Good Parenting

Y’all, I forgot to post last week. I think trying to do a once a week blog is interfering with my goal of writing something I will one day actually get paid for. So I’m dropping this down to “sporadic” for right now.

But I wanted to tell you two stories that illustrate why my parents are awesome. Their best parenting moments, if you will.

First, my dad. When I was fifteen or sixteen, I got pinkeye for the first time. I know this sounds like absolutely no big deal to anyone since it’s just a piddling little infection that goes away in a couple of days. But I freaked the fuck out about it. I was not a vain teenager; I didn’t spend a lot of time or money or energy on my clothes or hair; I never even learned to do eyeshadow until I worked for Aveda in college and had to. I didn’t really think I was all that pretty and I didn’t try to make myself so.

Or at least that’s what I thought I thought. Until one eye was all red and swollen and goopy. And then I found out where my vanity lived.

My dad was witnessing my freaking out and couldn’t understand it. “But Dad!” I sobbed. “My eyes are my best feature!”

“Really?” my dad said. “I thought it was your wit.”

Perfect Dad moment right there. There was simply nothing better he could have said in that moment, no better way, even, to construct or deliver that sentence. It should be studied in textbooks with titles like “How to Talk to Your Teenage Daughter: A Guide in Building Self-Esteem.”

Now, my mom. The television show “Felicity” started airing when I was a senior in high school, IIRC, and the first episode featured the mom getting all sad that her titular baby girl was heading to college. I, feeling a touch sentimental myself, asked my mom if she would feel that way when I went away to school. She said no. I got a mite offended, but then she said something like, “My job in raising you was to teach you to go away from me. You going to college means I did my job and you’re going on to live your life, pursue your interests, and be an adult. I want you to grow up and go away, because that’s what I want for you. I’ll miss you, but I won’t be sad.”

She insisted on taking me to college sans my father, because she feared, probably correctly, that my father would spend the afternoon schmoozing with other parents and then get all sad and weepy when it was time to go, whereas my mother, who I swear is not British but still only believes in showing sentiment to dogs and horses, would get me unpacked, make sure I had everything I needed, and leave. Which she did. I remember starting to walk her back to her car, and she asked why I was following her, and I said I wanted to say goodbye, and she said, “Oh, please. Give your mother a hug and go.” So I gave my mother a hug and went back to my dorm, soon to be picked up by my aide group leader (read: camp counselor) and on to have lots of fun for four years.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I was back in New Jersey, and my mom, my sister and I went to see that movie with Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman as mother and daughter and then Natalie Portman goes to Brown? And I look over and my mom is crying! We left the movie theater and I said, “Mom! How come you cried when Natalie Portman went to college but not when I did?” And she said, “I did cry. I just did it in the car where you couldn’t see me. I didn’t want you to feel like you had to take care of my emotions on your first day of college. I wanted you to go have your own emotions.”

Good job, Mom.

So what were your parents’ greatest parenting moments?

 

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Quitting

First, I must apologize. I am exhausted. I have had a very long weekend. Awesome, but long. Come to think of it, I’ve had a very awesome but long few months. So this is going to be even more half-baked than last week.

Do any of you know Crappy Pictures? This woman draws very basic cartoons about the joys and bizarre-nesses of parenting; she’s really funny and it’s cute. Last week, she posted this. I don’t think she’s gotten much flak for it, though, to be honest, I’m not about to go through all 1,000-plus comments to find out. Or even more than skimming the top five.

I feel this way sometimes but not often. I often feel like I’d like to take some vacation days from the job of parenting – and sometimes, I get to! Thanks, Jason! – but mostly I don’t feel like I want to quit parenting. I’m not saying that to assert my superiority over any other parents; I completely understand and sympathize with the desire to quit. Being a parent is often annoying and sometimes downright excruciating. I just don’t often feel like I really want more than a day off.

However.

