My dear husband and I were thrilled to find out this summer that we’re expecting our first baby (a girl) in early May of this year. While I have quite a lot of experience with nieces and nephews (both technical and ethical) from being one of the last of my friends and family to have kids, we both still feel crazy underprepared for what’s coming. Delightfully underprepared? Is that a thing? In any case as soon as I saw the two blue lines I started thinking about what kind of parents we’d be and whether this tiny little thing would end up being a total asshole like some kids I know, or, hopefully, some Zen master at the age of six months. To that end, we’ve been gorging on child rearing books and a friend recommended Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing up Bebe for a little variety and outside perspective.
Pamela Druckerman, an American and former Wall Street Journal reporter, moved to Paris with her English husband and after having their first baby there, was astonished to see how different French children were from American ones. Having a vested interest in not being the mother of the only raging toddler in her neighborhood, she decided to observe and interview everyone she could about what makes French children, and parenting, so different from what we often see in America today.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on French culture, but I did take around seven years of French in high school and college (an unmentionable amount of time ago) and also visited Paris in my youth. What was amusing about reading this book for me is how little French attitudes toward children and parenting surprised me, and how much we’re culturally different from them as Americans did. The impression of French culture I have (however unfair/stereotypical it may be) is of a lot more laissez-faire, liberal, and into smoking and excellent cuisine society. What I didn’t realize is how American my view of infant care is, in spite of my general reluctance and distaste for helicopter parenting. Some of the surprising observations Druckerman makes were a huge turnaround from what I know about parenting in the US today. It’s worth noting that Druckerman lived in Paris; the impression I have is that Paris is quite different from some much of France and so you should also keep that in mind when considering how much weight to give her observations. For example, generally French children (at least Parisian ones anyway) don’t learn to read until they’re six. We’re in the process of touring daycares that brag about offering Mandarin, Spanish, Japanese, or American Sign Language lessons to toddlers. Culturally, French children aren’t generally breast fed beyond a mother’s maternity leave if at all. Here, I’m constantly met with mothers who felt horrible guilt when it wasn’t the amazing, easy bonding experience we’re led to believe it should be. There is so much guilt and judgment in new mom’s minds regarding breastfeeding that just doesn’t seem to be an issue in France. Another drastic difference from American childrearing is how quickly French children sleep through the night. Obviously there are exceptions, but in general, children “do their nights” by around three to four months of age. Druckerman observed that French children that did were often allowed to soothe themselves when waking in the night and only nursed/fed when absolutely necessary. Here it seems like everyone goes into parenting with the expectation that you’ll be feeding your little one every few hours through the night for who knows how long.
I could go on and on but I guess that would be kind of a spoiler. Many of you reading this may have no interest in being parents at all, or may have already reared lovely contributing members of society. I think even so this would be an interesting read, simply for the anthropological study vibe of the book. I will admit there were times when I was reading this that I thought Druckerman took a few leaps in her observations. She attempts to address one of her naysayers’ most common criticisms; that is, that she ignores how helpful it is to be raising children in a country where good quality childcare is federally subsidized and medical care is free. I don’t know but it seems to me not having the stress of finding childcare or affording it would make a much more relaxed and groovy parent. Ask me in August when I’m supposed to go back to work I guess. Will we use some of the French methods when our little biscuit arrives? Maybe, maybe not, but there was definitely plenty of interest to think about. Also it made me want to visit Paris and eat delicious food and drink delicious wine.