Monday, September 25, 2017

The plight of the working SAHM

Here it is September. And I am not writing this from a jail cell or a psychiatric ward, meaning that I have officially survived my son’s first grandes vacances (summer break). Hooray! The French public school system can now resume its life-saving role of civilizing him encouraging his deep sense of right vs. wrong to win out over his possibly deeper urge to wreak havoc on his mother’s fragile sense of self-worth. 

I will let you in on a little-uttered secret among us working SAHMs (Stay At Home Moms): YOU HAVE TO BE CRAZY TO DO THIS. Seriously, who does this? Kinda no one. Why? Because it’s absurdly difficult! Working from home while trying to be a passably decent mother means that your brain is on constant overdrive and yet you never seem to actually accomplish anything. You pour your whole heart into making sure that your kids are rested, fed, safe, clean, and entertained; that your clients are satisfied and faithful; that your husband is … like your clients; and that your house is cozy and relatively free of clutter. Without forgetting your own appearance of course (because c’mon now—French women manage to drop their kids off at school at 8:20 am looking bloody perfect in their 10-piece outfits and sexy-yet-somehow-bicycle-friendly heels).

And yet, despite making what feels like a constant, gargantuan amount of effort, despite multitasking in your sleep (which you get precious little of, incidentally), at the end of the day your kids are dirty and whiney, your clients are requesting last-minute changes, your house is a wreck, you haven’t so much as glanced in the mirror, and your husband, arriving home to pure chaos, surely wonders what in tarnation you’ve been doing for the past 11 hours (other than tweeting insults at Donald Trump, which is a given). Come to think of it, what have I been doing?

I’ve been coaxing little eyes to open, little ears to listen, and little mouths to eat; I’ve been picking out little clothes, wrestling little clothes onto squirming little bodies, washing little clothes, folding little clothes, and putting little clothes away; I’ve been trying to prevent little feet from sliding down the stairs, little hands from getting pinched, little heads from getting bumped, and little fingers from going where they shouldn’t; I’ve been reprimanding for hitting, for not sharing, for drawing on the table for the 50th time, for being rude or crude or mean; I’ve been searching for a lost teddy bear, a lost pacifier, a lost toy car, and a lot of lost marbles (mostly mine); I’ve been taking temperatures, making doctor appointments, going to doctor appointments, picking up medicine, and administering medicine; I’ve been cleaning the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and everything in between with sponges, antibacterial wipes, brooms, and my friend the Magic Eraser; I’ve been changing diapers, changing undies, and explaining how peeing INTO the toilet is preferable to peeing NEXT TO it; I’ve been giving baths, brushing teeth, reading stories, singing lullabies, and promising that witches don’t exist; I’ve been hugging, kissing, swinging, dancing, laughing, and crying too. I’ve been feeling guilty for not seeing my friends more, for not calling my parents more, for not reading more, for not running more, for not doing more, and for not doing it better.

And somewhere in there, I’ve also been managing a business.

The mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion of being a stay-at-home-yet-working mother is impossible to put into words. Normal people know better. Normal people either stay at home with their kids and don’t work, or arrange some form of daycare for their kids and then work. Trying to do both simultaneously is insane. However, my answer to seemingly impossible situations has always been “Yes I Can,” or more accurately, “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t.” And so here I am, with a 4-year-old, a 1-year-old, a writing business, and a new home that we just finished renovating because hey, at this point whos counting? Add to that the fact that we (still) have no reliable babysitter, no nearby family, and that I promised myself I would only put my kids into daycare after their first birthday, and there you have it: it’s, as the French would say, compliqué (translation: IT’S A COMPLETE SHIT SHOW, BUT I CAN’T VERY WELL GO AND ADMIT THAT NOW CAN I?).

But, and this brings me back to my initial point, I have made it through the summer, i.e. full-time two-kid management while trying to work. Little g is now back in school and Baby c has just begun daycare two full days a week, meaning 18-odd hours of potential concentration time for yours truly. NETFLIX BINGE! Perhaps not, but the next best thingreal, honest-to-God, uninterrupted intellectual work. I don’t much care for the adjective “amazing,” but this calm? This silence? This ability to finish a thought and complete a sentence? It’s amazing. My Bitch-O-Meter is slowly descending from “molten lava” to “somewhat pleasant,” which is a solid win. I’m finally getting stuff done, after what feels like an eternity of bicycling through sauerkraut (pédaler dans la choucroute—a great French expression).

I know that one day I will think back on this period with great fondness and nostalgia—assuming I survive—but I would be lying if I said that it’s anything this side of “stupefyingly hard.” But this is where the little voice in my head pipes up to quote the well-loved line that Tom Hanks’ character delivers in the movie “A League of Their Own,” and it instantly makes me feel somehow lighter: “Of course it’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.” I’m not saying that the comparison is entirely spot-on, but the message is: who the hell ever said that playing two full-time roles, that of Super Mom and that of Super Entrepreneur, would be easy? Jean-Philippe NOBODY, that’s who.

The truth is, I’ve never been one to shrink from a challenge; I actually sort of thrive on them (even if I bitch and moan the entire way). So yeah, this is toughbut maybe that’s the whole point. It may kick my ass today, and it may keep on kicking my ass until my kids move out (undoubtedly to go live in the U.S., because karma), but it’s also doing what challenges are supposed to do: improve us. And I am becoming a better person. For one, I’m a lot more compassionate. I laugh at myself more freely. I laugh at a lot of things more freely. My ability to relativize has greatly improved. I may be gaining more gray hair by the day, but each twinkle of silver has significance: a lesson learned, a ray of wisdom received, a jagged edge polished smooth.

