We decided before we arrived that we would enroll DD into a maternelle as soon as we were settled, so it was always on the cards. Then, after reading various blogs from others who had relocated and put their children into the local maternelle or école without much of an issue (on the administrative side, at least) and realising that we might not be settled for some time, we decided just to go ahead and enrol her in the village maternelle when she turned three. Our main motivations being to get her into a French-speaking environment and to give ourselves time to get things done, much as we had in England when she went to nursery three mornings a week, and also for the sake of keeping her occupied, as she was happy at her nursery before, being sociable, happy and busy by nature and we were struggling, while also juggling other responsibilities, to find interesting things for her to do.
With her third birthday day approaching, we popped into the Mairie on the Thursday, taking with us the relevant paperwork (her passport, the red book detailing her vaccination record, her birth certificate and a bill with our address on), thinking we would arrange a visit for the following week and start her up there sometime soon after, so it was quite a surprise that the process was so slick and efficient that within an hour of setting foot in the Mairie’s office we were on our way up to the école to greet the Directeur and shortly after that were agreeing that she would start the very next Monday! It all happened so fast. So on Monday, DD started at the local maternelle.
It was a rude awakening. For the past couple of months we’ve been drifting around a bit really. Without proper Internet access our ability to work, to look for properties, etc. has all been limited, so life has taken on a very laid back pace and we’ve managed fine by waking up whenever and generally never leaving the house before 10am. A 7am alarm aiming to get everyone in the car for 8.30am was quite a shock to the system!
Day 1. We drove up and went in, with DD skipping along quite happily, excited about her first day at “school”. The playground was busy and quite loud and, when she saw the others choosing bikes and riding around, she watched from the sidelines for a while before collecting a tricycle and joining in. So far so good. Then the time came to go inside, so I went in with her, put her coat and bag onto a peg, then went to say goodbye. She’d found the play kitchen and was already absorbed to the extent that she ignored me when I said I was going so I gave her a kiss on the head then slid out of the door. From our point of view, brilliant! No tears, no upset – just one excited and happy little girl going off to her new nursery for an hour.
Except it isn’t nursery – there is definitely less unstructured play and more time spent learning – and it is for a little more than an hour. She’s also in an environment where she’s the only English speaking child, which is a huge challenge in itself given she’s so verbal now. I am so immensely proud of how bravely she threw herself into it that first day.
Every other day that week wasn’t quite such plain sailing though. She cried every time. On Day 2 she persuaded James to stay with her, which is a huge parenting fail in terms of settling her in and setting her expectations, so on Day 3 Bad Cop Mummy took her, just me and her, leaving DS at home with James. There were tears. My heart broke leaving her there. But James and I had sat up the night before preparing what I would say to one of her teachers, asking them to watch out for her and reassure her, as she’d confided in us the night before that she was upset by one of the younger girls trying to climb all over her and playing with her hair. Fair enough, and not at all pleasant when the young girl doesn’t understand when you ask her to stop. I spoke to the Maitresse in the playground, who reassured me and picked DD up, distracting her while I slid out of the gate after quietly saying goodbye. When we picked her up later she’d been fine, trotting back into the house carrying a picture she’d drawn that day. There we no red rings around her eyes (a tell-tale sign of a traumatic morning!) and she was perfectly happy, just tired.
The drop off on day 4 wasn’t so good either, unfortunately. One of the younger boys fell of his bike while in the playground before the start of class, injuring himself quite badly, which meant that all the adults there, the teachers, were distracted and there wasn’t anyone in the playground to look out for her. DD wanted me to stay so how could I go when there was no-one to entrust her to? I put her bag on her peg then we sat outside together, her cuddled up close to me, while I pointed out a couple of other children that she might be familiar with – one from the hameau where we’re staying, although he’s older and usually at school so their paths haven’t crossed, and another who was a party we were invited to – thinking this would help her to relax by making the environment feel more familiar. We watched the other children and I chatted to her about this and that, then the Maitresse came out of her office and started to round the children up ready to go into class. It’s normal for the older children to take the hand of the little ones and lead them in, but DD didn’t want to go with the girl who came over to us and offered her her hand. I said it was time for her to go into the class and DD knew what was coming so she clung even more tightly to me. I caught the eye of the Maitresse, who came over to take her. It was so hard but I let the Maitresse take her and then left, hoping that once distracted and busy she would be okay. That meant another difficult goodbye and I cried on my way back to the car, dashing past a small group of parents who gave me sympathetic looks, and most of the way home. I’m reliably informed that she was fine once she got into class, which fits with the happy version that bounced through the door later that day.
