Parenting in Southern France
A chat with creative mum and author Sydney Piercey on parenting and play in Southern France.
Can you tell us a little about you and your family?
I’m Sydney, and I’m a mother and an author. I live with my husband and our three daughters (age four, two and nine months), and our two dogs, in the south of France. We’re a very close, very noisy family, and life is full of joy, babies and chaos.
Describe where you live?
We live in a sunny, peaceful village in Provence. It’s a small village in the countryside with the perfect mix of wonderful weather, lots of green space, and a sweet community of neighbours and locals. Our house is surrounded by woods, hills and streams, acres of land where people grow food and keep animals. In fact, our next-door neighbour often lets her horses roam in her garden, which is amazing to wake up to and spy out of the bedroom window!
When did you move there?
We moved here in the summer of 2020. The first lockdown of the Covid pandemic was a massive teaching moment for our family. My husband and I realised how much we both wanted and needed to be around our children more, rather than commuting into a busy city every day and trying to pack all of our quality time into the weekends. And also, we craved space. We were living in London and felt very lucky to have a small courtyard garden, but we wanted green and lots of it.
Where did you move from?
We moved from south-east London, the same area I grew up in, and an area I love. It’s funny because I had to work quite hard to sell it to my husband, who wanted to live in south-west London (closer to where he grew up), and then we ended up moving to France anyway!
London will always have a huge place in my heart, though. It’s the place I’m from and there’s nowhere else quite like it. From friends, family and memories to all the cuisines you could ever want, plus art, culture and, of course, such diversity.
What’s been the most surprising thing about moving to France?
The sunshine! I genuinely didn’t know it was possible to have so many days of sunshine in a year without living in the southern hemisphere. I pinch myself that I’m out in a t-shirt in May!
As a Londoner, it’s something that will feel novel for a very long time. But also, I’m surprised by how quickly my eldest girls have adapted. I guess it’s their ages and that they’re so much more aware of their surroundings now than when they were babies, but they totally think of France as home. And they both speak French too—my eldest is at our local French school and our childminders are all French. I overhear the girls playing together in French a lot more than in English. It’s so cool. I’m amazed by the way they flit between languages even though they’re still so young.
What’s been the most challenging thing?
Living abroad in a pandemic has come with huge challenges. The most obvious being that for a long time it wasn’t possible to travel back to the UK or have anyone from the UK come to visit us here. France isn’t exactly far from the UK, yet at times it has felt like we may as well be in Australia!
My pregnancy with our youngest was also really hard. Being pregnant and far from everything you know is tough. We’d planned a homebirth, as we’ve had with all of our children, but they’re very anti-homebirth in France. It felt like a huge uphill battle for us to do something totally reasonable and that we’ve done before.
How did you find becoming a mother?
Epic and utterly petrifying. Epic because it’s all my dreams come true. For as long as I can remember, all I’ve wanted to do is to be a mum and have my own family, so becoming one was incredible.
I’m fortunate to have had wonderful births. All three of the girls were born at home, and with our third, my husband and I chose to deliver her ourselves, just us. So as beginnings go, each time was such a brilliant start, and left me feeling so strong and powerful, a great way to go into something new.
But I’ve also found it massively scary. It’s literally your heart living outside your chest, and the world can be a scary place. Part of me wants to hold my children very tightly, until the end of time. But I can’t do that—I have to send them out into the world and trust that they’ll be okay. I find that quite hard to do sometimes.
What are the most challenging parts?
The self-doubt, the wondering whether you’re making the right decisions, whether your approach is the right one, the fact you have no real way of knowing because there’s no guidebook. The fear. Worrying for their welfare and their safety all the time. And getting up with children multiple times in the night!
What ages have you enjoyed parenting the most and the least?
I’ve enjoyed and found difficulties in all of the ages. I definitely have an obsession with the newborn days. I love the fourth trimester so much—suddenly having this tiny soul you love with every part of you though have only just met, and have never even heard speak, and whose personality you don’t really know. It’s amazing and really fascinates me. This innate love for them that has nothing to do with what they’ve said or done, but just exists because they exist.
