Chapter 8: The Return of the Prodigal Daughter

I am allowed to take business class for my return. It is true that I take up a considerable amount of space. Luxury is nice, I could get used to it, although I am not sure I’ll stay pregnant long enough. My father is waiting for me at the airport, it is six o’clock in the morning. I like coming home at dawn when we drive past the magnificent castle of Chantilly, drowned in the morning mists.

My father does not seem his usual self. He tells me that his partner is leaving him today. After years of living together, they have decided to separate and they couldn’t find a better time than today to do it! When I arrive home, I sit down on my old armchair with my big belly to gaze at, amazed, a bunch of movers emptying the house. The walls belong to my father, and the furniture to her. At the end of the day, we find ourselves in a house under construction, practically empty. Fortunately, I still have some furniture from my student life. I will have a bed to sleep in tonight.

The house is too big for my father. When David arrives a week later, we decide to move in. We have enough to think about, this solves at least one problem.

On Monday, I see my gynecologist, my belly is seriously pulling. After the examination, she gives me the choice between going to bed or giving birth. I am only seven months pregnant! The ultrasound confirms that I have been a little too active. The verdict is that the baby is too small and too low. During the next month, I try to lie down as much as possible, but it’s difficult when one has to buy a car and furniture, to finish the tiles, the wallpapers and the painting in the whole house, without forgetting to arrange the baby’s room and to buy the baby’s wardrobe. It spoils the joy of the preparations, which we should do together, with the love of a father and mother who are parents for the first time. I’m seething inside as I watch my father and David working away around me. I can’t resist cautiously giving them a little help from time to time. A month later, I tell myself that thirty days is a perfectly acceptable “prematurity” and I decide to get back to living normally. It’s better to have a baby early than a mother in the asylum where I will soon end up at this rate.

And in spite of everything, in spite of a guided tour of Paris a few days before my due date with Australian friends on their honeymoon, in spite of the wallpaper, in spite of the shopping, in spite of the painting, in spite of the renovation of an old table, in spite of the tidying up of the trunks from Nigeria, in spite of the sorting out of my things that have been sitting in the attic for years, and in spite of all the other carelessness, Charlotte does not decide to show the tip of her nose until four days after her due date. She is not at all the small baby that had been promised and we are ready to throw away the new mini wardrobe. She is the true picture of her mother: from day one, she does the opposite of what is expected of her.

For my baby, I am doing what no one has ever been able to make me do before, I am acting like a stay-at-home mom. My life is regulated by feeding time, shopping, cooking and cleaning.

Everything is new to me; I went from being a student and eating at the university cafeteria to having domestic help in Africa. This is the first time in my life that I have to manage a house and a budget, to take care of a child, of myself, and to get out winter clothes that have not been used for five years. Above all, I have to overcome the enormous fatigue related to the birth and the radical change in my life that I have been through in the past few months.

I even feared for a moment that our relationship would suffer. After all, we had always lived in Africa with enough money to make ends meet and a house full of helpers. Three years into our life together, we have to learn what everyone learns when they leave their parents’ house: to combine our respective messes so that our house remains livable in a joyful and happy way.

As for all couples who settle down, we both do our bit. We make huge concessions and we manage to adapt to life in France.

Charlotte is three months old. We found her the best nanny in the world (at least we have to convince ourselves of that, because from now on, Charlotte will spend more time with her than with us) and I go back to the office with brio.

Behind my swaggering appearance, I am confronted with the heartbreak of separation, like any mother who abandons her baby to return to work. I know that I won’t be happy at home, despite all the love I can feel for this little being who needs me so much. So I brave it out and tell myself that this is just a bad moment that I need to pass through before I get back to the pleasure of the office. If I stayed, I would end up blaming her for the sacrifice of my career.

I’ve been to headquarters several times over the past three years, but this is the first time I’ve been based there. I have to get used to the life of suburban traffic jams, of the mandatory hours of commute, while contributing to the ambient pollution. Welcome to the Paris suburbs. And some people wonder what pleasure one can get from traveling! I didn’t escape the baby-blues to get depressed because of a few hours of driving per week. As soon as I arrive, Isabelle, my boss, hands me a bunch of files: a tender for a construction site in China. I have three months. Things are off to a great start.

