petite anglaise

January 21, 2005

acting like a mother

Filed under: navel gazing, Tadpole rearing — petiteanglaiseparis @ 12:06 am

In a novel I read recently, ‘Notes on a Scandal‘ by Zoë Heller, there was a passage that leapt out of the page and struck me forcefully. It has come back to haunt me many times since. Usually when I am reaching for the Teletubbies video. Again.

One of the protagonists expressed an unpalatable truth that I know I was already aware of on some level, but prior to actually seeing it in writing, I would never have dared admit it, even to myself.

“It was so much easier being a parent when one was performing for another adult… Dealing with her daughter is never easy, but it’s pretty much impossible without the motivation of an audience. If there’s no one about to witness her patience and kindness, she finds herself too weary to tackle Polly’s sullen mystery.”

I don’t think I’m a bad parent. But I know for a fact that I am a better one when someone I seek to impress is within earshot. If Mr Frog is in the next room, regardless of whether he’s actually paying attention, I am much more engaged with Tadpole, far more likely to try to teach her a new word, or invest some energy in eliciting a giggle. So that Mr Frog can hear what a good mummy I’m being. It’s a form of showing off: ‘Hey, look what a wonderful parent I am!’ Or of competition: ‘look how much better I am at this than you!’

When daddy’s not around, I may, flying in the face of all those principles I had before Tadpole was born, let the TV murmur in the background while Tadpole is eating her dinner (or smearing it all over her clothes). I may even leaf through a magazine while she splashes around in the bath with her toys. What can I say? I’ve been at work all day, and although I’m thrilled to see Tadpole, I have bathed her more than 500 times in the course of the last year and a half and there are only so many games you can play with some cups and a few plastic animals with holes in (although I dread the day that she learns how to squirt me back).

We have some amazing moments, Tadpole and I. There are instants which are indescribably precious to me, where she gets a particular sparkle in her eye and I just know that she’s going to give me one of those precious little kisses that she rations so carefully. But there are also moments when she is insufferable and frustrating (“no No NO NO!”) and I yearn to skip the evening routine altogether, put her to bed and close the door.

When the audience in question is the mother-not-in-law or the childminder, then I am all the more motivated to play the role of ‘perfect mum’, because with these women, not only do I seek to impress, but I feel I have even more to prove and my abilities are under constant scrutiny. With my MNIL, I feel the need to demonstrate that I am irreplaceable. It took her a while to adjust to behaving like a grandmother (as opposed to a mother) with Tadpole, and initially I felt threatened, and indeed wounded, by her behaviour. This feeling has subsided, but I know it has had a lasting effect on our relationship, at least from my point of view. And I know that it has affected the way I behave with Tadpole around her. I will also admit that I am not above using bilingualism as a weapon to exclude her when it suits me.

With the childminder I am understandably a little insecure. After all, this woman spends more hours per day with my daughter than I do. She is much older than me, and has a huge amount of child-rearing experience which it’s difficult not to resent sometimes. I sense that it will be she who decides when Tadpole is ready to be potty trained, just as it was she who suggested to me that Tadpole was ready for solid foods or a pair of ‘proper’ shoes. So when I arrive to pick up Tadpole and she hurls herself into my arms I experience a mixture of genuine glee at seeing my daughter, and a satisfaction at being preferred. Followed by the perfect mummy ‘act’, wholly for the childminder’s benefit.

Now that I am now conscious of this tendency to play to an audience, it is impossible to gauge for myself where the natural ends and the performance begins. The borders are blurred; the colours weep into one another.

I try to convince myself that it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. Tadpole will simply be happy that I’m drawing or singing songs with her or reading that extra story. But then again, children can be terrifyingly perceptive. The miracle of speech is also a looming liability.

I fear it is only a matter of time before I overhear Tadpole explaining to the (anti-TV) childminder that she often watches the Teletubbies while she eats her breakfast. Or asks me in front of grandma why we only ever read more than one story at bedtime when we stay at their house. Or worse…

January 19, 2005

the first strikes of 2005

Filed under: french touch — petiteanglaiseparis @ 1:18 pm

Marching season has begun again, despite the rather cold weather we are having.

