NEVER mind that it's 9 p.m. and long past a regular bedtime for three-year-old Xenia Doualle and her 10-month-old brother, Alexis. Sleep can wait. Right now an air of celebration fills the family's tiny two-room apartment, and nothing is more important than welcoming home their father, Jean-Fran,cois, who has just returned from the south of France. For nearly a year Mr. Doualle, a tall, gregarious engineer and inventor, has been spending three weeks each month in a special postgraduate program near Lyon, two hours from Paris by fast train. The fourth week he returns home, and for a brief period, life almost returns to normal.
Yet even during that week there is nothing quite conventional about the family's time together. Doualle is French. His wife, Alexandra, is American by birth and half-Russian by heritage. He speaks to the children in French. She converses with them in Russian. And despite the economic and time constraints imposed by his mid-career graduate-student status, a sense of exuberance, even abundance, fills their cramped fifth-floor walk-up. A highchair occupies a corner of the living room-cum-master bedroom, and books, papers, toys, and a TV compete for space on a bookshelf.
As Alexis drinks his bottle and Xenia dumps a canister of Legos on the floor, the Doualles talk about their intense commitment to their children and to their extended family.
``Every family we see is broken, and the children are not baptized,'' Mr. Doualle says. ``We are the only ones in our family to be legally married and to be married in the church. Many couples in France just live together. Others get civil marriages.''
Until Mr. Doualle entered this postgraduate program, his wife, a linguist who speaks four languages, stayed home with the children - unusual in France, where a majority of mothers work. But the need for a regular income during her husband's year in school has forced her to take a temporary job as a translator. While she works, a Russian nanny cares for the children.
``I've never wanted to put the children into these public systems,'' says Mrs. Doualle, a vivacious, dark-haired woman wearing a striking red and black jacket with a black skirt. ``You can say what you want, but day-care centers are collective institutions. The children are raised as a collective entity. The child will develop his collective self but will not necessarily develop his individual self. A little day care, a few hours a day, that's fine. But what if you have a particularly sensitive child who will be dominated by the others?''
At the same time, she is quick to praise the government supports - child care, maternity benefits, children's health care - available in her adopted country. ``Family policy in France is excellent, really terrific,'' she says.
Just how terrific became evident when the family moved to Washington, D.C., for a year when Xenia was six months old. There Mrs. Doualle formed two ``very strong'' impressions: ``One, that children were not welcome in the city at all, and two, that at work people did not want to hear about your child, especially if you had any problems.''
After encountering ``no kids, no pets'' restrictions in countless apartments, the couple ``ended up not saying we had a child, and just avoiding the question.'' In addition, they found day-care centers ``totally unaffordable, out of the question.'' But baby sitters proved unreliable, so Mrs. Doualle began taking Xenia with her to her job at the Moroccan Embassy, where Moroccan wives cared for the infant.
``I don't know how women in America do it,'' she says, referring to the lack of child care and other supports. ``They have no maternity leave. How can a woman work until the very end of her pregnancy, or go back to work right away after the baby is born? Something has to give.''
Yet even an enviable system of government supports, such as those available to French families, cannot alleviate all the problems working parents face.
``The women who have to take their children to a day-care center and work the hours I do, I don't know how they manage,'' Mrs. Doualle says. ``They have to wake up their children very early, drag them to the center, run to work, run back from work to pick them up before the center closes, go home, and take care of their families. Unless people have nannies or grandmothers or aunts or somebody to help them out, I just don't know how they do it.''
This lack of grandmothers and aunts and extended families is, in fact, at the heart of what she sees as a larger problem - an isolation that affects all generations in some working families. ``The parents live their life in the professional arena. The grandparents are sort of off in another world. The adolescents live their own life, and the babies are in day-care centers. There is no more real productive mix of generations, which is a real loss.''
To counter that loss, she proposes a ``tribal'' solution, saying, ``The only way to get out of this mess and to get back to a situation where one salary is enough for everyone is to live in a network of people, either a family network or a network of friends, where you share housing and child care. It's something one has to develop.''
Her husband concurs. ``It doesn't need to be the family - it can be a community,'' he says. ``But I think the tribal principle is the only answer.''