Tuesday, June 14, 2011

La Bonne Maman? Mothering in Paris

When we decided to move to France, I knew I’d find plenty of differences between me and my Parisian counterparts. They'd have more kids (France has the second highest birth rate in the EU), look more stylish at the playground and overdress their offspring for a romp in the bac a sable.

But when it comes to parenting, I've been amazed to discover just how different we are.

As a parent (or as anything, for that matter), I am far from perfect. I'm probably too lenient and emphasize fun over firm. I abhor the sound of my kids’ distress to such an extent that I often go to great lengths to forestall it.

I tend to fall victim to flavor-of-the-month parenting, trying one approach after another to confront the ever-changing challenges the kids present. A believer in "positive discipline," I struggle to find logical consequences for undesirable behavior and find myself uttering bizarre phrases like, "No, you cannot have that flashlight on the toilet," and "If you don't go brush your teeth now, I'm taking away Big Monkey." Huh?

If you’re a parent – or an American parent, anyway – chances are, you’ve tried different approaches. From “attachment parenting” replete with a family bed to tough love “Tiger Mother"-ing, there’s always something new out there and with it someone to remind us that we could be doing better.

We have so many worries and precious little social support to help tackle them. Should I "go back to work" after the baby is born or should I stay home? How will either choice affect my child? Will she grow up resentful of a mom who wasn't there 100% or benefit by my example of hard work outside the home? And if I want to continue working, will my salary be eaten up by childcare? Is my child being bullied? Or worse, bullying? Am I protecting them from harmful chemicals? Sunburns? Are they taking enough classes (and are they the right ones?) Will they end up in therapy because I yelled when they spilled their milk? Or be scarred for life because I just threatened to "go back to work and hire a nanny?"

French mothers do not share many of these worries. They don't fret over their "parenting style" because here there is only one: tough. They don't worry about what other parents will think of them or agonize over the choice to work or stay home. Breastfeeding for a year is inconceivable as is the idea of schlepping a breast pump to work (or anywhere else). By law, mothers are guaranteed sixteen weeks paid maternity leave (considerably longer the more children they have) with the promise that their job will be waiting. When they decide to go back (and most do), quality daycare is available for free and is structured to accommodate the realities of a real working schedule. Families even receive monthly compensation for each child they have, which increases significantly if you have three or more.

Guilt -- an emotion most American mothers are intimately acquainted with -- isn't really part of their repertoire. In fact, a comparable word for “guilt” (of the emotional variety) doesn’t really exist in French. And why should they feel guilty? Weekends are largely devoted to family and because people aren’t expected to work 24/7, they don’t spend that time distracted by a beeping Blackberry. Plentiful national holidays (observed by schools as well as businesses) and the customary six weeks annual vacation mean lots of quality time with the kids and often grandparents, too.

Of course, I’m making big generalizations. But it's undeniable that French mothers are less burdened than we are. They take time for themselves without apologizing for it and don’t feel the need to over-manage every aspect of their children’s lives. I have a French friend (with three kids) who recently returned from a 5-day spa trip by herself. Bravo. They trust the schools (and to a certain extent, the state and other parents) to help them along.

French women aren’t big on self-doubt and have no concept of self-deprecation. The idea of cutting to oneself for the sake of humor or another’s comfort would strike them as utterly ridiculous. I have never once heard a French mother describe herself as a “bad mom” because she forgot to restock the diaper bag or allowed her child to nap in her stroller rather than her crib. Kids here routinely use pacifiers until they’re three and tote dirty loveys (“dou-dous,” a term my kids particularly enjoy) wherever they go. They have no problem dolling out sugary snacks (including their beloved "bon bons") at any hour. The consumption of chocolate is so pervasive, it’s practically a sanctioned food group. And why not? C'est un plaisir...

Helicopter parenting is another concept they don’t get, preferring to remain on the sidelines until (and unless) a problem crops up. They don’t dig in sandboxes and climb jungle gyms. I have yet to see a French mom on a slide or actively manage interactions between children. Although my days on the climber are now behind me, I'm not above a good game of chase or building the occasional sandcastle, (despite the bizarre looks it occasionally attracts.)

Maybe this is because this time is so fleeting – an idea American moms seem utterly in touch with. This precious window when we are our children’s favorite playmate is so very brief that we seek to take advantage of every tiny moment. We know the day is just around the corner when our outstretched hand will grasp only air and that toddler who once ate from your spoon will proudly fill (and refill) his own cereal bowl.

Observing it all has made me wonder: why are we, American mothers, so terribly hard on ourselves? Why are we so hard on each other? Why are we so obsessed with being “perfect” when none of us really even knows what that means? It’s as if we’re striving to follow a set of prescribed parenting rules but no one seems to know who set them.

Despite their outward appearance of confidence, French moms, like us, are far from perfect. It’s not unusual to see a mom smoke while pushing a stroller. Yelling is a completely sanctioned parenting technique as is the occasional swat (in public). Behavior that I find surprising often goes overlooked while minor transgressions merit an outsized response. A toddler who wants his bucket back from another child is told by his mother, “Prends-le!” (“Take it!”) rather than encouraged to share. But a youngster who deliberately whacks another may be met with a shrug of indifference.

