Is French Parenting the Best Parenting?

When I choose Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman for the first PAIL book club I had no idea what to expect; I didn’t know anything about French parenting or what is espoused. All I knew was the book was getting some buzz and it looked interesting. I was pleased that so many others were interested in reading it too.

I must admit, I liked the book, or better said, I easily identified with the tenants of French parenting. Since I had my daughter and was thrust into parenthood myself, I’ve frequently felt that I feel differently about parenting than other mothers I’ve met, or follow in the blog world. While I’ve always felt different, or “other”, I wasn’t quite sure where the disconnect was occurring, I couldn’t articulate how my idea of motherhood differed from the messages of those around me.

Reading Bringing Up Bébé was the first time I’ve easily connected with a parenting “philosophy” of any kind. I walked away from Sears and Sears’ The Baby Book thinking I was a freak of parenting nature. Since then I’ve read a lot of other parenting “manuals,” picking and choosing that which best encompasses my own ideas and ideals. Bringing Up Bébé was the first book that seemed to consistently (but not completely) touch upon the kind of parenting that feels right for me.

Not everything in the book made sense to me. I must admit, I’m glad I didn’t experience the societal pressures most French woman feel to keep their weight down during pregnancy and lose it all immediately afterward. While I admire the French practice of not abstaining but also not overly indulging, it seems to come with some tight strings attached and I can imagine the pressure there to look a certain way is quite damaging to many. As someone who suffered from eating disorders for the better part of a decade, I don’t really want to have any part in that.

And of course I took everything I read in the book with a grain of salt. The author–who I liked well enough but never felt any special affinity toward–was obviously making a lot of declarations based on her own personal experiences in Paris (as she willingly admits), which means her claims are really only relevant within that small, limited sphere of reference. Having said that, I do think her personal assessment of French parenting authorities mixed with reactions to what she saw around her was interesting and eye opening; if nothing else it serves as a good jumping off place for further discussion about parenting in general, and especially in the United States.

So, now for my reaction to some of my favorite French ideas about parenting, as presented by Druckerman in her book.

“The Pause.” Ah the pause. To me it makes so much sense: wait and see if your child can soothe herself before swooping in to do it for her. The pause is not a call to ignore your child’s cues but to be aware of her cries and determine if she might be able to find comfort herself. The pause teachers your child that you will always be there for her when she needs you, but you’ll first give her a chance to try for herself. This seems to be the underlying philosophy of all French parenting.

Cadre, or Parental Authority. One of the central tenants of French parenting is an understanding, from the beginning, that parents have authority. The focus is on being authoritative, not dictorial. I know in the United States we’ve moved away from parental authority, giving children increasing control over their own lives. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing, but it has to be done in the right way. As we all realize, children do not know how to make intelligent choices about all aspects of their own lives, if they did, they could function by themselves and wouldn’t need us.

In the book, Druckerman talks a lot about setting firm boundaries and giving children freedom within those boundaries. I believe that is a wonderful way to provide children with the security necessary to practice decision making. One example of this is bedtime. It is common that French children go to bed a certain time but once they are in their room they have control over when they actually go to sleep. This is a great example of freedom within boundaries; some concessions are made, but only within a pre-established framework. I look forward to giving my own daughter that choice when she is out of her crib.

Bonjour. I found the French custom (or requirement) of saying “bonjour” when they enter a room to be quite fascinating. I couldn’t think of any American equivalent; there is no pleasantry that so quickly and definitively marks a person as belonging — or not — in our culture. In fact, I believe politeness is a lost art in the U.S.. Teaching politeness is very important to me. I request my not-yet two year old daughter say “please” when she asks for something and “thank you” when I give it to her. I believe “please” and “thank you” are a reminder that we are not operating in a vacuum, that there are other people around us and they should be acknowledged. They place importance on those around us and their needs.