I would really like to quit what I’ve come to think of as the “personal assistant” parts of parenting. The remembering that it’s my week to bring cut-up fruit to preschool. The knowing exactly where her hat, mittens, snow pants, boots, and extra leggings and socks are. The knowing what the dates are to sign up for camp, for school, for dance classes, and then the getting all the forms in by that date, including her birth certificate and medical forms for every damn thing on the planet. The making of play dates. Not the going to play dates or the accepting children into my home for the purpose of play dates, but the arranging of them. The constant chauffeuring, which will the the last thing I get to stop doing, because for some reason we make children wait until they’re 16 to drive around here, instead of just building better bike paths and better-planned cities and authorizing all children who are old enough to HAVE activities after school and to ride a bike to TAKE THEIR OWN DAMN SELVES to those activities.

Wow, I’m mad about that and she’s not even old enough for that yet.

Anyway. That’s the sum total of blog-able thoughts I can have this morning. Sorry. Hopefully I’ll do better next week.

Who’s the Boss?

man and baby

 

So two weeks ago I mentioned another tweet by Jessica Valenti commenting on this. And I swear to God, NYT, I love much about you, but if you want to be the august paper of record you’ve got to stop publishing drivel.

So what I linked to there is a conversation between two NYT columnists about this nonsense notion that the reason men don’t step up about parenting (assuming they don’t) is that women want to keep control in that arena. Blergh.

I’m not denying that, in some households, there is a dynamic by which the husband really, really, really wants to be an equal partner in the parenting and really, really, really wants to make all parenting decisions together, but the wife, in a jealous attempt to guard her womanhood, won’t let him. I’m not denying it because all relationship dynamics exist. All the ones you’ve thought of, all the ones you’ve seen, and a billion ones you’ve never thought of, they all exist. The planet is 7 billion strong and people are people and everything exists. If the Internet has taught us nothing, it should have taught us this: everything exists. (And there is a porn of it.) (Link totally SFW, BTW. It’s just an xkcd comic.)

But that doesn’t mean it’s prevalent or constant and even if it is a legitimate trend (and one should never conclude that something is a legitimate trend just because it’s mentioned in the New York Times), this “debate” offers little real insight. In fact, it seems to me that the “debate” is more like, she says x, he says x is wrong, and she says, haha, okay, you’re right, x is wrong, silly female me!

She starts the debate by saying she never wanted to be the one in charge, and she and her husband really do things very equally, but when she went out of town, she still had to pull over to the side of the road to walk her husband through some basic, daily, “On Tuesday Kid One goes here and Kid Two goes there; drop off Kid One first but pick up Kid Two first,” kind of stuff and how is that she got to be in this position of being in charge like that?

(I should use their names, right? He is Bruce Feiler, of This Life, and author of these two books. She is KJ Dell’Antonia, of Motherlode, and co-author of this.

[Wait, what is this? I like Motherlode and everything, but we need a book of instruction on how to read to our children? Here’s how you read to your children: 1) Place child in lap, next to one on couch or comfy chair, or in bed with you lying next to him/her. Or, if there’s more than one child, arrange children around you so that all have equal access to the pictures. 2) Choose book you like. The younger the child, the less it matters. I used to read aloud from my romance novels when Zoe was an infant. When they get older, choose ones with good pictures, so even if the book sucks, at least you’re looking at something interesting. 3) Read. 4) Pause as often as your patience can handle to answer or pose questions about the book. Sometimes your patience can handle zero interruption. That’s okay.])

Anyway, the dude responds to her opening by defending dads, linking to all that research showing that women edge out their male partners when it comes to parenting on purpose because they don’t want to give up the mommy power, and says, “When a mother criticizes her partner’s child-care efforts, it causes him to lose confidence and withdraw. When she praises his efforts, he takes a more active role.”

And she doesn’t say, “Oh, my God, you fucking wilting flower. The whole problem is that men’s child-care efforts wax and wane in response to their female partner’s responses whereas the mother is JUST EXPECTED TO DO SHIT. Mothers don’t have the LUXURY of WHINING that you didn’t PRAISE OUR DIAPERING ADEQUATELY and therefore we will not diaper, because THE DIAPER STILL NEEDS TO BE FUCKING CHANGED. You fucking tool.”

Nor does she say, “Hey, wait a minute, the question on the table is, ‘Why is the mom always the default parent?’ You’re not answering that question. You’re accepting that the mom is always the default parent, and then answering the question, ‘How can moms get their male parenting partners to help out more?’ That’s faulty logic, and it’s not helpful to this discussion.”

