that he's too tired and just wants to nurse. Most of the time he really enjoys it too. He has started to show me which books he really likes, and which one he wants to hear. There's one book that always gets a chuckle out of him, which I love!
But I really can't wait to see what Thibault will like to do. Will he want to swim? Music? Art? Parenting is an amazing journey, as you first hand witness the developing of a person. While I hope to share some of this with him, I also hope that he'll find passions of his own, something that will be entirely personal. Time will tell!

On Struggles...

My biggest issue was isolation. Physically, as my family lives 200 km away so it was a bit of an effort to see each other in the early months. Friends were even worse. A few came to visit when Thibault was born, then no one ever phoned. Ever. I struggled to maintain contact with a few, and reached out more to my childhood friends via Facebook. But I did feel pretty alone. So my emotional isolation was hard too, as on top of that I don't have a lot of friends to reach out to for help. No breastfeeding cheerleader to help me through a tough day. No friend that won't tell me to make him cry it out when we've had a bad night. So apart from my husband, I never really talk about anything difficult to anyone. Thankfully becoming a mother has brought my sister and I closer, and she's been pretty much the only one to support me though my choices.

I think my biggest struggle is with the latin culture, which is still very male dominated. Though my husband is a lovely man, I still can't rely on him to equally share the housework. My mother in law will talk about "my housework" or "my laundry". I don't think these things are mine! I hope for women in the US there is a bit more equality, and it's not just expected of a women to do all these things. And I know this is part of the reason why I'm having trouble finding a job. Being a young woman, however qualified, it's hard to get a good job. Being a young woman with a young child, I know that all they're thinking is "she's going to be taking sick days and then get pregnant again". I've even had people tell me that it's okay if I don't get a job up here, I could just have another baby instead...

Last words on parenting...

If I had to say what really shapes how we parent, I would only say instinct. I don't think we follow the principles of attachment parenting, but I have no idea as I've never thought to read about it. We try to do what feels right for us, so that we are comfortable and confident in ourselves. A little co-sleeping here, part time baby led weaning there...

One thing I definitely work on though is passing on a little "multiculturality" to my son. I've been in France since 1999. Which is long enough to have smoothed the edges of my difference. I have no foreign accent when i speak in french, so most people are very surprised to learn that I was taking french lessons for a year or two before that but couldn't really string along a sentence. My husband and I talk to each other in french, I speak french at work... I only really speak in English to my mother and sister now. I mostly even speak french to my dad, as he's french. So I make an effort to talk to Thibault in english as much as possible. I bought books in english too. I hope that he'll feel that it's part of his heritage, more than just a head start to speaking fluent english. Which reminds me of a big dilemma we had when I was pregnant. You all know how hard it is to pick a name for your baby. Well I wanted a name that could be said in both languages easily, and preferred a name that was more english. Unfortunately alot of english names have become trendy in France but not in a good way. They have quite a negative connotation, and we didn't want to set our son up for difficulty later in life. All the other names we couldn't agree on or were too difficult to say for french people (especially the gaelic names I chose!). So we decided to choose a french name, but something classic and not too common. When I was 7 months pregnant we had been through a few names that we ended up not loving after a couple of weeks. I downloaded an app - a name shaker. And no joke - that's how we got Thibault! It was a canadian app and they spelt it "Tibo" (which is how it's pronounced) but still."

thank you so much Christine, for allowing us a peek into your family life, and your thoughts on motherhood thus far! if any of my readers are currently living in France, or have any other questions, please send me a message and i will put you two in touch.

we have many awesome mothers sharing their lives on the wanderlust mothering series, stay tuned!