The balance of child’s and mother’s needs. I think the idea I felt most comforted by in the book was the basic belief that a mother’s needs are as important as a child’s. Of course a mother is responsible for attending to her child’s needs but when a mother can take time for herself, she is urged to do so. As a mother I feel like we judge each other on our willing–and able–ness to sacrifice for our child(ren). Discussions about motherhood quickly become a contest of who has given up more and if you lose, you risk being labeled selfish. I can’t imagine living in a culture where instead of trying to convince other mothers of your superior sacrifice, you could share ideas for preserving your former self, or even nurturing it.

Patience and independent play. I found it interesting that patience is a skill French parents give priority to teaching; I had never realized that we do not give priority to this skill until it was pointed out that someone else does. I would venture to guess that in our children’s future, patience will be even more scarce, and therefore more valuable, than it is today. It’s important to teach children that instant gratification is not to be expected in all, or even most, circumstances. I’m already teaching my daughter patience; many times a day I require her to wait a minute before I give her what she’s asked for. When we go to the playground and she wants to leave immediately to visit the dog park, I require her to stay for at least five minutes. She has almost always forgotten her dog park obsession within two minutes of the wait. I hope that by instilling the skill of patience my daughter will be a happier, more well adjusted child and woman.

I also believe in the power of independent play that the French espouse. Research shows that children cannot be pushed to achieve milestones and they learn best when they are given freedom to explore for themselves. Giving children the opportunity to entertain themselves benefits them greatly; when they can pass idle time happily they will be happier more of the time. And parents will be too! My daughter knows that I cannot always be with her. I ask her to entertain herself in her playroom during different times of the day: when I’m cooking, when I’m cleaning up after dinner, when I’m tidying in her room, when I’m showering, when I’m doing anything that require I be away.

She also knows that when I have a friend at the park I might not be able to follow her all around; the other day I spent over an hour chatting with a friend while my daughter wandered around the playground, and then dog park, by herself (while I watched, of course). My friend was struck with the fact that most of her friends’ kids can’t do that and commented on how lucky I am to have a daughter who can. Of course, I don’t think it’s simply in her nature to play by herself, I believe she’s learned it from babyhood, because I’ve always given her opportunities to practice.

* * *

There are other aspects of the book I’d love to discuss but sadly I don’t have time or space (and you probably don’t either!) I will conclude with one final thought. As I turned the final page of Bringing Up Bébé I was struck with the novelty of an entire country united in their belief of how one should parent. Of course there are some who want to parent in different ways and I’m sure the societal pressure to adhere to the norm is great, but I wonder what it would be like for there to be an accepted way of doing things.

In this country there is no parenting decisions that doesn’t come up against loud and vocal dissent. It doesn’t matter how you choose to parent your child, someone will find fault with it. There are so many experts and professionals, all saying different things. As a mother I find it exhausting to read so many books and articles, judging the authenticity of every claim. The information we must digest is overwhelming; there are so many opportunities to second guess and even more to judge ourselves and others.

With the mommy wars raging, and trolling like the Time cover a not uncommon occurrence, I wonder if a nationally agreed upon style of parenting wouldn’t be better. Of course, if there were one, and I didn’t agree with it, I’d wish it were a free for all, but I must admit, I’m not a huge fan of the way we do things now. I wonder what it would be like to be free of the mental anguish, I ponder what I could do with all the time I’d have if I didn’t have to consider every choice a hundred times. Having that kind of freedom from parental fatigue is unfathomable. Unless, of course, I move to France.

Did any of these ideas about parenting resonate with you? What do you think it would be like if we had one accepted parenting style instead of countless contradictory beliefs on how best to raise our children?

Round Two

Last week was hard. Things don’t seem to be getting any better. In fact, it seems like I’m in the opening minutes of Round Two and I’m not sure I have it in me to fight back.

I went off my meds cold turkey last Monday. I spent all last week famished. I didn’t think I ate so much more than usual but I promptly gained three pounds. I was hoping that when I went off my meds, and officially started TTC, I’d go back on a loose version of my past TCM diet, cutting out processed grains and trying to eat more fruits and veggies. Oh, and I was not going to drink even one diet soda. I’ve failed on both counts, miserably on the latter. I know that women do worse than drink a few Diet Cokes when they are trying, so why do I berate myself so much for this shit?