She does, at least, point out something important, which is that women are the ones who feel the pressure to be good parents. And not “good,” like, nurturing and caring and with an eye toward emotional development. “Good” like, “on top of shit.” Knowing which day the forms for the soccer team are due and which classroom can’t have peanuts and whether that movie is appropriate for their age group. That’s a really important point in this debate, that women bear the social costs of parenting and so of course they’re going to feel more pressure to do things “right.”  She talks about how she can only feel okay about going on business trips, etc., if things go smoothly while she’s gone; if things go wrong and she’s getting a call about why no one is here to pick up the kids 20 minutes after school is out and she’s in, like, Spain, then she feels like she’s fucking up as a parent. But not the dad, who’s the one who’s actually late to pick them up. He’s a real trouper for taking care of shit, even if he is the one who’s 20 minutes late, while his irresponsible, career-obsessed wife is off doing her own thing and not caring about her kids. “You see that whole dominant parent thing as something women want to protect; I see it as something we can’t escape.” Sing it, sister!

It’s not dissimilar, actually, to the question, “Why don’t women want casual sex as much as men do?” I mean, sure, there’s the fact that we get pregnant and men don’t. And the fact that we’re less likely to experience pleasure with a casual partner than a man is. But there’s also the social pressure. It’s still true that a man having casual sex is The Man while a woman having casual sex is, at best, Making A Poor Choice Right Now and at worst A Whore. So, duh. Higher cost, less likelihood of benefit.

But I digress.

So KJ makes this perfectly valid point about women bearing the brunt of the societal pressure to “do” parenting “right,” and face constant judgment if we’re wrong.  And it’s true. Let’s say I change Zoe’s diaper and not Jason. Nothing remarkable has happened. (I mean, now, something remarkable has happened, because she’s four, but let’s pretend this example is happening back when she was a baby.) Mom did the most minor part of her job, Dad did not do something that was not his job in the first place. Now let’s say Jason changes the stinky diaper but puts the new one on backwards. (Those of you who know Jason know that this never happened once. But let’s just say for the sake of example.) Now Jason is a super-awesome dad for being willing to change diapers, and also adorably incompetent because dads! They don’t know things! Someone should make a hilarious and heart-warming movie about that! Whereas I can either turn the diaper around, thereby discouraging Jason from diapering again because why do I have to criticize his parenting and don’t I realize it’s all my fault that women do so much more of the child care than men? Or I can leave the diaper as is, which makes me a (mildly) negligent mother. Now let’s say Jason changes the stinky diaper and does it right! Goddamn it, he’s a fucking superhero! Wow, he knows how to diaper right?! Go him! Whereas I must be some sort of castrating superbitch to have forced my husband into a position where he’s changed diapers so often he actually knows how to do it right.

And don’t think this doesn’t pollute marriages themselves. Get told enough times that, as a male, diapering wasn’t really your job in the first place, and doing it right makes you a goddamned superhero, and a tiny part of you might start to believe it. So that when your wife is upset at you about something else, and when both of you are tired and frustrated and in bad moods, even if you don’t fully believe it, you will come out with, “Hey, do you know how many husbands won’t even touch a dirty diaper? You’re lucky to have a guy like me!”

Sometimes I think the whole problem with men and women these days is that the bar of expectations is so low for men that even when they clear it by miles, they still get obnoxious about it.

I’m still digressing. Sorry.

So does Bruce say, “Gosh, it must be difficult to live with these societal expectations. I don’t even know what it’s like. Having the privilege of being male has protected me from that. I will take your experience seriously because obviously you know your own life better than I do.”?

Hahahahaha.

No. Bruce is totally dismissive! She’s so nice in her entries, all “I totally see where you’re coming from, and yes, I can understand how it would feel like this if I were a man,” you know, like girls are taught to be. And he’s a jerk, because men aren’t taught to be non-jerks. He says, “Are we all Princess Diana now? We have a ‘third person’ in our marriage?” He suggests that she simply ignore societal pressure. “So the next time you hear (or imagine) those whispers or see (or invent) those raised eyebrows,” you say, “Hey, Dad was on duty today,” and he apparently thinks that will make everything better because he didn’t listen to what she was saying in the first place.

