But when it comes to parenting, I've been amazed to discover just how different we are.
As a parent (or as anything, for that matter), I am far from perfect. I'm probably too lenient and emphasize fun over firm. I abhor the sound of my kids’ distress to such an extent that I often go to great lengths to forestall it.
I tend to fall victim to flavor-of-the-month parenting, trying one approach after another to confront the ever-changing challenges the kids present. A believer in "positive discipline," I struggle to find logical consequences for undesirable behavior and find myself uttering bizarre phrases like, "No, you cannot have that flashlight on the toilet," and "If you don't go brush your teeth now, I'm taking away Big Monkey." Huh?
If you’re a parent – or an American parent, anyway – chances are, you’ve tried different approaches. From “attachment parenting” replete with a family bed to tough love “Tiger Mother"-ing, there’s always something new out there and with it someone to remind us that we could be doing better.
We have so many worries and precious little social support to help tackle them. Should I "go back to work" after the baby is born or should I stay home? How will either choice affect my child? Will she grow up resentful of a mom who wasn't there 100% or benefit by my example of hard work outside the home? And if I want to continue working, will my salary be eaten up by childcare? Is my child being bullied? Or worse, bullying? Am I protecting them from harmful chemicals? Sunburns? Are they taking enough classes (and are they the right ones?) Will they end up in therapy because I yelled when they spilled their milk? Or be scarred for life because I just threatened to "go back to work and hire a nanny?"
French mothers do not share many of these worries. They don't fret over their "parenting style" because here there is only one: tough. They don't worry about what other parents will think of them or agonize over the choice to work or stay home. Breastfeeding for a year is inconceivable as is the idea of schlepping a breast pump to work (or anywhere else). By law, mothers are guaranteed sixteen weeks paid maternity leave (considerably longer the more children they have) with the promise that their job will be waiting. When they decide to go back (and most do), quality daycare is available for free and is structured to accommodate the realities of a real working schedule. Families even receive monthly compensation for each child they have, which increases significantly if you have three or more.
Guilt -- an emotion most American mothers are intimately acquainted with -- isn't really part of their repertoire. In fact, a comparable word for “guilt” (of the emotional variety) doesn’t really exist in French. And why should they feel guilty? Weekends are largely devoted to family and because people aren’t expected to work 24/7, they don’t spend that time distracted by a beeping Blackberry. Plentiful national holidays (observed by schools as well as businesses) and the customary six weeks annual vacation mean lots of quality time with the kids and often grandparents, too.
Of course, I’m making big generalizations. But it's undeniable that French mothers are less burdened than we are. They take time for themselves without apologizing for it and don’t feel the need to over-manage every aspect of their children’s lives. I have a French friend (with three kids) who recently returned from a 5-day spa trip by herself. Bravo. They trust the schools (and to a certain extent, the state and other parents) to help them along.
French women aren’t big on self-doubt and have no concept of self-deprecation. The idea of cutting to oneself for the sake of humor or another’s comfort would strike them as utterly ridiculous. I have never once heard a French mother describe herself as a “bad mom” because she forgot to restock the diaper bag or allowed her child to nap in her stroller rather than her crib. Kids here routinely use pacifiers until they’re three and tote dirty loveys (“dou-dous,” a term my kids particularly enjoy) wherever they go. They have no problem dolling out sugary snacks (including their beloved "bon bons") at any hour. The consumption of chocolate is so pervasive, it’s practically a sanctioned food group. And why not? C'est un plaisir...
Helicopter parenting is another concept they don’t get, preferring to remain on the sidelines until (and unless) a problem crops up. They don’t dig in sandboxes and climb jungle gyms. I have yet to see a French mom on a slide or actively manage interactions between children. Although my days on the climber are now behind me, I'm not above a good game of chase or building the occasional sandcastle, (despite the bizarre looks it occasionally attracts.)
Maybe this is because this time is so fleeting – an idea American moms seem utterly in touch with. This precious window when we are our children’s favorite playmate is so very brief that we seek to take advantage of every tiny moment. We know the day is just around the corner when our outstretched hand will grasp only air and that toddler who once ate from your spoon will proudly fill (and refill) his own cereal bowl.
Observing it all has made me wonder: why are we, American mothers, so terribly hard on ourselves? Why are we so hard on each other? Why are we so obsessed with being “perfect” when none of us really even knows what that means? It’s as if we’re striving to follow a set of prescribed parenting rules but no one seems to know who set them.
Despite their outward appearance of confidence, French moms, like us, are far from perfect. It’s not unusual to see a mom smoke while pushing a stroller. Yelling is a completely sanctioned parenting technique as is the occasional swat (in public). Behavior that I find surprising often goes overlooked while minor transgressions merit an outsized response. A toddler who wants his bucket back from another child is told by his mother, “Prends-le!” (“Take it!”) rather than encouraged to share. But a youngster who deliberately whacks another may be met with a shrug of indifference.
None of this is to suggest that the French love their kids any less. It’s just that their parenting seems intent on producing a different outcome, namely an independent, well-educated, well-mannered young Frenchman (or woman) who understands the rules and abides by them. They will rarely admit to error (as children or adults) because they learned early on that mistakes are dealt with harshly. They prize respect above overt affection and assume parental intimidation is the way to achieve it. Sometimes it seems we're so busy being pals with our kids that we forget to foster the autonomy they will so desperately need.
For now, I’m just observing and marveling at the differences. Mostly, it’s made me see that we American moms are a pretty amazing lot – dedicated, creative and always striving to do better. I just wish more of us knew it.