By Lea Geller
Ok, first thing you should know is that I’m a bit of a Franco-phile. I’m a sucker for any of the French Do It Better books. I know why their women are thinner, why the knots in their scarves are nothing short of miraculous, and why they all have sex lives that would make the Greek gods blush (hint: they wear much better underwear then we do.)
In fact, I myself sold French women underwear for about a week. That is until the Parisian department store I was working at realized that I, in my pale pink jockey underwear and bra-lette, had no business selling push-up bras and thongs. So, I am pretty much the target audience for Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bébé.
I didn’t buy the Tiger Mom argument partly because I’m not enamored with all things Chinese (God bless that nasty MSG allergy), but the French? I’d be happily told why French women are better mothers. I first saw the Wall Street Journal article and then there came a flurry of responses. And even the requisite blah review. But it turns out that there’s not much there, just a lot of over-generalization. Still, this woman will probably sell many, many books, even though she already seems to have it all. And by “all” I mean well-behaved children and gets to live in Paris, while I’m stuck in Seattle with my brood of loveable miscreants.
Turns out, I had my own French adventure a few years ago. I was heavily pregnant with Fiona and we took numbers one, two, and three to London and Paris. M worked a lot of the time so I ran around with the kids. London was a family trip, and by now I’ve gotten over how badly brought up my kids seem when compared to their British cousins and friends. If I hear “please” and “thank you” I know I’m being buttered up, and am about to get asked for something big. Watching my children eat with their British cohorts is like watching some sort of chimpanzee experiment gone wrong: Let’s bring the chimps to the table and let them eat with real children. And if we go to London in July and their friends there are still in school, I get to watch them come home in their little uniforms, that I myself wore at one point, and do hours and hours of homework. My kids come home in dirty street clothes and moan for an hour before doing fifteen minutes of worksheets. But I’ve absorbed the shame and moved on.
Paris was something else entirely. First of all, we looked different. None of the pregnant women looked anywhere near as big as I did. And they were all wearing lacy tops with fabulous bras underneath. I know because I was paying attention. Oh, and they were all wearing heels and miniskirts. I think I wore a mumu.
But the kids, oh the kids! They seemed tiny and impeccable in comparison to my boys. Francie sort of fit in — scrawny, silent, compliant — but my boys looked like savages that had wondered off some Gaughin panting. I started to tuck in their shirts in the morning, but by the time we got off the metro (where nobody helped me with my stroller and three kids, thankyouverymuch), they were untucked and grimy.
Still, each morning we’d get all dressed up and go to the park and even found those lovely wooden boats you push around with sticks. I turn away for 30 seconds and find my boys bashing each other over the head with those sticks while alarmed French parents look on. I grab a third stick and chase them both far, far away, but by then it was too late. We were found out. I grabbed the boys and Francie and we slunk out of the park in shame. We took a taxi from the park and got back to hotel and the cab driver charged me extra for getting dust all over his car. You see, there may be some grass in Parisian parks, but you’re not allowed on it, so instead, you play in the dust. At first I couldn’t believe that he’d pick up three children at a dusty park and expect them to keep his car clean, but why shouldn’t he? French children don’t get dirty.
They do some things better, like eating out (children start eating at a school cantine in preschool, so they learn fast), but this whole parent-child relationship bit is suspect. Ok, I get it — according to this book, French kids innately understand that their parents have a life that is separate from them. They probably don’t throw up or launch into fainting spells when their parents go out alone (thank you, Francie), or use their parent’s very first overnight alone as an opportunity to pull out their list of evil scheme ideas and start by moving all the furniture around, baking in the middle of the night, and creating a mural on my bathroom wall using all of my very expensive beauty products [I don't have to tell you who this was]. But don’t tell me that all French parents are more relaxed than Americans. Sure, we have parents who hover, but some of the most nervous parents I know are French, and someone raised Robespierre, Petain, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. They can’t all be doing something right.
Every so often, when I’m in parenting hell… or when I’m especially embarrased by my kids I do ask myself: What would a French mother do? Sure, she’d be better dressed, and maybe her kids wouldn’t even try to pull some of the stunts that have made mine famous, but I bet at the end of the day she still wants to pull out her coiffed hair and scream, even if it is in French.
Better yet, a friend of mine who lives in the south of France with her four American kids pointed out that while the French may raise kids who are more docile, they also raise kids to be bureaucrats who follow rules and don’t think out of the box. I am going to keep telling myself this. Someone has to raise the next generation of criminal masterminds. It might as well be me.
About Lea Geller
I’m a part-time lawyer, full time mother of five (ages nine and down)… currently in sunny Seattle. People ask how I manage it all, and I like to say that I do lots of things, but none of them very well. That’s my secret…. In a house of seven strong, distinct personalities, I always seem to have a story to tell. I suppose I got tired of people telling me, ‘You have to write this down!” So, I finally did, and blogging about our large mishaps, small triumphs, and other adventures, has helped hold my sanity together, albeit loosely.