I should stop for a second and describe Isabelle. After all, it is the first time I’ve teamed up with another woman and that is worth a few lines. She is an engineer, like me, and started out on the construction sites in France, before being assigned to headquarters. She is now in charge of international tenders and is Didier’s right-hand woman at headquarters. She has been here for about ten years and has been able to reconcile her career with her family as she works part-time with three young children. She is also said to have a very strong character. People who know her refer to me as “someone worse than Isabelle”, which seems to be a true reference. I’m sure she is presented in the same way in relation to me.

Not only do we have women in our department, but they are treated equally to men in terms of career opportunities and salary. We don’t even have to unionize to demand rights we already have.

It is also the first time that I don’t have the privilege of being a pioneer and I am enjoying walking down paths that have already been beaten. No one is surprised when I arrive late because Charlotte is sick or when I grumble about a meeting that drags on in the evening and I have to pick up my daughter. But the meetings still drag on. Fortunately, I have found a real gem in the nanny who puts my daughter to sleep when I finish late, which happens quite regularly during the calls for tender.

Isabelle and I never see each other outside of work. While we share the same opinion in the office on many sensitive subjects, such as the place of women in a public works company, we have few other common interests. For example, Isabelle is very well educated, while my vocabulary, after three years on oil rigs, is far from chastened. This does not prevent an excellent professional collaboration and we accept each other as we are.

A few months later, Isabelle leaves us to expand her family once again. In her absence, I refuse to take her place, which they are trying to give me under the pretext that a woman is best replaced by another woman.

I am very busy with the successive calls for tender and the trips I have to make to different countries. These trips are good for me, they help me to cope with my new sedentary lifestyle. I would be quite happy with a life in France if I could leave my office regularly, as I did in Nigeria to go to construction sites or to visit clients. The trips are always an opportunity to juggle between the nanny and the grandparents, whom I regularly call on to contribute, arguing that they must take advantage of all the moments they can spend with their little girl before we leave.

David is based in Vietnam, on a rotation system, which consists of five weeks of work and three weeks at home. The rhythm is a little hard to take, but I get used to the fragmented lifestyle. I am a single mom for five weeks, juggling the office, the nanny, evening baths, bottles, errands and housework, with no companion to support me on depressing nights. The first two weeks are pleasant – the joy of TV dinners in bathrobes and curlers! (Well, maybe not to that extent). The following weeks go by smoothly, and I am really looking forward to the fifth week.

David’s return is like a honeymoon that is renewed six times a year. When he takes off his work clothes and safety boots, he then becomes a lovey-dovey dad for those few weeks. We give leave to the nanny for that period of time. David quickly becomes a professional diaper changer and bottle sterilizer. I’m a lucky woman who gets to enjoy the benefits of married and single lives simultaneously.

My personal life is a bit unusual, but my office life is much more conventional. I deal with tenders one after the other, always following the same pattern. The call for tender starts smoothly, we distribute the work and consult the suppliers. I then go through the responses and collect the figures. The pressure rises quickly and I end up in the office in the middle of the night, in full panic to finalize the last calculations, before sealing the envelope with the final bid which comes in the form of a wax seal. The offer cannot be submitted late or it will be disqualified and several months of work could be lost due to a postal delay. Finally, the relief comes. We have a week’s rest with shorter working hours to recuperate. The tension falls, and I enjoy the feeling of a job well done. We then take up another project, we redistribute the tasks and the routine continues. There is no monotony, just a little taste of dullness after the life I led until recently. My bosses are getting more creative in their missions.

For a few months now, I have been asked to follow a correspondent in Morocco who is supposed to land us some stupendous contracts. This charming man is effusive and outgoing, and has already worn out two collaborators when I am appointed to the position. It is not always easy to keep my cool, but it is nothing compared to my Nigerian sessions. It soon becomes clear that it is impossible to judge opportunities without going on-site.

I sacrifice myself and get ready to spend a week in Rabat. Coincidentally, David is on leave and can accompany me with Charlotte. We leave for ten days. Every morning, I leave the hotel early, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. An hour later, David comes down in shorts, with a six-month-old baby in his arms. We are a sensation in this country where a woman needs the permission of the “head” of the family to be able to work.

