While I was on vacation, I read “Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting” by Pamela Druckerman. This is not a paid review, but only my musings. I would not recommend the book as a parenting guide. I would say it is more a combination of non-fiction autobiography and anthropological survey. It interested me because it gave another American mother’s perspective on raising a child in Europe. I was surprised by some of the clear differences in the French parenting style as compared to things I had observed of Dutch and expat families.
I think the clearest difference is that French mothers seem not only expected to, but also want to return to work full time in three months or less after giving birth. And, along those same lines, there is much more acceptance and expectation of having children looked after by someone other than parents from a very young age. This would have been great information to have when working for a French manager. Looking back, it would have changed the context of many of our conversations.
There is an anecdote from the book that sticks with me of a French couple that pay to have their children driven to Saturday morning events so that the parents can go out to lunch together alone.That anecdote made me very aware of a practice that I think is generally accepted in the U.S. that a couple’s relationship gets essentially put on the back burner for several years with little ones. The French do not seem to see it that way. I remember a French woman quoted as saying that your relationship with your partner should be the relationship you put the most effort into because that is one of the few people you truly choose to have in your life. You are born into a family and your children are born unto you, but a partner is someone you hand pick. I found that a refreshing perspective.
It feels like there is a perception in French society that becoming a mother does not changes a woman who much. You are expected to get your figure back in a matter of months and your values should not change. Granted, I think American mothers can go to the extreme in taking on the mantle/yoke of motherhood, but I also find the French expectations just a little too unrealistic.
My husband and I took a birth prep class with other expats and there was one exercise in particular that stuck with me. The instructor laid out pictures on the table depicting aspects of our lives like career, shopping, food, sex, beliefs, fitness, family and so on. We talked about our expectations of how these aspects would shift in importance immediately after our baby is born and for the longer term. Then she said it will feel like someone has come along and lifted the table-cloth of your life and tossed these aspects into the air. In the first weeks, everything will just be up in the air.
After a while, all the various aspects of your life will settle back down, but will re-ordered themselves sometimes in an unpredictable fashion. Some things will fall out of your life completely. I think that best explains what the first year of parenthood has felt like for me so far. It changes a person in ways you just cannot imagine or sometimes even explain. You cannot predict it and you should not fight it. It is just natural. There is a huge cultural aspect that invisibly guides some of the re-shuffling I think, though, and it never became more clear to me than after reading this book.
I also find some of the aspects of the French parenting style to be a relief. The one that most immediately changed my parenting style is what I think of as the Parent Monologue. It is this belief that a parent should constantly be talking to a child and explaining every singe thing to a child as it is happening. I was doing it because I thought it was supposed to help with speech development. It was such a relief to read in this book that not all parents do this and children turn out just fine. Carrying on a constant, one-sided, third person plural dialogue is exhausting and can be embarrassing in public. I felt like a crazy person at times.
In a very general sense, I found the philosophies of the day cares in France to be like that in The Netherlands at least with regard to babies. My child is only an infant so that is my only point of comparison. They both seem to think that a baby should mostly be left to play by themselves and other babies. There is no pressure to teach a baby. There is a schedule to a baby’s day, but that revolves around sleeping and eating. The focus is more on socialization and sensory development through play.
I think in America there is far more pressure to educate children from as early an age as possible or even in utero. It was a relief to hear that French parents do not do that either and to hear the author quote statistics that French kids are no worse off because of it. For instance, The Netherlands ranks tenth in the UN’s 2007 Education Ranking and the French are not too far behind at 13th while the U.S. ranks 21st and the U.K. lags even further behind at 30th. There are a lot of factors that impact this rating probably one of the least of which is the day care system, but it is reassuring to know that my child is no worse off in the Dutch system that she would be in the U.S.
As a parent, I find it to be a relief that I do not need to constantly be teaching and interacting with my child. I think it is important that a child can entertain themselves. I also find in my daughter that she is easily over stimulated and is easily happy playing alone with a toy for several minutes. I used to try to get more involved and direct her play and step in with a running narrative, but I felt like I just got in the way. And it dissolves any guilt I felt about sending my child to day care. We are lucky to have a day care really close to our house that we are all happy with. I think it is good for the whole family that she gets out of the house and interacts with other people and children.
In the end, most parents are looking for things that reinforce what they are doing as parents. This book reinforced a few things I was thinking and opened my eyes to other ideas that I may or may not try.
The book also expressed the French belief that children become part of a family’s dynamic, but that a family does not revolve around the child. I do not know completely how I feel about this part yet. A child vastly changes the dynamic of a family especially in the beginning. Our lives do to a large extent revolve around our child and mainly mine because I am currently a stay at home mother. I structure our day around E’s naptimes. It seems like a fool’s errand not to. She has changed the way we socialize, but she has not eliminated it entirely. She has changed the way we travel, but she has not kept us from traveling. We will just have to wait and see when E gets older.
One of the biggest differences in the French parenting style revolves around food. The author insisted that picky eaters do not exist in France. All foods are incorporated into a child’s diet, no foods are off-limits, and snacking is not an option. From a very early age, children have a three course meal beginning with a vegetable followed by a main and then fruit for dessert at lunch and dinner. There is also a small, afternoon meal or what I think of as like a British tea time that usually includes a sweet cake. And, oftentimes, chocolate is part of the afternoon meal. The author mentioned her daughter was fed a chocolate bar nestled in a baguette. Oh, how good does that sound??
In the future, I want to try to try this – the choco baguette as well as the three course meals. The author gave an example of feeding her children slices of raw vegetable as she prepared lunch and dinner. I want to try that at least for dinner. One of the key takeaways I have from this book is that trying different foods is a must for French kids. They have a philosophy that a child will continue to try a food until they like it. Parents and care takers make a big effort to prepare fruits and vegetables and all types of proteins for that matter in a variety of forms. If a child does not like steamed carrots, for instance, then they raw or shredded. It is not about sneaking the nutritional value of a food into a meal. For now, it is just a theory to me. E has not teeth yet and now eats only pureed foods.
A key aspect to this that author is quick to admit is culture. It was far easier to introduce this eating philosophy to her children because the day care and every family around her is doing it too. And, let’s be honest, did she really have much choice in the matter? Her kids eat this way at French public school. Why fight the system when it is good for the child?