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  • Writer's pictureRachel Ogilby

To Daycare or Not to Daycare... That is the (American) Question

The email caught me completely off guard. “Hun, we got an email from the creche. It looks like Robert got in for January if we want the spot.”


We had waited 10 months on the waiting list for our older son to get into the French daycare system, so the second time around we applied much sooner. We had plugged in a January date, figuring we probably wouldn’t get in before we moved out of the country back to the US in the upcoming summer.


Now, we had five days to commit to sending our little peanut (who would be eight months by then) to daycare in the French system. He would go to the same daycare as his older brother, but with different caretakers (suited for his age). They didn’t offer half days or less than four days a week. Childcare here is affordable, common, and destigmatized.



American Mom-ing in France

It is a unique experience being a mom in France. In the US, when I told people we were moving to France and I would be the “Stay At Home Mom”, no one blinked an eye. In fact, I wore the new title like a badge of honor – I would be home to raise our baby. I heard motherhood was a lot of work, but I already knew I had unconditional and unending love for this little one, so, of course I could do it.


But motherhood was hard. It was tiring nights matched with exhausting days. It was emotional and mental labor, physically tiring and loads of work. It was by far the most amazing thing I had experienced and I can confidently say that nothing can top it - but it is HARD WORK. It’s harder than any job I’ve ever had, or any life situation I’ve been in (and that includes working full time while obtaining my doctorate degree, selling all our possessions and moving across the world while pregnant - all at once).


When I told a French person that I was a Stay At Home Mom (mère au foyer), they assumed I had child care – and when I explained that, no, in fact, I was doing all the child care, they were astounded. “All day!?” they would exclaim. “Well then you must have a housekeeper or something. Non?!”


I would feel some sort of confusion mixed with pride – isn’t this what I’m supposed to do if I’m not working? Raise the kids? I know it’s hard, but it’s great too… right? Everyone is experiencing this level of difficulty, right?!?



Feeling the Burnout

It wasn’t until our oldest was 13 months old that I finally gave myself a break from constant childcare (four hours at a mom’s get together, which inspired this post). Each time we used a different form of childcare (remember, no family lives on this side of the world) I felt relief. I felt it with our sweet babysitter that we started using weekly to give me a two- or three-hour break while I was very pregnant, and we were accepted into a halte garderie finally (a type of daycare that offers two afternoons or mornings a week) once Carter was 15 months old.


Unfortunately, our babysitters left Paris for the summer and the halte garderie contract also ended by mid-summer. However, our oldest was accepted into a fulltime creche starting in September. I was excited for it, yet already a bit anxious about being apart.  


We had our second baby in May. As I was taking care of both kids on my own during the day, I was dreaming of our upcoming start date for Carter to attend daycare (as well as my parents’ upcoming trip to visit, where I could realistically enjoy a meal while it was hot).


I was mourning the time I wouldn’t spend with our son, but it was starting to feel obvious that it was the right choice. The cultural normalization of children attending daycare at a young age to be stimulated, to socialize, and to learn was also helpful in my acceptance of help.



Taking a Breath

Fast forward to one month of daycare, and I was already having realizations about my own energy levels, stress, and mental load (one day over the summer I had genuinely started to believe that I was iron deficient, only to realize that it was just exhaustion from caring for two babies all day long).


What I noticed first was the difference in what I looked forward to each weekend.


During the weekends that preceded childcare, I was in a constant search for alone time. I was resentful of my husband’s 40 minute walking commutes home (what I would have done for 40 minutes alone!) and I often asked my husband to help me find an hour or two for myself on the weekends.


He did his best – I often attended an hour long group therapy session Saturday, and on occasion I would leave the house to write for two hours. But we were both zonked from the week, and often during our son’s naps we would scramble to try to finish projects and other to do items we couldn’t get to during the week. We would grocery shop every weekend because it was too much for me to do with two kids on my own (not to mention lugging the stroller, groceries, and kids up two stories of stairs). We still enjoyed our time together, but it was pressed with our to-do lists that we couldn’t get to during the week.



Enter September

Now that we were utilizing daycare, I looked forward to our weekend family time so much more. It became clear that my husband enjoyed our weekends more, too. We were living in the moment. It didn’t matter if we had plans or not – we just enjoyed our time together. We often had “family naps” once a weekend where we all tried to rest at the same time. We still had earlier mornings than we’d prefer, but we embraced them and went for walks to see first daylight at the Eiffel Tower. We even went out to lunch as a family and had pleasant, unrushed meals. We just… had fun. Family time was precious.


I had more moments to reflect once I wasn’t chasing a toddler while burping an infant. I hadn’t realized I had been holding my breath, yet I suddenly felt like I could breathe again. It feels a bit strange admitting that life didn’t feel completely fulfilling by caring for my kids 100% of the time… but every mom knows that in reality, motherhood is complicated.


Even with these new insights, I debated what to do about our current offer. Daycare 4 days a week?! My mind first went to excitement. Wow! What an opportunity! The world seemed to unfold options for me; I could write, exercise, and I could study French (something I felt highly motivated to do but lacked uninterrupted time to do it).


