Marisa Raymond and her husband first came to France in September of 2008. Her husband, then a post-doctoral fellow in Colorado, was offered the opportunity to go to Bordeaux to collaborate with colleagues for 3 months. Marisa had only just gone back to work as a genetic counsellor at a children’s hospital after 12 weeks of maternity leave when the invitation was made. She really liked her job and had been excited to go back but, once she started working, she struggled, like many, to establish the “perfect” work/life balance.
“At work, I felt sad that someone else was watching my son crawl for the first time. At home, I was anxious about meeting deadlines and focusing on my patients’ needs despite insane sleep deprivation. So, having 3 more months with my son and having this adventure of living abroad, coupled with the experience and network that my husband was going to develop, made perfect sense.”
That sabbatical was a rollercoaster of emotions. We were housed at the Observatory in a suburb of Bordeaux. It was gorgeous. I could walk the grounds with Owen, looking for deer, foxes, and rabbits amongst 19th and early 20th Century telescope domes. My husband would come home for lunch each day as his office was only 150m from our house. We drank wine and ate fresh baguettes with salted butter and ham. But it was also horribly isolating. We didn’t have internet in our house so I had to walk to my husband’s office to Skype with family or check my email. I spoke French but there was, at the time, few places where I could take my son to play and, when I did, we were either the only ones there or I found it very hard to engage French moms and nounous (nannies) in conversation.
The car our friend lent us was a manual transmission and I had never learned to drive one so the first month was spent with me strapping the baby in the carseat while my husband sat patiently in the passenger seat and I stalled and restarted the engine while trying to learn to drive on the pothole-filled roads around our house. But it was a must because walking in our town with a stroller was an even more scary with very few sidewalks and people drove fast despite low speed limits.
We weren’t totally alone. We were able to make a few friends through my husband’s work colleagues. Also, time was short and we had family and friends who were living in Europe who happily jumped on flights from the cheap airlines to visit us. We spent more time together as a family during those 3 months than we had at any other point. We returned home feeling like we had had a wonderful adventure and had lived a small piece of the French life – even if only momentarily.
Not long after we returned to Colorado my husband was asked to apply for a job in Bordeaux. He got the job and we were lucky enough to get a logement de fonction – a house on the Observatory’s campus to live in rent-free. The Observatory was scheduled to close in 2012 so the house was temporary but we also felt that 3 years would be a good trial period to see how we liked living here. Just under a year after we returned from our sabbatical, on November 1, 2009, we arrived back in France with a now-21 month old and my husband’s coveted fonctionnaire (civil servant) contract.
Our biggest mistake was planning for our move in the same way we planned for our sabbatical. We focused on the packing part and figured the “getting settled” part (finding French classes and work contacts for me, daycare for our son, and a support network) would be easier once we were there. We talked with contacts we already had in France instead of seeking out advice from people who had done it themselves. Facebook was still relatively new so I never thought to use it as a source for online support groups. And the French still very much relied on word-of-mouth to spread information so many support organizations provided local phone numbers on their website more readily than email addresses. But, if I had to do it again, I definitely would make more of an effort to go out of my comfort zone and contact those resources before we left.
Once we arrived we had to learn quickly about patience and adaptability. When we went to purchase phones and open bank accounts, we had no idea about the numerous documents we needed to actually open the accounts. We reached out to two expat organizations (Bordeaux Women’s Club and Bordeaux-USA) so that we could meet some English-speaking people for support. But most of their activities were kid-free and I didn’t have childcare.
We went to the mairie (town hall) to find out our options for childcare. There were no spaces available in the creche (daycare center) for my son. And, in order to prioritize him on the waiting list, I needed to prove I had a job. But, I didn’t have a job. I wanted him in daycare so I could take French lessons and then apply for a job. But there was no box on the form for such a catch-22 so we were left without childcare. Also, my masters degree diploma was not transferrable. And the only university that offered training in genetic counseling in France if I wanted to redo my degree was on the other side of the country in Marseille.
I decided to stay home with Owen until a space became available in the creche for him. He was offered a place 6 months later but only for 10 hours per week of care. I found a French class through our local centre sociale (community center). It was only 3 days a week but it was free and offered me the opportunity to meet other immigrants and expats in our town. In the meantime, I struggled to make friends by pushing myself way outside of my comfort zone – talking and smiling at strangers on the street or at one of the few mommy-and-me play hours per week that were available. And, breaking Owen’s early bedtime routine that we had had in the US so that we could go to social events which, in France, tend to start at 7 or 8pm.