So is it just the drop off that upsets her? I was worried about her. I wondered, is she too young still? Is it too much for her, with the language still to learn? Would we have put her into preschool so early if we were still in the UK? Is it too regimented? Also, too late really, I realised we had committed her to school for what will likely be a very long time now. Maternelle isn’t nursery. Yes, you can choose for the little ones to go part-time, but it is essentially school, following a timetable with set holidays. No rocking up at 10am on Monday because you had a bad night with the baby or stayed up late chatting to an old friend. No long weekends away that are outside of school holidays* or term time adventures. All those things are normal when you have a child in nursery but this is school, albeit for very little ones. Was that really what we wanted? Was it the right thing for her and for us?
Then I remembered that I was only just 4 when I started actual primary school. Only a year older than DD is now and I was plunged straight into full school days and the start of “formal” education. I didn’t like it at first but I didn’t have a choice and once I got over that I loved school and learning. That isn’t what’s happening at the maternelle as she’s not going to be full time for a while yet – there’s no need for that until she’s nearer starting in the next class, until she’s six. Yes, it’s more structured learning than at nursery, but it’s still a gentler start than I think I received. And she’s bright. Really bright. Since Monday she’s been craving the French language. She wants to read her French books, listen to French on the radio, talk to our French friends and neighbours. And every day, after the initial upset, she’d come home proud of some achievement, whether doing a drawing, using the toilet, or reading a story. So I thought about it and decided that they previous day had been a glitch, most likely because there wasn’t anyone there to look out for her. I wasn’t happy about that and resolved that I would only be happy to leave her there if I felt she was being looked out for by a sympathetic adult.
And so it was that on Friday, the last day of the week, day 5, five mornings of early starts later, we were walking to the school gate when she told me that she didn’t want to go to school and she didn’t like the teacher. Cue heart sink. She clung to my leg, she wouldn’t even let me go into the school to put her bag on the peg. I felt terrible. I approached the Maitresse, whose English was about as good as my French, and tried to tell her that DD was nervous and asked if she could help. She understood and was sympathetic so tried to take DD from me. DD wasn’t having any of it but I knew DD would be okay once she got into class so I decided I just had to suck it up and go. The Maitresse took her from me and she screamed. I drove home feeling bad but somehow optimistic.
A short while later – which one the one hand felt like a lifetime but, on the other hand, wasn’t enough time to get anything done – we were off in the car to collect her. I worried what state she’d be in. Had I made the right decision, taking her on Friday and leaving her like that? To my relief I was greeted by a little girl who bounced into the car telling me that she’d had her picture taken (there was a photographer there for the day) and had been making paper chains for Christmas decorations. Basically, she’d been fine.
As next week approaches I’m already feeling better about it. It was her birthday yesterday and we had a lovely day together. Today we went to another little boys birthday party and she had fun playing with the other children. She’s been busy playing with her new toys and is her usually happy, lively and curious self. I’m sure there will be a few difficult mornings yet to come, but that’s to be expected; she’s been by our side everyday for the last two months and is well out of the routine of going to nursery. We’re at the maternelle now and there’s no going back!
Have you relocated and put your young child or children into the Maternelle? I’d love to hear how you all adjusted to it or, if you decided against it, why and what did you do instead?
* although I’m hoping this is this is at the discretion of the Maitresse until she starts primary school proper.