By Stephanie Ila Silver-Silberstein
Why would I want to put down the third book of the 50 Shades of Gray series and pick up Bringing Up Bebe? My entire life is spent in the trenches of motherhood, so having the French tell me how to parent, in my precious spare time mind you, was not something my defenses could take. Just the other day, I spent the better part of 45 minutes de-crankifying my 3.5 year old son after his nap, 10 exhausting minutes jamming my screaming, overtired 21-month-old daughter (who refused to take a nap at all that day) into her pajamas, and then another 45-minutes doing story drama to the book Go the F&%# to Sleep. But, out of respect for my book club, and with all of my defense mechanisms firmly in place, I picked up Bringing Up Bebe to read about the calm, tantrum-less lives of French moms. And now, all I can say is, ‘voulez vous, screw the French.’
Ok, so maybe that last comment was a tad harsh (and didn’t make any sense). To be honest with you, I quite enjoyed this book. And to be truly honest with myself, French parenting is genius. The book is entertainingly written by the very relatable Pamela Druckerman, a Jewish American writer who shacks up in Paris and ultimately gets married and raises 3 young children with her beloved Simon (who was raised in about 12 different countries it seems). We’d totally be friends with Pam and find out within 5 minutes of meeting her that she graduated from Columbia University, wrote a book about infidelity, studied improv at Upright Citizens Brigade and gave her husband a ménage a trois for his 40th birthday. But that’s because we’re American. French women would barely learn her name.
To sum up: In France, kids are on an equal playing field with all other aspects of life from career and marriage to dinnertime. French mothers view their children as an equal slice of the pie that is their life. Patience is more than a virtue there – it seems to be the single most important thing for a child to have…besides an eclectic palate; whereas American mothers seem to sacrifice a whole lot (i.e. their bodies, their hobbies, their sex life, their careers, etc.) and gain a whole lot of guilt (and weight) in the process. Hmm – put that way, motherhood sounds pretty awful regardless of which continent you live on. Let’s try it this way: American mothers put their children above all else. They consult experts, books, each other and the Internet to find the best possible parenting philosophy, and they use it to raise healthy, kind, talented, intelligent, successful people. French mothers treat their children as rational miniature adults who are capable of behaving as such. They feel that as mothers, it is their responsibility to raise children in a cadre or framework that has defined boundaries but lots of freedom within those boundaries. The French mother’s goal is to keep her life balanced (and her body thin). And somehow, this innate approach to motherhood makes tantrums non-existent, meals dignified and delicious (not to mention devoid of any kid-friendly menu items), sleep training totally unnecessary and trips to the playground actually relaxing.
After the rather exhausting day I had, clearly, the French have got it all figured out. But do they? It was hard to stifle my subconscious from peering up from her copy of Jane Eyre (ok, yeah, so I’ve since gone back to reading 50 Shades) and stop her from shouting anti-Parisian stereotypes that pretty much go unaddressed in the book. What about all the smoking?! What about all the snobbery?! What about all the infidelity?! What about all the spanking (no, that’s not another 50 Shades reference)?! Don’t all the kids use pacifiers ‘till they’re, like, eight years old? No wonder all the moms are skinny and the kids are well behaved!
For all the praising, over-scheduling and helicoptering that goes on, don’t Americans turn out some pretty wonderful people? So what if my son eats a limited diet of chicken fingers and PB&J? So what if my daughter took eight months to sleep through the night? My kids are the sweetest, funniest, most expressive, confident and cuddliest kids I know. There’s ample opportunity for them to realize they’re not the center of the universe. So, isn’t it nice for them to know they’re at least the center of mine?
Look, don’t get me wrong. The French way sounds very appealing, and I have no doubt that French moms love and treasure their children just as much as we American moms do. But whereas moms have the “hardest job in the world” here in the States, motherhood in France could be considered the “most pleasurable job in the world”. It’d be nice not to panic every time I pull up to a restaurant for a meal with the kids. It’d be nice not to feel obligated to go down the slide 50 times at the playground. And it’d be nice to have reliable, inexpensive quality childcare that everyone else is using too. Then again, I quite enjoyed gaining 50 pounds with each pregnancy and losing the weight on my own terms and not society’s. And I kinda like going down the slide with my daughter and cheering for my son each and every time he emerges from the tube-slide with a big smile on his face. And I bet my kids kinda like that too.
A friend of mine said it best: The French are raising their children to live in France (and be terrific houseguests here in the US). We raise our children to live and thrive here in America. To truly adopt the French way of parenting, our entire society would have to be on board – and that’s just not going to happen anytime soon. But in the meantime, we can still learn from each other and be mindful of how another culture might approach this minefield that is motherhood. Case in point – my son ate chicken teriyaki for the first time tonight. No, it wasn’t fois gras, but it’s a start.