None of this is to suggest that the French love their kids any less. It’s just that their parenting seems intent on producing a different outcome, namely an independent, well-educated, well-mannered young Frenchman (or woman) who understands the rules and abides by them. They will rarely admit to error (as children or adults) because they learned early on that mistakes are dealt with harshly. They prize respect above overt affection and assume parental intimidation is the way to achieve it. Sometimes it seems we're so busy being pals with our kids that we forget to foster the autonomy they will so desperately need.

For now, I’m just observing and marveling at the differences. Mostly, it’s made me see that we American moms are a pretty amazing lot – dedicated, creative and always striving to do better. I just wish more of us knew it.

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At June 14, 2011 at 4:40 PM , Blogger Sarah said...

Beautiful and insightful, Paige. I love this line, "We know the day is just around the corner when our outstretched hand will grasp only air and that toddler who once ate from your spoon will proudly fill (and refill) his own cereal bowl." And, "...we American moms are a pretty amazing lot – dedicated, creative and always striving to do better. I just wish more of us knew it." Hear, hear!

At June 14, 2011 at 5:08 PM , Blogger Stacey said...

Paige.....as I am at work waiting for an IT guy to come fix my crashed computer, I actually decided to pull out my iPad and read your blog. What a truly insightful article on mothers ....all the guilt, the giving in to every request (especially as a working mom who just wants to see her daughter smile even if it is overindulgent), and especially the "grasping on" to their current view of us as their heroes. We don't want them to grow up and follow the paths that we did with our moms which with me at least included the ever pervasive "I hate you!". Oh Paige, thank you for this article. You have always had a way with words...honest but always hilarious :) love you, -Stacey aka

At June 16, 2011 at 9:37 PM , Blogger Nikki said...

Hi Paige! I just found your blog today and love it so much!

This post was so insightful. Two of my dear friends are Parisians (one is still here in the US, while the other had to move back home about a year ago), and I have always noted the differences in parenting styles between us. I don't know that one way is *better* than the other, but I do think we can look at American vs. French teens/collegiates and see the difference it makes in the long run. (Draw your own conclusions)

I love reading about your daily life in Paris and look forward to getting to know you more through your blog.


At June 19, 2011 at 11:05 AM , Blogger Paige Bradley Frost said...

Salut Nikki! Thanks so much for your comment. Parenting in Paris has really been fascinating, especially observing the support families here receive from the state. Wow. I've also been happy that French friends have written to say they totally agree with me on the differences. (Glad I didn't offend them!) Thanks again and bon weekend!


At June 21, 2011 at 4:57 AM , Blogger Polly-Vous Francais said...

Great observations! I was never a mom of young kids in Paris, but sure noticed a lot of these differences.

At June 21, 2011 at 9:06 AM , Blogger Paige Bradley Frost said...

Thank you, Polly. Just visited your blog and think it's great. Loved reading about Maxime le Forestier and the SF Gate story about the Blue House. That song is magical. Bonne journee!

At June 22, 2011 at 1:47 AM , Blogger Peter said...

Hi Paige. A mutual friend, Kristin, recommended this article by posting a link to it on her Facebook profile. I'm glad she did!

As the ex-pat father of a 6-yo Franco-American half-breed, I share your fascination with the differences in child-rearing between the two cultures.

As usual, the historical age difference between France and the US accounts for some of it: being raised by an American is like being raised by your older teenage sister, who will constantly second-guess herself but whose Halloween costume will put yours to shame. In France, it's like being raised by your grandparents: you finish their sentences and they wouldn't be caught dead in sweatpants, but breakfast is always ready no matter what time you get up.

However, by far the biggest difference, as you correctly point out, is that the French government spends heavily on the average child's early years (up to age 6) -- more than twice as much as in the US.

Surely if American mothers had 16 weeks' paid maternity leave, easy access to free daycare and kindergarten, and many more days off from work, their levels of stress and guilt would decrease. Then maybe they too would be tan, stylishly dressed and puffing on a Gauloise as they handed out chocolate snacks at the playground....

At June 23, 2011 at 3:29 PM , Blogger ElleMura said...

Thanks for posting this to the Arlington list serve! I studied in France for a year in college; lived with a host mom (in her 50's) and her boyfriend - I love them dearly and they visited me in the U.S. last year(!)

This article is spot on re: the cultural differences in raising children. I would add to it that the "French way" is not so uniquely French as it is traditional. Not so long ago in the U.S., mothers didn't slide down slides at the playground, sugar was an iconic part of childhood instead of a "bad mommy" indulgence, and parents were generally stricter and expected better manners from younger children.

If you haven't yet read Lori Gottlieb's recent article, I'm sure you'd find it fascinating (and that French parents would applaud it). I'm with you in not being willing to say one way of parenting is right or wrong, *but* I'll go ahead and admit I think helicopter parenting and lack of (fear of, even) discipline have been taken too far. I also don't think lack of government financial aid is an excuse for (or reason for) guilt-fueled parenting.



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