Profile with Danielle Fontaine
Danielle Fontaine (Québec & St John’s 1981) is a mother of four living in South Carolina. She writes creative nonfiction and is involved in the arts community. She holds a Bachelor of Architecture from McGill University, an MA in PPE from Oxford University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University in North Carolina.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a memorable moment from your time at Oxford?
Danielle Fontaine: 1981 was the last year that the Rhodes scholars sailed to Oxford and I met my husband on the ship on my way over to England, so that made every moment memorable! An anecdotal memory from when we first arrived is: the whole group set a meeting time to get together for a late lunch after we were dropped off at our different colleges to talk about what our rooms were like. We all met at the King’s Arms pub, and I wasn’t a beer drinker so I ordered quiche and milk - and was very dismayed that the quiche was cold and the milk was warm! But then the beer was warm too, so everybody was equally dismayed.
Rhodes Project: How has the Rhodes Scholarship changed in meaning for you since you left Oxford?
Danielle Fontaine: Being French-Canadian, where the Scholarship wasn’t well known, I had no idea of the deeper meaning of the “fighting the world’s fight” idea behind it. Then I learned the prestige that was associated with the Scholarship. And for a while afterward I felt that if I had known all that, I might not have applied because I didn’t see myself as that kind of person. I never had grand plans for a career, while most other Scholars seemed to have very good ideas or plans as to what they wanted to do and what was important to them. For me it was very important that I be ready for a career in case my life took that turn, but it was more of a plan B. My life dream always was to be a stay at home mom. Now I understand that fighting the world’s fight doesn’t have to mean only great battles. There are lots of important skirmishes that need to be won too, and I’m trying to do my part there.
Rhodes Project: Do you feel pressure to explain your choices in the company of other Rhodes women?
Danielle Fontaine: Not at all, and least of all from the ones who know me personally. Any pressure, I think, wouldn’t come from other Scholars, but from women who say “I could never stay home with the children; I have to keep my mind active.” That has never been a problem for me, there are two million things I am doing to keep my mind active – there are so many ways to engage your mind.
But I don’t think that if anybody were to ask that question, it would bother me. I certainly don’t think being a stay at home mom was a waste of time. I was very involved in many other levels, even though I wasn’t climbing up a career ladder. I was involved in civic activities, school activities – I think I made a worthwhile use of my time. I’m just not going to make the front page of any newspaper. I don’t feel pressure or regret – I’m happy the way things are.
Rhodes Project: If you could change or add one thing to the public dialogue on stay at home mothers and working mothers, what would it be?
Danielle Fontaine: I think the main thing I would want people to realize is that one choice is not better than the other. They are both valid. Sometimes women get very defensive trying to explain why they stayed home or why they picked the career path, and they are both entirely good choices. You should do what is good for you, and that will end up being good for the children. There are great ways to raise children with help from nannies or preschools or extended family that have have been proven to work very well, so I don’t think that a stay at home mom is absolutely necessary in the child’s life. But if it’s a choice that the mother wants to make because that’s what works well for her and her family, that’s a valid choice.
There is also the issue that when a woman decides to work outside the home, she often ends up taking on more of the responsibilities at home as well, and it’s something that is taking a long time for society to adjust to. It’s a difficult choice because everything that traditionally women used to do at home still needs to be done, and not everybody has the means to pay for help to pick up the slack. So that needs to be worked on with partners and society in general. But I think we’re making progress. I know of a few families where the man stays home, and I’m looking forward to more progress where men feel that that is a valid choice for them also.
Rhodes Project: Broadly speaking, what inspires you in life?
Danielle Fontaine: Broadly speaking? Everything really. It’s an exciting world out there. But first and foremost, my family and friends, and the people around me, whoever they happen to be in any given situation. And the civic activities that I do. While the kids were in school it was helping with the quality of education at whatever level they were. My involvement there was mostly in the arts, art exhibitions or competitions, or creating programs with community theatres and schools so that students would be engaged in live theatre earlier. I notice that a lot of community theaters have aging audiences, so we were trying to get more young people involved. At the time my children left for college, I was involved with the Friends of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation in the US for many years. Then I decided to spoil myself a little bit and went back to do my MFA.
Rhodes Project: How was going back to education years after leaving Oxford a different or surprising experience?
Danielle Fontaine: It was wonderful to not put the pressure on yourself that you have when you’re at the age where you’re applying for scholarships and building your resume – doing it entirely for the fun of it was absolutely wonderful.
Rhodes Project: How did your husband’s job in the military affect your experience of raising a family?
Danielle Fontaine: I think having the chance to experience different cultures by living in different countries, or even in different states broadened our perspectives in so many ways. It’s logistically difficult with four young children, but it’s wonderful for the children and it was wonderful for us too. It has been tiring, and all the moving takes up a lot of energy but I think it’s well worth it.
Rhodes Project: If you could go back to your life right after college, what would you do differently?
Danielle Fontaine: I might go back farther than that to my father who always pressured us to be professionals, both the girls and the boys in my family. We always had to have a good solid profession to fall back on, and a lot of the reason for that was to ensure financial security. So I think I limited my choices early on as to what I could study. I do love architecture and the arts, but I think I might have studied a different subject that might not have made my dad so happy, like communications or writing. But since you ask about right after college, I would not do anything differently there. I was already married – Bill and I married after our first year in Oxford – and while he went through basic pilot training I worked in construction management for a year. I did well and satisfied myself that I could succeed in a career had I chosen that path, so that question never nagged me later. Then we embarked on our nomadic military family life, and I loved that lifestyle.
Rhodes Project: If you were stranded on a desert island with one person, one musical record and one personal item, what would they be?
Danielle Fontaine: Assuming the question implied someone from outside my current world, the person would be either Antoine de Saint-Exupéry or Leonardo Da Vinci – I would love chatting with either of them. A record – any music by Nana Mouskouri. And a personal item – I guess I’d bring a pen or a pencil.
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