Although the product of a Mexican mother, a Peruvian father and an Ecuadorian mission, Maria Babin always had a special love for France. Now living in Paris as a mother to four children, Maria adapts and innovates in her efforts to teach her children three different languages: English, Spanish and French. See other interviews with French women.
How I ended up in France is an interesting story because ever since I was a little girl I’ve always had a fascination with France—I wanted more than anything to learn to speak French. I was already growing up bilingual. My mom is Mexican, my dad is Peruvian, and so we spoke Spanish as well as English in our home. So when I was small, my mom would take us to the library, and I would look for books to teach myself French—vocabulary and picture books where you could learn simple words like chocolat and I thought I was speaking French! When I got to high school, I had the choice between Spanish or French classes. French was the obvious choice for me!
When I was seventeen, I went to France for a month with a group of about 30 students from my high school French class. We stayed individually with French families for two weeks, where I stayed in the countryside near Le Mans with a really sweet French family. And then the other two weeks we traveled as a group in the south of France, in Avignon, and then we spent a week in Paris. That month in France is when I fell in love… I remember getting on the plane to leave France and go back home to the United States and just feeling like a part of my heart was staying in France. I cried. My French teacher Mrs. Brown had put her arms around me to comfort me and then suddenly told me with great conviction, “You will come back. I know you will”–and I have!
When I turned in my papers to serve a full-time LDS mission, I had secretly hoped to be called to France, but the call came and it was to serve in Quito, Ecuador where I labored in the foothills of the Andes mountains amongst a humble and beautiful people. I perfected my Spanish. I came home from my mission and decided to major in French at BYU Provo. In my first semester in my new major, I was taking a French civilization class, and my (future) husband was in the class. I had my eye on this handsome and reserved and well-groomed Frenchman so when he offered to help me with my French, I quickly said yes! So we started studying together, at first once a week and then twice a week and then everyday and then we weren’t studying anymore! We would spend hours talking and soon realized that we were inseparable. We got married the following December. I had finished my degree and he was still finishing his when we had our first son, Alex. When he finished his degree he got a job in Draper, so we moved to Eagle Mountain and lived there for a few years. Our daughter Elena came along.
After living as a married couple in Utah for six years, we came to live France seven and a half years ago. We’ve had two more children (Gabriela and Remy) here in France, so we have four children now. Two boys, two girls. Two American and two French. My daughter Gabriela says, “We’ve got two teams in our family because there’s Papa and me and Remy that were born in France and then there’s you, Mom, and Alex and Elena who were born in the United States.”
What has been your experience living in France?
It has been a wonderful adventure with lots of ups and downs. Leaving my country has been challenging because I’m very attached to my family and country, but it’s been marvelous to come and live in France. To live in such an old and beautiful country full of culture and history, to learn a culture so similar and yet so different from my own, to live so close to my husband’s very large and very close-knit family have each been a blessing in its own respect. To learn and grow and stretch myself far beyond my comfort zone has been unbearably uncomfortable at times, but has pushed me to grow as a person.
I’ve found it important to seek a sense of personal identity and purpose beyond the initial reason that I came to live in France, which was to be with my husband and to raise our family here. I’ve found that sense of purpose by exploring and developing my creative interests (such as my blog and photography and gardening), and developing my talents and professional aptitudes (I’ve worked part-time as an English teacher and have become certified to run a day-care in my home).
It’s also been wonderful to serve in the Church. I’m currently the Relief Society president in the Versailles ward, and to give to these sisters and to help the Church progress has been an amazing experience. I feel so strongly that in the pre-mortal existence I knew these sisters, and I told them I would be there to help them and be a leader for them, that I would gather the sisters to be a strength and help the Church move forward here in France. That’s something I’ve felt very strongly throughout the time that I’ve had this calling. There are hard times, but that testimony is what carries me through. I know that Heavenly Father called me to do this work. He could have chosen so many other women that could do a better job than me, but for whatever reason he chose me, and I really do have that feeling that I covenanted to help here in this little corner of the world.
Living in Three Languages
When my husband and I started talking about having children, my husband said, “Our children need to learn French.” and I told him, “Well if you’re going to teach them French, I’m also going to teach them Spanish!” (We lived in the United States at the time so it was kind of a given they would learn English on their own!) And so it became a challenge we set for ourselves, convinced that it would work, in spite of others’ skepticism! I did a lot of research and formulated a multilingual plan for our family. That plan has evolved as the children have grown and as we’ve changed countries, but it’s working! Our three older children are trilingual. We currently use a two-week system: for two full weeks my children and I speak nothing but English together, and then every other Saturday we switch. And then for two full weeks we speak nothing but Spanish together.
