Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Join the Club

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I'm now part of the general social movement of single moms raising their kids mostly alone.  Strange to be part of an international trend.  Be it the New York Times (1 mom + 2 kids = a family) or simply my numerous friends around me here, and in my kids' Waldorf school.  We are a surprisingly numerous group.  In many cases there is not a boyfriend in the picture, or, as in mine, he's only in the picture on the weekends. In some very tough cases the father is completely non-existent, and doesn't even pay his monthly child-support (no such thing as alimony).  I'm amongst the very lucky ones in that my children's father loves them dearly and has them with them as often as he can, and he pays as he's able to which varies month to month.

In general, these single moms need to master the orchestration of the days and weeks to the nth degree, and juggle numerous sources of income (if possible), or move to a tiny space that costs nearly nothing in order to maintain the closer ties to their kids that simply being there permits. Many are in far worse straights than I am -- though this has been a very rough year financially for me, and but for help from home, I wouldn't be able to stay in my house. 

Last night my kids and I (boarders included) went to dinner at a friend's house, for crèpes, pasta, salad and good fun.  I dropped off the kids at her house (right close to school, ideal for her kids to manage the trip by bicycle), and then went quickly to pick up some ingredients to contribute to the meal. When I got back around 5:15, she was just walking in the door from her job as a nurse. There was a last little bit of clean-up -- her 17 year old English boarder/student from the school had left that morning for the trip to India, and left half the dishes undone.  Ah well. Not to mention his bed un-made. I then took out the eggs and milk, found a bowl, whisk and her jar of flour and got to work making a big batch of crèpes.  

While the kids played ping pong, curled up on couches, etc., we chatted about life, kids, jobs, the school, the tough economic times, the future of the school and the many many parents who were going to be in even worse financial situations as this crisis progressively hits us all. S. has always managed by being a superb juggler, and by simply never giving up.  She's one of the friends who manages with absolutely no help from the father of her boys, and she's needed to do everything.  The list is long, with never a weekend off: alone she has raised them, disciplined them, fed them, housed them, clothed them, discussed the birds and the bees, adolescence, how to protect themselves, paid for the school, home, vacations, music lessons,.... the list never ends.  She's managed to keep the majority of their food organic and home-made, and this on long, erratic nursing hours. From early on she took in borders, and for a time she taught English at the school (after living in Australia for 15 years, her English is excellent) to offset the school fees. Now she gives a hand at the cafeteria to off-set the cost of the school lunch, and is one of the mainstays in teaching various mothers how to felt and make lovely items to sell at the school Christmas fair each year. Basically, she can't get sick.  She just can't. But she manages, and has fun wearing skirts, purple, and dying a few strands of her bangs purple/magenta/as the mood hits her.

In the past few years she's begun having men in her life again.  She tends to attract those who find tempting her masterful mothering and her management of her home. They often want to move in pretty quickly.  So, she's in the position of protecting her home-life and setting the limits of what the relationship will be. It certainly is a mood booster to know that men are attracted to you, and to see them be good to her boys, help out building the wooden deck, or a mezzanine in the kids' room. Though things are far from easy, she seems to be on the other side of the hardest times. That said, her elder son is 15 -- and quite temperamental with his strict mom. Mothering is for the long haul. 

S's just one case.  But what is difficult to comprehend is that in Provence financially the deck is quite stacked against a single parent.  Salaries, even for experienced professionals like S, are in the 1400-1600E/month range (and even lower for the teachers at our school). But rents are in the 700-1000E/month range for 3 bed rooms. And, in my case, the owner of a new house, that was reasonably priced for the area, I've a 20 year mortgage of 1300E/month.  So, how do you work a full time job, collect your kids at noon or 4pm, and buy groceries, or have kid-care (even au-pairs) when your monthly salary doesn't even cover the basics? The French State helps some, (in general people in our situation get about 300E/mo from the State) but that doesn't go far. 

For another friend in the same situation, she managed to find a job, which she does well, which she enjoys, but which pays this standard low salary (the French minimum wage), an apartment at 650E/mo and I collected her kids from school regularly over the past few years.  Child care is simply not an option. I used to pay my au pairs 400E/mo -- which many thought was nothing.  But to me, and the French in general, it was huge. Everything is on a different scale than back home. And gas... I've at least 150E/gas per month, but this friend, living a good half hour from school, and myself (though close to her job thankfully) had double that each month simply driving her kids to and from school. 

It's most definitely not all gloom and doom. Choices were willingly made, love and education willingly given. These are mothers who are managing with smiles on their faces, and pretty happy and solid -- and far from spoiled -- kids at their sides. I rail against the French tax system which encourages businesses to hire people on special rates of just 25% social security/health benefits/ etc., at minimum wage, but which ups these rates to nearly and over 100% the salary as it climbs.  So, S and M cost their bosses perhaps 1800E/mo now, but were either to get a wage increase, that could jump to 3000E overnight for the bosses, which understandably keeps them at a lower salary much longer than their skill and abilities warrant.

It's all part of my ex-pat education.  I'm a very lucky one.  With my optimism, drive to work for myself and to share my world in Provence, I've been able to earn far more up till the divorce -- perhaps ignorantly so.  It just felt natural for me to start the cooking school with Erick, and then the bed and breakfast.  It felt natural to learn how to market on the internet, make use of every contact possible, share my business cards around, cultivate artisans and colleagues.  I was raised in the market friendly American world.  Between New York and particularly Seattle where small businesses were the norm, it all just felt right. And, I know, that I have it in me still.  Thus I'm encourage to re-do my web site, re-organize my business, and persist, even through these tough economic times (post 9/11 already taught me to hold tight and believe that this too shall pass). This new blog is all part of it, and who knows, perhaps getting a couple books published... 

I'll be ok, and, as before, where possible, I'll hire my friends, and share the wealth. What is success if it isn't shared? And this time, I'll not sacrifice my kids as I do so.  Yes, I'll find the formula that works. Being an optimist from the other side of the Atlantic does come in handy. I see the world naturally through rose-tinted glasses, and if I believe hard enough, I see truly.

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