Public sector employees (fonctionnaires) from the SNCF (French railways), EDF (Electricity board) and La Poste are striking this week in protest against the right-wing government’s ‘policies of economic liberalisation’. Or rather, they are protesting about how the policies may affect them. More specifically, they would like higher wages and reassurance that the government’s loosening up of the 35 hour working week legislation will not apply to them. Well, wouldn’t we all?

Call me selfish, but I find it hard to have much sympathy for French civil servants. Not because when they strike it is a battle to get to and from work and I don’t receive any post. Althought that clearly doesn’t put me in the most sympathetic frame of mind. Not because in general they work far fewer hours than people employed in the private sector, have a job for life and get to retire at least 5 years earlier, on a better pension. Even though they make smaller social security contributions.

The thing that really gets on my nerves is the fonctionnaire attitude I have had to deal with time and time again. Public service would appear to be a misnomer. Take the lovely staff of the main Préfecture in Paris whom I first encountered when applying for my carte de séjour (residence permit, no longer required for EC residents, and not before time). I presented my paperwork, with the requisite sheaf of photocopies, at the front desk. This hurdle down, I was allowed to take my numbered ticket and move into the waiting area, where I soon realised that there were approximately fifty people in the queue before me. I wished I had the foresight to have prepared a packed lunch, a thermos of tea and a good book.

Of the ten booths, two were actually manned (or womanned) by sour faced civil servants, and the simple form filling procedure appeared to be taking at least ten minutes to complete. And the other members of staff? Well, they were out of sight, but within earshot. I could hear one lady talking about her holiday plans, another moaning about being overworked, and the tantalising sound of a packet of biscuits being passed around. It was 10.30am. The department had been open for half an hour. And they were already having their first coffee break of the day.

When my turn finally came, two and a half hours later, I was bemused by the suspicious attitude of the person who received me. As a citizen of the EU, it wasn’t strictly legal for the French government to demand that I carry an ID card of any kind, and my right to live and work in France was indisputable, card or no card. However that didn’t stop the lady across the counter from being snappy, impatient and downright unpleasant. I think she enjoyed wielding some sort of (imaginary) power over applicants, making them sweat a little at the prospect of being escorted onto the next flight back to their native country because they only had two passport photos instead of three, or their utility bill was not recent enough. I hardly dare imagine how the people in the adjacent room (for applicants from African countries) were being treated.

The Irish girl in the next booth to mine was told by a weasel-faced man that she didn’t have enough photocopies of her utility bill. The solution to this insurmountable problem? As the coin-operated photocopier in the waiting room was out of order, she was dispatched off find a functioning copier elsewhere in the building (without directions), and then she would just have to take a ticket and wait her turn all over again. She left, close to tears.

As for me, my application was processed. The next step was that I would have to come back again, in two month’s time, to take another numbered ticket and wait my turn to actually receive the attractive, plastic covered card.

After this and countless other soul-destroying exchanges with French civil servants, I find myself struggling to have any sympathy for the ‘plight’ of the nation’s fonctionnaires.

How heartless of me.

January 18, 2005

flat hunting

Filed under: city of light — petiteanglaiseparis @ 11:58 am

The tiny lift wheezes and groans its way up to the fifth floor, where the doors open with an unpleasant sound reminiscent of a cat’s claws being sharpened on a school blackboard. The pre-pubescent estate agent is already unlocking the door to the apartment. There are four locks. I picture the previous occupant, possibly a spinster with several cats, peeping through the spyhole suspiciously.

Young Mr Estate Agent hurries us past the windowless, unventilated bathroom and its odour of damp. It possesses one of those short Parisian baths in which even a ten-year old child would be unable to stretch out his/her legs fully. Something about the appearance of the toilet sets alarm bells ringing in my head, but before I have chance to investigate further I am cut off mid-thought. Tadpole has escaped my grasp and is making a bee-line for an interesting looking bouquet of dangling earthless sockets and exposed wires in the living room.

