French Parenting – Maman Knows Best

Pamela Druckerman’s ‘Bringing Up Bébé’

An American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting

In her book, Pamela Druckerman relates the story of how she cradled her baby daughter, Bean, for her first inoculations in a French doctor’s office, apologizing to her for the pain she was about to experience. The pediatrician scolded her. “You don’t say ‘I’m sorry,’” he said. “Getting shots is part of life. There’s no reason to apologize for that.”

Strict rules and controlling one’s emotions, it seems, are important components of a child’s life in France. For mothers, so is refusing to make child-rearing an all-consuming vocation. Rearranging your schedule to fit the baby’s is a no-no. Getting back your sexy, pre-pregnancy self is a priority.

French parents, we are told, feed their infants grown-up foods like fruits and vegetables rather than bland cereals and stick to fixed schedules. The French leave their babies crying on their own if they’re not sleeping through the night by the time they’re 4 months old. The French exert their authority by declaring, “C’est moi qui décide” (“It’s I who decide”). The result of raising children French style, Druckerman writes, is “a fully functioning society of good little sleepers, gourmet eaters and reasonably relaxed parents.”

A former newspaper reporter, Druckerman lives with her British husband and three children in Paris. She is best known for her 2007 book “Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity From Tokyo to Tennessee,” a global survey of adultery. In an article last year in Marie Claire magazine, she wrote a first-person account of the present she gave her husband for his 40th birthday: a ménage à trois with a “straight, divorced, disease-free mom in her 40s” whom she’d found on the Internet. Druckerman said she was “unsettled” by the experience but sent the woman a thank-you note.

With this book, Druckerman switches gears. She joins the long list of Anglophone writers who make the case that in various areas of life, from food to fashion, the French do it better. While some have concerned themselves with finding magic and maybe even true love on Paris streets and in Paris cafes, she explores the next chapter: what happens after you settle down and have children.

Druckerman’s challenge was trying to fit the facts into a larger thesis that “the French” (who in her world are educated professionals living in the Paris area) handle pregnancy, childbirth and early childhood better than obsessive, competitive American hyper-parents in places like Park Slope. The book does not take the process beyond the early years, though doing so might have allowed us to draw conclusions about whether French parenting makes children turn out better when they’re older.

Facts reported in Druckerman’s book sometimes get in her way.

 can be rigid. Epidurals during childbirth are so common that the “1 or 2 percent of non-epidural births” in some Paris hospitals are “either crazy Americans like me or Frenchwomen who didn’t get to the hospital in time.”

Druckerman states that French mothers “barely breast-feed,” confident that artificial milk is just as good. Some mothers reject breast-feeding to ensure their partners participate in the feeding ritual, others because it has a “peasant image.” Some expatriates describe “horror stories,” Druckerman writes, in which doctors have discouraged the practice. (I have an American friend who discovered her firstborn was being secretly bottle-fed in the hospital, against her wishes.)

Druckerman praises French parents and nannies for leaving children to play on their own in playgrounds and parks: “I’ve never seen a French mother climb a jungle gym, go down a slide with her child or sit on a seesaw… For the most part, except when toddlers are just learning to walk, French parents park themselves on the perimeter of the playground or the sandbox and chat with one another.” But what if climbing jungle gyms and seesawing are activities that make a parent feel like a kid again? And what happens — as it often does — when you can’t wrest the grown-ups from their chatting to stop the children in their care from kicking and hitting yours?

One way French parents try to keep their children in line is with an occasional whack on the side of the head, the arm or the bottom. More than 80 percent of French parents, according to polls over the last decade, slap or spank their children from time to time. (Druckerman writes that she has witnessed a spanking in public only “a few times.”)

When it comes to the division of labor between the sexes, American women have it better than their French sisters. Druckerman writes that “Frenchwomen spend 89 percent more time than men doing household work and looking after children,” while American women spend “31 percent more time than men on household activities and 25 percent more time on child care.” “Fifty-fifty equality just isn’t the gold standard for the Parisian women I know,” she writes. She calls it a “forlorn hope.”

Of course, there are features of childbirth and child-rearing in France that are vastly superior to practices in the United States. The infant mortality rate is lower. Working mothers get four months of paid maternity leave. The French government runs subsidized day care centers and free preschools; it even helps pay for physiotherapy to get a new mother’s abdominal and vaginal muscles back in shape.

In the end, do the French do it better than Americans? Giving birth and raising children is messy and confusing in any society. It’s perpetual trial and error — whether in France or in the United States. Unlike a car, a baby doesn’t come with a user’s manual.

Source: The New York Times
By Elaine Sciolino

Elaine Sciolino is a correspondent in The Times’s Paris bureau and the author, most recently, of “La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life.”

Photo credit: National Media Museum / Foter / No known copyright restrictions