When our baby boy Surya was five-months-old, he (finally) started to sleep longer stretches at night. It was a pleasure to be slightly less strung out. Then...
He stopped sleeping for stretches longer than 45 minutes.
My upstairs neighbor and comrade-in-motherhood, Carol, hypothesized that he had suddenly realized that he was waking up alone and needed to get his parent's attention. If true, while an utterly insane regression in sleep habits, this would at least be a small step in cognitive development (Carol is sunny that way).
Surya has two sets of fawning grandparents -- one American, the other Indian. My husband and I had become fluent in narrating baby anecdotes and minutia twice a weekend on Skype. That Sunday, we spoke about the multiple awakenings and floated the notion that he was learning to recognize being alone in his crib. Michael's parents heard us out and immediately grasping the situation: "It's time to start showing that little boy who's boss." They emphasized that he should start falling asleep on his own and it was important to get our own lives back!
As soon as we hung up, a call rang in from India. We narrated the same story in a similar four-way conversation. My mother, upon hearing that Surya might be recognizing and responding to a realization of being alone in the crib, gushed: "Wow, he is so advanced! Its amazing he has figured out how to communicate with this parents!" (She, incidentally, has never been interested in sleep and routinely functions on only a few hours; the implications of Surya's sleep deprivation torture techniques upon his parents never registers.)
We doubled up with laughter at these absurdly contradictory reactions.
To us, and to the Indian and American friends to whom we related it, this little anecdote exemplified cultural difference -- the parent-centric, mildly detached Western approach that aims at fostering independence, even in a five month-old baby, versus the smothering, child-centric Indian approach that assumes complete dependency of babies upon their parents. During those early days of innocence and inexperience, I felt nothing but pleasure at the diverse, complex, sometimes contradictory and often hilarious world our baby would grow up in.
For weeks from then on, however, Surya's sleep patterns grew increasingly horrific, and his concurrent initiation into solid foods seemed irritating and impossible. As I piled up articles and books on sleep and parenting, I could not find anything that would work. The two cultures, which I had been excited to embrace only sent tangential, contradictory messages and for my decrepit sleepless state, it was no longer a laughing matter.
As it happens, this period concurred with the deluge of emails furiously forwarded around the parent community about the latest New York Times bestseller -- Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother -- about a Chinese-American mom whose approach to parenting, while verging on abusive, had startled and excited the wired-in urban mothers of the U.S. The Wall Street Journal had cashed in on Amy Chua's memoir by excerpting the book with the sensational subtitle "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior"; in other words, they made it irresistible to the vast array of reading mothers searching for lifelines for any number of parenting challenges.
Reading reviews of the Chua's book and the ensuing controversy, I realized I had grown up with dozens of kids whose parents used an almost identically "firm" approach that, ultimately, is as Chinese as chicken tikka masala. Or apple pie; my blue-eyed American friend when I attended a liberal arts college in upstate New York had a father who was so strict and obsessive about grades that he chose all her courses such that her path would be an invariable march to medical school. She had never been asked who she wanted to be when she grew up, but rather had been forced to follow a parent's plan. Several friends, in fact, seemed to have "tiger" parents a la Amy Chua's Chinese depiction, and in accordance with her prediction, many had gone on to become incredibly high-achievers whose careers are now enviable and lucrative.
None of these friends, though, were Chinese. Looking to foreign, or "exotic" cultures for answers to universal parenting challenges, I was beginning to realize, is ridiculous. Bordering on racist.
A few months later, an even more ludicrous notion began to burn through American cyberspace: That French parenting is, in fact, the most superior. Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bebe, another New York Times bestseller, seems meant to make American moms feel just about as low and awful as they possibly can. The French parents Druckerman depicts are no-nonsense. They're independent. They're beautiful. French women's vaginas are restored to pre-delivery elasticity (or something) by the state (for free). Their kids eat vegetables (even beets). They've got the secret formula.
Working from first-hand experience -- having been a nanny in France during college summers, and currently living in Paris -- I found Bringing Up Bebe not just fawning but also simply untrue. I felt not resonance but disdain at some of Druckerman's descriptions of French parenting techniques and French food culture, particularly as applied to children. Druckerman's universe, insofar as it may actually exist, represents probably the tiniest possible minority in France. After making multiple play-dates with various Parisian friends and their kids, I am yet to come across one parent that is not frustrated about their kid's eating habits. Most of them who are in my son's age group (two years or thereabouts) still complain of poor napping habits and sleep resistance issues. Our wonderful babysitter here in Paris has been working for well-to-do French families for ten or more years and has never met a single one of Druckerman's idealized French babies.
One of the most misleading aspects of Druckerman's "findings" is the false thesis on French food habits. A country with rising obesity levels, France is second to the U.S. in consumption of McDonalds fast food (quite a feat given how much tinier France is in comparison to the U.S.). Recent statistics show that the French consume an average of 65 sandwiches per second! Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy pumped oodles of Euros into combating France's declining eating habits which include consuming processed foods and a penchant for sugary snacks.
While my research is as anecdotal and shaky as Druckerman's the facts that these books become so popular points at a completely different problem: that of older, once-career-driven, urban mothers struggling to adapt to life with a baby. The urban mom is obsessed with making a science of parenting. These urban moms channel their immense resource of inquisitive energy into making Excel sheets about sleep, speech and food. Having had a baby right after finishing my PhD meant that I approached every single developmental stage with a stack of research. Whether it is looking for nannies, finding the right daycares and schools, hunting for organic products, shopping for strollers, pediatrician appointments or potty training, everything is imbued with vigor and intensity. This is healthy and completely normal. Most women find the transition to motherhood puzzling and stressful, and if it's Excel sheets that make you feel there is order in your life, so be it!
However, here is where I draw the line: looking for solutions through cultural stereotyping and engaging in quasi-racist discourse under the guise of doing whats best for your child. Any political correctness and dignity of speech seems to go out the window when there is a discussion on the differences between Caribbean nannies and Tibetan nannies or when one makes quick easy generalizations about how the Chinese or French raise their babies.
As we prepared to send Surya to a small Parisian daycare, we met with the woman that runs the establishment, who has made an impressive science of her vocation. She inquired about his ability to understand French. I assured her that he had been spoken to in French since he was four-months-old, as his nanny in New York was from Ivory Coast. She jotted that down and then asked with concern, "Yes, but does she speak 'real' French?" I nodded curtly, but I really wanted to say, "Yes just as much as Salman Rushdie speaks 'real' English." I wondered what would happen if we balked at the accents of every Jamaican or Trinidadian nanny in Manhattan. New York City could become nanny-less!
As for the divergent American-versus-Indian grandparents' interpretations of our son's sleeplessness, I started to realize that there was nothing necessarily "cultural" about the differences: I eventually found out that not a single one of my Indian or American friends has similar parents; and those with kids of their own, like us, seemed to have been making it all up as they went along.
Meanwhile, Surya is speaking in complex sentences, singing entire songs, scaling every jungle gym and is the most amicable international traveler. But...
He has recently become able to climb out of his crib and crawl into our bed every night at around 2am. Our pediatrician predicted this may go on until he is about eight or nine! In horror, I scramble for solutions and stumble upon a new book on Amazon spotlighting parenting techniques discovered in a little Alaskan village. I take a breath, then switch off my computer seconds before my desperate hands hit the "buy" button!
Bhakti Shringarpure is the editor of Warscapes magazine.
This is the extended version of a piece that originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.