Grenoble Life editor James Dalrymple blogs on his experience with French childcare in Grenoble and the difficulties getting that all-important place at a crèche.
Handing over your baby to complete strangers is not first on our list of desirable experiences but it is an everyday reality for working parents. France has a relatively high proportion of working mothers and an enviably fertile population, but a surprisingly short basic maternity leave. These are just some of the contributing factors that necessitate widely available and affordable childcare, which in turn do their bit to help get the balance right between being a parent and having a career.
The scolaire system
Getting a place at a municipal crèche, however, is notoriously difficult in Grenoble (and probably elsewhere in France). The largest intake of babies is in September when toddlers doff their mortar boards and graduate to Ecole Maternelle (nursery school), freeing up space for the newbies. Thus, unless you are confident of conceiving in accordance with the demands of l’année scolaire, you may find yourself out of luck when your congé de maternité or parental comes to an end. (For your info, nine months of pregnancy added to around three months of post-natal maternity leave – give or take – would make this September a good time to conceive in order for your baby to get into the crèche in September 2011 – you know what to do!).
Such crèches are subsidised by the Mairie, but parents still pay the bill depending on their means: making them affordable to all. The charges are subject deductions from the CAF before you see them, so that there is none of the time-consuming reimbursement admin which affects visits to many doctors. For my wife and I, it amounts to about two euro an hour. What’s more, thereafter, you can declare this expense against your annual income tax obligations (impôts) which sees this figure drop by a further 50%. In short, the piggy bank can be left intact for the time being.
In my experience the crèches are clean, well-equipped and staffed, with fresh meals prepared on the premises and bubbly personnel. At the end of each day I am given a detailed report on my daughter’s food intake, sleep time and number of nappies (couches) filled with unnerving precision. I am always reassured she is in safe hands, free to explore a terrain filled with ludic objects to peruse, which makes a change from her reordering my CD collection or trying to rewire a wall socket chez moi.
The nanny state
The alternative is a crèche familiale: effectively smaller groups of children cared for at somebody’s home. This is billed as a municipal service and thus subsidised but is closer in spirit to having a private nanny. In our case, we were desperate for the lively atmosphere of the crèche for our daughter, with the different carers and larger number of children. Whereas many people appreciate the crèche familiale, we didn’t feel comfortable leaving our daughter with only one person: a person who wields such an enormous influence in a child’s life yet does so largely away from the scrutiny from her peers.
Although I’m sure the majority of women who work at crèches familiales are professional, I have heard of instances in which they were not. And if you refuse the woman the Mairie offers you, they immediately blacklist you and you have no chance of getting subsidised municipal childcare. It seemed that if we accepted this process, it was a big step into the unknown. Private nannies were also scarce at the time, and among those we met who weren’t fully booked there were some who didn’t seem to even particularly like children. These individuals were also unwilling to accept temporary terms with us while we waited for a place at the crèche to become available, as they wanted a longer commitment.
In my local quartier, the municipal crèche is situated ideally at two minutes walk from our flat, and would have stood as a mocking reminder of what we had missed if we hadn’t got a place there. Finally we resolved to make an arrangement whereby our daughter attended the halte garderie, which is effectively the same as the crèche but only for up to two days maximum. Normally this is organised on an ad hoc basis or, as in our case, with temporary rolling contracts. Luckily we were able to make other arrangements for the remaining hours that we needed but it allowed us to ingratiate ourselves a little with the staff there and secure our position on the waiting list until a place made itself available. This happened in three months.
At first our daughter was crestfallen upon being left at the crèche, acting as if having befallen an enormous betrayal. Traitor! she seemed to cry upon being passed to the crèche staff. There is an integration system by which you can leave your child at the crèche for a couple of hours at a time, gradually building up to full days, but babies are an unpredictable bunch. One day you feel a guilty tingle of satisfaction when your baby cries on being handed over to a carer: yes, my baby still loves me best! The next day your child will cry when you come to pick her up. Traitor! you seethe in silence. In the parental logic, the latter is just the baby ‘releasing tension’ at the end of the day.
The inevitable inconvenience to all this contact with other children is what has seemed like an endless loop of spectacular illnesses. The first time you see a baby projectile-vomit (à la L’exorciste), it is terrifying, but it is impressive what one can become inured to. The winter just past has been a hard one: with the somewhat false alarm of swine flu providing unwelcome distraction from the lurid retinue of tummy bugs and gastros doing the rounds. At the crèche, there is no escape from the steep curve towards stronger immune systems, but this has to happen at some point.
The three days a week my daughter spends at the crèche currently provide most of her contact with French, despite the efforts of certain staff members to speak English to me. As my wife and I speak English at home we hope this will be an effective path towards her obtaining bilingualism; but it is interesting to see the different phonemes she manages in her babillage. Among the distinctly Anglophone syllables we have started to identify some impressively rolled Rs. Once she yelled what was clearly a resounding Merde!, but I’m sure she didn’t learn that down at the crèche.
If you want my advice, persistence is key. Where there is will there is a way.