First of all, kudos to Druckerman for writing a book with three small children underfoot. Yes, spoiler alert; by the end of the book, she has three. The chief value of this book does not, however, lie in the biographical aspects that describe pregnancy, childbirth, the so-exhausted-you’re-hallucinating postpartum haze, and the (sadly) universal struggle to reclaim one’s body, reconnect with one’s co-parent, recover the ability (and time) to engage in activities related to one’s career/profession/work interests/indeed anything not directly baby-related, while–somehow–still channeling the bulk of one’s energy, time, love, passion, fear, worry, and possibly obsessive or even exclusionary focus on the small being (if it’s twins, then beings) you’ve agreed to bring into the world.
But wait–are these struggles, indeed, universal? Druckerman says they aren’t. As she perceives it, svelte French moms wheel their quiet and attentive offspring around in designer strollers, engage in coffee hour and playground chat without once having to disentangle a screaming toddler from their leg/bag/playground equipment/another child, and have interesting excursions, thin and fashionably dressed, with their equally fashionable, interesting, and impeccably well-behaved kids.
How do they remain so calm? How are their children so well-behaved? (The UK release of the book is titled “French Children Don’t Throw Food.”) Druckerman wants to know the secret. So she sets out to read Rousseau, study French child psychologists, and quiz any mom who will talk to her about the silent, communal wisdom that seems innate, even instinctive to French mothers and which continues to baffle and elude overstressed, overburdened, over-guilty American ones.
The secret is, of course, there is no secret. Or, put another way, the secret is an entirely different cultural attitude toward children, child-rearing, and motherhood than the one shared by Druckerman, Druckerman’s friends, and mainstream American media, or at least movies and TV. Druckerman’s process of discovering this entirely different, evidently successful, and possibly far more healthy mindset is both a sweet story of an individual mother’s evolving confidence and a rather horrifying illustration, by virtue of contrast, of just how sadly stupid, neurotic, and possibly poisonous certain American attitudes toward–and public discussions about–children, child-rearing, and motherhood have become.
While in Druckerman’s social analysis, a small selection of middle-class Parisian women stand in for French women in toto (at least she acknowledges this), what these women are doing is essentially what any experienced mother the world over and also many English-speaking pediatric experts will tell you. The quick-and-dirty tricks to child-rearing, French-style, are, un: have a structure and a routine for mealtimes and sleep times, one that you stick to. Druckerman calls it the cadre and it comes to her as a revelation, even though basically anybody who deals with a small person on a day-to-day basis can tell you the value of an established and familiar routine. Le cadre also works, to Druckerman’s surprise, as a framework for discipline, too; have a few big non-negotiable rules, and let the small naughtiness slide. Imagine that.
Second revelation: what Druckerman calls Le Pause. She uses it two related ways: in one, to mean the mother does not immediately pounce upon the child at the first murmur or whimper and practically smother the thing in an attempt to meet its need. Rather, the mother takes a moment to assess the child and the situation and then chooses how to respond. The difference is huge, qualitatively, between reacting instantly in a frenzied attempt to assuage (or, as it is put sometimes, to anticipate) the child’s need–which American parents are somehow led to believe is ‘good’ parenting–and observing the child’s emotional and physical state, then calmly and reassuringly acting in an appropriate manner. The real value of Le Pause, Druckerman finds, is that instead of seizing and waking their sleeping infant every time she switches from one sleep cycle to another–as inexperienced parents are wont to do, reading the shifting and whines as distress–French parents let their infants progress naturally to their next stage of sleep, which is why they start sleeping through the night at 2 or 3 months–which infants are actually biologically capable of doing, despite what you read on American parenting message boards, which are, let’s face it, bursting with parents who have inadvertently ‘trained’ their child to be a bad sleeper and then are having fits when at 6, or 10, or 18 months, the child still doesn’t sleep through the night. (I’m guilty of that, with my second child no less, when I ought to have known better, so I haven’t any basis for feelings of superiority in this or, indeed, any aspect of parenting.)
Revelation three: your child will become a good eater if exposed to, and gently urged to sample and enjoy, many different kinds of food. As this advice is repeated in the literature that my pediatrician gives to me at each well-baby checkup, I don’t imagine it’s at all a French secret. In fact all of Druckerman’s wisdom, in varying forms, has been put into practice for years now by a very good American friend of mine, the mother of four lovely children who behave beautifully in public and in private, and whom I frequently consult for advice when my children seem to be doing nothing but having ten tantrums a day. That Druckerman finds all this a well-kept secret held by French parents suggests that entire swaths of the American female reproductive population have been deprived of the valuable lessons that experienced mothers learn and communicate to young mothers through very natural familial and social structures, and for which some really crazy and possibly endangering ideas have been substituted.
