I just dropped the kids off at school following our usual, harried morning routine. Hard as I try to get things running smoothly in the A.M., one of us usually leaves the house with their hair in a tangle, teeth insufficiently brushed and a wad of baguette in their fist (instead of their stomach).
This, I know, is a familiar scenario whether you live in Paris, Des Moines or San Francisco (except maybe the bit about the baguette).
But something this morning reminded me of a simple truth: Living in Paris has changed me as a mother. For better or worse? I’m not sure.
Today Adele’s class will celebrate her 5th birthday, the designated day for April babies. On this day last year (with only two months of French school under our belts), I walked to school proudly holding my pride and joy — the genuine, American style birthday cake I’d diligently baked and decorated the night before. OK, so it wasn’t entirely homemade (thanks to the Betty Crocker cake mix we’d thrown into our moving shipment). But because it was so truly American, I rationalized that it was even more special having not been made with French ingredients. This was the real deal. I could be proud of it. And as importantly, I thought the other parents would be, too.
It looked something like this (but not as pretty). Mine was an imperfect, made-with-love confection that was sure to be fun and tasty, even if it’s ingredients were a bit dodgy (a little like me, now that I think about it. But I digress).
Photo: This Little Life of Mine
Adele’s classmates all loved it. Even her teacher was impressed by this (“so sweet!”) gateau that struck them all as very foreign and therefore particularly amusing.
American moms are familiar with this routine, regularly accomplishing feats of logic- and gravity-defying wizardry to create Martha Stewart-worthy cakes of every shape and size. Back home, the originality and demonstrated skill behind the cake was often the very centerpiece of The Birthday Party. I’ve seen perfectly sculpted cake castles, multi-car trains, pirate ships and space shuttles. One particularly inventive mom even did the Great Pyramids of Giza surrounded by camels in a desert of sugary perfection.
I always admired this yet felt somewhat dumbfounded by it. Because really, does a three-year-old know the difference? Does she even care? Of course not. These cakes were made out of love, a desire to please and — let’s be honest, girls — to impress. Who? Not the kids. Other parents, of course.
And this is the crux of how the experience of parenting here (for me) is different than it was in the States. French moms do not try to impress each other with their “mom skills.” (In other ways, sure. But that’s another story for another time).
Why? Because they do not fear the cult of the “Bad Mom.” They don’t hold themselves to impossible standards, then berate themselves when they inevitably fall short. Most importantly, they don’t judge one another for their parenting choices or view self-sacrifice on the alter of mothering as a noble endeavor. They don’t believe that things like baking a birthday cake worthy of Cookie magazine (yes, I know it folded) or skipping a shower because you put yourself last on the priority list, make you a better mom.
They raise their kids the way they themselves were raised and don’t spend time and energy second-guessing themselves (a distinctly un-French pastime) or their fellow mothers. If they do, I don’t feel it. And that, for me, has made a huge difference.
The proof for me was in the pudding (or in this case, the cake) this morning. Instead of baking, frosting and sprinkling a home-baked cake last night, this morning found me rushing through the aisles of Franprix, searching for a suitable cake-ish dessert for Adele’s class party. Once I found it, I briefly entertained the idea of going home to grab a platter on which to present it and make it look homemade. But I didn’t. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. The kids will love it anyway.
Back home, I wouldn’t have dared bring a Betty Crocker cake to school. Not if any other parents were going to see it, that is. (Never mind the restrictions that wouldn’t have permitted it anyway). I would have feared being judged — for not being “devoted” enough to put time into baking. For caring more about being well-dressed and rested than about slaving over a task that I don’t truly enjoy (and that my kids won’t remember or care about anyway.)
But here’s the thing. I don’t know if those judgments would have been real or not. They could well have been in my mind and no where else. But that’s the point, isn’t it? We undermine ourselves as mothers — and as women — because we fear harsh judgment by others (so endemic in our culture as it is) and then worry intently that what we’re doing isn’t good enough.
So, for me, being a mom is easier here. Slowly and without intention, I have become a mother who is less critical of herself. I don’t berate myself for wanting “my own life” even as I devote so much of it to my kids. I don’t obsess endlessly over the things I used to — both big and small — like whether the preschool curriculum is too “unstructured.” Or whether my kids are scarred because I worked part-time while they were babies. Or whether I’m a “bad mom” because they eat a little chocolate most afternoons (yes, most). Maybe it’s because my kids are a bit older now. Maybe it’s because I am, too. Maybe it’s because France supports parents better than we do in the States — even foreign parents like me.
Whatever the reasons, and surely there are many, one thing is certain: I am a different mom in Paris, for better or worse.