Luckily the uncontrollable appetite has died down and now I feel almost like I did before, hungry for meals and not so focused on food between them. I’m still eating more than I would on my meds but I don’t feel out of control, so I’ll take it.

One thing that has been hard is the exhaustion. I knew my meds made me feel alert and focused but I didn’t realize that off them I’d feel like I’d been hit by a mack truck. There has been a lot of face slapping on the drive home and frequent attempts to get in bed earlier each night. Slowly but surely I feel less tired and more ready to face each day, with or without a Diet Coke in hand.

I have to admit, I think a lot about TTC. I’m temping so of course I know when I’ll likely ovulate and when we should have sex. I realized last weekend that I never got Pre-seed and immediately ordered some online. Today I realized we should have sex tonight or tomorrow and that the Pre-seed wouldn’t arrive at my parents’ house in time (I have to send everything there lest it get taken back to the post office for me to pick up). So I checked on their site to see where I could buy it and wouldn’t you know, that shit is sold at Walgreens and CVS now! When I was last trying, 4ish years ago there were only two random pharmacies in all of SF that sold it and now you can get it anywhere.

Anyway, after having to ask two older gentlemen where to find it, and then quickly covering it with a box of M&Ms when I passed not one, not two, not three, but FOUR students (two current and two alumni) on my way to check out, I left with the fertile friendly lube in hand. Pulling up to my parents’ house after tutoring later that day, the first thing I noticed was the Amazon box. My pre-seed had arrived a day early, making my CVS trip totally unnecessary. Touche two-day prime shipping. Touche.

Of course Mi.Vida and I got into a tiff tonight about how both of us feels we sacrifice more than the other in this gig called parenting. It was a long and difficult conversation, one that deserves its own post, but needless to say, both boxes of Pre-seed will be factory sealed tomorrow morning.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned here but things are pretty bad at work. Last week I was told I will be moving rooms (I have over 25 things on my walls alone) and then asked to consider if I would teach a 5th grade, double-period English core next year when I return full time. I don’t want to go into the details of why teaching this class would torture my soul but I will assure you that it would be bad. So bad, in fact, that I realized if I have to teach it next year I will be incredibly miserable at my job. Like crying myself to sleep each night miserable. I sobbed most of yesterday about it. I’m lobbying for another class and may or may not be successful but I’ll definitely have at least one period that I really don’t like and have never taught before, which will require an incredible amount of prep work on my part. This is along with the FOUR OTHER DIFFERENT CLASSES I will already be teaching. So yeah, next year is going to SUCK ASS. Big time.

The only light at the end of the tunnel right now is getting pregnant relatively quickly and spending a good portion of next spring NOT at work. Of course that puts more pressure on me to get pregnant quickly which I absolutely DO NOT NEED right now. So yeah. Work not helping my state of mind, or my attempts to be super nonchalant about TTC.

I spent much of yesterday scouring on-line teaching boards, trying to find a promising prospect. Nothing doing. Man, it is cut throat out there, let me tell you. At one point I was actually considering going back to get my Ph.D., that is how desperate I was feeling. There is NO WAY I’m going back to graduate school in this lifetime so I’m going to have to keep hoping for a K-12 or community college opening that I’m qualified for. For now it doesn’t look good.

Of course this morning a position I qualify literally landed in my reader. So I spent much of today typing an outline of a letter of rec for my vice-principal to write for me and trying to get a hold of my graduate professor (the one I SWORE I’d never speak to again) to see if she’ll write me one too (or just sign one that I write for her). I also dropped $40 on official transcripts from my grad school. Man, what a racket.

Of course I’ll apply and put my best foot forward doing so but I don’t have a lot of hope. I’ve applied to four similar positions and never even got confirmation that they received my application. I doubt I’ll get anything from them either.