And then KJ totally caves! She claims that “the whispers and the eyebrows really are in my head” and that, in the “mommy wars,” “we’re not really judging one another. We’re judging ourselves.”

And I cry foul! What a cop-out! KJ, why did you just let Bruce claim to understand your experience better than you do?! Why did you just agree it was “all in your head” and that you would just be stronger about dealing with it?!

Look, social pressure, societal expectations, these are real things! They aren’t fake; they aren’t in your head; they are out there in the world!

And seriously, if you don’t believe there’s real judgment about how to mother in the world, go ahead. Come up with a question about parenting – anything at all – and type it into Google and see what kind of crazed, judgmental, vitriolic shit comes out. And it’s not just on Google! It’s just more subtle in real life. Sometimes.

I mean, God, the history of feminism is a long, long history of men telling women that various things were all in their head and women finally saying, “Fuck you, no, it’s not, and we’re going to pass some motherfucking laws about it already.” I feel like starting a mommy consciousness-raising group or something. The pressure is not all in our heads! It is out there; it is everywhere; it is not going away and we need to do something! The personal is political! Who’s with me?! Do you hear the mommies sing?! Singing the song of angry moms! It is the music of a people who will not get sleep again! When the beating of your heart echoes the beat of other moms, there is a movement that will start when tomorrow comes!

And if anyone has any flag color suggestions, let me know!

Day in the Life of a Lax Mother

This post is inspired by reading this earlier today.

I’m not a very good mother. My daughter won’t eat anything, so I let her live on a diet of junk and chicken nuggets. (And bacon.) I have this calendar and, like, chore chart in our library. I never do it with her. I like the concept of doing a lot of arts and crafts with her. I don’t actually do them, though. I’m over-indulgent sometimes, and sometimes way too short of patience. I let her watch True Blood.

And I think that’s fine. I mean, sometimes I think that’s fine. And I think it’s important to share with each other our struggles, to remind ourselves that this Martha-Stewart-by-way-of-Mary-Poppins ideal of motherhood is just not happening IRL. For anyone.

So here’s what Zoe’s and my day looked like:

7:40: Wake up. (I know, that’s late for a mom. But last night, I was trying to chillax before bed and Zoe was in her bed watching a movie on her iPad – Bad Mommy! – and then instead of falling asleep to it, she came to bother me at 10:30. So I sent her to my bed – Bad Mommy! – and then finally moved her sleeping body to her own bed at, like, 11:15 – Okay Mommy?. I know moms complain about how early their kids wake up and are envious that mine sleeps so late, but that’s because she goes to bed so late. I bet they get to have conversations with their husbands on weekdays while their children are asleep. I do not. Bad Wife! Which is the same as being a Bad Mommy because don’t I know that a strong marriage is so healthy for the children?!) Brush teeth. Get dressed.

7:50: Peek in on Zoe. Notice she is blinking. Go in for some snuggling. Good Mommy!

8:00: After some negotiation – Bad Mommy? Shouldn’t I not stoop to negotiating with my child but instead be strong and in charge? Don’t children thrive on consistent and rigid schedules? On the other hand, am I not respecting her autonomy and teaching her about compromise? – determine that Zoe will pick out her clothes while I go get Beauty and the Beast – Bad Mommy! No TV! Also, no princesses! – then she can watch in my bed while getting dressed until it’s time to leave for school. Pretty sure that’s Bad Mommy, too.

8:02: Come back up to find Zoe is getting dressed in her own room. “Is it cold today?” “Yes. You need long sleeves and pants. It’s winter.”

8:03: In the bathroom to get out her vitamins and prep her toothbrush. She comes in to show me a skimpy t-shirt and a sundress. “You can wear the t-shirt with a sweater over it.” “No, Mom! I want to wear long sleeves under it!” “Uh . . . okay?” I don’t have any problem with that, although I do have a problem with her tone. I mention this mildly. Bad Mommy! I should take a firmer stance against disrespect! She goes back to her room.