However, almost immediately my mind swung in the opposite direction. How could I leave my tiny baby in the care of someone else? What would happen to our breastfeeding journey? And…. what would people say? What would … my family members say?  


I’ve said my whole life that I couldn’t wait to be a mom. What did it say about me if I didn’t want to do it 100% of the time? How could I rationalize not working if I weren’t carrying for babies the whole time?


I felt that it was understandable to have one baby in daycare while I cared for another at home. But two…? I could feel the judgement coming already, and I wondered how I would answer the questions that would surely come from friends and family members back in the US (“But what will you do with your time!?” “He’s so little, are you sure?” “You know, you’ll never get these years back…”).


I understood the cultural norms and how they shape our ways of thinking. In the US, childcare is just not affordable. Families are paying $1200 monthly (and up) for ONE CHILD to go to daycare full time. I have American friends who cannot afford to have another child because they can’t afford to put another baby in daycare. So, naturally, if one parent doesn’t work, it’s often to care for the kids at home. Why pay for childcare if it costs nearly as much as one salary!?


But I digress.



Super Mom or Lazy Moocher?

I checked in with myself and was surprised to discover that much of my anxiety about the decision was related to what other people would think of me based on which decision I took. Clearly I would be Super Mom if I chose to care for Robert at home. But might I be labeled Lazy Moocher if we paid for childcare for both kids and I was doing other things that (*gasp*) interested me?


I also realized that I felt differently about motherhood the second time around. With Carter, I reveled in my time counting his toes and singing him songs. I took the piled laundry or empty fridge in stride – he was my priority and everything else followed. It was easier with one. And most of the first year with him at home, I was unaware of the impending feelings of desperate need for time for myself.


But this time around felt different. I was interested in getting back to my old self. I missed cooking. I wanted to run again. My brain was ready to write and reflect. I was feeling ready to take one foot out of my Motherhood box and enter it back into The World. Robert was enormously special to me, and I still loved singing to him and counting his toes. But there was part of me that felt impatient – I wanted to be with him, but I was feeling pulled towards the Rest of Life.


Did it mean I loved Robert any less? No. Did it mean that I was a bad mom? No. If any other girlfriend had presented me with this same situation and same scenario, I would have encouraged her to take time for herself. I would tell her SECURE THAT DAYCARE SPOT. I would tell her that just by presenting the question “Does it make me a bad mom if…” is enough to know that NO, you’re not a bad mom, because you’re proactively thinking about your actions and their effect on your little ones.


Would I regret not having this time with Robert when I peered into the rearview mirror years from now? This was the only question I had left.


And how could I know this answer? As Robert was likely our last baby, I would never have another little one to take first steps. Crawl for the first time. What if I missed those firsts? What if by the time I got the kids back in the evening, they were both too tired from the day to really engage with me?


BUT. What would the quality of my engagement be if I was burned out?


All of these thoughts swirled through my head.


As I continued to reflect, I recognized that all the people I love would encourage me to do what’s best for me. The “judgement” I imagined would likely be from people who don’t know me that well, and why did I even care what they thought?



The French Perspective

I talked to a sweet friend about it in passing as we grabbed a cup of coffee. She was a French woman I had met when we first arrived, both seeking to practice language together (French for me, and English for her). I hadn’t expected to talk much about the situation, but it came up naturally as it was on my mind.


“You know,” she said, “The French say that being a mom is a full-time job.”


“Sure, yeah, I think we say that too..“


“…Even with child care.” She finished.


Oh. I thought about that for a moment. I thought about how many meals were patched together with random things I could find in the fridge, how the bathroom hadn’t been cleaned in ages and how I hardly had the mental space to try to plan the next weekend let alone our repatriation into the US in half a year. Of course being a mom is a full time job, even with child care!


As an American mom (or any mom) without the option for childcare, you live life a bit in survival mode. Once you’ve done it long enough, it starts to feel “normal”, but the wear and tear continues. I was amazed at how many creative thoughts started coming to me once I had a few hours to myself. I hadn’t realized that that part of my brain had been shut down, but it had. The creative thoughts related to life, our future, plans, writing prompts, ways to give back to the world… all of it had been squashed down by other items that needed to be upfront in the mind.


I marveled about this with my friend. “You know,” she said, “You should talk about this. It can never be normalized until we talk about it!” She was right, of course. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go until we have proper maternity and paternity time, care, and destigmatization (all over the world).


Another conversation with a girlfriend resulted in similar thoughts. “Give yourself a break!” She exclaimed. “Gosh, if only because of all the stuff you’ve been through recently!” She was referring to the fact that we had been living without hot water or use of our kitchen for a month, preparing for our son’s upcoming heart surgery and battling a new virus every week since creche started (sheesh!).


“And it’s not permanent, anyways. You’re moving back to the US by the summer. So why don’t you take advantage of the opportunity to have high quality, affordable childcare, and take a minute for yourself!”


I felt her words hit me in the heart, and like a sigh of relief tears started falling down my face. We enrolled Robert in the creche later that day. I hadn’t known that I was looking for permission, but it was just what I needed.


*Thanks for reading about our journey here in Paris!

 

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