The final pin ball rattling around in my head is about some creative writing classes I want to take this summer at my lovely alma mater, UC Berkeley. There are two I’m interested in, one on writing children’s picture books (5 Mondays) and one on developing the idea for a Young Adult (YA) novel (8 Tuesdays). Together they cost a considerable amount of money and require me being away from home two nights in a row for five weeks. The reasons to take them both are I’m not really sure what direction I want to go with my writing right now, and while I have ideas for both, I need direction to develop either of them. Also, it will be summer and I’ll have some time to dedicate to both projects, which I would love to do. I feel both classes would get me to a good jumping off point for the rest of the year. Also, and of course this is uncertain, I might be either very pregnant or having a baby next summer, in which case I couldn’t take either class. I also know that taking them while working just won’t be an option of me. So yeah, I’m toying with that idea. Of course the idea of being with Isa for two nights in a row is what started our little tiff today about carving out equal time for ourselves. I guess I really do want to much. I always guessed that was the case but now I’m sure.

I’m sorry for that incredibly long and sordid vent. I really needed to get that all out. I hope you’re all doing better than I am right now, and if things are shitty I send my love. Shittyness sucks, as you well know.

Family Drama

There is so much to say but I’m too hurt to say it. The last few days have left me depleted, exhausted, over wrought. I just don’t have much left in me.

The morning after I wrote Thursday’s post, my IL’s sat Mi.Vida down and expressed their intense concern over the methods I was using to discipline my daughter. They believed I was “withholding” food in at attempt to force her to say “please” (I have NEVER not given my child food to make her say anything) and that “time outs” in her crib were not only developmentally inappropriate but detrimental.

The whole thing tore me apart. I was deeply, deeply hurt. Wounded. This weekend, which was supposed to be really wonderful, and which I had been looking forward to very much, was pretty much ruined.

Mi.Vida went over on Saturday morning and spent three hours speaking to his parents. Saturday afternoon he relayed to me what was said. I had a very difficult time listening. On Sunday morning Mi.Vida and I spent an hour at couples counseling going over the whole thing a second time. I would love to write something coherent and meaningful about what was said but I just don’t have it in me. I’m too exhausted, both emotionally and physically, to recount everything, but I will say this:

– Mi.Vida did an impressive job standing up to his parents and defending me as a mother. And even though at first my hurt made it difficult for me to listen, I am forever grateful for all he did this weekend.

– Even though my in-law’s concerns came from a place of love for Isa, it was inappropriate for them to share those concerns, especially in the way they did.

– This was especially hard for me because not only was someone attacking the way I parent, but they were attacking the aspect of mothering in which I feel most capable. Also, the people attacking me were people I care about and am grateful for. Because of my in-laws’ willingness and ability to watch Isa I can go to yoga when Mi.Vida is away, we can go to couples counseling twice a month, we can enjoy the occasional date night, and we can get big projects done. Also, my FILs willingness to watch Isa four mornings a week this year has allowed me to work part time, a long-time dream of mine. These are not things I take for granted.

– Of course, their excessive presence in our, and Isa’s, lives, make situations like these incredibly difficult and probably do a lot to cause them.

– We have two options as we proceed. (1) Require that Mi.Vida’s parents’ address both of us with their future concerns so we can respond to them as a united front. (2) Listen to, and ignore, their future concerns in whatever way they choose to share them with us (this is possible because, currently, I’m not worried about whether or not they do these things in their own home, if Isa were older it would be different).

– Mi.Vida needs to be more involved with parenting decisions like these. In the past he has relied on me to figure these things out and when issues arise with his parents he feels ill equipped to suppor/defend me. He also feels he’s taken too passive a role in this aspect of parenting and wants to read more books and be better educated to both form and express his own opinions on issues like boundary setting and enforcing.

– When both Mi.Vida and I are feeling hurt and confused we may not have the emotional fortitude to support each other in the ways we want and that is okay, as long as we both understand what is going on. I wanted to be there more for Mi.Vida this weekend but I just couldn’t. He felt similarly. By Sunday night we both were able to come together and give each other the support we needed but Friday and Saturday we were totally incapable of that.

