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. I was both happy to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience and missing the comforts of home.
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. It was like a scene from a movie.
I knew that I was lucky but I also felt isolated. The rental house didn’t have internet and this was before phone plans came with lots of data. I spoke intermediate French but, I found it very hard to engage French moms and nounous (nannies) in conversation at the playgrounds.
We borrowed a car that had a manual transmission. And, while I was grateful to have a mode of transportation since the town had few sidewalks to push a stroller, I had never learned to drive a manual. The first month was spent with me strapping the baby in the car seat, during lunch breaks or on weekends, while my husband sat patiently in the passenger seat as I navigated between driving, stalling, restarting the engine and stalling again.
(My son was exposed to a lot of foul language during those excursions.)
As a family, we profited greatly during those 3 months. We had family and friends who were living in Europe and happily jumped on flights from the cheap airlines to visit us. Our parents came too. And, because I didn’t have an hour-each-way commute to work, we were able to spend so much more time together as a family. We returned home feeling like we had had a wonderful adventure despite the challenges.
Not long after we returned to Colorado, my husband was offered the opportunity to apply for a permanent job at the University in Bordeaux. After our sabbatical, I was skeptical about leaving my job and packing everything up for an overseas move. But, it was his dream job and, I figured, we had a good idea of what we were getting into. The job even came with a logement de fonction – a house on the Observatory’s campus – to live in rent-free. Practically my entire salary was going to childcare in the US, so we figured we’d give it a go.
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, selling our house in Colorado and finishing up work commitments at our respective jobs. We figured the “getting settled” part (finding French classes and work contacts for me, daycare for our son, a support network, etc) would be easier once we were there. While we talked with contacts we had already made, we did not, specifically, seek out other expats who had gone through the process.
In our defense, Facebook and Twitter were still relatively new and not yet a relied-upon source for online support and networking groups. French websites were not easy to navigate, especially with my French level. And, because the French still very much relied on word-of-mouth to spread information, many support organizations provided local phone numbers on their website more readily than email addresses. I was also juggling a full-time job, a toddler, and studying for my genetic counseling board exam, so the “we’ll figure it out” approach also felt like a sanity-saver.
That being said, if I had to do it again, I definitely would have reached out to local resources before we left. There were a lot of intricacies about the French system that I just wasn’t expecting. Having a better sense of what the processes were would have reduced a whole lot of stress and saved a ton of time.
Once we arrived we had to learn quickly about patience and adaptability. French businesses, including banks and pharmacies, close for lunch. Restaurants open late. 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. There was a lot of going in circles. You really need to reach the right person to get the help you need.
For example, when we went to the mairie (town hall) to find out our options for childcare, we were told 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. We wanted him in daycare so I could take French lessons and apply for a job! There was no box on the form for such a catch-22 so we were left without childcare.
We contacted two expat organizations (Bordeaux Women’s Club and Bordeaux-USA) so that we could meet some English-speaking people for support. At the time, very few members had small children and I found myself having to miss out on activitities due to lack of childcare. This has changed a lot as more families with younger children have moved to France. But, at the time, it made it difficult to establish a community and feel comfortable asking for help.
When you move to a foreign country. Being comfortable asking for help is just as essential as proper planning. There’s just a lot of things you can never anticipate and it’s important for your mental and emotional well-being to have people who can guide and support you through the ups and downs of the rollercoaster.
Eventually, my husband’s boss wrote a letter to the mairie in support of our candidature for childcare to speed the process along and things started to change.
Once my son was in part-time daycare, it offered me the opportunity to attend social events, take French lessons at our town’s centre sociale (community center), shop at an adult-driven pace, and begin job hunting.
The hard work paid off. I met another expat, a woman from Switzerland, who overheard Owen and I speaking English at a park one afternoon and came over to chat. We spoke English together and bonded over our WTF (Welcome To France) moments – both good and bad. I got a job teaching English privately and at the nursing schools in town.
By the time I became pregnant again in 2011, we had a mommy-and-me playgroup ready. My oldest started maternelle and, by the time Zachary was born, we had a nounou lined up for his care.
In addition to teaching English, I started volunteering with Cancer Support France. CSF is a national charity that provides active listening, hospital visiting, and other resources, in English, for patients and their caregivers living in France.
Through the challenges of navigating life on the expat planet, I had restarted my yoga practice for my physical, mental, and emotional health. When the boys were around 4 and 1, I found myself spending more time on my mat barking in downward dog as my “puppies” crawled and curled up underneath. I posted a picture on Facebook and a friend invited me to start teaching kids yoga at a Thai boxing gym she and her husband owned.
Within a year, I was teaching kids yoga in English in local schools and associations. I also got certified to teach adult yoga and started working with moms too. By 2016, with my genetic counseling background combined with my yoga training and additional certifications in other energy healing modalities, I launched an evidence-based holistic coaching practice. I am filled with gratitude each day that I get to help parents and children stop burning out and blowing up so they can feel more joyful, resilient, and connected.
Kids are so adaptable. Watching my kids roll with the ups and downs has taught me so much about how I want to show up in this world. For my kids, this is their “normal”. Whenever a new situation comes up, they are experiencing it for the first time – with nothing to compare it to.
My oldest, Owen, started school in France speaking very little French. But his maitresse and the school’s directrice were very supportive and encouraging. They got the other students involved in helping to teach him the vocabulary. Owen learned to trust that there will always be people who have his back. He also discovered that words aren’t the only way of expressing yourself. Powerful lessons that, at 14 years old, have helped him seek out friends from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and learn about their experiences.
My younger one, Zack, was born here in Bordeaux and has embraced his expat identity. At 11 years old, and just starting middle school, he takes pride in being able to help his classmates with their English and me with my French.
The boys speak French at school and English at home. 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 was raised bilingual, it’s the language we feel more comfortable speaking together.
I spent 13 years learning French as a foreign language in school in the US and I still struggle with verb tenses so I am intimately aware of the limitations of a non-immersive curriculum when it comes to learning another language. I know the value of reading and speaking a language at an age-appropriate level both for one’s confidence and facility in moving around the world. So, I’m still pretty strict with wanting to keep our house an English-language environment.
At home, the boys read books and stream television shows in English.We encourage the kids to become penpals with friends in the US so they can practice writing. We try to go back every year to visit family and friends. 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. Kids (and adults as just bigger versions of the little kids we were) learn better through play!
Our 3-year experiment in France has now become 13 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 know I will never feel “French”. I will always be culturally different, having grown up in a different environment than our neighbors and, even my children. But, overall, our life here is like life anywhere. When I talk to friends around the world, the day-to-day issues of adulthood and parenting are universal. It’s a juggling act to manage a work-life balance. And, in the end, we all want what’s best for our children.
I miss my family a lot and there are still days when I feel far out of my comfort zone, when I get confused or frustrated by how things are done here and feel isolated. But our quality of life in France is much better. Our family is thriving. And, having a support network of other expats means that I know I am not alone. When my sons come home 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