Imagine there’s a place where babies sleep through the night at two-months-old; playgrounds are tantrum-free; toddlers sit at the table to eat three square meals a day (and only snack once); and grown-ups can have an entire conversation over coffee without being interrupted… sounds magical, doesn’t it? Would you believe me if I told you such a place exists? Well it does. And it’s France. At least according to Pamela Druckerman, an American journalist living in Paris, who set about to discover exactly why French children are so different than American children after she became pregnant with her first. She lays out her findings in Bringing up Bébé, which came out last month and — much like last year’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother — quickly stirred up a storm of contradictious media and Internet chatter.
I kept waiting for the moment when the book made me feel bad about myself as a — gasp! — American mother. But it never comes. Instead I feel myself empowered by the perspective Druckerman’s experience and research offers. This is in part because she presents it all with just enough self-deprecation to remind you that she is on “our side,” if there are sides at all. There are a whole lot of things that the French do that are just plain different — like serving fresh, chef-prepared, four-course meals at day care, for example. Some of it makes a lot more sense, and some of it — like not breastfeeding — sounds way off. But methods and customs aside, what seems to be at the root of the difference is the way the French — culturally, socially, and even politically — view children and the responsibility of motherhood.
There is a delicious absence of guilt in the French mother’s experience, something which seems to permeate every aspect of motherhood for most moms I know (Druckerman and myself included). Druckerman rather astutely points out that guilt is an “emotional tax” we American mothers pay, to make it easier for us to do the things we think are selfish. But rather than making things easier it just makes us feel bad, about ourselves, our kids, and our lives. She emphasizes that French mothers feel as overstretched and inadequate as we do (the overwhelming majority of French mothers work full-time), they just “don’t valorize [the] guilt.” They don’t play the martyr, which seems to have little to do with their self-interest and more to do with their self-worth. They balance their own needs and their children’s so well because they’re very clear about what they will and will not do, what they expect from their children and what their children can expect from them. Some people call it strict, others selfish. To me it just sounds like balance, in any language.