Episode 2: We are not living in France!

The leaves are starting to fall outside La Loubiere, the 16th century château where we are spending this last weekend of the autumn school holidays and with the kitchen door open early while everyone sleeps, I listen to the mesmerising sound of the wind in the trees and think about the change of the seasons. It does not seem so long ago that spring was here, when the bulbs that had lain dormant for the winter were poking their green stems through the surface.

Now we wait for the period of stillness and hibernation, something we know very well, because in a sense we too have been in a kind of perennial hibernation, waiting for our daughter’s voice to emerge in the classroom and speak for the first time in school.

Now our spring has come and just like the association of supportive parents Ouvrir La Voix, she has finally opened her voice after more than five years of silence. She now speaks to almost all her classmates and we have one hurdle left, level 10 in the book that has become my bible – to speak to a teacher or adult in school.

It is hard to believe it has been five years. It is hard to believe that for the first three years we didn’t know what we were dealing with, that it even had a name. Perhaps if we had lived in America or Great Britain, we may have discovered those words earlier – or maybe this condition would not have even manifested.

Here in the south of France, selective mutism is unknown and with our daughter in a French school where interventions to assist children are commonplace and often successful, we were happy to follow the advice and recommendations of the school psychologist (every school has one), an orthophoniste (speech therapist), a psychiatrist and our doctor, all of whom were willing to help and in the case of our doctor, advised and reassured us that it was just a matter of time.

Three years on, having made zero progress, it was all to change late one evening after a telephone call with my Uncle, when he mentioned that he had been speaking with a friend in Los Angeles whose daughter had the same thing as ours.

“What thing?” I said.

“You know” he said, “the not speaking in school thing.”

“It has a name?” I almost shout. “Call her back now and ask her what it is.”

He did and through his friend then passed on those two words selective mutism, or mutism selectif in French, two words that not one of those health professionals had known of or discovered to suggest to us.  We weren’t looking for a label, we were searching for a solution and we’d been looking in the wrong place.  Our programme of intervention was about to take a different path, one used successfully by parents in the know, only we would not have the same support, as to take this route was effectively to reject the existing system.

But to tell this story properly, it is necessary to go back even further, to understand events that lead up to this moment and because despite trying to change the title of this episode and make it shorter, my creative daughter who has already finished the artwork, is telling me to write this second part now and include her picture. So here’s the bit about not living in France!

We are not living in France!


When I was six months pregnant we came to France for a 2 week holiday from London. We were toying with the idea of moving here, at least I was, for my husband it would be a return.

My body was changing and the world around was about to change significantly. One afternoon I returned to the hotel in Marseille to rest and as I passed the reception, I noticed all the employees looking at the television, watching what looked like the demolition of a couple of council buildings. I thought it strange that all the staff were watching TV in the middle of the afternoon, so when I got to the room I too turned on the television. I couldn’t understand the words spoken in rapid French, but I could read the subtext. It wasn’t a couple of council buildings at all; it was the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.

During that holiday, we looked at a couple of apartments and houses, I sat through long-winded appointments with real estate agents, tried to understand menus and the rapid-fire French coming from that TV, all on a roller coaster of emotions and hormones, understanding little beyond Bonjour and Au Revoir, two basic expressions I thought I could pronounce, but listening carefully, I realised I’d been giving their syllables way too much emphasis, goodbye sounded more like ‘of waa’ than the expression I’d learnt to say.

I became disillusioned with the idea of living in France, I had long ago discarded that child-like submission of accepting things the way they are, being secondary to decision-making. Making decisions and understanding what leads to them is not something one gives up and neither was I interested in putting it on hold while coming to terms with a new language. I freaked out. No way was I coming to live here, a new language, a new city, a new baby, all things where I would be required to start again from the beginning. Absolutely no way I told myself.

Returning to London, the queues were horrendous, airport security was tight and there was no other subject being discussed other than the events that had occurred in New York. And they were beginning to have a trickle-down effect. I was concerned because I worked in the travel industry which was sure to be impacted and sure enough, within two weeks of our return, I was advised that my job was no longer required at a time when I knew I had no chance of finding another, not with a very obvious baby protruding from my mid-section.

Next up: Episode 3: The Benefits of Contra-Indicated Essential Oils!

Click below to read Previous Episodes of A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence


Episode 1 The Benefits of Insomnia

27 thoughts on “Episode 2: We are not living in France!

  1. Very moving story about your daughter. As for the culture shock, I had to laugh – it was sooo familiar! My particular stumbling block has been to ask for ‘pain’ in shops – in the end, I stuck to baguettes.


    • I also remember laughing over the image of banned swim shorts for me – speedos only in France and not being allowed in the pool when my children were wearing ozone protection swimsuits, suncream only, no UV ray protecting fabrics allowed!


  2. Very moving story, Claire…and I absolutely LOVE your talented daughter’s illustrations. Will have to show them to my own 10-year-old. Interesting about selective mutism. I didn’t know this condition, but it sounds as if you’re getting the support to help with a solution. Thanks for telling your story.


