In a new series, Johanna Derry interviews families about moving abroad, asking what the cultural differences are, what makes it challenging and why it’s still worth doing. Today, she speaks to mum-of-five Gillian Harvey, in rural France…
In a globalised world, the chance to bring up your family in a foreign country is no longer restricted to those who work in the military or industrial high-flyers. Flexible working and greater freedom to travel means some families are moving abroad.
The Early Hour has been asking parents who’ve done or are doing this to share their experiences. Here, Gillian Harvey tells us about how she’s finding parenting five small children – Lily, six, Tim, four, Joe, four, Evie, two, Robbie, one – in rural France.
What anxieties (if any) did you have about raising your children in another country?
When we first decided to move to France, we didn’t have any children, and after a failed IVF it looked as if we might never get there. However, by the time we actually moved, I was 20 weeks pregnant. I was worried about accessing healthcare – shortly after we bought our house the rules in France changed regarding healthcare and we weren’t sure whether we’d have to pay for my hospital care. Luckily, that wasn’t the case.
Language was a worry too when they were babies, but we put them in crèche quite early on so they were exposed to French from about nine months old, which really helped. They’re fluent in French, whereas ours isn’t quite as good. We speak English at home and they speak French at school. Their accents are perfect and they often correct mine when we’re out.
Sometimes it seems to me that other parents are a little more strict – the famous French discipline – but I think they just expose their children to adult environments earlier on and have high expectations
Are there any obvious cultural differences when it comes to parenting or attitudes towards children?
The French are very regimented about eating times. They seem to have their evening meal around 7pm and put kids to bed at 8pm or 9pm. Ours have dinner the moment they’re in from school (around 5pm) and we’re getting them to bed about 7pm.
Sometimes it seems to me that other parents are a little more strict – the famous French discipline – but I think they just expose their children to adult environments earlier on and have high expectations. Children seem to be expected to fit around adults a bit more here, and we’ve tried to do this too but you do see children getting smacked or having their hair pulled in the supermarket sometimes, which I’d never do.
How different is the school system?
I like the school system – people complain it’s old fashioned, but so far I think it’s great. Initially my eldest, Lily, attended a little village school. It was very small, and all the children – all ages – were in the same room. I didn’t feel it was ideal, although all the staff were lovely.
In 2012, we moved to a house in a small town and the school here is amazing. The system is different – kids start at three and have three years in a maternelle or nursery school. The programme isn’t intense and provides a great grounding in attitude and confidence for kids before they enter the ‘real’ work.
We’re lucky in my town as all three schools – maternelle, primary and college (which takes them up to 15) – are side-by-side. They’ll feel as if they are at the same school from three to 15 which can only be a good thing. At 15, they go to lycée and, as our area is quite rural, they often board. I’m not sure about this – we might move to be closer. But it’s a long way off at present.
The main benefit is, that with property prices so low, we can live mortgage free
How much French culture have you adopted into your own family life and how much have you kept a sense of ‘Britishness’?
I don’t think we’ve adopted much – our meals are more or less the same as they used to be – bar the odd addition. But I don’t think our cultures are so very different, so our lives don’t differ that much from the French we know.
How do you work out the languages?
We read French and English with the kids. But they HATE it when I speak French. I don’t think I sound like their mummy anymore, so it’s often English that gets chosen. I’m thinking of finding a tutor to read with them sometimes – someone with a perfect accent of course!
What challenges have you found so far?
The challenge is with family. I feel they don’t see their aunts, uncles, and grandparents enough. It’s harder and more expensive to travel now we have so many children and I worry about the future – if we do ever move back, will they be able to cope?
What are the benefits?
The main benefit is, that with property prices so low, we can live mortgage free, which means we can be around more for the children. I work from home, and my husband has taken early retirement. It’s quiet, and there’s less pollution where we live, although there are probably places in the UK like that too. Children seem to stay children for longer here, and it’s a less materialistic and more outdoor kind of life.
Have you considered moving abroad? Perhaps you’re already living in another country? We’d love to hear from you about how you’re finding it, or what’s making it tricky to decide if you should stay or go…