Thursday, September 1, 2011

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I am one of those women who just always imagined herself as a stay-at-home mother. My mother was. I assumed I would be. Once my children would be school-age, I also assumed I would be a room mother, on the PTA board, and/or organizing monthly bake-sales for sport team uniforms and the like. And, I assumed I would be in America.

First of all, when we were still on the East Coast and my daughter was 6 months old, I went back to work. As my husband was traveling often for his job, I got to run to daycare in the early morning, go to work, run to daycare in the evening, get home in time for her final feeding, bath and put my new baby to bed, both of us exhausted.

photo Third Culture Kids Back to School Story Michelle NottThen one evening, my husband was home before my daughter and I. He told us to sit on the couch. I propped her up beside me.

"We're moving to Belgium," he said.

I jumped off the couch. She slouched to one side.

“I won't be allowed to work!” I screamed (inside my head).

I envisioned four years at home with my little girl, going on walks, talking about the world around her, playing dress-up, doing crafts, going on outings... Well, at the very least, my new stay-at-home status started off that way.

During a playgroup in our new country of residence, a few of the other mothers were talking about choosing schools for their children. I thought, “Whatever for? They are only two years old.” So, I asked and learned that I would actually be a stay-at-home-alone-with-her-baby-sister mother in just six months time. She was only a toddler. I still had cooking projects and outings planned!

Free education in Belgium starts for children as of the day the child turns two and a half years old. Literally, a child can show up at a public school on any given day of the school year if it corresponds to the day the child turns two and half years old. Conveniently, my daughter would start school in September.

I had work to do. Since parents can enroll their children in any school they choose, I wanted to research my choices. My husband and I decided to concentrate on the local public schools rather than the international schools. At the time, my husband's assignment was just for two to three years (over seven years ago). So, we thought public school would be a good place to immerse our daughter in the local culture.

After visiting and interviewing the principals in five schools (I had been a teacher and knew just what I wanted), I made a decision. Each school had a different pedagogical philosophy and one suited our family best. I enrolled her. A place was available. Finally, I had to get school shopping. I found an adorable, teeny, tiny backpack in the shape of a ladybug. What could children possibly need to pack but a snack at that age? (I was later told, by the teacher, that it was entirely too small.)

The first day of September arrived with lots of sunshine. So, I dressed her in a little navy-blue Snoopy dress, white socks, and red shoes. I strapped her sister in the stroller and off we went. Although the children are welcomed for a full day at that age, I opted to pick her up after lunch - to the astonishment of the teachers. She can nap at home, I reasoned.

I found out during the course of my interviews that a PTA, in the American sense, does not really exist. When I asked one principal the question, “How do you encourage parents to participate in the school?” she looked confused (a little like Karen on Will & Grace). She basically replied that parents can drop off their kids and then get going.(And yes, I promptly crossed her off my list). Consequently, I looked for some way, any way, to get involved.

The kindergarten classes (referred to as 1st, 2nd and 3rd maternelle) requested parents to sign up, on a rotating basis, to bring in snack for the class. Bingo! I love to bake. This is my chance.

My daughter's school did a great job encouraging healthy eating. They asked parents to fill up the class basket with water or juice, a fruit, a starch (cookies, cereal or breads) and a dairy item. One boy in her class had an egg and dairy allergy. So, I looked up recipes on the internet until I found ones without egg or dairy, or had at least an easy substitute. Unfortunately, I have yet to find an egg substitute in Belgium, so it was tricky at times. In the end, my snack was a big hit. The mother of this particular boy was very appreciative of the effort. The class "oohed and ahwed" when we'd walk in with the basket overflowing. I found my place. I couldn't be room mother, but I could be “the snack lady.” Unfortunately, my popularity didn't last.

Without even thinking, I signed up to take charge of the snack basket the first week of February. I filled it up with all the usual goodies, washed and separated the grapes, found a couple boxes of organic cookies (egg and dairy-free), etc. and heaved it into the car. Upon arriving into the building, my daughter said she had wanted me to make crêpes. I love crêpes too but hadn't yet mastered making them. “But, the other mothers made crêpes,” she pointed out. I looked around. True. One mother from each class walked down the hall with her snack basket and a plate of crêpes.

