Saturday, April 10, 2010

Raising a child of the Fifth Republic

The reactions I've gotten to the school lunch post in Santi's blog have unanimously been "Wow! That's so great!. I wish it was like that here" (here being the US). I wondered why my gut reaction to that hasn't been, "Well of course! Come on over!". Instead I feel a bit of ambiguity about the insistent helpfulness of French government and society in the rearing of a French child.

One thing I have felt since moving to France is that Santi is my son, but he is also a son of this republic. In fact, my official status for all of my immigration proceedings is not only "Foreign spouse of French citizen" but also "Foreign parent of French Citizen". So I feel a double duty to learn my way around this country, not only for my sake, but for my son's. I don't want him to feel that he is an outsider in his own country because he wasn't offered the opportunities afforded to French children by their French parents.

This feeling is not just a philosophical stance, but has its practical side too. My progress towards permanent residency and eventually citizenship depends partially on my care of Santi. As an immigrant parent of a French citizen, I have to show that I am doing everything in my power to make sure he suffers no disadvantages by having a foreign mother. I was required to registered his French citizenship officially, to prove that he is being integrated in French society (at his age this means being in French daycare, later on it will mean he is in school), and also that I'm caring for his health (primarily that he is attending all of the national health plan's required check-ups and that he is being vaccinated for the more serious and highly contagious diseases. Not only for his own health, but also for the good of the population as a whole). It has become clear to me that I would have a very difficult time getting residency as a stay-at-home mom. But that also makes sense to me because I'm not French, have not lived here very long, and if Santi and I just stayed home the two of us all the time, neither of us would make much progress on learning the language, understanding the culture, the social services (which here are not stigmatized as only for poor people), local traditions, making friends and professional networking, etc.

All of that probably doesn't sound like much. And it isn't. I'm fine with doing all of those things and I would have done them even if they weren't required. I think what has been impressed on me more is the motivation behind it. Maybe natural-born French citizens don't feel this (or more likely don't notice it), but since I'm an immigrant and required to complete civic training, it gets drawn to my attention more explicitly. It's the sense of raising a child being a collective responsibility. It's not just about what his father and I want for him, but the larger goal of raising a French citizen who understands and respects his country. And it's not always an easy thing when I don't understand or necessarily agree with the beliefs and principles that are integral to the current French society.

It's hard to explain. An important difference between France and the US is that in the US the individual comes first, as long as they're not breaking the law. But in France, I find that the philosophy is the that good of society as a whole comes first, and then the rights of the individual (and I've been taught that explicitly in my civic training). That's one of the main reasons I think that the (partially) tax-funded national health care works here, and is so controversial in the US. Or why the French often think of Americans as overgrown children, who are always focused on testing the limits of individualism for its own sake, even when it becomes absurd or cruelly narcissistic, rather than using common sense and focusing on how their actions affect others around them. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, I think it's a pretty accurate portrayal of the perception of the differences. I find lots of points of French life and society that clash with my American ideals of the rights and responsibilities of the individual, and plenty of inconveniences that are very foreign to my personal experience and preferences. But I have to find a balance and present these to Santi in a way that allows him to form his own opinions and to like and dislike aspects his country and society for his own reasons, not mine. And I also find that many of my own ideas have changed since coming to France, and likely will continue to change and grow as I integrate (as best as I can) into this society.

Many times now since becoming a mom and moving to France, I think about my own mother, an immigrant to the US in her 20's. I think about my experience growing up and resenting some of the differences I saw in my upbringing versus that of my classmates with American-born parents. I now look back on that all in a new light and recognize the bittersweet charge of remaining who you are, while raising a child who will be something else. And I have an all new respect for the path that my own mother tread. I only hope I can do as well as she did.


Jilin said...

Wow that was beautifully written. I understand some of your experience as someone living in China with a significant relationship here. It is difficult to balance your own identity while trying not to clash with the one of your loved one's. I also have a renewed respect and admiration for my parents' decision to immigrate to the U.S. also in their 20's and to become citizens. I now understand how difficult it is to adjust to another country and culture. I think it is one of the bravest things you can do for the ones you love. Good luck.

Chichimeca said...

I hadn't thought about it as an act of bravery, but I think you are right. It takes courage, patience, and love. My mother also came to the US from China, and I can imagine you must have quite a challenge bridging those cultures. It sounds like you have lots of love as well

Good luck to you too. It's so nice to find other people who understand the experience.