Returning to the task in hand, I note that the kitchen wouldn’t be out of place in a student house shared by four impoverished boys and no cleaning products. What plumbling is visible looks decidedly ancient and is likely to be lined with toxic lead.

Monsieur Agent Immobilier ingeniously diverts my attention away from this unappealing sight by throwing open the windows in the three main rooms, creating a situation where Tadpole can potentially defenestrate herself if my attention lapses for a moment. He studiously avoids the issue of central heating (and the lack thereof), but he does concede that the apartment probably requires € 35,000 spending on it in order to realise its full potential.

The main rooms are lovely, with wooden floors, high ceilings and original fireplaces. Winter sunlight pours in through the (non-double-glazed) windows and bathes the walls in a warm, buttery light. Leaning out of the fifth floor window and craning my neck to the right, I can just spy the Buttes Chaumont park.

I prod a wall-mounted electric heater suspiciously. It wobbles. I have never understood the French fondness for a single, tiny electric heater, positioned on an outside wall under a window, intended to heat a large high-ceilinged room.

Sensing that the heating issue is causing my enthusiasm to falter, the estate agent makes the mistake of opening a panel next to the front door to demonstrate the existence of a gas pipe. The rusty old pipe he wiggles at me could be anything for all I know, but whatever it is, it evidently hasn’t been used since the 1920’s and seeing this does nothing to reassure me. Nor does a glimpse of the fusebox (a single old-fasioned wire fuse). Hardly a desirable original feature.

We mumble the usual meaningless niceties about how we’ll have to discuss it but, a priori it is a little out of our budget range considering the amount of attention it needs and our patent lack of DIY skills. Mr Agent Immobilier promises to contact us if anything similar comes on the market (he won’t, in two years no-one ever has) and we take our leave.

It dawns on me later that day what was wrong with the toilet. It was low and small like a bidet with a lid. There was no visible connection to a water supply. I don’t even think it was a sani-broyeur. Could it be some sort of chemical toilet?

Call me fussy, but for the sum of £ 200,000 (€ 317,000) I am not prepared to relive my worst experiences of the Glastonbury festival. I’m too old for that.

Back to the small ads.

January 17, 2005

Wee Oui!

Filed under: Tadpole rearing — petiteanglaiseparis @ 9:30 am

‘Weee weee!’, announces Tadpole, finally tiring of the tissue she has been shredding into fifty-seven tiny pieces for the past five minutes.

‘You want a wee wee sweetie?’, I ask, having acquired the annoying habit of repeating everything Tadpole says in order to reassure her that she is being understood and improve her pronunciation. ‘Well, if you don’t want to do a wee wee in your nappy, why don’t we try sitting you on the potty?’

Tadpole is nineteen months old and I am in no hurry to go through the inevitably messy process of potty training, but as she has suddenly become very aware of the workings of her bottom (i.e. shouting ‘big poo’ while we are having a leisurely brunch in a local restaurant) a potty has been purchased and sits expectantly next to the toilet waiting for her to take an interest in it.

No potty. Wee wee!’, repeats Tadpole petulantly, as she doesn’t like not getting what she wants immediately. I sense that the rising intonation of her voice may indicate an imminent tantrum.

‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you want me to do,’ I reply, bracing myself for the piercing screams which are sure to follow. ‘Do you want me to change your nappy? Is it dirty?’

‘No dirty. WEE WEE!’

Tadpole glares at me, a glare which can be translated roughly as ‘mummy I can’t believe you can be so stupid. Are you sure you speak English?’ and storms off to her bedroom. She returns clutching a book, which she thrusts into my lap.

‘Wee Wee!’ She cries triumphantly.

It’s an Enid Blyton book. Noddy. One of the modern Golliwog-free ones where Big Ears and Noddy sleep in separate beds and Mr Plod does not make quite such liberal use of his truncheon. Known in France as ‘Oui Oui’ ( ‘Yes Yes’). I manage to suppress the urge to bang my head against a wall repeatedly. But only just.

Raising a bilingual child requires levels of patience I am not sure I possess.

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