– My in-laws didn’t ruin this weekend for me. They did something and I reacted to what they did. I take full responsibility for the way I reacted and the fact that I felt my weekend was ruined. I do not blame them for my response to what they said, even if I believe what they said was inappropriate. I am responsible for my own feelings.

– Sometimes shit sucks and there is nothing to do but move through it. That was hard for me this weekend.

Agreeing to Disagree

My daughter is almost two years old. She is learning more and more words every day. She already says well over a hundred words (in Spanish and English – much more in English) and strings them together to make sentences. She can count, in two languages. She can sing (the first four letters) of the alphabet. She is smart. She is capable. She gets what is going on. And I have to admit, I’m loving it.

Some moms like the baby phase. Some moms LOVE it. They revel in the smallness, in the all-consuming nature of it. They feel empowered by how much their newborns need them and how they are able to provide. For me? Not so much. I’ll admit I found the first six months kind of… boring. The older Isa gets, the more I enjoy motherhood. I love her independence. I revel in the thirty minutes she can play and read by herself. I sink my teeth into the opportunities to teach her. I wait eagerly for the chance to give her consequences.

Yes, at the tender age of 21 months, I am already issuing consequences to my toddler.

You see, this is the part of motherhood I’m good at. I’m good at the consequences part. I’m good at setting boundaries and enforcing them. I’m good at making my expectations clear and helping my daughter meet them. I believe my daughter is already capable of learning what is expected of her and doing it. And I’m treating her accordingly.

The thing is, not everyone agrees with the way I enforce consequences with my daughter. Most of the time it doesn’t matter, because I don’t really care much what others think of my choices. She is my daughter and I’m doing what I believe is right in raising her. Of course, when the people who don’t agree with me are my in-laws, it gets more complicated. Especially since my in-laws are our primary care providers.

It’s not even that I want my in-laws to do things the ways I do. Usually I tell them what I’m doing with Isa so they can create consistency if they want to, but I never overtly ask them to do anything. And that’s probably a good thing, because chances are they would refuse.

Recently I told my in-laws that I was putting Isa in her crib for a minute when she hit or scratched me. I don’t really consider this a “time out” but more of a chance for her to regain her composure when she’s really upset while letting her know that hitting will not be tolerated. At first she would get very upset when I put her in the crib but after about a week, she would regain control almost immediately and be ready to play happily by the time I returned to get her. Also, she hasn’t hit me in a week.

I mentioned this at lunch with my in-laws and I was promptly informed that they would NOT be doing anything of the sort when she was at their house. Not only was it developmentally inappropriate (ie she wouldn’t understand what was happening) but they don’t believe in time-outs and refuse to administer them. I told them they should do whatever felt comfortable and left it at that.

Today my father-in-law mentioned that he was trying to teach Isa to say “thank you”. I’ve been focusing on requiring her to say “please” before I give her things. It’s a part of our daily exercise in patience (many times a day I just don’t let her have something right away, usually I have her go distract herself with something else and then bring it when she has forgotten about it). In just a few short weeks she has started using “pease” instead of grunting for what she wants. It’s a welcome change.

Anyway, I was going to start requesting she say “thank you” when I felt “please” was adequately acquired, but I certainly didn’t mind my FIL trying to teach her “thank you”. I mentioned that I was focusing on “please” first and he made it clear that he would not be focusing on “please” he didn’t care about whether she said “please” and he certainly wouldn’t with hold things to force her to say it. He would casually focus on “thank you” and that was it.

Now obviously this is not all that important and I truly don’t care whether he reinforces the work I’ve done on asking Isa to say “please” when she wants something. But I have to admit, his total disregard of my mothering choices is hard to handle. Really hard. And I’ve felt pretty shitty ever since our exchange.

It makes me realize that my parenting decisions really are an extension of who I am, and if someone disregards them or implies they are so worthless as to not be worth considering, I take it personally. Very much so. When my FIL fails to even consider my reasoning for doing something when it comes to my daughter I feel like my own values are disregarded as well. It’s complicated and difficult to explain. The only thing I’m sure of is how much it sucks.

Do you ever have to defend your parenting decisions? When you do, does it feel like you are defending who you are? What do you do or say when people close to you disagree with your choices?

