Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bringing up bean sprout: more on motherhood

I recently finished reading Bringing Up Bebe, by Pamela Druckerman. The subtitle of the book is "One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting." Indeed. I was quite skeptical.
Well, I actually found the book very amusing, and would recommend it to anyone who is involved in the early days of parenting, as I am. It was a funny and thought-provoking antidote to the Dr. Sears (aka grandaddy of attachment parenting) books on my coffee table. For me it also shed a lot of light on the backstory to another publicity-grabbing headline out of France, Elisabeth Badinter's "The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women." I haven't read that one, though it's on the list (will report back).

The basic premise in Druckerman's book is essentially that French mothers seem to have things worked out. Their babies sleep through the night by four months at the very latest, they eat a healthy and varied diet of non-"kid" foods (including vegetables, fish, blue cheese etc.), are extremely polite and well behaved, obediently tolerating lingering meals a la the French. It all sounds too good to be true!

That is probably because it is too good to be true. Or at least, it comes at a certain price. The French parenting style tends more toward the disciplinarian, with strict rules enforced from an early age. In addition, French women rarely breastfeed longer than three months, and many don't do it at all, which is completely out of step with most international guidelines for breastfeeding. For those mothers who do choose to breastfeed, there is a strictly regimented schedule: French babies only eat four times a day, just like their parents. Sure, this is appealing for me in some ways. It certainly would be nice to know when and where Heiko was going to have his meals, and that he wouldn't require a snack to see him through the night (let's be honest, several snacks). But sometimes even I need a cracker with peanut butter to get me through the night, so why would I expect more of my tiny son with his tiny tummy?

Druckerman makes it seem like all these happy babies observing rules and respecting their parents' adult time is just a simple as implementing a few basic parenting techniques such as "the pause" (basically what it sounds like). I doubt that it is ci facile, and it would definitely be quite complicated to try these methods here, without the societal pressures and structures of France. It did open my thinking up a little, however, and as I struggle with my little non-sleeper I am considering some of the Frenchie sleep-training ideas that I would have formerly eschewed (or cast off as child brutality more likely). I am definitely inspired by her suggestions about getting children to eat a variety of foods, though it is still too soon for that here. It is my earnest hope that I can impart a love and appreciation for food to Heiko, something that is certainly central to French identity.

One thing that struck a deep chord with me was Druckerman's observation that French culture seems to have a different conception of motherhood than North America. Women in France are not seen to lose anything in their transition to motherhood, nor does being a mother particularly define them. That is, it seems that the French view a woman's identity as a mother as incidental to her identity as a woman, with little or no bearing on her personality or sexuality. If anything, becoming a mother is seen to add a certain "fullness" to a woman's identity. Not literally fullness though: Druckerman points out that the women of Paris face immense societal pressure to return to pre-baby physique by three months postpartum.

I am starkly aware of the contrast to the North American mindset as I join various "mommies" groups here in Fort Collins. When I gather with other "moms" in a park, most of us (them?) are wearing baggy hoodies and jeans, and the chatter is definitely about our children. Sometimes I wonder what happened to my pre-baby identity.

To sum up, I really enjoyed this book. More than anything else it was amusing, and on that basis alone I'm recommending it. But it also is nice to read about a truly different take on parenting from the attachment parenting model. As has happened so many times in my short personal adventure in parenting, I find myself reconsidering what I think I know, and revisiting past judgements. Just when I think I have things figured out, I realize that I really really don't, and, more importantly that it's OK. It is all part of the fun.


  1. What struck me when I heard her on CBC (must be the same person) is her statement (sounds different from what she says in the book?) that the French don't have many rules, but the ones they have are firm, like politeness. Seemed different from what I see here, with people sometimes completely managing the children's behaviour. I had the imoression that they pick their battles and win the few that matter.

    1. Yes, that is a good point, and it definitely comes through in the book. She claims that the French believe more in unstructured play, and aren't so focused on getting their children to "achieve" their various milestones earlier. But they do all this within a very regimented schedule, with clear rules. In comparison, Druckerman claims that North American parents will fill their children's every hour with scheduled, structured activities designed to accelerate their learning. But, the same parents will refuse to tell their children "no," and will indulge their every tantrum and desire. Hope that makes sense.