I brought along a colleague who knows the country well. Our mission is punctuated by site and company visits during the day, the restaurant in the evening and tourism on the weekend. David keeps himself busy and even manages to play on the Rabat golf course, usually frequented by the royal family. In spite of this particularly pleasant stay, I give negative feedback when I get back. We wouldn’t bring anything new to the table compared to the competitors and the political context seems so complicated that our chances of success are low. In any case, if they decide to continue, it will be without me. They had promised to offer me the management position of the future subsidiary. The project was abandoned in the end.

I manage to negotiate a long vacation at Christmas; we have plans to go to New Zealand for a month. At the last minute, Didier asks to speak to me. We have just received a very large invitation to tender, the largest ever handled by the department, in collaboration with an American partner. Didier puts me in charge of it, but he is clearly nervous. The stakes are enormous. The estimated value of this contract is half the company’s annual revenue. A mistake in estimation could be very costly.

In this atmosphere of general panic, he urges me to postpone my vacation. I remind him that we have several months before the tender is awarded and that I will make up for this month’s vacation later, even if I have to work night and day. However, he insists repeatedly until I reply: “This vacation has been planned for six months, I can’t cancel it because all of David’s family will be together. So the question is not: do I go on vacation or not? I’m going on vacation. The question is: do I still have a job when I go on vacation?” Didier, disgusted, retorts: “No way to pressure you, just go.” I left, and the bid was handed in on time.

Charlotte is just over one year old and lands for the first time in the country of her ancestors to the great joy of all the in-laws and David. He is finally back with his family in a country where he understands the language and where going to the baker’s is not a hardship. We arrive on the day of the big family party that we follow in a half-coma, doing our best to absorb the twelve hours of jet lag and to keep Charlotte awake with a lot of tickling, at least for the duration of the family photograph.

Four weeks later, we come back rested despite the time difference, and despite the thirty hours of travel with a little girl who thinks the plane is way too much fun for sleep and who spends all her time walking the aisles while I try not to drive the other passengers insane. David, on the other hand, is going back to Asia.

On the day of my return, I drop off my daughter and the suitcases, take a quick shower and go straight to the office. I have young employees to train for this job, which puts my legendary patience to the test. Fortunately, they understand quickly, without asking me for too many explanations. It makes me feel older, I suddenly go from being the youngest in the office to the oldest who uses her vast experience to teach the basics to young people fresh out of engineering school and off to Nigeria.

We share a large office and as usual no one thinks I’m in charge. Sometimes I pick up the phone in the place of one of my colleagues and the caller is barely polite, probably thinking that I am the department assistant – which is not an excuse by the way. As the conversation progresses, he realizes the extent of my knowledge of the project and ends up asking who I am. Upon hearing my title, there’s a blank at the end of the line just before the stream of excuses. As I gloat. This is my destiny: great avenger of the too often insulted assistants.

We took advantage of our vacation to get the second baby underway. We manage our family like a project. It is the right timing for Charlotte to have a sibling close in age and to limit the time spent in France. David can’t stand to see his family only every other month, even if Charlotte recognizes him now.

Heavily pregnant, I leave with Didier to finalize a call for tender in the United States. The figures involved are colossal. I am panicking slightly at the idea of the responsibility that falls on me and of the consequences in millions of dollars in the event of the slightest oversight. We work long hours and at night I wake up wondering what I have forgotten. I can’t sleep until I turn the computer back on and check my files. These figures make me dizzy and the few hours of sleep I manage to get are not enough to clear my head.

That is when Didier learns of Bruno’s resignation. Although not surprising, the blow is hard. A large part of Nigeria’s activity rests on his shoulders. Didier tells me that if I wasn’t pregnant, I would already be on the plane to replace him. Was this a joke or a serious offer? I’ll never know, because while the offer is tempting and the responsibilities are enormous for someone my age, I think this position is incompatible with my new family life.

At the beginning of my maternity leave, I will have worked only seventeen months in France. When my mobility starts to diminish, I ask Isabelle who will take over my job. “We’re not going to replace you just for a few months.” Yet I thought I had made myself clear. I just want to go back out to the field. Now that I have contributed to the national birth rate, the road – or rather the plane – awaits me. Didier didn’t quite understand it like that, he thought that by letting time run its course, I would forget to ask to go back. Didier then tells me that he would be willing to open a development mission for me if David is sent to a country that has potential. So he gives me a list of these countries in Asia that David submits to his own manager.

Chapter 9: Indonesia