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February 27, 2012

Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

As I was almost unequivocally the craziest, most anxious pregnant woman who ever lived, I had been particularly nervous what would happen to me when my child was out in the world, the whole “heart on the outside of one’s body” cliche. I’d expected to become neurotic, hovering, unable to sleep at night lest my child succumbed to SIDS, but then I met Harriet, was bowled over by the sheer force of her vitality, her fierceness, and I never really worried again. It was clear to me from the start that she was an actual person separate from me, so absolutely possessed of a distinctive self I’d have very little control over shaping, and it’s been with such fascination that I’ve watched that self developing into the someone she was destined to be from the first ear-piercing scream she ever uttered.

Which is to say that I’m laid-back as parents of 3 year-olds go, which is surprising because I’m laid-back about absolutely nothing else. Though I’m laid-back within certain parameters (which I’ve been lucky enough to have success with): I’ve been maniacal from the get-go about cultivating good eating habits in my child and nurturing an appreciation for healthy food and good flavours. Harriet is usually a pro at eating in nice-ish restaurants. It’s also important to me that Harriet learns to entertain herself and enjoy her own company, which is essential for my sanity as a mother who works from home (and makes it a priority to carve out a good deal of “me time”). And in many ways, these are the priorities that have shaped whatever “parenting philosophy” I’ve established for myself, so when I heard of Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, I thought, “Hey, that’s up my street.”

Because it’s important, of course, to only ever read parenting books that affirm your worldview and what you’re doing already. (And I’m not being facetious. The alternative is to be driven insane.)

Druckerman’s book, about her experiences of pregnancy and motherhood as an American expatriate in Paris, is being marketed as this year’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Druckerman herself as a “parenting expert”. Which is misleading, because Bringing Up Bebe is certainly no manifesto, and it has much more in common with the best book about babies that I’ve ever read, which is Dream Babies by Christina Hardyment, a history of baby advice “From John Locke to Gina Ford”.  Hardyment’s book instilled in me the empowering knowledge that there is no such thing as a baby expert, and that ideas of baby advice and parenting philosophies (scientifically based or otherwise) have been faddish since the 16th century. So that in those brutal early days of new motherhood when I had no idea what I was doing, at least I could be confident that nobody else really did either.

In her book, Druckerman similarly shows how notions of parenting and parenthood (and also children and childhood) are cultural constructs, and her approach is far more anthropological than “how-to”. She shows how French notions of pregnancy are so different from what she experienced as an American engrossed in week-by-week manuals with advice about how every morsel of food that goes in her mouth should be good for her baby. French women around her worried far less about their pregnancies, eat whatever they want (though Druckerman points out that French women don’t eat a lot in the first place), are encouraged to “nurture their inner woman”, and are not only told that they can have sex in pregnancy but are provided with a list of comfortable positions to do it in.

The book goes on to show how babies in France begin sleeping through the night very early, how they are taught patience and independence by their parents not always responding immediately to their needs (but rather, their parents observe those needs from afar to discern how they can best be met). French babies are considered rational people, albeit small ones, who can come to understand the world around them with reasoned explanation (and can understand the needs of their parents and family as well). French children develop independence by entering day care from an early age, and parents can have confidence in the state-funded institution with rigorous standards, instructors with university degrees who’ve chosen their work as a profession (and are well-compensated for it), and healthy meals brought in by chefs.

Parents maintain authority over their children, have high expectations for good behaviour, and yet also don’t run their children’s lives (or allow their children to run theirs). Children are allowed significant freedom and develop higher abilities and a greater sense of responsibility in accordance. Many of the differences in parenting are subtle, and can be understood through differences in language– instead of “Be good,” French children are told, “Be wise” (or “Show good judgement”). Instead of “discipline”, French parents talk about”education”. There is a set of parameters which parents are unbending about, but their children are offered a great deal of freedom within these.

Though Druckerman shows a clear bias towards the French approach to parenting, her book is not a polemic. She wishes her own children to retain a sense of themselves as Americans as they grow up in France, she devotes an entire chapter to breastfeeding not being a priority for French mothers, she admits that though French women have greater support in furthering their careers, they split household roles with spouses more unevenly than American parents do, and are paid lower wages for their work. She shows that until the 1960s, the French approach to parenting was rigid and cold, that effects of this remain, and that some French people (and American expats) are absolutely starving for American ideas of self-affirmation. And she also shows that being a French parent is not easy, that you can’t figure out how to be one by following a guide, and that like any parent, they’re ever responding to new challenges thrown their way. It’s just that, philosophical approaches to parenthood being what they are, French parents respond to those challenges very differently.

What Druckerman doesn’t give enough credit to, however, is the role of institutionalized daycare in France in creating her institutionalized Frenchness. (She concedes, by the way, that life in France outside of Paris and even outside her social circle in Paris is different from and more varied than what her book portrays.) A few times, she mentions that the mothers of the children with such sophisticated palettes don’t even cook themselves, for example, which leads me to conclude that school lunches have a greater role in shaping children’s food tastes than family meals do. It’s not surprising that French children fall into line in institutional settings along with their peers with such rigorous standards and expectations upon them. Perhaps if we all have the benefit of such a system, all of us could have children so obliging.

So Druckerman’s book is not that useful if you’re reading it in the hope of cultivating a little French-person of your own. (It’s also not useful if you wish to be not fat. French mothers, apparently, spend a lot of time baking with their children, but exercise restraint enough not to eat the result, which is a skill that is beyond me.) But what Bringing Up Bebe is useful for is challenging our ideas about childhood and child-rearing, broadening our perspectives to see the different ways these ideas are approached, and allowing us to see our own approaches as the cultural constructions they are. Druckerman’s writing is also light, funny and engaging, and her book is as informative as it is a pleasure to read.

4 thoughts on “Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman”

  1. Sandra says:

    I think that another aspect of a preferred parenting style is also your chikd’s temperament. You gravitate to what fits your personal beliefs and what works.

    I hope that there isn’t a huge brouhaha over this book. Like any parenting books, they tend to be a bit of kabuki theatre (like how Martha Stewart isn’t REALLY advocating that stylish a life to the nth degree).

    We pick and choose what fits and what makes sense to us. I like the window into what’s possible – how a different culture’s values change how they see what a child is and should be capable of…

  2. Panic says:

    Okay, so I was only there a week, but I definitely noticed French children, and how they were the most adorably stylish and well-behaved bunch of little people I have even seen. And they’re not sad robots or anything, they’re still kids, they still play in school-yards, they enjoy life and smile and all that good kid stuff. But they’re just less RAWR about it than North American kids. They seemed more chill. Though this was Paris and maybe it’s just they’re super-privileged, Paris being a pretty expensive city to live in.

    I actually couldn’t stop staring and how well-dressed these kids were, though. 8-year-olds more chic than I will ever be. Kind of amazing.

    I think there’s A LOT to do with the daycare situation though. I always maintain that a national daycare system would completely revolutionize our society for the better.

  3. Nathalie says:

    “Because it’s important, of course, to only ever read parenting books that affirm your worldview and what you’re doing already. (And I’m not being facetious. The alternative is to be driven insane.)”

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