Tomorrow night is book club and we've read Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman, a former Latin America correspondent and New York resident who moved to Paris for the love of a British football journalist. They now have three children (including one set of boy twins) and she has discovered that French parents do it better. And by that, I don't just mean parenting.
Druckerman describes Anglophone parents, in which group both US and British parents get lumped together, as focusing their lives around their children who thus turn into child-kings. French parents, she maintains, are only parents part of the time and their children know when to bow out, either at night or during meal times and conversations.
Obviously, to write an engaging book, she had to emphasize how much better the French are at many things, including getting your baby and toddler to eat, sleep and obey. I get it - but it gets annoying too. If the French do it so much better, how come they have such an awful reputation as adults? Even Druckerman herself alludes to it, when describing how difficult she found it to fit in. So how do those wonderful, obedient, capable, self-reliant children turn into those, well, French grown-ups? (Disclaimer: unlike Druckerman, I only know French people from the south of France, and the ones I know are really nice and kind and warm.)
Druckerman bases her French parenting lore on a very specific Parisian subculture, one in which people "employ half the Philippines", have nannies and where those women who fit into skinny jeans again after three months simply "eat very little" as a more plump Francaise points out.
Druckerman also generalizes. A lot. There is almost no room for individual traits. In fact, she states (I'm quoting): "... [the French] also realize that some things about babies are just biological. Before we assume that our own children sleep like no others, we should probably think about science." She goes on to quote sleep researchers to bring home her point. However, sleep research has also shown that in adults chronotypes and sleeping habits might vary greatly. So there has to be some middle road, where it's not simply parental failure if your child doesn't sleep well (disclosure: E. has not been sleeping well the past month, so yes, I have a personal stake in debunking this particular claim).
But my most pressing question concerns family life. Druckerman so extols the French parents' ability of having an adult life without their children that I was left with the question: do French children actually talk to their parents? The book is littered with anecdotes about three year olds baking muffins while mummy has tea with her friends, children playing in the park while parents chat on the benches around the sand box and toddlers waiting docilely and silently until their dinner is served in upmarket restaurants while parents discuss current events.
She hastens to mention that "of course, French parents adore their children too" and that so-and-so is "also a devoted mother" (I paraphrase). There are, however, no illustrating funny or poignant stories to accompany this claim. In fact, the words "otherwise" and "although" are often to be found in those sentences (i.e., "although otherwise a devoted father, Jean Pierre will not tolerate his children staying up after bed time" - again I paraphrase).
Although I wouldn't mind having an interrupted adult conversation every once in a while (brother J. has taken to skyping after toddler bed time, because as he puts it: "I want to talk to you"), a world in which E. is relegated to the role of silent observer while I go my merry adult way isn't quite how I had envisioned family life. I actually enjoy her antics most of the time.
Along the way clues pop up that even French parents have to take their children into account. The book opens with a scene in which the harried Anglophone parents take turns in a restaurant shoving food into their mouths and entertaining their toddler, while French parents calmly order a four course meal and enjoy it, even with multiple children surrounding them.
A couple of hundred pages later however, Druckerman mentions in a throwaway remark that French parents make sure that meals never last longer than 30 minutes if the children are under five years old. French restaurants must be wildly efficient to cram four courses into half an hour and French parents must have iron throats to down scalding coffees in order to leave on time.
So it's not all quiet in la douce France either. That's a relief.