A recent spate of books combining many of my interests (memoir, parenting, French culture) meant that I've recently sacrificed a lot of sleep time in favour of reading.
First, I read the heavy. The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, a controversial and feminist take on attachment parenting (I wrote about it here).
Then came dessert and just the way I like it - times two.
First, Bringing Up Bébé by American journalist Pamela Druckerman, who is raising her children in Paris. A copy of the book was making the rounds among all my mom friends. When I finally got my hands on it, I devoured it like a fistful of Ladurée macaroons.
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Bringing Up Bébé is about Druckerman's quest to understand how French parents turn out such well-behaved, food-friendly children who start sleeping through the night as early as two months. Druckerman distilled her discoveries into a memoir on navigating the world of Parisian parents with her daughter, Bean, and twin boys who followed shortly thereafter (three kids under two years - Mon dieu!).
Bringing Up Bébé is popular, I suspect, because it is both escapist (Paris, je t'aime) and relatable (toddler tantrums, daycare issues, parenting peer pressure). It's pulls double-duty as an entertaining memoir and a parenting how-to, as Druckerman reveals the ways of the French. The French appeal is reminiscent of when Mireille Giuliano revealed the tenets of staying thin, as per French women, in her 2004 book, French Women Don't Get Fat. It seems there's a never-ending appetite for imagining ourselves on bikes with a baguette and a beret.
Much like Giuliano's book on weight, Bringing Up Bébé reads like a common sense salvo for our own North American culture, one that has been led down the garden path and can't find its way back. The thing is, it's easy to be French in France. Can being French work here?
Author Karen le Billon had a tough time importing her family's newfound French eating style back to Canada. French Kids Eat Everything (And Yours Can Too) is exactly as it sounds, a book shaped around the structure of 10 French Food Rules, observed as they were by le Billon when she moved her family to a small village in Brittany. Le Billon took these rules, some given to her not-so-discreetly by her French mother-in-law, and tested them through experience, pasting them to her fridge and letting her two finicky eaters learn the ways of the French, one beet puff pastry at a time.
Food is a deeply cultural thing. French culture is renowned for its adherence to tradition and rules, famous as they are for their bureaucracy. North Americans, and west coasters at that, prize individuality and personal choice, especially when it comes to food.
One very telling moment from French Kids Eat Everything comes when le Billon describes how her daughters became picky eaters in the first place. For le Billon, an attachment parenter, feeding on demand never quite ended even as her kids grew out of nursing and into kiddie food. Concerned that her kids get their bellies full, le Billon gave them what they wanted, whenever they wanted it. Inevitably, their toddler diets came to consist solely of bread, pasta and fishy crackers, usually eaten in the stroller or car seat. This, to me, highlighted the North American path from love to permissiveness.
French parents would never tolerate that behaviour from their children, let alone permit it in the first place. As le Billon writes, French parents train their children, from before they are even one year old, to love all food, especially veggies (le Billon describes thin soups being put into baby bottles - none of my parenting books have ever come close to recommending such a thing).
Reading these books on French parenting while on vacation in France was an interesting experience. Every night, I cracked one and read in the hotel bed with Tokki sleeping peacefully beside me. During the day, Tokki and I would wander, much of the time alone (we were in France for a film festival and my husband, a filmmaker, was busy much of the time). Tokki and I ate every one of our meals in public, sometimes in the hotel restaurant, sometimes on the terrasse of a bustling bistro.
This meant I read both books with a slight sense of urgency. At home, Tokki eats finger-food style because he refuses to be spoon-fed by me. All my books (North American parenting books, natch) have recommended that I let him play with his food as part of his burgeoning development. But how could I feed him this way in public? At home, mealtimes become a solar system of food bits, Tokki the shining sun in the center. Food takes flight. I didn't want Tokki's daily lunch in a French restaurant to become a traveling air show.
Suddenly, while I ruminated on our daily adventures in public eating with the stories of these memoirs, I was reminded of a family dinner I hosted at home in Toronto. Tokki had just graduated to finger foods. My father watched, horrified, as Tokki dropped food from his high chair, mashed sweet potato into his hair and turned his corner of the table into a food disaster zone. My dad began to protest.
"Dad, relax," I replied. "He needs to play with his food. I'll clean that up later." Dad, bless him, bit his lip.
Reading Bringing Up Bébé and French Kids Eat Everything made me question my reaction in that moment. Does my baby truly need to play with his food?
While it has occurred to me that trends in parenting have changed over time (i.e., my parents would never have let me play with my food), it never occurred to me that parenting styles would be so different between Western countries, with parenting books simply not getting translated, for example, from French to English and vice versa.
French parents, it seems, are as old-school as my Korean immigrant parents were when they were raising me several decades ago. The food may be different but the approach is not. I think many of us who grew up with strict immigrant parents can identify with this enduring French emphasis on what Druckerman calls le cadre, or the framework of rules for children.
In France, I witnessed a bit of what Druckerman and le Billon write about the French and their style of discipline. One afternoon, at a beautiful lakeside park in Annecy, I saw a mother with her crying toddler, who couldn't have been two years old. Instead of consoling her daughter, the mother marched her out of the playgroup into the middle of a grassy field and waited, arms crossed, while the child wailed. I've never seen anything like it at home.
Off to the side, a father playing catch with one son was shunning the other son, who had presumably misbehaved and was now sitting on the sidelines screaming. The father ignored his red-faced screams. Most parents I see at playgrounds at home are afraid of making a scene, of being judged, of their children acting out even further. French parents, it seems, aren't afraid of any of those things. Discipline, as both authors point out, is more important.
The pleasure of these books isn't in the take-away "lessons," although both books are meticulously footnoted (le Billon's even includes recipes to the dishes her children learn to love). The pleasure is in the vicarious experience of eating with and living among the French, with all their immense emphasis on pleasure itself, without having to go through the crushing moments of culture clash that these two women inevitably face. It's a good thing culture clash can make for a humorous read. One particular chapter in Druckerman's book, called "Caca Boudin," (which means "poo sausage" and is a favourite baby swear among the kids), stands out.
To boil down what the books have to say would be to take the pleasure out of them, like a pot of overcooked veggies. The whole point is to just enjoy. If you don't have time for both reads and just want to pick one, perhaps it just depends on which imagined experience of France you want to have - a New Yorker transplanted in Paris or a Vancouverite in a seaside village in Brittany. The French, it seems, remain the same.
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