My invective about the insanity of American attitudes toward mothering awaits a fuller and more nuanced treatment elsewhere. What I will say here is that, while she does some great investigation and offers intriguing readings of certain French child-rearing experts and parenting mags, Druckerman, in my opinion, rather skims over the fundamental cultural differences that, to anyone on the ground in France or most of Europe and indeed most of the developed (non-U.S.) world, seem the difference between insane and not-insane messages about mothering.
First, and key, is the attitude toward what a child is. Despite French contributions to the fields of psychoanalysis, French parents don’t view their infant as an unformed lump who will be profoundly shaped–and most likely eternally scarred–by every millisecond that elapses between the parent’s response to each cry, or every act of correction, or every denial of a wished-for thing. French parents view a child as a nascent rational being who can communicate from day one, not only expressing its own personality and needs but reading messages and cues from its caregivers. Thus their approach to child-rearing–and this Druckerman does appropriately emphasize–is a process of education and guidance as the child evolves, rather than the more arrogant and anxiety-, angst-, and guilt-ridden version of child-shaping or creation that American parents feel. The French have de Beauvoir and Kristeva, not Freud; they don’t blame the mother for every bump and flaw in a child’s nature.
Given this sense of education, the entire approach to French parenting shifts from the micro-managing of American attachment- or helicopter- or tiger-parenting to a much more sane, rational, and clearly more mutually enjoyable pursuit of motherhood. A French woman is allowed, indeed expected, to think of her body as her own. She’s not pressured to breast-feed and judged an inadequate woman and mother if she doesn’t. It’s assumed she would like her own body back, accepted that she would like some time to herself to exercise, recreate, or just quietly eat a croissant. Motherhood is not the sum total, complete definition, and all-else-obliterating acme of her existence, as is inferred from American parenting discourses–oh, yes it is, and you know it. Motherhood, in France and among normal people, is an aspect of a woman’s life, an important aspect to be sure, the source of great joy, love, devotion, and, understandably, worry. But it is not a sign of a character flaw or child abandonment if a French mother wants to have a career. It is not a sign of neglect if she drops her kid off at a birthday party, lets her go on a holiday supervised by teachers at school, or packs her off to the grandparents for a long weekend so she can have time with Dad. In short, the French culture Druckerman observes allows women to BE A PERSON, not simply, and only, be a mom.
The difference in levels of pressure, guilt, competitiveness, and judgment must, one imagines, be entirely different, and possibly much relieved. On virtually every page of the book, as a matter of fact, I was wishing I lived in France.
The social and cultural differences extend to the political arena as well, and this is another blindingly obvious explanation for the calm put-togetherness of French mothers. Free of the burden to be all and everything to their kids, they not only have careers but have childcare provided or subsidized by the state. They can send their kids to high-quality, regulated, state-supervised daycares from the time they are infants, and rest assured that they are in capable, in fact professional hands. They can send their kids to preschool at age three. They get paid maternity leave–for those who don’t know, that means you get to take time off work to have and then be with your baby, and you don’t have to use your vacation days, or sick days, or go without pay. You’re still earning your salary. What is an unbelievable perk to an American parent is a matter of law and custom in France. Moreover, insurance is also provided or subsidized by the state. In fundamental ways, the child’s health, nurture, and viability are supported by political legislation, social norms, and cultural beliefs in ways that directly translate to the mother’s feeling that she does, in fact, have an entire network of support, help, and aid when she needs it. That, I would think, would relieve a metric ton of stress.
Altogether, Druckerman’s intriguing peek into French culture is, inadvertently, a damning look at all that has gone heartily haywire in American discussions about parenting and childcare. She doesn’t herself do any damning, of course, on the chance that she’d alienate someone, or a whole group of someones, from buying her book. But aside from disguising basic common sense as the secret mystery of French motherhood to which she finally gets initiated, the real surprise is that what looks to Druckerman like a fantasy is, in fact, how things really are, or ought to be. Motherhood doesn’t have to be a soul-sucking burden or constant source of harassment, anxiety, and overwhelming guilt to mean you’re properly invested in and caring for your kids. It–and your kids–can be a joy, if you have a few sensible beliefs about children being part of a family, not the center; motherhood being part of a woman’s life, not its only expression; and childhood being an education into moral, compassionate, rational and self-aware citizenship, not some fleeting state of perfection to which we all long to return.