The hard work paid off. Little by little, I was able to make friends. The first real friend I made was another expat, a woman from Switzerland, whom overheard Owen and I speaking English at a park and came over to chat. Most of my friends are expats whom I have met through social organizations in town. We speak English together and share our WTF (Welcome To France) moments – both good and bad. Several of us became pregnant at the same time and our younger son was born in June 2011 so we were able to start a play group together. By that time, Owen started maternelle and, because I was also working part-time as an English teacher in the nursing school, we were able to get a nounou for Zachary 3 days a week.
In addition to teaching English, I also started my own business, Empathy Life Coaching, as a life coach and yoga teacher. I teach locally and work with clients all over the world to help them anticipate their self-care needs and create consistent routines in the face of busy lives so that they can stay balanced and energized! I also volunteer with Cancer Support France that provides active listening and resources, in English, for patients and their caregivers. So, on a day-to-day basis, I feel much more settled now.
The kids adapted much more easily. This is their normal life. Unlike me, they have nothing to compare it to. Owen started school with very little expressive French language because he had been home with me for most of the week. But his maitresse and the school’s directrice were very supportive and encouraging. They got the other students involved in helping to teach Owen French. This helped the other children feel invested in supporting Owen and, even to this day (he’s in CE2 or 3rd grade), the children in his year have a strong group dynamic. Owen and Zack (who’s now in grande section or kindergarten) are still the “American kids” but now that learning English is getting more popular and has been added to the primary school curriculum, the kids and teachers ask the boys to translate words or help with pronunciation.
Zachary has been bilingual since he started talking. His nounou spoke to him only in French and he only speaks French in school now. Neither boy has an accent and both take pride in correcting mine. At home, we only speak English. This includes reading books and streaming television shows in English. We didn’t really actively decide to do this. It just made sense for us because, even though my French is ok and my husband is fluent, it’s just the language we feel more comfortable speaking. But we also have talked with other expat friends who have older children and, the truth is, we know that, in school, they will learn English as a foreign language. I spent 13 years learning French as a foreign language in school and I still struggle with verb tenses. It’s not an immersive curriculum. Which means, for us, the oral and written skills that they will be taught do not meet the high expectations we have.
We encourage the kids to become penpals with friends in the US so they can practice writing. And, as they get older, we have started doing writing projects around their interests. We try to keep it fun and low-pressure so that they do not see it as extra work. And, we are lucky that, in Bordeaux, as they get older, there are colléges and lycées that have incorporated international, English-based programs if we are still here when they reach that level.
Our 3-year experiment in France has now become 7.5 years and counting. We often talk about whether or not we want to go back and, if so, when. But, the longer we stay, the more difficult that decision becomes. We miss our families and, as our parents get older, we are saddened that our kids don’t have a closer, more routine relationship with their grandparents. We both strongly believe in the benefits of sharing multi-generational experiences. We try to see our families in person at least twice a year, but that still means the kids are vastly different developmentally each time we see them. And while we recognize how lucky we are to be living in an age where Skype, FaceTime, and cheap international calling plans make it easier to be in touch more regularly, between time differences and busy schedules, it isn’t always easy to be consistent.
But, we also recognize that our children are benefitting immensely from this experience of life as third-culture kids. In addition to being bilingual, they have friends who live all over the world, who speak lots of different languages, practice lots of different religions. In this age where populism is on the rise, they understand that differences aren’t something to be fearful of. And we are benefitting immensely from our increased family time. My husband, as a fonctionnaire, gets 45 days of vacation per year plus holidays. With my own business I can be flexible to pick up the kids every day after school, including all afternoon Wednesday when they are off. During school holidays, we are able to be together to explore the region or other areas of France (it is much easier now with older kids!)
I’m not going to lie: we have lots of ups and downs and I don’t think I will ever feel French. I will always be culturally different, an outsider. But, overall, our life here is like life anywhere. When I talk to friends around the world, the day-to-day issues of managing a work-life balance seem universal. We are all overachievers who want the best for our children. I miss my family a lot and there are days when I feel so far out of my comfort zone and it that can feel isolating. But our quality of life here is much better. And, having a support network of other expats means that I know I am not alone. And when I pick my sons up from school and see their big grins and hear about their day, when my husband and I can plan our next family trip without stressing about how many days of vacation we have left, I know that this was a great decision for us.
Find out more about moving to France in MumAbroad’s Family Guide to Moving to France
Find out more about Education in France