Today, we’re thrilled to kick off our sixth annual Motherhood Around the World series! Emilie Johnson and her French husband Xavier live with their two daughters in a small village in Provence, surrounded by vineyards. Here are 14 things that have surprised Emilie about parenting in France, including strict teachers and funny expressions…
Emilie grew up in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Maine and Seattle, since her father moved frequently for work. “We were a tight-knit family with eight kids, and home was sort of each other,” she says. She met her now-husband, Xavier, in New York, and they spent three years living in Paris. They then moved back to New York City, where they welcomed two daughters, Colette and Romy. But both Emile and Xavier worked intense finance jobs and found they had zero work-life balance. “So, we took a map of the world. We said, where we would go if we could go anywhere?” The answer was Provence.
Two years ago, they sold their New York apartment, moved into a 400-year-old house in Provence, and started a finance technology company. The transition wasn’t without bumps. Xavier had always spoken French with their daughters, but in New York they had responded to him in English. “My then 4-year-old was terrified to find herself in a classroom where she couldn’t articulate her ideas well,” says Emilie. “For the first couple of months, Colette sounded like an American making a real effort to speak French, overplaying the ruh in the ‘r’ in her throat.” The transition was easier for littler Romy, who never had an accent in either language. Today, two years in, they are both wholly French.
On spending time outdoors: We live in a rural village, and I take the girls out every chance I get. We find ourselves alone in wild places. We remark on the bumpy lumps of the wheat field that has been churned up by a farmer. We eat eggs whose shells are still decorated with feathers. The girls smell the jasmine in our garden and are running barefoot all the time. Our house is also surrounded by vineyards and farms. You get to see what a potato looks like as it’s planted and as it grows, and the vines as they trim them. It’s so elemental, but to me it’s one of the best things here.
On shedding guilt: In New York, I would wake up before my girls, ride my bike to work with a podcast in my ears at 2x speed, all the while making checklists in my head to try to get everything in before I went home to be a parent. I was soaked in guilt. Our move here shifted that feeling. Childcare is widely available, and most French mothers count on it from the time their babies are still young without feeling a negative cultural imputation. This is one reason that France has one of the highest rates of women in the workforce in Europe. The culture supports my traveling for work or doing things on my own.
The girls imitating the strict face of their teachers.
On school: Kids can start school at three years old. Our preschool is full day, from 8:30 to 4:30, with nap time. There are two teachers for 28 children. When I first arrived, I was like, ‘There is NO WAY.’ But I witnessed how strict they are. My youngest comes home and imitates her ‘mistress’ and sometimes it’s quite harsh. She’ll say very strictly, ‘That’s not possible, that’s not okay, get back in your spot IMMEDIATELY!’ Still, both of my daughters have loved it.
Four-year-old Romy recently said, “I’d really like to eat some escargot. We talked about it at school, and it’s very normal.” Emilie said, “Okay!”
On food rituals: The food culture in France is very rich, and ritual is the source and keeper of that richness. When we first arrived, I marveled watching the 20 children in Romy’s crèche (daycare), ages 0 to 3 years old, sit around a table for their goûter (afternoon snack) and not one child was allowed to begin until all the other children had put on their bibs and passed the plate around. Something like this is only possible in a culture where taking part in food is a daily ceremony, practiced and taught. Other than the goûter, children around here don’t eat between meals, as a rule. One French friend insisted: a child should feel hunger every day, before each meal. After all, she said, only a hungry body can fully appreciate food.
What Emilie bought one day at the February market. Each vegetable was labeled with the Provence town where it was grown; most farms were within walking distance.
On school lunches: One day, a group of parents were huddled around the school gate, and I stopped to see what they were looking at. It was the lunch menu for the week, which included beets, goat cheese, endives, zucchini, veal and on and on. The menu was divided into three courses: entrée, plat and dessert. I listened to their conversation. They were shocked that the fruit being served for dessert one of the days was not in season. They were going to bring the issue up in the next PTA meeting. Very young kids here identify fruits and vegetables by season. Strawberries are found in April, May and June and if eaten outside of those months, children will ask, but how? I’ve heard people at the market refuse a melon because it was grown more than 15km from our village.
On doudous: Another thing that is universally French and really sweet is the concept of a doudou (from the French word doux, or soft). It is essentially a lovie or blankie, and all French kids have one for moments of crisis and always for sleep. At the girls’ school, there is a ‘doudou wall,’ where each child has a pocket with her name. Some kids get very attached to just one doudou, rendering it difficult to launder, and life gets very tricky if this doudou gets lost. There is even a service called SOS Doudou where found doudous are listed online. The service will also ship out a new doudou that matches the lost doudou via overnight express!
Xavier making crêpes.
On doing things the French way: There is definitely a specific way to do things in France. When I was cooking with my French mother-in-law for the first time, we were peeling potatoes. I was apparently using her peeler in a way she had never seen, and she gasped. I jumped and asked her what was wrong and she exclaimed it just was not possible to peel a potato that way! It’s a similar story with many aspects of parenting — down to when a bath is taken at night. I like to do the bath right before bedtime. But most French parents we know start with the bath, put their kids in pajamas and a bathrobe, and then usher them downstairs for dinner at 8 p.m. My children’s French grandparents can’t reverse this order in any way and find it aberrant that we would! I do feel dissonance in my need to do things in the way I know, versus the French way.
