Bébé and Me

When I wrote a response to the WSJ article written by Pamela Druckerman about French parenting, I did not initially realize that the piece was a teaser for her book Bringing Up Bébé (can I use sleep deprivation as an excuse?). My favorite Momaha blogger, Amy Grace, pointed out that a lot of people on the internets were reacting to Druckerman’s essay without actually reading the book, and I thought that was a good point – I should read the book. And although I am wary of parenting books in general, I usually enjoy these part-memoir part-journalism works so I thought it might be fun to read.

The premise of the book, in case you have somehow managed to escape this particular viral parenting topic, is that Druckerman is an American parent living in Paris and decides to investigate just why French children seem better behaved, and French mothers seem more relaxed, than their American counterparts. She talks to a lot of French mothers, some American moms, and a few experts about what’s behind the French parenting style and how it differs from American parenting.

Bébé has been the subject of a lot of rather predictable media backlash, of the “don’t tell me how to raise my kids!” variety. The general reaction seems to be annoyance at the idea of yet another “this is how the French/Chinese/etc do it” antidote aimed at the underdogs of the parenting world, we poor neurotic Americans. But I think it would be a mistake to read this book as a parenting instruction manual and try to implement the specific techniques that the French employ – feeding schedules, deadlines for sleeping through the night, and so on. As a rule-follower and chart-lover, I feel the temptation to do this, but that would be to miss the real value of the book.

The devil, here, is not in the details but in the fuzzier, bigger picture. What can we take away from Druckerman’s research that will really help us? – we can take the concept of the cadre - the strict framework of rules within which children are given great freedom – and build a parenting cadre for ourselves. Adopt the overarching concepts of French parenting and within those we can be our freedom-loving, have it our way American selves. The French ideas I think we should steal for our cadre: Parenting with conviction. Teaching patience. Expecting more of your child. Rejecting guilt. Letting go. Maintaining our identities as women who are more than moms.

It’s important to point out, as Druckerman does, that the French have something that we don’t, and I daresay will never have – cultural consensus on how to take care of children. You can imagine that it would be a lot easier to be confident about your parenting abilities if everyone agreed on how things are done. You don’t have to choose a “style” or “method” and spend forever wondering if you chose correctly. You don’t have to feel like others are judging your techniques and choices. Everyone knows that this is the way to do things. There’s a clarity to that that takes a lot of the pressure off of mothers to practically reinvent the wheel with the birth of each baby. But that’s just not who we are as Americans – our Pandora’s box of individual choices can’t be resealed – so we have a bigger challenge when it comes to being self-confident and parenting with conviction. But I think we should try. Because constantly second guessing yourself and worrying about the opinions of others is exhausting and it undermines your strength as a parent, and your self-image as a person.

Along with our lack of confidence in ourselves, we seem to be afflicted with a cultural lack of confidence in our children. Druckerman notes that French parents simply expect more of their children, and talk to them as if they understand. I have to confess that I am very guilty of underestimating Miles’s abilities and comprehension levels. It’s painful to admit this because what’s meant to be gentle and non-pressuring is actually kind of condescending and demeaning – the soft bigotry of low expectations. I suppose if I’m really really honest, keeping my expectations low is also a way to spare myself from feelings of failure. But this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, since if I assume he doesn’t know what “pick up your toys” means, I never say it, and he never learns it.

Similarly, French parents expect more of their kids when it comes to eating and sleeping. I don’t think that we should race to follow the letter of their schedules and techniques, which may not suit our far more varied lifestyles, but we could take note of the attitude: the French don’t force their babies to sleep through the night or toddlers to eat vegetables, they encourage them to do so because they believe children are capable of those things.

It’s tempting as well to get wrapped up in the specific ways that French parents get their young babies to sleep through the night, because as I’ve said before sleep is THE big issues for most parents of young children, but again let’s just take the broader outlines to heart. The idea of “the pause” (as Druckerman dubs it) is something that I, for one, have been absolutely terrible about. I have always rushed to Miles’s side at the slightest squeak of frustration or displeasure. And my intentions, of course, were good: I saw myself as attuned, and swiftly responding, to his needs. But what about his needs to learn patience, self-reliance, self-confidence, the ability to cope with frustration? I have robbed him of those opportunities too many times, but it’s not too late to change. As he gets older, he actually lets me know that my meddling is NOT what he needs or wants: he screams because he can’t do something by himself, but he screams louder when I step in to do it for him. I’m lucky that he’s so fiercely independent, because he checks me in my control-freaky habits. And I can do better than I have so far.

There are aspects of French motherhood that Druckerman is not so eager to appropriate, and I’m with her on these – practically no French mothers breastfeed past the first few days of a baby’s life, and it’s not encouraged by doctors there. Marriages are decidedly not egalitarian, and it’s taken for granted that men are simply not as good at parenting or housework than women, so they don’t do much in those arenas. And the one thing that French women are neurotic about is body image, so they rather frantically restrict their weight gain during pregnancy and lose their baby weight as quickly as humanly possible afterwards.

And there were some surprises in Bébé: for one thing, France is not one of the countries that we envy for having long, luxurious maternity leaves. Most French women work, and most of them return to work around 12 weeks. I don’t think a lot of American mothers would be super jealous of only 12 weeks of maternity leave, but there is a bit of wisdom to be gained from this: French mothers like returning to work because this three month point is a marker for when they get a bit of their old selves back. Their babies are often sleeping through the night or close to it (more on that in a moment), they are back at their jobs, they are socializing, they’re enjoying their husbands, they feel like themselves again.

How long does it take American mothers to feel like themselves again, even if they go back to work? – a lot longer than 12 weeks, usually. The reasons for that are complex and varied, but a part of it is that we don’t feel entitled to have our old selves back. Self-sacrifice is such a deeply ingrained part of the American image of motherhood, I think that most of us internalize it at least a little. We could take a page from the French and just make the effort to reconnect with who we were before – who we still are, under the spit-up. That doesn’t mean you have to go back to work, or do anything big and capital-I important. What did you enjoy before? – manicures, movies, baking, sewing, blogging, playing video games? Do that! We tell ourselves we don’t have time, but we do – we just don’t prioritize those things anymore because it feels indulgent. French moms let the laundry pile up and don’t apologize for that. Maybe we should too. We pay a lot of lip service to the idea that a happy mom = happy children, but we don’t really make much effort to keep doing the things that make us happy, because we still, in 2012!, feel guilty about detaching from our children enough to reconnect with ourselves.

Most of the positive reviews I’ve read of this book say the same thing that I’m saying: you won’t want to implement everything you read about in Bébé, and that’s okay. There’s plenty of wisdom to be gleaned from the French, and from Druckerman’s analysis, without being too literal about trying to copycat French mothers. And if nothing else it’s an enjoyable parenting memoir that I’d recommend to just about anyone.

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