The bottom line? My kids are doing great; my business is thriving; my new home is almost fully decorated. In other words, maybe it’ll all be okay after all. 


Photo by Jeff Holt

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


I have not written in quite some time about the CHILLUNS, so I am now going to rectify that.

Little g
Little g is several months into French preschool. French preschool begins at age three. It is not obligatory, but something like 99% of French families do it because OMG why wouldn’t you? Little g’s school is nice. It’s public, which is FINE, since public school in France is just great if you live in a decent area, which we do. It’s also free, have I mentioned that? We had a brief flirtation with an organic, touchy-feely, bilingual Montessori option, but it cost upwards of 7,000 euros/year just to say hello, and, um, non. I myself went to a Montessori-esque school, and while it was wonderful and taught me to think outside the box and embrace my creativity and all that, it also sort of did not teach me much about MATH, for example, which my high school algebra teacher noticed right off the bat, and yes I still count on my fingers and oh hell let’s not go there. I’m not forking over 7k so that my 3-year-old can avoid the unpleasantness of homework, thank you very much.

So public school it is. In public school, one’s child is expected to be potty-trained, or as the French say, propre (clean). This is a pain in the ass cultural particularity that takes some getting used to. Little g, despite our best efforts, was not entirely propre when school began in the fall—but we, like many other parents, sent him anyway in the hope that peer pressure would kick him over the pee-pee turnstile. Now, because of increased security measures in France, when one picks one’s child up from school at 3:45 pm, one must wait outside the school gate until the children are released, at which point they come racing out of their respective classrooms and make a bee-line for the gate. They are then handed over to their parents or guardians one by one. So the first week, out comes little g, running along with his classmates and SO FRIGGING CUTE I CRIED LIKE EVERY DAY. Have I said how HARD it is for a mom to send her little one to preschool for the first time? He took it way, way better than I did, but anyway.... So out they come, skipping and smiling and so damn cute. Except what is that garbage bag swinging from little g’s darling orange penguin backpack? Oh, why, it’s full of the clothes I dressed him in this morning—all drenched in stinky pee-pee! Oh, and what are those pants he’s wearing? I’ve never seen them before! Huh. Is this a Scarlet Letter, shame-them-into-conformity thing? If so, it’s whack.

So the whole first week pretty much went that way. Pee-pee, trash bag, someone else’s clothes. Since then, he’s gotten much better (the peer pressure thing works, in other words) and we are mostly past the accident phase, which does not mean I have removed the beach towel from our couch (duh).

Let’s talk about his teacher for a minute, because she’s a piece of work. The woman is in her 60’s, obviously close to retirement, and took a disliking to me from the get-go. Why? Maybe because I’m FOREIGN (actually I’m not, but that’s a post for another day). She likes to balancer (chuck) these semi-sarcastic, WTF-is-that-supposed-to-mean side comments at me, such as, “Your son said a whole sentence in French today” (he’s bilingual, connasse). Or, “You shouldn’t laugh when I reprimand your son” (what?). Or, “You should feed him breakfast because he’s eating his friends” (WHAT?). Anyway, the dislike is mutual, I can assure you. This woman needs to retire and not go anywhere near any little children anymore for the rest of her sad, bitter life. Moving on....

Bonus #1: How to get scratches out of hardwood floors, courtesy of little g and his @&$!! Lightning McQueen race car
Forget the wood paste, olive oil, lemon juice, white vinegar, and whatever other bullshit advice you find online. Grab some professional furniture repair wax in multiple shades of brown, a soft cloth, a plastic scraper (old credit cards work nicely), and a shit ton of patience and go for it. Good luck.

Baby c
Baby c is a dream. She’s sweet, cute, sleeps well and smiles a ton. She gives these slobbery baby kisses that just melt your heart. She is also SICK ALL THE TIME, because oh, have I mentioned that preschool is like one giant biology experiment in which 30 little kids cough all over each other/share their teddy bears/swap pacifiers/do God knows what else for 7+ hours a day? Yeah, so lots of sick. Sick begets sick, especially when sick child #1 loves to hug and kiss heretofore healthy child #2, thus ensuring maximal viral transfer. So baby c, despite being only 6 months old, has already come down with multiple colds, a horrid ear infection, two eye infections, and the straight-up flu, thank you very much French public school.

Also, having two kids is insane. No one tells you this beforehand, because if they did, the fertility rate would plummet, but it’s ridiculously hard. Even if they’re sweet and cute and generally amazing, it’s STILL by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and that includes moving to Paris with nothing more than a last-second sublet and a dream (aw). What’s the divorce rate for couples with two or more small children? I shudder to guess. And on that note,

Bonus #2: The Keep It Together cocktail
5 cl Cointreau
4 cl fruit juice (cranberry, orange or apple)
2 cl fresh lemon juice
Pour into shaker. Shake, shake, shake.
Serve in a fancy glass because you deserve it!
ENJOY—feel the bitchiness leaving your body.
Repeat as necessary.

Bonus #3: How to get mashed peas out of a shaggy throw rug
Get down on hands and knees, with a magnifying glass if necessary.
Pick out as many little pieces of pea as possible. Long fingernails help.
Wait overnight, allowing any remaining pea mush to dry up.
Spray carpet with carpet cleaner.
Vow not to buy another shaggy throw rug until your kids are at least 18.
See Bonus #2.

Get used to this, kiddo.