    • Thanks Kimberly, yes once we discovered what it was we learned how to deal with it and found the support of other parents and a program known to work. Fortunately OLV is now lobbying the government to disseminate information to health providers and educational institutions who may come into contact with children suffering from SM, so they can more appropriately help them.


  3. Hi Claire, I read your story and I find it hard to belieive that beautiful little girl didn’t speak for so long. We all think that what we face is huge but then when we place that into the context of others we undestand more….all my love


  4. I can’t do what you did. Living in a country where I can’t speak the language. When I was in school I had a boy classmate whom I haven’t heard him speak one word for 6 years. it’s great to know there is a common group of parents with same experience and I wish you all the best!


  5. I had never heard of selective mutism before…the brain is a wonderful and complex thing. I find the “selective” part of it the most interesting, since it implies a choice, which made me then smile at your description of yourself: “I had long ago discarded that child-like submission of accepting things the way they are.” Your daughter seems like a delightful and creative child, and I love her illustrations!


    • It is extraordinary, particularly as it is not necessarily the same as shyness, though it can appear to seem like that.

      Interesting you mention choice, as in fact the name was changed from ‘elective mutism’ to ‘selective mutism’ about 10 years ago I believe, precisely because more is understood and known now, an important fact being that it is not the child’s choice not to speak, they literally can’t speak and it has been described in near physical terms the sensation they feel when being asked to do so, as if the entire throat ceases up and impairs its function, such is the fear of speaking, it really is as if they can’t speak.

      Selective refers to the environments in which it occurs, it is only in certain environments and circumstances such as school that it occurs and has been the case with our daughter, as soon as she entered the school gate all speaking stopped.


      • Thank you for explaining the selective/elective name. I was wrong, although I certainly didn’t mean that she consciously chose not to speak. How very frustrating it must be for her. How strong she has been and how supportive those who love her.

        I have a young relative who, when faced with the stresses of taking her baccalaureate exams, was literally paralyzed for several days, apparently not an uncommon reaction to stress. I’ve been reading some of Oliver Sacks’ work of late. I wonder if he’s touched on selective mutism?


        • It does seem to many people on first encounter that the child does not want to speak, as if it is their choice. If that was the case, I am sure it wouldn’t endure, will power that lasts for that long would almost be a strength more than a weakness 🙂


  6. Enlightening! I’ve never heard of selective mutism before. I’m so glad your child is recovering. the fact that you’ve patiently being working with her is the best thing. French school is not really aware of all the difficulties their students can have and they seem to think the Speech therapist can solve everybody’s problems. Bravo Claire! so happy it’s working out for your daughter and I love the pic! Can’t wait until the next post! Your writing is beautiful. you should do NaNoWriMo next year with me. 🙂


  7. Hi Claire – my youngest granddaughter had this condition (in Switzerland, where it also seems to be unknown). She’s now 17 and as chatty and bubbly as the next girl, so don’t despair, just love her for the beautiful, talented person she is. Her drawings are super, so full of life, and that’s a great means of expression. Bon courage!


    • Thank you for sharing that, I have always felt confident about the future with regard to my daughter because her talents and passion for life is so clear and obvious and if you met her outside school you wouldn’t know, because she is very talkative. The difficulty is working within a system that expects a certain kind of verbal performance in order to progress, i.e. it’s always difficult when one is different to the rest. Thankfully, I do believe the hardest years in that respect are behind us (cross fingers), we will see how she copes with college next year.


  8. My daughter-in-law works in a classroom with a young student who has S.M. What joy you must have felt at the news your sweet daughter was talking to her peers. Her artwork is so full of colour and joyful expression. She is well on her way.


    • She is very creative and that has always been an important outlet of expression for her and I continue to marvel at what she is capable of creating. She’s been writing stories for kids at school for a long time, I decided I wanted in on that too! 🙂 Teachers are so important and my daughter has been fortunate that she has had wonderful teachers all the way through and she has always loved school.


  9. Pingback: Episode 3: The Benefits of Contra-Indicated Essential Oils « Word by Word

  10. Pingback: The Benefits of Insomnia « Word by Word

  11. I finally have time to comment. Relocating to a new country, not knowing the language, customs, it is somthing i have done, As an adult it is a culture shock and for a child even more so. Feeling helpless, that is what I remember the most in the beginning. Could not follow the news, do a grocery shop or answer the phone. I always remember…
    “what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger” So glad you are willing to share your story….


    • Thank you Nancy for finding the time to comment, culture shock is very interesting to observe in terms of our responses, both as adults and children and I agree, knowing that the most difficult challenges make us stronger and also build character helps us to cope with it I guess. I like to visualise the place I’m aiming for rather than focus too much on the difficulty confronting me and that seems to help. But when a child requires an intervention in order to break out of their silence, doing something now is extremely important.


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