Scheenagh Harrington isn’t rich or famous, and is happy with that, even if she does find it odd to be writing this in the third person. She is currently having an amazing time in the south of France, where life has thrown some serious curve balls in the past five years and so far, she’s managed to dodge the worst of them. Luckily, being in an amazing part of the world helps.
It’s the middle of summer and while the heat hasn’t really got going yet, the grand vacances most certainly have. Weirdly, the house is silent (apart from the grunting sounds of our eight-month-old son as he demolishes yet another bookcase in his quest to crawl from one end of the room to the other). All I can hear is a constant trill of birdsong and vaguely, in the distance, evidence that a French labourer has turned up for work.
Normally, we have three children running round, making noise, mess and generally getting up our noses. But thanks to the wonderful support system that exists here, we can pack them off from 8am-5pm (longer if we needed to) to the local leisure centre where they are fed, watered and activitied until they just can’t take any more.
The lucky little so-and-so’s even go on weekly outings. Last week, our eldest daughter spent the day at a theme park, three hours from our home in Castres, and told us at least nine times that it was “the best day of her life”. Forgive me if I get a bit huffy, but the previous holder of that title was our big surprise for her 8th birthday, where she got to spend the morning helping a Michelin-starred chef rustle up a three-course meal in his own kitchen. He’s been beaten into second place by a rollercoaster and a log flume. Chuh.
But back to the leisure centres. Known as MJCs (Maisons des jeunes et de la culture) in France, they are an integral part of the child care system, and not just for for parents who work. Families on much lower incomes who want their kids to get out and about, rather than be caged in HLMs (habitation à loyer modéré – low-rent housing to you and me) also benefit from their services on the days when school is out.
There is structure and discipline (this is France, don’t forget), a hot, three-course meal at lunchtime and snacks morning and afternoon, and fun, fun, fun by the bucketful. Our little boy has more energy than the Duracell bunny and was a stranger to the word exhaustion – until his first full week at the leisure centre. Even though they totally knackered him out, he couldn’t wait to go back first thing Monday morning.
During the summer, the MJCs regular staff is boosted by a small army of young volunteers, exuberant, energetic wannabe teachers or students who end up adoring the kids they’re looking after and being adored in return. All of this means Wednesdays and holidays are a time of unmitigated joy for young people, aged 4-12.
For people like us, freelancers who (despite our best efforts) haven’t yet won the lottery and can roll around in bathtubs full of money and for whom holidays are things that happen to other people, it’s a godsend at – for the most part – between 9-14 euros a day.
We work from home, so having small people around while trying to work (or find it) is nigh-on impossible. But with the help of the MJC, we have gone from trying not to scream at our older kids every five seconds to actually missing them, eagerly gathering them to our grateful bosoms at 5pm and more often than not running out of time to talk about their days over the evening meal.
Family time is precious, quality family time even more so, but making sure our brood are happy and entertained during the endless summer holiday is priceless.
Last year, a major change in our circumstances meant we got to spend a lot more time playing with our children. It was never going to be the case this time around, and while there was a huge twinge of guilt at the notion of packing them off to the other side of the town, I know for certain when I see them again in a few hours’ time, they will be breathless with excitement, desperate to show us what they have made and keen as mustard to do it all over again.
What sort of selfish parent would I be to deny them that?