My husband speaks purely French with the kids because he feels very unnatural speaking English or Spanish with them! When it’s Spanish week, it’s very tricky at the dinner table, because I’ll speak Spanish with the kids, and my husband and I always speak English to each other and then my husband speaks French with the kids, so there are three languages going on and a lot of switching back and forth depending on who you’re talking to! English week is a little bit easier because we just switch back and forth between English and French.
When you’re raising a multilingual family, you have to adapt as you go. The two week system has worked really well up until now, but Spanish has a suffered a bit now that the kids are older and constantly want to participate in Mom and Dad’s English conversations. We’re not sure what we will do to adapt so one evening at the dinner table I decided to bring it up. “You know, kids, have you noticed that Spanish has become a bit more challenging?” My daughter suddenly looked up at me she had big tears in her eyes. She thought I was going tell them we were going to drop the Spanish altogether. Her reaction was so touching and adorable! She thought I was going tell them we were going to drop the Spanish. We thought that was so cute and so touching that she’s so attached to this language, and we had a good laugh about that.
The first two or three days are really hard when we make the transition between languages. But what really helps is that my kids love being trilingual. That makes it so much easier. For example, when we transition from Spanish to English, we’ll sometimes forget and start speaking in Spanish instead of English until someone says, “Oh no! It’s English today!” We do that anywhere between 10 and 20 times before we are fully transitioned! Usually by Monday we’re on track and then it’s smooth sailing (or something like that) for the remainder of the two weeks.
How do you teach three languages at once?
We live in the language. There are all kinds of everyday things that you experience with your children no matter what language you speak, so we just switch over to Spanish (or English or French). We do everything in the target language: we eat meals, get ready for the day, go shopping, visit friends, go to church, everything. Even homework. When I do homework with the kids, they don’t like me to speak French to them. So I explain concepts to them in English or Spanish that they’ve already learned in French and they are in turn forced to not only work on their French school-work, but also increase their listening comprehension and oral expression in English or Spanish. I’m also a very hands-on mom with my kids: they’re in the kitchen cooking with me, we do a lot of crafts, and we go on a lot of outings together— the park, the forest, the farm, the swimming pool. Living in France helps because we get to visit places like Paris, the Eiffel Tower, beautiful castles and gardens, or museums. The richer your activities as a family are, the richer your opportunities to increase vocabulary and expression. So there’s no formal instruction, we just live the language.
We read a lot of books too. When my kids were younger, I would read a lot to them, but now they love to read on their own. My three older kids have even taught themselves to read in English and Spanish on their own.
What language do my kids play in together? I give my kids free reign when they play, because I don’t want to be restrictive on their language expression with each other. And their play language of choice is French. But they do know that when it’s English week, they speak to me in English and they’re pretty good about that. Sometimes they’re a little lazy as far as vocabulary is concerned, and they’ll say a word in English or Spanish or French— whatever comes easiest. I don’t always hear it, but my husband will call the children on it. I do correct them every now and then but I try not to be very strict. I want it to be a fun, magical experience and so far I think we’ve been able to achieve that for them. We keep going this way because they’re trilingual and it’s amazing. I just look at them and think “Oh my goodness!” It’s working, our language experiment is working!
What was your experience taking on the identity of being a mother?
Motherhood was the ultimate goal ever since I was a little girl. It’s what I dreamt of. I was twenty-six when I got married. I had served a mission and was about to finish my Bachelor’s degree and had started thinking about the future: a Master’s degree or getting a job. I was at a turning point, and I didn’t know what was going to happen with my life, but I knew I needed to make choices for me so that I was happy even if I didn’t find a husband or have children. But that was the year I met my husband, so it all worked out. We both wanted to have children fairly quickly, and sure enough, six months after we got married, we were expecting our first little one. Motherhood has been a wonderful blessing that makes me feel fulfilled as a woman; to me, it is the ultimate purpose of my being.
Our little ones bring me so much joy and teach me so much. I often think I’m here to teach my children and guide them, and I am, but when I am really still and observe them, I realize they have so much to teach me! Motherhood has been a wonderful ride—not always an easy one—because there’s a lot of sacrifice that goes with being a mom. When my son Alex was born, my firstborn, I remember wondering how my mom had had seven children and made it all look so easy. I remember talking to my mom on the phone and telling her, “I can’t even imagine having a second child, it’s so much work!” But I got past that! It got easier, and I got used to it. I think I probably grew and changed too.
How have you seen yourself change as a mother?
