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©Marilyn Nolt/USA

New parents and their breastfeeding infant.

The only responsible choice

Although the particulars of their lives might differ, millions of mothers and fathers around the world, in both industrialized and developing countries, share the same story: finding and making time, investing energies, stretching resources to provide for their sons and daughters. Their days are consumed in helping their children grow strong and healthy, protecting, teaching, guiding, encouraging their talents and channelling their curiosity, delighting in their enthusiasm and their accomplishments. They search for advice and counsel from informal support networks and community agencies as they struggle, often against great odds, to do right by their children.

North of Paris, each morning, five days a week, Yacine and Sana, twin two-year-olds, come to the community crèche in Goutte d’Or, a working class neighbourhood that has been home to generations of immigrants. Awaiting them are brightly coloured cubes they learn how to stack, and paint that they daub onto large sheets of paper. In large rooms and small corners, in daily rhythms that are carefully planned by a highly trained staff, Yacine and Sana play, eat and nap. The brother and sister have been coming to the crèche since they were three months old. Their elder sister Leila, now age five, came here before them.

“The crèche is the best thing for children,” explains Fatima, their young mother, who emigrated from Morocco 15 years ago. “My two eldest never came here and I regret it,” she says. “Here, I know they are safe and they are learning French from a very young age, whereas at home we speak mostly Arabic. It will be easier for them at school later on.”

Yacine and Sana are growing up with 53 other young children, ranging in age from three months to three years old. One third of the children are from North Africa, another third are from sub-Saharan Africa — Senegal and Mali mostly — and in the remaining third, says the young woman in charge of the establishment, “there is a bit of everything.”

In this neighbourhood, as in other parts of the country, France’s crèche system offers a unique entrée into society. Here, children of different cultures and economic classes come together to learn social skills that will last a lifetime.

“Of course, it’s a bit expensive — around 40 francs per child per day — but it’s worth the sacrifice,” says Fatima. She would pay less if her household income were lower, because the financial contribution required of parents is proportionate to their income, explains the crèche director. The family allowance kitty and the city government in fact cover most of the relatively high cost of running crèches, which in 1998 was 355 francs daily per child living in Paris.

One mother at the crèche, who is unemployed and lives on social security, only pays 8 francs a day for her child, Amine. The woman, who came to France from Algeria about 10 years ago and is raising her two sons alone, is happy that the younger one was able to get a place in the crèche. “It has made it possible for me to get training to do housekeeping work and now I can look for a job,” she says. Planned for children whose parents work outside the home, or for children from one-parent families where the parent — in 90 per cent of cases the mother — has a paying job, crèches are now opening up to children whose mothers have no earned income.

The demand far outstrips the supply, in Paris especially. “Every year,” says the director, “I receive about 140 requests for only about 20 available places.” In the capital city, approximately 280 community crèches enrolled just under 20,000 children in 1999. The story is much the same throughout France: These popular community crèches, run by an accredited, well-trained staff, are inundated. In 1999, they were able to care for only 120,000 of the approximately 2 million children in the country who were under the age of three.

In addition to the problem of not enough places, some criticisms have been voiced about the community crèche system. In France, a country with one of the highest levels of paid employment among women, crèches can no longer keep pace with the increasing flexibility and demands of the job market. Usually open from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. and closed on Saturdays and Sundays, they no longer respond adequately to the childcare needs of parents who work staggered hours. In June 1999, France’s Prime Minister announced a modernization plan that included 60,000 new spaces by 2004 and longer hours.

Other forms of childcare do exist. There are day-care centres where children can be left for a few hours each day or each week, childminders accredited by a municipality to take care of children in their own homes and crèches established by parents’ organizations. But the community crèche continues to hold a strong appeal, particularly among low-income families.

Young immigrant mothers, for example, search out a crèche as one of their first points of contact with France. Fathers also come, but less often, although some routinely drop off their children at the crèche or pick them up at the end of the day. During back-to-school week, some mothers stay at the crèche for about an hour a day to ease the children’s transition from the family home to a still unfamiliar place. Other mothers come quickly when staff contact them if their child shows signs of having a problem.

The care the crèche offers is comprehensive, fusing health, nutrition and social services. In addition to doctors’ visits, there are regular sessions with teachers and psychologists. “Apart from its educational functions, the crèche plays a very important role in detecting and preventing children’s problems, which is especially crucial for families in difficult situations,” emphasizes the coordinator of the neighbourhood crèches. “Our work with the parents is every bit as important as the work we do with the children to help them become more integrated.”


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