Couples Counseling: Making Progress

Mi.Vida and I had couples counseling this weekend and I forgot to write about it. I really want to document our couples counseling experience because I think it could be useful to others dealing with difficult moments in their relationships and because I want to be able to look back and see how much we’ve done and how far we’ve come.

At counseling this week we touched on the following:

– Mi.Vida admitted that he has issues to work through, namely his intense anxiety surrounding conflict. Basically he is hypersensitive to conflict and wants to avoid it at all costs. This is making confronting his boss about his raise very difficult for him.

– Mi.Vida recognized that he needs to carve time for himself and the things he wants/needs to get done, like looking for a job.

– I noticed that I struggle focusing on “our” time if we haven’t planned to do something earlier. Last week, when we planned to watch a movie I was able to put my phone and computer away and snuggle with Mi.Vida on the couch, enjoying the film. This week on Saturday, after Mi.Vida came home from seeing friends, we both mucked about on our computers for most of the night, not really doing anything and then lamented the fact that we hadn’t taken better advantage of our time.

– I also admitted that I would appreciate more planned family activities during the weekend because I’m sick of just tooling around the neighborhood when I’ve been doing that all week. I also think we need to practice parenting together because I notice lots of moments of tension when we each want to handle a situation differently. We solo parent a lot, giving each other breaks and time to get things done, and when we parent together we’re not as smooth as we could be or as we’ll need to be to deal with Isa as she gets older and more cognizant of what’s going on.

– Mi.Vida’s homework is to start planning what he’s going to say to his boss, line by line.

– Our homework is to spend at least one hour a week having structured together time (as in not just together in the same room on our computers).

All in all I am very pleased with all we’ve accomplished in couples counseling so far. I truly believe it has fundamentally changed our relationship for the better. I shudder to think where we’d be without it.


Mi.Vida is depressed. He actually said it today. Well he wrote it, in a gchat. I was surprised to see it there, in black and white. It wasn’t an insinuation, it wasn’t a response, in the affirmative, to an inquiry. He wrote out, of his own accord, I am depressed.

On the one hand it was terrifying to see it there. On the other hand it was a relief. I’m glad he’s admitting how bad he feels but I hate knowing that he feels so bad.

The worst part is what is making him depressed. The worst part is that he’s depressed because of our lives. The day to day of our existence is making him depressed. And frankly, I can’t really fault him for it.

Mi.Vida has long, long days. He wakes up at 6:45 and gets himself and Isa ready. Then he spends over an hour taking her to his parents’, transitioning her into his father’s care, and commuting back to work – all on public transportation. He works all day long, sometimes not really stopping for lunch, only to come home and help with Isa before bed. Then he has about 30 minutes to rest before he’s making dinner. By the time we’re done eating he has about 30 minutes to hang out before it’s time for bed. That means all day he has about an hour, all together, of time for himself. I’d be pretty depressed if I had that to wake up to as well.

I’m trying to step up and take some of the cooking obligation from him, at least for now. I’m planning on cooking once a week. I hope to delegate some of the extra money I’m making to another possible night a week of take out or at least easy-to-make food from the supermarket. Still, I can’t help but feel I’m putting a bandaid over a gaping wound; I doubt any of what I do will make an appreciable difference.

So where does this leave us? Does he just suck it up until these difficult early years are over? I can’t really see any other choice. We don’t have the resources to change anything else. We have no other way to get Isa to his parents’ house. I can help more with the cooking but I know I can’t do it all. I just don’t have it in me to do everything I already do and cook four or fives times a week.

I feel so helpless. And I feel like I’m not good enough. So many women don’t require anything from their partners, at least not on the homefront. My mother never did. If I were stronger, more hardworking, I could do everything that needed to be done and then some. I could keep my house clean and my family fed and my students taught and my daughter happy and even have energy left over for sex! But I’m not and I don’t and I need help from my partner but he doesn’t have anything left to give, because he’s already giving so much.

So where does that leave us?

I don’t know, but the prospects scare me.