Monday, March 05, 2012

Like The French Do

At The University, one-third of my department (roughly 10 out of 30 people) has had a baby since I began working here. So when our creative director read the parenting book du jour, Bringing Up Bebe, she decided to pass it around to the other parents, parents-to-be, and other “European types” (whatever that means) in the office. Since I’m “on deck,” I got to read it first.

Bringing Up Bebe reads as part memoir, part parenting philosophy. The author, American Pamela Druckerman, chronicles her experience raising three young children in Paris and the differences, in her opinion (largely, I think), between American and French parenting styles. (Fun fact, Druckerman also wrote about her experience trying to plan a threesome for her husband’s 40th birthday. For the record, I DO NOT think discredits her as a parenting book author, but it’s kind of an interesting career turn. Or maybe not?)

Druckerman is upfront about her ambivalence toward French culture, living in Paris and being an expatriate in general. I don't know if this is to gain street cred with middle America (though she does embrace a neurotic New Yorker identity), but she is honest about the difficulties making connections with other French mothers who seem indifferent to the kind of insta-bonding us ladies in the U.S. have a tendency to do, particularly when we have something like motherhood or impending motherhood to bond over. Though she backs up her claims with extensive research and expert opinions, exactly how much of the American vs. French parenting differences are real or perceived is anyone's guess, but the premise is that from a very young age French children are better behaved than American children, and French parents, unlike American parents, are unwilling to make their children the center of their universe.

Some major differences, according to Druckerman, include: French babies sleep through the night as young as six weeks (nearly all French babies sleep through the night by three months); French toddlers can to sit through meals with adults without disrupting and are capable of entertaining themselves for periods of time; and young French children are expected to greet adults, be polite, try new foods, and solve their own problems among other things. The major difference, according to the author, is that the French regard children, even babies, as tiny, autonomous humans capable of understanding far more than we give them credit for and able to function as such from a young age. Not that the French neglect their kids, they just give them more freedom within a framework (a cadre) of clear boundaries. Moreover, French parents seem unwilling to allow children to completely rule their lives allowing for much more relaxed family atmosphere where women are able to maintain balance. Not to mention that the French seem far less interested in engaging in competitive parenting.

A lot of the ideas and parenting “tactics” in this book seem like common sense. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t without its flaws. I don’t know much about French parenting (or parenting in general), but I do think a lot of her American parenting examples represent an upper-middle to upper-class style of parenting that can be found concentrated in places like New York City.

Druckerman also spends a several pages about the societal pressure in France for woman to immediately drop the baby weight (in part to maintain their sexiness for their mans), which, she says, is not something that American women are concerned about. I tend to disagree with this. Maybe there’s less pressure in the U.S. to be “sexy” within weeks of giving birth (let’s be honest, that’s not exactly a priority of mine now), but the urgency Americans place on dropping the baby weight seems to border on fanatic. Maybe we just don’t do it as well as the French do? But that doesn’t mean the pressure isn’t there.

Another sticking point with me was Druckerman’s discussion of the division of household and parenting duties in the France. Based on Druckerman’s observations, overwhelmingly, French women go back to work (they also seem to regard being a stay-at-home-mother as not a valid choice, which seems problematic). However, management of the household and the majority parenting responsibilities also falls to women, where women in the U.S. report a more equal divide. While Druckerman doesn’t exactly seem to spin this in an overly positive light, she says that women in France appear to be less disgruntled with their husbands than American women do. Maybe so, but I personally would have a hard time swallowing what seems like a 70/30 split in household and parenting duties with my husband.

Regardless, I would recommend this as a fun (and fast) read to other expecting parents. As I read more about parenting in general, there are so many competing ideas, that it seems very easy to become 1) completely overwhelmed and confused about what the “right” way to raise a kid is; 2) dogmatic about a particular set of principles; 3) entrenched in a perceived ideal that will be impossible to maintain 100 percent of the time and will ultimately lead to constant feelings of crushing guilt. Even on non-mothering specific websites, an article about, say, breastfeeding or co-sleeping will spark controversy in the comments and cause the claws to come out about the right or wrong way to raise your baby. While I don't plan to begin telling people that I will be "raising my children French," in the midst of all the noise, Bringing Up Bebe was somewhat refreshing

However, I have no doubt we’ll soon see a dozen more parenting books featuring hard and fast rules about French parenting. Because that’s what we do in American, right?

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