8:05: “Okay, Zoe, I put your toothbrush and vitamins on Daddy’s nightstand. You can press play on the movie when you’re ready. Take your vitamins and brush your teeth and come down when you’re ready.” I go downstairs to eat breakfast and watch The Daily Show. Way Bad Mommy.

8:10: She comes down in the aforementioned skimpy t-shirt, with a tie-dyed long-sleeved shirt under it, and her cupcake pajama pants, and two different socks. She is quite pleased with herself. Bad Mommy! Pajamas to school? “Did you brush your teeth and take your vitamins?” No. But she does want to show me exactly which spot on the floor she wants her wooden menorah. And make a root beer float. Which I okay. Bad Mommy!

8:12: The menorah properly placed, Zoe goes upstairs with her float to take her vitamins and brush her teeth. I remind her that she has to come down when I call her to go to preschool. I do not check to make sure she does brush her teeth and take her vitamins. Bad Mommy!

8:36: I call her to come down. She does, slowly. I start snapping. “Come on, come on! Shoes! We’re going to be late!” Bad Mommy! It’s my own fault we’re going to be late; I got caught up in the Cory Booker interview on TDS. I should be more mindful of the time and start moving her before lateness is imminent.

9:05: We only five minutes late! Go us! Bad Mommy – five minutes late should be the problem, not the good day. Teacher questions pajama pants and points out Zoe needs chapstick. Bad Mommy! Also it did require taking the highway, for which there is a toll, which Jason doesn’t want us to do. Bad Wife!

9:30: I return Fantasia to the library and take out A Charlie Brown Christmas. Good mommy? Sure. Good Jew? Eh.

12:00: Pick-up. I discuss a playdate with the mom of the boy who’s going to break break her, break break her heart. Bad Mommy? But she really wants this playdate. I think it’s a wash.

12:10: In the car, I ask her how she feels about a trip to Target. Bad Mommy! Why am I asking? And what is her answer? Not so good. She wants to go to her favorite bakery, Sweet Whimsy, instead. I tell her we are going there, but at Target, she needs to help me pick out pretty paper for a present for Aunt Kate. Now she’s into it. I tell her we also need a card for my friend and her mommy. My friend lost her stepfather this week. I tell Zoe that, and remind her about me losing my stepfather and how sad I was. “But you were happy because you had me!” she reminds me. Bad Mommy! I discuss death with her! And I discuss my emotions openly! And she feels responsible for them, which is probably unhealthy! But I like the idea of normalizing the role of death in our lives, and also normalizing her role in a community. So, good mommy? “Yes, but my friend doesn’t have a Zoe. So we need to get a card to help her feel better. Will you help me?” Yes. She is enthused about helping me. Good Mommy!

12:17: She hops out of the car and starts dashing towards an on-coming car. Bad Mommy! Why is my child so undisciplined? I grab her arm. She’s very angry at me for doing so. Bad Mommy! I hurt her! And she’s being “disrespectful” again! I carry her into the store, explaining how terrible I would feel if she got hurt and I could have stopped it. Bad Mommy! Guilt trip!

12:19: I need to use the restroom. She doesn’t. I leave her in the cart outside the stalls with my purse, assuming no one will steal her, or it. Bad Mommy!

12:22: We pick out nail polish together. She wants red and sparkly. Of course. We get it. Bad Mommy?

12:23: We spot a dip-dyed chambray shirt with white hearts. She wants me to buy it for myself. I tell her I will in no circumstance be wearing that shirt. Bad Mommy? Would a good mommy buy the shirt if her daughter wants her to wear it instead of snarking on it? Regardless of purchase, would a good mommy teach her daughter to snark others’ fashion choices?

12:24: We see an absolutely gorgeous holiday dress for little girls. For $100. In Target. WTF?

12:25: Zoe is very helpful in picking out a sympathy card. And holiday cards for our family. And wrapping paper. We do not find any good papers for my project for Aunt Kate. But we do find great headbands for Zoe. And stickers. Bad Mommy! I’m being too indulgent.