But then comparably, my eldest is four and very much her own person with a very strong character and that really fascinates me too. I think, "How did I have a hand in making you? How are you this brilliant?" The things she comes out with, her very strong moral compass, sense of loyalty and headstrongness—it’s amazing.
In between is my gorgeous toddler who, at moments wants to be just like a baby, and at other times just like her big sister. She’s so sweet and has such a gentle nature. The toddler years get a bad rap but the contrast between a furious tantrum and them slipping their hand into yours or throwing their arms around you in a hug makes those good bits even sweeter.
Who are you, other than a mum?
I’m a dreamer, and then I’m a doer. I’m someone who turns the wild and wonderful ideas I have into reality. I’m very determined (more determined than ever if someone doubts me) and I love an adventure.
In my personal life I’m a wife, friend, sister, cousin, daughter and granddaughter. In my work life I’m a writer and a maker. I run workshops and I create content. I wear a lot of hats!
If you had to describe parenting right now, what would you say?
A joyful and exhausting privilege. Also a lot of unlearning. There’s a lot of generational stuff that I’m unlearning. Which can be a challenge—reparenting yourself while parenting your kids. But it’s also freeing to let go of certain stuff and do things in a different way.
What have you learnt about yourself by becoming a mother?
I’ve learnt to truly honour myself, to love myself, to show myself kindness, and realise my power and resilience. I wasn’t particularly kind to myself pre-motherhood. But my first pregnancy led me to take care of me, because I was taking care of my baby. But after I gave birth to her, I realised that taking care of me had to continue in order to take care of my kids. I’ve realised that I’m equally as deserving of the compassion and care I show to those I love.
What would you like your girls to know about you?
How much I love them! How brilliant and beautiful they’ve made my life. How proud I am to be their mum. That they’ll always have my love, no matter what.
What is your parenting philosophy?
Mostly, it’s compassion before anything else. I’d describe my approach as gentle—not that I don’t set boundaries, but it’s important to me that my children feel heard and validated. I want them to know and feel that they can openly express themselves with me.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given about parenting?
Not so much advice but more of a reminder—that everything is a phase. It’s so true, and the phases, be they good or bad, they pass. And so I’d add to that to find the joy in them, because sure enough, they will all pass.
What do you know now that you wish you knew then?
How fast time flies, how quickly children grow, and how you can use all the beautiful vocabulary you like—the one time you slip up and say a bad word in front of them will be enough for them to absolutely remember and repeat!
Tell us about being creative with your kids. How important is it to you?
Hugely. Creativity allows for self-expression, self-discovery and connection. So when I’m being creative with my kids, it’s not just about making something (which actually becomes a by-product) but more about connecting with them, being in a moment with them, and giving them the space to express themselves.
Tell us about your book and how it came about?
I’d had my eldest the year before and was pregnant with my second. I’d sit up in bed at night thinking of simple and sustainable things to do, things to make and games to play during slow and drawbridge days at home. That list became Sustainable Play. The book is over sixty ideas of things to do, make and play using things you already have around the home. Cardboard toys, costumes, decorations and creations, as well as games and ideas for little ones, too.
I wanted it to be both sustainable for the planet and sustainable for parents. Therefore, each of the projects inside never needs more than six things, and all of them you can find around your home.
What was it like to put your book together with small kids?
Really hard work! I was pregnant with my youngest while writing it, and for the first time ever I experienced hyperemesis gravidarum. So in those first four months I couldn’t do anything. I could barely get out of bed, let alone sit at a laptop. So no book writing was done then, but I had a deadline. Around month five I got better and threw all my energy into writing, but that was hard because the weather was good and I just wanted to relax and sleep and sit in the garden with the kids! But it was worth it—I’m so proud of the book and it’s all the more special for the fact that it features my big two, and my littlest was in my tummy while I wrote it.
What inspired you to create the book?
I love art and creating, and I don’t believe you need an overflowing craft cupboard to make things, or be a good drawer or a brilliant painter. I think arts and crafts can be for everyone and can be made from anything, and I wanted to share that in a book. I wanted people to be able to open up any page and think: we’ve got everything we need to make that, so let’s give it a go. Also, when I share my crafts online, I’m always delighted to see other people trying them out. I have an amazing online community and we share the things we make with and for our kids, and that massively inspired me to put the book together.