French kids often pout with their mouths when they’re listening. When my girls do it, I’m like, ‘Why are you making that face?’ And I look over at my French husband, and he’s making the same face.
On the language: Watching my girls become French has been surprising; in fact, it has taken my breath away. On rare occasions, I worry that I am losing them somehow or that they are distancing themselves from my home culture — a feeling I didn’t foresee. I see the shape of the vowels on their lips and mouths, their expressions and gestures (blowing their cheeks out in exasperation, their lips sinking downward in an upside-down U shape) and they are French. The other day, Colette even put a finger under one eye and pulled the skin down to say, yeah right. It feels strange that my children will have this trove of cultural knowledge that I cannot ever know natively. I am an immigrant and they are natives, a curious divide.
Also, I feel like I’ll never be funny in French — the cultural references, getting the timing right, etc. I’m able to do that in English, but it’s really hard in a different cultural context. My sister-in-law doesn’t speak English at all, so our entire relationship over the past 12 years has been formed in French. There are parts of myself I’d love her to know.
The girls’ bug collection.
On bugs: We have crazy bugs in the Provence countryside, and we’ll find them crawling up our walls and plants. The girls will see a metallic striped beetle and call, ‘You have to come see this amazing bug!’ In New York City, they would have freaked out. Our bug collection includes scorpions, cicadas, beetles and spiders. We watched a bee swarm take over a hole in one of our sycamore trees and now they buzz in and out of it daily. Last night, a bat flew in. I was trying to get a bat out of my house. I was like, ‘This is crazy.’
Making Easter eggs at home.
On religion: My husband grew up Catholic, like many French people by culture. He says he’s atheist, and he doesn’t see a big contradiction there. More than a fifth of the French population are openly atheist, and two-thirds of young people are atheist. My parents are devoutly Mormon, although I don’t practice anymore, so that’s an interesting cultural divide between my husband and me. Sometimes, my daughter Colette will say, ‘Ahh, I just need to know if God is there.’ I think my girls have to find their own way.
The 13 Christmas desserts of Provence.
Shoes for Père Noël.
Families in Provence go all out at Christmas, and there are many traditions that exist nowhere else in France. We eat the 13 desserts of Provence, including olive oil cake, nougat, calisson (marzipan like) and on and on. Children also ceremoniously shine their best shoes with their parents Christmas Eve and leave them under the tree for Père Noël to fill with candy. And the locals in Provence glean (“grappiller”) at Christmas time, meaning they go into the vines and eat the sweet raisins left hanging there in the months after the harvest.
On praise: The French parents we know don’t often praise their kids. When I’d say to my own kids, ‘Wow, Romy, what a beautiful drawing! Colette, great job pushing yourself on the swing!’ French parents look at me strangely. Of course, I want to celebrate and support my children, but then I read an article about kids who stop doing things because they love them but instead because they’re seeking external reinforcement. I see that even in my own kids. Now I’ve tried deliberately to hold back my tendency to say, ‘That’s wonderful!’ I want my girls to enjoy things like swimming in the pool because it feels good for them, not because I’m on the sidelines cheering.
On children’s books: French books often take on heavier topics without even blinking. They’re not scared of addressing things like death, without it being a book about death. Stories don’t always have a happy ending. A couple French books I found in my daughters’ room are Peau d’âne (the story of a girl who uses a donkey skin to hide from her father, who wants to marry her!), La Barbe Bleue (about Bluebeard, a wife murderer) and another one about a knife-wielding giant. The graphic images and barefaced way these stories are told to children of all ages is definitely cultural.
On sex: When it comes to sex and menstruation, our French friends talk openly with their children. My friends who have teenagers talk to them about condoms and help them get on birth control, if they’d like. For me, at least growing up in my very religious household, there was a lot of shame around sex. In France, sex isn’t seen as a sin of any kind. I love that. This article about the morning-after pill being offered by high schools is definitely in line with broader cultural attitudes about sex and sexuality for young people.
On a close-knit community: When shopping for our family’s groceries, I walk through the village market — the bread shop is separate from the cheese shop is separate from the meat shop. Each time, the owners will strike up a long conversation, even if there are five people behind me in line. The pace of life here blew me away. I adore it, except when I’m catching a flight soon and just need to get bread! Those sweet relationships are part of being a village. The butcher says his son will take his place after he retires, and he’s training him on sausage making. When we go on vacation, the baker’s son feeds our cats and waters the plants.
Drying clothes outside. “The girls smell like sun,” Emilie says.
I hope we can stay here for a long time. We left New York not knowing what we were doing. All our friends were like, ‘You guys are nuts.’ But the balance we find here, and the way we see our children integrating into this little village, it’s what we dreamed of.
Thank you so much, Emilie! It was a joy to talk to you.