You may have heard of BCBG before readers, the French phrase "bon chic, bon genre," which is Parisian slang meaning "good style, good attitude". It describes in part the effortless style of the uber-chic French female. But today I don't want to talk about BCBG, I want to talk about BMBE-"Bonne Maman, Bon Enfant," which is Mamatoga slang for good mom, good child*. You see, French parenting is all the rage over here nowadays, due to the release of the new book Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman. Now, full disclosure, I have NOT yet read this book, although it is on my (quite long) to do list, but I have been reading the seemingly endless stream of American Mom vs. French Mom articles that have popped up because of it and, I have to admit, I've been really enjoying them. I suppose that is in part because I'm a bit of a Francophile myself. I love French fashion and jewelry (Hermes anyone?), Bonpoint and Petite Bateau, french macarons, French movies (Ludivine Sagnier is a favorite of mine) and of course, French 75s!
Years ago, in that magical post-college but pre-children time, I was lucky enough to spend some time in Paris. I fell in love as soon as my feet touched ground at De Gaulle and I spent most of my time in a heady cloud of rarefied love for all things French. I tried diligently to pick up more of the language, I tasted all kinds of new foods (and wines) and generally soaked up every last bit of culture I could lay my little American eyes on. I would surreptitiously watch fashionable French girls on the metro, trying to see if I could figure out what kind of boots they had on. I was the typical American tourist, head over heels in love, spending hours sitting in cafes reading French fashion magazines and people watching, making mental notes of clothing and jewelry and accessories I just adored.
Even though kids of my own were but a far off vague idea at that point, I do have memories of French kids and French moms from when I was over there. More than once I would see adorable little French kids (usually wearing some equally adorable impossibly European outfit that I could never find here) behaving perfectly in museums or cafes. Who knows if that perfect behavior lasted all day, but nonetheless I was still impressed. But then again, it could have just been that air that American tourists breathe while in France. The scent of freshly baked baguettes and nutella crepes mixed with expensive fragrance and cigarette smoke exhaled from perfectly chic Parisiennes made me dizzy with longing for the lifestyle I saw around me on the Paris streets. And for others like myself, fresh from that Paris trip loaded up with Guerlain Chamade and little black dresses I bought at Printemps, there were countless books and how-tos on "How to Dress Like a French Woman" or "How to Have French Style". Little tomes full of tips about wearing scarves and how running sneakers are the devil.
Although I don't think the desire to be chic and stylish like French women has waned, the new French how-to has to do with parenting. According to what everyone has been saying, French children are better behaved than American children, able to sit at a restaurant through a meal without flipping out. Their children eat "real" food while we apparently stuff our kids full of dinosaur shaped nuggets and pizza. French women don't feel "guilty" about having a grown up life of their own while we, as American women, are chained to our babies and toddlers and are either on the floor playing legos with them non-stop or are exhausted from putting their every tiny need in front of our own all day. These OF COURSE are sweeping generalizations, but are still the meat of this whole French Mom vs. American Mom stew (or should I say cassoulet?).
In my eyes, what we have here is just a mere case of the grass is greener effect, something that plagues mothers no matter what culture you come from. If you're a stay at home mom you wonder if being a working mom might be better for your family and vice versa. You choose the Montessori preschool and then wonder if you should have chosen the other option. You sign your child up for t-ball but then question if soccer is more his speed. In this case, looking at our own generalized parenting style in the soft, nuanced French glow cast by recent articles, we of course look like bad mommies. How dare we interrupt an adult conversation to speak to a child?! You should be so embarrassed that your child decided to throw that roll at the restaurant! What do you mean your child doesn't like asparagus?! FOR SHAME! Is this comparison just serving to make us feel like bad mommies (yet again)?
I'm not saying we shouldn't take any tips from other cultures, in fact I wholeheartedly embrace that idea. To be honest I really do try to teach my kids to not interrupt two adults speaking or myself when I'm on the phone. I strive to set limits, especially on my own "mommy quiet time" and I make it a priority to have adult only time in order to benefit myself, my relationship, and the kids. I try to introduce new foods all the time, and I'm even mildly successful at times! But you know what? Things always slip through, nuggets are eaten, phone calls are interrupted, and tantrums are thrown. But any attempt to make parenting, and especially motherhood, some sort of competition just doesn't sit well with me. Especially when the model we're all idealizing at the moment isn't all it appears to be in the first place. And to assume that all American children are spazzed out, fit throwing brats who can't sit still through one meal is as ridiculous as saying that all French children are perfectly behaved little angles with impeccable manners who started sleeping through the night at two weeks old.
To me, the biggest contrast, the one we should really be focusing on, is the support that mothers are given in this country compared to France. In France, there’s national paid maternity leave, subsidies for nannies and high-quality day care, not to mention free preschool. For the first child women are allowed 16 weeks maternity leave in France, for the third child, maternity leave is an astounding 26 weeks. A pregnant employee is not obliged to reveal her pregnancy until the time she wishes to take maternity leave in France and by law, a job must be kept available to the pregnant employee. Another unheard of perk that French parents have that we do not? Parental leave is also allowed to fathers. I know plenty of fathers, Jack's included, that would love to be afforded the same amount of time that mothers are in this country. Why wouldn't it be assumed that fathers of newborns want to spend the same amount of time with the new baby as mothers of newborns? These are the things we really should focus on here in America, the support we, as mothers and fathers, are given to help raise a happy family. Perhaps American mothers would be more inclined to make "adult time" a top priority if they had a longer paid maternity leave and free preschool? And wouldn't we all have a chance to be better (or at the very least, more relaxed) parents if we had more time and support and less expenses?
All of that being said, I do plan on reading Pamela's book some time soon, I swear. And there are a lot of things I do envy her for. The fact that she can walk alongside the Seine with her babies, and being able to grab a nutella and banana crepe alongside the sidewalk? Oui, s’il vous plait!
*apparently this can also mean grandmother in France, nevertheless, I'm sticking with it.