Walk through any bookstore and you'll see titles exhorting American women to be more Parisian. Wear scarves, effortlessly! Be thin, but eat chocolate! Age with style and sex appeal, and without apology or surgery. Who can keep up? Not me. Mostly, this proliferating Francophile advice has only grazed my consciousness.
Yet three years ago, at age 39 and 20 weeks pregnant with twins, I found myself at the local bookstore ogling Pamela Druckerman's memoir, Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. The book's cover featured a lithe, coiffed, sunglasses-wearing woman pushing a stroller, with a knowing smile that suggested ease. This image should not have grabbed me. I was as far from maternity chic as Paris is from my hometown of Berkeley, California, clad as I was in Ugg boots and a Target maxi dress. I crinkled as I lumbered, because I'd stuffed a plastic bag into my sports bra for morning sickness emergencies. After years in Berkeley, I was more spelt bread than baguette, more baseball hat than beret. I wasn't going to be that French mom. Still, I reached for Druckerman's book.
I didn't want to be a stressed-out American mother, either, lost in the never-ending gymnastics of leaning in, dropping out, co-sleeping, never sleeping, all-joy-no-fun minivan driving plus helicoptering. I also wasn't sure I could be the archetypal Berkeley mom: the all-nurturing, kale-pureeing, effortlessly breastfeeding Earth Mother. I felt exhausted just pondering my potential shortcomings.
Then there was the twin factor. I felt nervous -- okay, panicked -- about how I'd handle two same-age kids. So, after years of blithe Francophile-immunity, I bought Bringing Up Bebe. I was not disappointed. I devoured those words as avidly as I downed my protein snacks.
Bringing Up Bebe offered a new spin on struggles that American parents take for granted -- from sleep deprivation to raucous dinners to "mom pants." I relished Druckerman's ideas, her near certainty, that one need not be a martyr to be a mother. Further, the author has twin boys, in addition to a daughter, so I couldn't dismiss her theories as applicable only to serial singletons.
I vowed that I would Frenchify my sons, my family, myself. Two years into raising my own fraternal twin boys, here's how I rate myself against this Bringing up Bebe ideal:
1. "The Pause"
Druckerman describes French mothers pausing, infinitesimally, when babies make their early demands, rather than racing to indulge. This instills proto-patience. Like scarf wearing, I found this apparently simple task easier to imagine than to execute. However, I've ended up "pausing" quite often. Having twins means one child sometimes has to wait, and in fact, my sons can sometimes be strangely calm. They greet me from their cribs by asking, "How's your back?" They've heard me ask my husband this many mornings, and have decided it's a pleasantry. They know I don't rush. In this I've achieved a measure of Frenchness, even if by the accident of not having kids until middle age.
2. French Children Don't Throw Food.
In Bringing Up Bebe, French children learn to savor a vast and sophisticated array of dishes, and they don't graze through the day. My French fantasy has fallen farthest in matters of food. I have two picky eaters who sometimes end up with two separate dinners (and that's just my husband and me). Sometimes my sons also get separate meals, as if I'm running a restaurant, except the entrees are very simple vegetarian and/or Berkeley takeout. I've sometimes resorted to cheddar bunny bribes and astronaut-style puree packets. My sons will be surprised to learn one day that Mexican food is not the core cuisine of Judaism (which is of course Chinese). Strangely enough, however, my toddlers often act like European gentleman in restaurants. That's my Berkeley version of France -- mayhem and Mardi Gras at home, happy munching at the burrito joint at 5:00 p.m.
3. Finding Our Nights.
I recently hemmed and hawed when a potential babysitter asked me about my "parenting philosophy." It was a terrible moment, like patting myself down realizing I'd forgotten my keys, full of panic and self-recrimination. Later, I realized my husband Ken and I do have a philosophy, summed up in one word: sleep. Sleep is the bread that holds the sandwich of our family together. If we've been willy-nilly about some aspects of parenting, we've been orderly about sleep. Druckerman describes how French parents steer babies toward slumber from the earliest weeks, which yields household harmony. We are fluent in sleep. Blessed are the twins who nap.
4. French Women Laugh at the Word "MILF."
I laugh at the word MILF, too, because it's funny, in addition to being silly and offensive at the same time. French women, according to Druckerman, drop their baby weight quickly and without striving. There's no gym program or Jenny Craig or assumption that after kids, anyone will be anything but sexy. I gained 70 pounds in my pregnancy and lost 65, though I wouldn't say it was effortless. I'm a runner and gym lover because natural endorphins are second only to coffee and chocolate in the pantheon of feel-good treats. As for fashion, in Berkeley, land of gray hair, natural fabric and comfy clogs, I feel dressed up in flats that do not include orthotic padding. If I'm pro-rating the Bringing Up Bebe fantasy to Berkeley norms, then my yoga pants are an acceptable upgrade from the elastic waistband maternity pants. Besides, what do French women wear when they collapse on the couch Sunday nights to watch Homeland, Girls or Game of Thrones?
5. French Children Bake Cupcakes.
One of the most startling assertions in Bringing Up Bebe is Druckerman's portrait of children as young as three making their own cupcakes -- that's right, real cupcakes, not a Hape wooden baking set. In French children this fosters independence, patience, and an ability to delay gratification. So far my kids' kitchen savvy focuses on banging the doors on their play refrigerator, though one of them will fling a fake egg or potato onto the fake stove (two foods he will not eat in reality). They also shove their stuffed monkey toy into their oven. At first I feared two budding sociopaths, but they've informed me this is where the monkey naps. They may not graciously bake, but they've definitely internalized the family philosophy.
6. French Moms Aren't Taxis and Don't Wallow in Guilt.
Druckerman accurately notes the American habit of maternal guilt, and describes it as penance, or even payment, for claiming things we want and need. I mostly don't feel guilty for the time I have to myself or with my husband. I treasure it, and exchange significant treasure for it. In the end, who can compare parenting in France and America? One mother's freedom fries are another's pomme frites. Just the fact of state subsidized high-quality childcare in France changes the equation -- which leads me to my final point.
7. French Moms Aren't Trying to Be More Berkeley.
Perhaps the core inspiration of Bringing Up Bebe is an exploration of motherhood that isn't always questioning its own methods. My husband and I have embraced and embodied our own ideals, quirks and tactics, cobbling together our own style of family. It probably can't be translated, much less exported. As a breed of parents, we're well-meaning mutts, not prize-winning poodles. This in itself feels deeply American, this process of casual and celebratory fusion. By grafting parts of my Bringing Up Bebe fantasy onto Berkeley, I hold close some important ideas: peace for the parents, calm for the kids, and those final sweet necessities -- chocolate for the mom, delicious sleep for all.