12:32: We are getting to the point of the Target trip where I remind her that I’m already getting her two headbands, a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, stickers, and a flower paper kit. So when I say no to the next five thing she wants, she just has to put up with it. Bad Mommy! I said yes to all those other things, how can she know when the “no”s will start? I should have given her a limit at the beginning of the shopping trip! (Although I am pleased that one of the things she wants is something she’s getting for Chanukah tonight.)

1:05: Zoe is careful in the parking lot of Sweet Whimsy to demonstrate that she is trustworthy in parking lots. Good Mommy! Unless I’m not supposed to trust her in parking lots, no matter how trustworthy she is. Then, Bad Mommy!

2:05: We are home. She wants her Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups now, instead of after dinner, like she promised. I tell her she needs healthy food first. She wants a cheese stick. I’m pretty sure Bad Mommy!

2:10: She has lost interest in food. I tell her I need to go up and work and she should play. She follows me up and tries to sit on my lap and get me to read to her and stuff. I don’t. I respond to e-mails and start this blog post instead. Bad Mommy. Totes.

The day is not over. I’m probably going to do another 50 terrible things and another 20neutral things and maybe another 5 good things before she goes to bed.

My point is just this – our kids will probably be fine. As long as our Bad Mommy! moments aren’t, like, “I held my kid’s hand on the hot stove,” or “I left my four-year-old alone for two weeks while I went to Vegas,” they’ll probably be fine.

 

 

Bringing Up Bebe – A Book Review

I wish I could do the proper accent marks for “bebe” but I can’t. I mean, I probably could if I tried really hard, but . . . I’m not going to.

Before I begin my discussion of this is the latest parenting book/mommy memoir sweeping the world, I want to share my favorite anecdote from it. Pamela Druckerman’s daughter, Bean, who has been raised in France, is visiting her American grandmother. The American grandmother is excited to share with Bean American delicacies, such as Kraft Mac & Cheese. But Bean won’t eat it. “That’s not real cheese,” she says. Awesome.

As far as I can tell, Bebe is being received better than Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, possibly because, as Americans, we seem to have accepted that the French do everything better already – eat, dress, have sex – so adding parenting is no big thing. And also we don’t believe the French are better at anything we consider important – war, making money – so it’s not threatening to accept their parenting advice. Whereas the implication that China is beating us at parenting is . . . well, we react badly.

Of course, Amy Chua’s name-recognition still sells books. She has a blurb for Bebe And it’s interesting, because her blurb commends Druckerman for “her premise that parents of all cultures should be able to learn from one another.” I thought that was actually more true of Chua’s book, which was less a valorization of the “Chinese” way of child-rearing than it was a memoir, with a description of Chua’s parenting techniques, and the results, both good and ill. Whereas I actually think Pamela Druckerman’s Bebe is more positive on French parenting. She expresses American hesitation over some things, but mostly seems to think those American hesitations ought to be overcome in order to be a better parent.

I’m going to sound critical in this post and I don’t mean to, entirely. I got a lot out of this book. A lot of it was really, incredibly useful. A lot of it made me feel like I’ve already screwed up irrevocably, but some of the patterns and habits she described I’m definitely going to take on more in my life. Druckerman writes about The Pause when it comes to sleeping infants – starting as early as a few weeks old, you hear them cry, and then you wait to see if they actually need something or if they’re just experiencing a sleep cycle. That trains the babies to regulate their own sleep and it trains the parents to respond to the children with patience and understanding instead of rushing in with the first solution you think of. Definitely if I have another kid I will be employing The Pause.

Druckerman describes French eating habits – three meals a day, one snack, all actual food, and no constant supply of Cheerios in between. I’m going to try to move towards this.

The cadre is big in France – having a strong, strictly held framework of rules, but within those rules, more or less a free-for-all. The rules include eating and sleeping rituals, minding Mama’s “no”, and various other things depending on the family. I am terrible at being strict. I am going to try harder. As Druckerman says the French say to their children, C’est moi qui decide! (It’s me who decides.)

And I’ve already started saying that to Zoe (“C’est moi, Zoe! And I decide non!”), and I’ve started saying, “Soi sage,” and “Attend!” even though she has no clue what I’m talking about. “Attend” means “wait.” “Soi sage” means “Be wise” and is the French replacement for “Be good.” And it’s different in fairly important ways. Being “good” means being quiet and unobtrusive, doing what your parents or other adults have told you to do. Being “sage” means being in control of yourself, aware of your needs as well as the needs of others, conducting yourself in a way that speaks well of you. I’d definitely rather Zoe be sage than good.

