Sixteen years ago, I met a Frenchman in Los Angeles. (I immediately knew that he was from France because he was eating a hamburger with a fork.) I ended up following him back to his homeland, where I married him, had two children, became a dual citizen, and immersed myself in the local customs and culture. Motherhood in France was not without its challenges, including where to find Sippy cups in Paris and how to say “Pampers” in French. And it only got tougher as my kids got older.
I remember when our first child, Max, was just 3½ and we enrolled him in a bilingual preschool. Six months into the year, his class was invited to go on an overnight field trip to England, in what your life VOICES was (unbeknownst to me) an annual event. When I refused to let Max join the group, the director of the nursery-school looked at me and said warily, “Madame, holding onto your child is not good for cultivating an independent spirit. You must let go so he may venture into the world.” Then she smiled (a bit smugly, I thought) and said, “We only have this problem with Anglo - Saxon mothers.” and off the children went: the French kids to Calais to take the ferry, and the Americans (about half the class was from the U.S.) to go home with their mom.
The French mothers enjoyed three lovely days alone with their hubby in Paris; they drank wine and had grown-up fun until little Jean and Claudette returned with tales from the English countryside. Meanwhile, the American moms lugged gear to a rainy park where we sat on the wet asphalt and, despite being leery of the safety hazards around us (swings with broken belts, precarious jungle gyms with no rubber mats), cheered everyone on, then went home exhausted. When I first moved to Paris, i marveled at French mommies: how they managed to push a stroller and walk in high heels on cobblestones without twisting an ankle; how their libido did just fine even with the multiple demands of motherhood and career. What did they have that I didn’t? a lot less baggage, as it turned out.
After getting pregnant with Max, Ii took a quick trip to the States and returned back home to France laden with suitcases stocked with American how-to books, countless educational toys, and bulky baby gear, as well as lots of well-intentioned ideas about how to guard against every possible toddler misadventure on earth. Thus, when our son began to crawl, the first thing I did was baby proof our entire apartment. I put rubber edge liners on low tables, covers on electrical sockets, latches on windows, locks on drawers, and seat guards on toilets. The parts of our living room that weren’t bolted down were crammed with giant fluorescent kiddy toys. My French neighbor Geneviève took one look at our place and said, “Your apartment looks like a psych ward.” Geneviève’s house was diff erent. Her kids, ages 5 and 7, had rules and boundaries, but the only babyproofI ng she’d ever bothered with was a gate at the end of a narrow stairway. The living room was a family area, but it was a grown-up space and the children learned to respect it as such. So was the kitchen. I recall being stunned to fI nd her kids sitting alone at the kitchen table, expertly cutting slices from half a grapefruit and eating each one with delicatesse. (Geneviève’s kids had also bypassed sippy cups and gone straight from bottle to real cups. No wonder the French seem trained from birth to handle a wineglass with fl air!)
At Geneviève’s home, the kids were in bed no later than 8:30 so that Mommy and Daddy could be together. Private time for parents is considered sacrosanct. And Geneviève didn’t pretend that Mommy and Daddy were going to bed to read gardening almanacs. As she recalls, “One night when I was putting her to bed, my 7-year-old asked, ‘Are you and Daddy going to go in your room and kiss?’ And I replied, ‘Of course. Mommies and daddies kiss at night because they love one another. Now nighty-night.’ ” Her honesty threw me for a loop. “You mean you just told her?” I asked. “Why not? What’s wrong with that?” Kids are not king in France, as they are in the U.S. Most children are expected to adapt to the grown-up world, not the other way around. In France, boundaries are upheld not only because they’re considered good for children, but because they protect the sanctity of a couple’s private life.
The French, so I learned, are experts at keeping amour alive après enfants. By the time Max was 5, I began to understand that while French mothers believe in setting strict boundaries for their kids, they also practice a style of letting go, standing back so that their kids might “venture into the world,” as the school director had suggested. This perspective extends to their life, as well. You can leave the beds unmade and let the kids miss a playdate, while you focus on the more essential things in life. “Perfect order is perfectly impossible,” my friend Martine used to say.
French women reject the notion that you can be all things to all people (there’s literally no term in the French vocabulary for “multitask”). In this culture, parents recognize that the “do-it-all mom,” as the old saying goes, often ends up doing everything but “it.” Slowly, as I sailed the high seas of motherhood in Paris with not one child but two, I started to embrace parenthood à la française. By the time my daughter was born - just months after I refused to let my son go on that trip - half of our baby proofing gear was gathering dust in the cellar. And when, three years later, the same nursery-school director asked me about the annual field trip to England, I was the one smiling as I said, after just a moment’s hesitation, “Oui.”