Ooh la la! Our family's INSEAD MBA (INSEAD Full-Time MBA Profile) experience feels like one intense Twilight Zone episode. Time has lost all value, and it's difficult to pinpoint when my husband, Mark, actually attended his first lecture. Was it four months ago or four days ago? Or has it been four years now? Standard calendars confirm the program commenced in September 2009, but the whirlwind of events that has transpired since then has aged me several years. And yet, somehow, it seems as though we just landed at Charles de Gaulle International Airport last Monday, sporting bloodshot eyes and toting two crying children and eight carry-ons.
Indeed, INSEAD's notoriously grueling first two periods shocked us all to a degree. We imagined that the condensed, 10-month program would challenge our abilities to juggle coursework, networking, extracurriculars, job-hunting, children, a pregnancy, and day-to-day household/finance duties. However, we did not foresee the emotional strain that Type A's experience while completing tasks at only 70% or 80%, as opposed to tackling issues full throttle. Our episode of the INSEAD Twilight Zone should be titled "Survival Mode," an apt description of the Bohn family's current status.
Now I focus on the essentials rather than the "nice-to-dos." Instead of feeling depressed about mediocre mothering, I placed my Super Mom cape in temporary storage and now relish in non-stress parenting. The other day, my children ate microwave popcorn for breakfast (a delicacy for Americans here) while I slept and they viewed two hours of French cartoons. Two days later, the directrice of Samuel's school reprimanded me with forceful hand-clapping and a terse "Très tarde! Vite! Vite! Vite!" as I sheepishly scurried into the classroom, completely disheveled and late for the third time that week. Oui—I am that mom. But this year I'm O.K. with that.
Besides the weeks of entrapment due to the winter-induced illnesses that our family contracted, and in spite of some systemic cultural hiccups (like walking all the way to the hospital to pay a doctor bill, only to arrive at a reception desk that closed 45 minutes early—two days in a row), the children and I have developed our own rhythm here. We confidently prance down Rue Grande with the boldness of a French family, and I know exactly which shops to patronize for random items, such as sippy cups, watercolor paper, and hand lotion. Furthermore, if I don't understand comments from passersby or store clerks, my 3-year-old usually interprets for me. In fact, my son and daughter often whip out their French vernacular with ease and finesse. My daughter waves goodbye with an emphatic "Merci. Au revoir!" while my son exclaims "Voilà!" or "Toilette!" during urgent 3-year-old moments. And, bien sûr, both children demand "Chocolat, s'il vous plaît!" frequently.
Choosing Between Two Goods
Ultimately, I maintain a cheerful American-mannered disposition, but sometimes I derive great pleasure in "out-Frenching the French." My familiarity with endemic social cues allows me to defend myself like a proud native when a woman with a full grocery cart cuts in front of me at Leader Price, or to reverse the entire length of a narrow, one-lane road when a behemoth grocery truck plops down to unload stock items for 20 minutes at the nearby épicerie. And admittedly I feel a sick sense of belonging and accomplishment when local drivers honk at me as I expertly cut off A6 motorists during rush-hour Paris traffic.
As Mark and I reflect upon our INSEAD experience, we rediscover that the hardest choices in life are between two goods. For instance, instead of campaigning for student council president, and/or assuming leadership roles in several business-related clubs (as Mark had originally planned upon acceptance to the program), he opted to preside over his own organization: "Only Partially Absent Father's Club." Hence, instead of managing class affairs, he dashes home most nights with enough time to read a bedtime story and say "Bonne nuit!" before retiring to his desk for another four hours of study. That said, attending corporate presentations of interest and participating in the Energy and Retail clubs already proves helpful as Mark focuses on the next steps in his career.
As for me, despite dozens of alluring partner's groups and activities, such as Book Club, the very popular Interfaith Club, and the Cooking Club, I committed to only one: Writer's Circle. As parents, Mark and I decided to indulge in our year abroad and in school but not to allow our children to get lost in the fray. By simplifying our "above and beyond" agendas (and by frequenting the frozen dinners aisle), we manage our workload and still make time to laugh, explore, and eat sinfully decadent desserts and pastries from the boulangerie across the street.
Because of the nature of INSEAD's program, there are no summer internships for students on the September-to-July cycle. Marching into the job market with three children certainly motivates Mark, and he hopped aboard the SS Job Search the week before classes began. Our sensitivity to international economic woes heightened when we learned the current and growing difficulty associated with obtaining work authorization in many countries, due to recent legislation. Interaction with December graduates also perked our job-searching radar—students certainly found employment, but mainly due to exhaustive and time-consuming individual efforts.
Career Services Challenge
As much as I adore INSEAD for the globally respected education and brilliant, yet down-to-earth student body, my third-party observations indicate a need for improvement in career services, which seems to be the case among many top-tier schools. The department faces the challenge of accommodating two classes simultaneously (December and July graduates) amid exceptionally adverse economic conditions, which impact its reach and effectiveness. While some students report misdirection from an administrative staff drenched in eau de laissez-faire, others rave about the personal development opportunities career services provides. The multiple curriculum vitae-building workshops, career coaching sessions, and self-exploration seminars directly helped my husband to develop the strongest version of his résumé to date.
Fortunately, as my due date approaches (next month!) and my waistline expands, so does my circle of friends. Between the parents, partners, and students at INSEAD, friends from church, and the Anglophone villagers at my daughter's toddler gymnastics class, I feel blessed with copious amounts of local support. Last month, a cluster of gal pals surprised me in the campus Family Room, a pleasant prequel to a fine French birthday dinner at Croquembouche with Mark. Several of us also hunted for St. Nicolas on his sleigh one afternoon, absorbing the holiday energy of the streets lined with traditional European Christmas decorations and amplifying seasonal music that wafted through the crisp, Fontainebleau Forest air. By mid-December, all INSEAD affiliates sighed in relief when the three-week holiday finally arrived.
To satisfy our travel bug (a welcomed disease among fellow classmates and partners), the Bohn family completed 2009 via a Western European road trip: 15 days, nine cities, six countries, four snowstorms, three stitches, two children, and one pregnant mom. The experience thrilled and fatigued us, and further deepened our understanding of the world and ourselves. A bit exhausted from our MBA adventures, we soberly, yet excitedly anticipate the epilogue of our personal INSEAD Twilight Zone episode as we greet the new year. How will my delivery in the Fontainebleau Hospital unfold, will we endure the move to Singapore's campus in May, and where in the world will we end up after graduation in July? All questions that a promising 2010 will undoubtedly answer for us.