Am I a Different Mom in Paris?

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.


9 thoughts on “Am I a Different Mom in Paris?

  1. Of course your kids don't mind if the cake is not homemade. Why should they? You can't miss what you're not expecting and store-bought goodies are delicious, especially Parisian ones. It's the same way I'm not disappointed when my husband doesn't bring me flowers. I'm not expecting them. I don't mind. Yet that doesn't mean I don't get a little giddy when he does bring them.

    Watching a child's face light up with glee when you've presented him or her with a cake that mirrors his or her interest is a joy (I won't mention that the homemade cake costs about $4 to make, whereas when I bought my son's cake from a bakery–a rather plain cake–it cost significantly more and didn't taste as good). When I make my kids plain pancakes, they enjoy them. When I have extra time, and I make those pancakes into rocket ships or flowers or words, they smile a little more when they eat them. When they go to bed at night, they are generally happy kids. But on nights when the “book fairy” (a total invention on our family's part) leaves a new book for them under their pillows, I can hear their squeals of delight across the house. My kids eat their lunches at school and they are content kids (well, they wish I'd put a cookie in there, but that's another story). But when they come home excitedly repeating the joke I left for them in there, it makes ME happy. And–let's be honest, girls–there isn't a single mother around at those times to be impressed by what I've done. It's just a simple way for me to show my kids that I love them and think about them, and I consider myself very, very fortunate that I have the time and ability to do these little things for them.

    For someone who feels that mothers judge each other too harshly, you seem to be coming down pretty hard on us American stay-at-home moms.

  2. Hi Jenny – Thanks for taking the time to comment on this. I have given your reaction a lot of thought. I can see that it offended you but I don’t fully understand why. I couldn't agree more that kids (and adults) appreciate and take joy in extra efforts we make on their behalf. Obviously all the things you do for your family are wonderful and I know they love you for it. So does mine (most of the time..) But that's not what I was writing about here. I was writing about my personal experience of parenting (and birthday cake prep) and how it has changed since moving to Paris. I know that my friends at home create amazing cakes out of deep love for their kids and also for the creative joy of baking something spectacular. But I didn't. I did it because I felt pressured to do so lest I would be judged. That's about me – and how I felt as a mom in the U.S. I also said that those judgments may have been nowhere but in my own head. That perception of judgment has everything to do with the high-pressure, perfectionist culture in which American women parent – something that moving overseas has given me new perspective on but has long bothered me. My point was that French women aren’t as judgmental of one another as mothers as American women are. I do believe that and have experienced it. I also disagree that there’s no element of “showing off” with the birthday cake thing but who am I to denigrate showing off? I do it in lots of ways. Just not with cakes.

    My larger point is one that I have made before and hope to make again: That the lack of comprehensive societal support for women and families in the U.S. creates an antagonistic and fraught environment for mothers. Because of that lack, many women are forced into difficult choices vis-à-vis career and family and then feel alienated by parents whose choices differ from their own. This, of course, goes way beyond cake baking. Nowhere in here am I judging “stay-at-home” moms. Since when did a discussion of cake baking equate only to women who stay home?

    So, before this turns into another post in itself, thanks again for sharing your views. I don’t mind being disagreed with and appreciate hearing how you received what I wrote and didn’t mean to cause offense; only perhaps to provoke thought.

  3. I loved this post and will probably post it to my FB page. My thought is this: The moms who bake super fancy cakes are either (1) doing it because they truly enjoy it as a hobby; or (2) doing it to impress other parents. But either way they won't be judging the Betty Crocker Box Mix Mom, because even if their reason is (2), they're probably just glad that not every mom is the Fancy Cake Mom. Otherwise, they'd have to find a new way to impress.

    For me, baking is a hobby and very relaxing and therapeutic. But I'm also not into the fancy for-show cakes… because I'm more into flavor and so far it seems that the fancy cakes at best taste no better but often just aren't as good, even if they're homemade.

    Regardless, a really insightful entry and I loved reading it. I look forward to reading your entry on what French moms *do* compete over… bring it!! 🙂

    – Lisa

  4. I just want to add that I really think the antagonistic environment for U.S. mothers is less due to a lack of comprehensive societal support than it is to the competitive nature of U.S. culture. Lots of this competition is occurring among moms who don't need any societal support… in fact probably most of it occurs among those moms. I really believe its cultural. Competition is ingrained in us from a young age, whereas in France it's not shunned per se but kept a lot quieter. I remember my host mom showing me that her nanny charges had flavored water at home but wouldn't bring it to school because they wouldn't want other kids to see that their parents “had means.” That would never, ever happen in the U.S.

    I do think it's possible to bake a fantastic cake without an element of “showing off.” People bake those fancy cakes for immediate-family only birthday celebrations; not just for birthday parties. I really believe that for some women it's a hobby and also some women are just compelled to go every extra “cutesy” mile they can while their kids are still young and they can get away with doing fun stuff like that.

    Love the “Book Fairy”!!!! Will TOTALLY steal that one!

  5. Thanks, Krista! So glad you're reading and enjoying the blog. 🙂 Hope you are having a great time here. If you can find a way to stay, I recommend it!

  6. A very touching, heart-warming post.
    Thank you.
    Loved your HIP Paris post on French schools & systems.
    This dovetails with much I've read in Bringing Up Bebe and seen with my eyes when in France.
    It sounds more authentic and less pressured there somehow.
    Kudos to you Paige for giving up the guilt.
    merci carolg

  7. Hi Lisa! Thank you for another thoughtful, insightful comment. Your point about the competitiveness among American moms is very interesting and I do agree about greater competition among more privileged socioeconomic groups. I do think, though, that the support the French state affords to families goes way beyond just the financial to actually alter the experience of parenting here. Because the French pay so much in taxes toward public programs that support the common good, there is a greater sense of shared responsibility when it comes to educating and raising kids. I do wonder whether the competitiveness among American parents doesn't have its roots in our “winner takes all” system that rewards too few and lets so many others fall through the cracks. Competitiveness perhaps bred out of necessity..? Anyway, a fascinating subject and one I to which I will devote more thought and future posts.

    As for the cake baking, more power to you! My intention was for it to serve primarily as a metaphor for how I've changed as a mom. I do love and appreciate a delicious and carefully made cake (just not when I'm the one covered in sugar and flour!).

    🙂 Paige

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