“What?” I said out loud, and in English (I need to stop that).

“Mommy, it's Chandeleur (Candlemas) today.”

How could I not have made crêpes? I had been a French teacher. I made crêpes for my students. Now, I was free-flying without a lesson plan. I pleaded jet-lag, although we'd been back already a month from Christmas vacation in the U.S.

I tried to reassure my daughter that not every class would have crêpes. “Surely, not all parents have the time to make them.” She couldn't even look at her teacher in the eye when she and I handed over the snack basket. Not one word was uttered.

Having believed my own reassurances about the snack “requirement” that day, I had forgotten entirely about the crêpe issue by lunch time. After feeding the baby, I placed her in the stroller and started down the hill to school. As we were walking back up the hill, I asked my schoolgirl how her morning went. “We were the only class without crêpes.”

Mommy guilt, a big dose of it settled into the bottom of my stomach. How could I redeem myself?

...Valentine's day!

If public school celebrates the Catholic holiday of Candlemas, surely it would do something for St. Valentine.

I told my daughter about the little Valentine cards my classmates and I made for each other in grade school, “You're super!” and “Be Mine” scribbled in magic marker on index-sized cards. I helped her decorate a little Valentine bag to collect the cards that her American grandparents and cousins would be sending. I even told her how everyone always wears red on Valentine's day. It was one of my favorite days to go to school...always hoping a certain little boy would hand me the “Be Mine” versus the “You're Super!” card. I didn't want to get too carried away, though. She wasn't quite three years old.

On the day itself, I dressed my little schoolgirl in a red sweater, a red skirt, red and white-striped stockings with sparkly hearts on the ankles and her red shoes. (Even in black and white letters, the outfit sounds a bit much. But, honestly, how many of us went to school looking similar?)

I packed her lunch of heart-shaped finger sandwiches with a Valentine napkin in a red cooler bag and put a heart sticker on it (left over from my teacher days). How could anyone say now that I was a “party-pooper”? My daughter danced around like a Queen of Hearts until it was time to head out.

Upon arriving into the school building, we looked around at all the other children. They were dressed very nicely in their school dresses and freshly pressed trousers. But, the only red was the thin stripe in her classmate's Burberry jeans (as if three-year-old boys don't get mud and grass stains). Oh well. We would at least be having fun making heart-shaped sugar cookies this afternoon while everyone else napped.

When lunch was finished, I strapped my equally red-dressed baby back in the stroller and headed down the hill. We walked into the lunchroom where I found my schoolgirl at the little lunch table, empty red bag at her side. She stood up ready to go as usual. We walked over to her teacher to say goodbye. While my daughter received her usual cheek-kiss goodbye, I got odd, raised eyebrow looks from the lunch ladies.

“We saw her sandwiches,” her teacher said.

No “that was cute” or “what a nice idea.” Shrugging off the comment, we walked home. I asked her if she had a fun time at school.



“My teacher asked why I was dressed all in red.”

...Can I not win?!

This feeling of defeat can be common among expats trying to "fit in." Many years later, the feeling has subsided but can still creep up. Sometimes, it takes years to figure out just what went wrong.

Since that first year of school, I have never again insisted as much for Valentine's day. I have learned to dress my daughters more discreetly in red and wait until dinner to make a heart-shaped cake. Just last year, an English classmate of my eldest daughter asked their second grade teacher if the class could exchange Valentine cards.

“Non!” she answered in a very high pitch, according to my 8-year-old. “C'est la fête des amoureux (a holiday for lovers)!” I suppose that rightly explains the funny look I received from her first teacher.

As I leave now to pick up my two daughters from this year's first-day-of-school, I think of that first full year in Belgium, the first year with a school-age child. I miss the ladybug backpack and heaving that heavy basket of goodies around.

Now that they are in primary school, I help guide their French and English homework. I will eventually help them with their Dutch lessons. No matter how many "first days" go by, we are all still learning...and that's true in any culture.

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