More than any particular technique, Druckerman describes an overall attitude about children that I have tried, in part, to exercise with Zoe, sometimes with limited success. The idea is that children are people, and need to be spoken to and respected as people. They can understand the things you say to them, and they are capable of controlling their behavior rather well, if they are given the trust to do so.

She also writes of a culture where treating your children as one incredibly important and delightful part of your rich, full life, rather than your entire life and identity, is the norm. I try that, too. With limited success.

Even with all the things I like about this book, I think there are some things that Druckerman brings up without fully exploring the implications. One point she emphasizes more than once, especially in the eating and sleeping chapters, is the degree to which the French do not think of things like The Pause and the four-times-a-day eating schedule as anything special. They are hard-pressed to speak about the particulars of how they get their kids to sleep through the night so early, or eat so well. Druckerman instead investigates, discovers The Pause, and then asks a French friend, “Is this what you do?” and the French friend says, “Oh, yeah, I do that, I just never thought of it as doing anything before.” Druckerman seems to respond to this with an at-times overwrought sense that the French are just naturally magical. But there’s something more there that needs exploration. America is a country that absolutely prides itself on its individualism and its pluralism. Even in our current, bifurcated, vituperative environment, wherein the right prefers individualism and the left pluralism, we still are much more strongly committed to those ideals than most other countries are. And, in committing to those ideas, we do not take well to national consensus on much of anything, including the best ways to raise children. We are resistant to the very idea of a national character, except for one of, you know, a plurality of rugged individuals.

Most other countries are not like that. Most other countries are made up of people who, for the most part, have agreed, even fictively, to live as if they are one culture. At least, they agree more often than Americans ever agree. And France is, if not the epitome of a nation valorizing its particularity, certainly very strongly in favor of “French-ness.” (As far as I can tell.) So it’s a lot easier to have a consensus on the best way to raise children, and, when there’s a cultural consensus, then it’s just what you do, not something you have to think about. Michael Pollan has already valorized how other countries have more entrenched and culturally agreed-upon ways of eating; it’s not surprising that this homogeny would extend to areas outside the kitchen.

And not having to think about it goes a LONG way towards calm, confident parents. A LONG, LONG, LONG way. I wonder if French success is not so much attributable to doing The Pause, or the four meals, or anything else, but just the confidence of not having to say to yourself, every time your baby cries, “What should I do? Should I follow the book my mother-in-law gave me or the advice my grandmother told me or what my yoga buddy does? Is what I’m doing working? How will I know when it’s working? When should I stop trying this technique and find another in the over-saturated marketplace of parenting advice that’s available to me?” That kind of shit can drive you nuts. And it does. And it applies to everything. Many, many American mothers are walking around going, “I gave her the Cheerios, which are healthy but not local or organic, and then I made her cry it out for her nap, which is either the only way to get her to sleep or a demonically evil, psychologically scarring thing to do to your child. I didn’t let her watch TV today but then she didn’t know what her friend was talking about when he started singing a song from ‘Barney’ so do I let her watch TV or do I keep her isolated from her friends? And then she ran from me at the park and I hollered at her but was I being too harsh? Or am I obviously lax if my kid ran away from me at all?” (I may have mentioned this kind of batshit stuff before.) It must be nice to have a culture in which everybody is doing basically the same thing so you don’t have to think about it all the goddamn time. I mean, I know not every mother is a neurotic mess like me, but . . . actually, I can only think of one mother I know – and with whom I’ve discussed parenting – who doesn’t seem to be a neurotic mess like me. And maybe she just hides it better.

And I won’t even go into how much easier it is to balance work and life and family in a country that has free and/or subsidized child care for infants through school-age children, and paid-for maternity leave, and all the rest.

