the birth diaries, Victoria Jelinek
‘I like children – fried.’ W.C. Fields
It may be difficult to get a place in the crèche for your child, but it’s even harder to find an assistante maternelle, literally translated as a mother’s assistant, or nanny.
The way the assistante maternelle system works is that she can take from one to three children between the ages of one and three into her home for childcare.
At three, the child will ostensibly go to the local ‘maternelle,’ or public nursery school. The assistante maternelle is a person who has been certified and registered by the government to tend to children.
The cost of an assistante maternelle is generally about six to ten times more expensive than a place in the local crèche.
Being rather enlightened in the way of childcare, however, the French government subsidises the expense of an assistante maternelle for those who pay their taxes.
At the end of each month, the employer of the assistante maternelle (that’s the parent of a given child) registers all of the hours, days and ‘indemnities’ the assistante maternelle has charged, on an online system for the entity Paje.fr (the entity that takes care of the subsidies). Shortly thereafter, the Paje partially reimburses the employer based on their taxable earnings and the cost of the given assistante maternelle.
The tricky bit is to find an assistante maternelle. There are ‘x’ amounts of them in a given area, and it is likely that a given child will be in the care of a given assistante maternelle from infancy until they are able to go to the local school.
Because the law states an assistante maternelle can only have a few children being cared for in their home at a given time, there is little movement and timing is everything.
My husband and I went down to the mairie (mayor’s office) and asked for a list of the registered assistante maternelles in the area. There were about 40. We then marked the nearest to us and called each of them to enquire about a spot for our son in the autumn.
Not one had a place. We ended up calling every single assistante maternelle on the list – near and far- and only one had a space available in the autumn or, indeed, at any time over the next year. We went over to her house to meet her. She was French and nice enough, very patient with us as she explained her hours, her holidays, her rights and the time in which one must drop off and collect one’s child.
Unlike the stereotype that French women are fit and slender, this one was rather heavy set. I noticed that there was a deep fryer on the counter, which probably meant lots of fatty foods.
The assistante maternelle’s husband came in while we were there and he greeted my husband but did not meet my eyes or acknowledge me. I am a mere woman.
Later, my husband and I discussed it and to be honest, we didn’t feel the house was very comfortable, and we both felt a little bad that our boy might spend days on end there, but we didn’t know what else was available or what the French households are really like, and we have to work sometimes without our boy and we can’t afford a private nanny.
In the end, we rationalised that we liked that the household was French because it would be good for our baby’s assimilation into the culture...and perhaps in a year a place in the crèche would open up? Ultimately, ‘beggars can’t be choosers.’
Or can they? It turns out that there is a woman in my book club who was an assistante maternalle. She’s Welsh and married to a Frenchman who is a fourth generation local. She’s taken three years out to tend to her youngest child, utilising the French system of famille garder, which is a very civilised scheme that allows a woman who has worked and paid her taxes to take up to three years off of work after having a baby and still receive monies from the government.
Apparently, her son will be going to school in the autumn and she may then resume her assistante maternelle activities. We phoned her and set up a meeting at her house. She has two little boys, a friendly three-legged dog, chickens, a huge garden, and the parents, grandparents, and cousins all live on plots neighbouring her house and land.
She cooks from the garden, believes in organic food and creative compositions, and she speaks both English and French fluently…which is a help, to be honest, as we can then discuss in nitty gritty detail, what happens with our child each day.
She’s not sure that she will resume her previous profession, but she’s thinking about it and we’re to contact her shortly. Oh dear, I hope that she decides to return to being an assistante maternalle and, moreover, that she decides to accept our little boy.
I’ll cross my fingers and hope for the best…
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