I think I’ve really needed to learn to become a more selfless person. Maybe the reason it was so hard for me in the beginning was because I was very self-centered—I had learned to live just for me. I went to school and I studied and I worked and everything, even my trials, was all about me. That’s all I had known the first twenty-six years of my life. And all of a sudden there was this wonderful little person who needed so much from me and around the clock, and that was tough. I’ve really had to learn how to let go of me and put my children’s needs before mine. And I’m not at all perfect at that, I still have a lot of work to do, but I think that’s one way that I have grown – in my capacity to give selflessly. I am still working on learning to be still, and to enjoy the moment, and to listen to my heart.
How do you define motherhood?
Love. A lot of love. I think motherhood is nurturing another person. I think it’s a lot of observing to learn what needs exist and then being still enough to listen to our heart to know how to fill those needs. And I believe we can be a mother to a lot of people, not just the children we give birth to. And as my capacity to be a mother to my own children grows, my capacity to mother or nurture others grows as well.
It’s also a balancing act. Motherhood embellishes and fulfills our female identity, but our personal identity can be so much more than just being a mother. Personally, it’s very important for me to learn to balance motherhood and my personal identity: giving selflessly of myself to my children, but also taking time for my needs, to develop my talents, to create and to be able to enjoy what I love in life, because those things in turn rejuvenate me as a mother and increase my capacity to love and nurture. Sometimes I give a lot of myself to my children and others and forget to nurture myself, and then I get a little off balance and I’m not as happy. Other times I maybe take too much time for myself and the balance gets thrown off and I’m not able to give as much as I should. I believe that as mothers, and as women, we learn to stay in balance as we teeter back and forth between motherhood (or nurturing others) and our personal identity (nurturing ourselves). The careful balance of these two facets of womanhood is what has brought me the greatest joy in this life.
Living with a family in France
When we lived in Utah, we would walk around the corner to go to church, whereas here in France we live 30 minutes from the church, so being really involved in activities is not always so easy. The fact that all church members are so spread out, activities tend to be longer to make it worth the drive! So you have to block out a major portion of your day and have a fairly good organization at home: preparing meals, giving children baths, grocery shopping, homework, after-school activities, etc. You have to take all those family and household duties into consideration and find another time slot to get it done.
For example, if we are busy on Saturday evening and don’t think ahead, then it’s really crunch time on Sunday morning when we realize, Ah! Nothing’s ready. The kids haven’t had their bath, their clothes aren’t ironed, the baby’s bottle is not ready, and so on and so forth! And then when we come home from church tired and hungry, if our organization was not tip-top the previous day then there’s the meal that hasn’t been prepared, whereas we just spent a three hour plus block at church. Also, the members of the church in France are very social so you can count on staying anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours mingling after Sunday meetings! If there is a baptism or choir practice or other activity planned on the same day, these activities will sometimes run into each other. Rather than going home, some snack or picnic at church and carry on to the next activity! So coming to church on Sunday is a huge ordeal. We have to get up around seven in the morning with our four children in tow and we’re back at home around two or three in the afternoon. It’s really a bigger chunk of time than what we were used to in Utah.
In Utah, we were used to participating in everything that was offered to us. We could say, if there’s an activity, we’ll be there, or if there’s a dinner, we’ll be there. Here in France, if we try to do that, we find out really quick that it’s not possible, and we don’t have time anymore for just being a family. So we’ve really had to learn as a family to create a balance and say “we’ll go to this activity” and “we won’t go to this one” because we just need some down time, some quiet time to enjoy each other. I’ve seen families who have tried to do it all, and they get tired really quick. We’ve learned that even if we’re not at every activity, or doing every single thing they’re asking of us, it’s okay. We’re still living our religion and we’re creating harmony in our family, and that’s what’s most important. For me, living our religion means living a Christ-like life, a Christ-centered life. It’s treating each other with love and kindness and learning to love each other. And if we get to the point where we’re so overwhelmed with activities and running left and right that we start to be tired and crabby and we’re not feeling happy anymore, then that makes it really hard to live our religion. We want to be a Christ-centered family where there are happy and harmonious family relationships.
At A Glance
Maria Elena Olivares Babin
Location: Paris, France
Marital status: Married to Samuel Babin on December 17, 1999
Children: Alexandre 12, Elena 9, Gabriela 7, Rémy 9 months
Occupation: Day care provider
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University, Provo
Languages Spoken at Home: English, Spanish, French
Favorite Hymn: “Our Savior’s Love”
On The Web: www.busyasabeeinparis.blogspot.com
Interview by Ashley Brocious and Lauren Brocious. Photos used with permission.