Which is not to say that the France she depicts is a judgement-free culture. She talks about the pressure to stay thin and chic, to be beautiful for your husband when he comes home, to have the energy to enforce the cadre and work and cook delicious, healthy meals at least twice a day and three when the kids are not in school for lunch and maintain one’s looks and be sexy for your husband and maintain a relationship with your husband such that you actually want to be sexy for him. But she sort of glides over it. She seems to think that she, as an American, is feeling the pressure in a way that the supremely confident, naturally perfect, magical French women don’t.

And I’m willing to bet that’s not true. I’m willing to believe that France is more homogenized, culturally, than America, because just about every culture is, and also because the French seem to take special pride in their French-ness. But it’s not like there are no individuals. Surely there are some French women who feel their pixie dust supply is a little low, and who wish that a child throwing a tantrum in the store or a pair of sweatpants wouldn’t be the national oddity Druckerman claims it is.

More than that, I bet there are plenty of actual French people who could pick up this book and say, “This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with my life.” But maybe I’m wrong.

The chapter on husbands is called, “I adore this baguette.” In it, she tells the story of being on vacation with another couple and all of the attendant children. The other husband made a ritual of visiting a bakery daily and bringing back the goods. When he handed his wife a baguette, she responded with a  beaming smile and said, “J’adore cette baguette!” And that is, indeed, a lovely reminder to be always enthusiastic about your partner’s efforts, etc., etc. But in the rest of the chapter she talks about how French women – most of whom do work outside the home, due to the government-subsidized child care – do a far greater share of the housework than their husbands, and a far greater share of the child care, too. We here in America complain that while women are expected to be Modern and Actualized and Do It All, men are stuck in the fifties and won’t help us with the dishes. But in France, apparently, that’s much closer to true than it is here. And yet, Druckerman writes, American wives are angry at all their husbands don’t do, whereas French wives are tickled at how incompetent men are and still happy and in love with them.

Now, I again wonder. Maybe it’s easier to be happy with your husband when your government is picking up the bill for their pre-school. Maybe it’s easier to be happier with your husband when you’re not even supposed to feel guilty about wanting a life outside your child. Maybe it’s easier to be happier with your husband in a place where it’s completely normal and acceptable for children as young as three or four to go on week-long field trips with their teachers, leaving you and your husband at home, alone, to . . . bond.

But. As a bratty American feminist, I don’t really want to laugh jovially about my husband’s incompetence around a washing machine and go about my merry way. I don’t think men are incompetent; I don’t think they’re foolish; and I don’t buy into the more American claim that they simply care less about the house being clean than women do. I think they should be held responsible for the doing 50% of the work that is maintaining a home, and that they should be held responsible for being actual partners to their wives, instead of acting the spoiled son, who, yes, sometimes makes a portion and sometimes makes all of the money. So I’m not buying Druckerman’s “The French do this better than us!” thesis on this issue.

(Because I feel it’s necessary for his honor – Jason does quite a bit of the cleaning and child care around here. And he cares WAY more about the cleanliness of our house than I do.)

If I learned anything from Alfie Kohn’s excellent Unconditional Parenting, it’s that child-rearing is not a question of, “How do I raise a child?” It’s “How do I raise an adult?” That seems to be something the French would explicitly agree with, but I wonder how serious Druckerman takes the premise. She hints at certain ways of being that are instilled in French kids early and often – polite responses to adults, philosophy in grade school, a decided lack of praise for scholarly achievement – and for the most part seems to find these positive. (She stumbles a bit when it comes to the school environment, which is apparently considered quite harsh even by many French people.) But I kept wondering about the ways France and America are different from each other for adults, and how these various emphases on one way of parenting over another might be responses to the kinds of adults we think we want, and to the kind of world those adults will have to live in. I don’t know the answers here. But I wish Druckerman’s lens had glanced up a little more often, to absorb the impact of adult culture and what parents’ goals for their children were and why those goals made sense.

I don’t mean to knock this book. As a parenting advice book, it’s really pretty good. I’m hoping to incorporate many of the suggestions and attitudes I found here to my daily routine. I just left wishing Druckerman had delved even deeper into the cultural differences. I wanted this to be less a polemic for French parenting than a description of it.

But the lesson we learned from Battle Hymn was that polemic, even when it’s not really there, sells better than description.