I’ve got this goofy grin on my face.
It’s like I’m in on a brilliant motherhood hack or something.
Following those endless hours that turned into years of rocking and soothing and feeding and cleaning and feeding more, I’m seeing a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. The bleary eyes of motherhood are starting to make sense of the letters before me…. s c h o o l. School!
This month, it was finally time to send not one but two of our children, neither of whom have known one day in daycare, to French Maternelle. I think of Maternelle as Preschool – made up of the Petite Section (actual preschool), Moyenne Section (pre-K) and Grande Section (Kindergarten) in the US. While Maternelle isn’t mandatory in France, opting out isn’t very common.
After so much intentional deliberation over the schooling options back in the US, we simply dropped both kids off in the free elementary school in our village of 1400 denizens (and possibly as many horses). After moving from Denver, Colorado three months ago, the kids longed for friends and we just barely kept our heads above water. We were trying to be their playdates, resident cooks, and movers and farmhouse repairmen. And somehow get some bills paid in there too.
So, the week we set foot in France, we had made a special appointment with the school to register the kids. There were no special “welcome kids!” banners or long forms to fill out asking us about developmental milestones. We were simply asked to hand over our EDF electricity bill (the king of all proof of addresses in France), birth certificate, and proof of polio and DTaP vaccinations. In fact, come to think of it, we never signed a paper or showed our own IDs. The headmaster simply showed us around three rooms and handed us a single sheet of paper with school hours saying: that’s it, see you on September 1!
On that first day, we held them tightly by the hand and brought them in with one tissue box, one pair of slippers to wear when indoors, one stuffed animal and a water bottle. That’s what the paper said to bring. We savored our allotted 20 minutes to clip on name tags and give pep talks and one more kiss on those tiny little fingers.
It was a tiny bit terrifying.
And *ehem* a whole lot liberating!
Hear it from me, a highly intentional parent who has made huge career sacrifices to pour every part of me into these little eternal souls. A wannabe home-school mama, because everything in me wants to protect my kids, to teach them to think outside of the box, and for evil academic institutions not to cramp our travel style:
Never ever have I enjoyed my kids like this. Never have I done more with them than these past weeks of two of them being in school five days a week. Never have I felt so accomplished. It’s amazing. Why didn’t anybody tell me this was coming so fast?
While the physical time with the older kids is shorter, I’ve been given back quality time with them when I’d normally be cleaning alongside them, or running errands with them. I’ve been given time with baby Amani to lay next to him and snuggle or let him claw my eyes out. Even with a baby at home, and four daily round trips to and from school with three kids (that’s the equivalent of putting 24 children in carseats) and a long lunch break at home, I can handle new work projects and ‘old house’ problems. And did I mention how thankful I am for school?
Now to adjust to the system.
Since the birthday cut-off is December 31, with no option to hold children back a year, our Christmas baby is THE youngest in the school. She is still just two years old. Thankfully, at this little village school, each class has split grades so the older kids can help the younger ones and the younger ones can learn from the older ones.
There is no picking and choosing in French public schools. Five mornings a week are mandatory for my daughter in preschool. And my son, who is in the following grade must come back for four afternoons as well. That’s a heck of a lot of time spent at school, which is why we chose for them to come home to eat. It’s not like you’re allowed to bring your own lunch to school anyway.
Now we know why French kids supposedly eat everything (gotta love ridiculous generalizations): they are starved at school! The children are offered no snack from their breakfast at 7:30am until lunch appears on the table at 12:00. One of my high-metabolism kids was so ravenous on the first week, they were reported to be rolling on the ground with a belly ache. The next day, the child was inconsolable, so I was allowed to exceptionellement bring in a few raisins. They rationed out three raisins, debating what time wouldn’t ruin their appetite. This was to be a tide-me-over until the child had adjusted.
Every day for the first week, parents put their kids’ slippers on, refilled water bottles and then dropped wailing kids off with pacifiers and stuffed animals. Please leave now, said one teacher to a broken-hearted parent, and then closed the door.
Up till now, we’ve thought much of our parenting was quite in line with the French way of doing things. Until now, when it was our kids behind closed doors. And until we witnessed an incident involving a teacher yelling and getting physical with a kid.
My husband and I, amidst our own journey of cultural adjusting, are struggling with the drastic loss of control in a school system that generally doesn’t invite a whole lot of parent involvement. It’s a tricky thing, when you are new in a country, to know when to let the teachers get on with their work, and when it’s important to speak up and be appropriately counter-cultural when your gut feels something is wrong.
As our resident French-but-not-French person, it’s become my role to understand how things work in the school and ensure the kids are thriving. We know that the French are highly relational people and so I choose to linger and chat with the teachers. I express my gratitude for their work and I ask earnest questions about what is going on in class. And, you can count on me to be among the first to offer to accompany the children on their trips outside the school. I also want to observe for myself. Not in a helicopter way, but just as an invested parent way, until I see the kids are in good hands. One day as my daughter started a gym class, walking on little beams and jumping into hoops, I lingered outside the large glass windows, watching how the teachers held little hands. And how the little ones looked up to their teacher. Because, trust is such a hard-earned thing in a new land.
What keeps us putting those kids’ slippers on and handing them over to their class teachers is the goodness we do see.
A teacher who spends time working on a skill with one of our children.
Hearing that our kids are looking out for one another on the playground.
For the rotating workshops like art and music, or foreign language and road safety.
The kids humming new songs and reciting a poem.
The boost in the kids’ French skills.
For baby friendships and for our babies growing world-shaped hearts.
For the controlled risks like those cute scooters they get to use in the schoolyard.
For all these cool new opportunities called swim lessons and ski lessons and pony riding.
And for the sane mother.
And so, by faith, we keep walking forward. One step in front of the other.