"Letting Go" in Paris

My son learned to ride a two-wheel bike yesterday. He’s six now, high time for this particular milestone and since this was shaping up to be a week of “firsts,” we agreed: He was ready. 
He’d started first grade two days earlier at his new “big kid” school, filled with all the confidence he could muster. After five months at our local maternelle (preschool + K) he had a decent level of French under his belt and a handful of pals also headed to the new school.

The move from maternelle to CP (cours preparatoire, the French equivalent to 1st grade) is a big deal in France, much like our transition from preschool to K. And, as is often the case, it was tougher on the parents than on our excited six-year-olds.

Monday morning, we shuffled into the school, studying the new surroundings where our children would spend so many of their waking hours. It’s housed in an old, typically Parisian building with large light-filled windows and a broad polished wood staircase with a scrolled iron banister. Parents and kids filled the courtyard and listened anxiously to the school directrice as she called out names — the pivotal moment that would assign our kids to one of the two CP classes. 
One by one, Cole’s friends’ names rang out. “Paul, Colette, Emma, Giovanni…” Preparing for the worst, I gripped Cole’s hand and swapped nervous looks with another mother. “Cole Frost,” she said finally, leading him into the clutch of his little pals and up the sweeping staircase to their new classroom.

As an American parent, I’m often acutely aware of the differences between me and my Parisian counterparts. But on this day, I felt none of that. All I could see and feel was our common bond — our intense desire for our children’s happiness and how painful it can be to let them go. I shared a brief hug and sigh of relief with another mom as we left the school building. “Bon courage,” she said as we parted ways, both trying hard not to get teary.

For Cole, day one was a big success. I got a happy, if brief, account of his day, centering on his excitement about having “his own desk” and two shiny math books tucked in his Asterix backpack. “I have homework, Mommy!” he said proudly, revealing with utter clarity that a new stage was upon us.

By Wednesday (a no-school day for kids in France), we were ready to tackle the bike challenge.
With snacks, water and a pair of pliers in my bag, we pedaled our way through the narrow streets toward the Champ des Mars, the green expanse of grass and wide dusty paths that surround the Eiffel Tower. 
We found a broad stretch of gravel that seemed like a good place to start. The kids busied themselves in piles of fallen leaves while I got to work on the slightly rusted training wheels. I wrenched them off and held the bike as Cole climbed on. 

I steadied him at first, my hand gripping the back of his seat as I ran alongside his bright red Trek. I couldn’t help but see the metaphor as he found his balance and pulled away from me. “Let go, Mommy! Let go!” he yelled excitedly as he bobbed and swerved on his first solo ride. I’m trying, honey, I wanted to say. And that’s just what I am learning to do.
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La Bonne Maman? Mothering in Paris

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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.

"Home" in Paris

When I read that kids could learn a new language in four months, I was skeptical. Four months? Barely enough time to unpack boxes and install cable, I thought, let alone communicate in a foreign tongue.

As it turns out, I was wrong.

For Cole and Adele it started slowly — a tentative “bonjour” to the elderly woman downstairs, a reluctant “a demain” to their teachers at the end of the day. After about two weeks, more words emerged. “Attends, attends!” (Wait, wait!), Cole would say while playing or “arrete!” Adele would yell during a vigorous round of wrestling. Within weeks, they could each count to 20 and even name various body parts en francais.

Soon they were coming home with new questions each day. “Mommy, what does ma copine mean?” Adele asked. How about “le pistolet” or hesitantly, “ka-ka?” Cole asked with a sly smile.

Now, with nearly 12 weeks of school under their belts, they are amazingly integrated in their new world. They’ve both made friends and been invited to birthday parties. They come home with little stickers and drawings friends have made just for them. They recognize friends’ names only by the French pronunciation and often look puzzled when I say them. “Who did you play with today?” I ask. “Ca-meee,” (Camille) Adele replies, or “Jo-vaneee,” (Giovanni) Cole says, as if there is no other way.

While they know, of course, that they are American, they seem to be becoming a bit more French everyday. I can’t help but wonder how long their “American memories” will last — when their recollection of snow days, our little branch library and their pals next door will be replaced by the imagery of this very moment, that world that children so fully inhabit.

I wonder, too, when they will begin correcting my French and snickering at Mommy’s funny accent. That day, I fear, is coming sooner rather than later. Hard as I try, my French will never be what theirs is going to be — an effortless flow of words that comes easily and without forethought.

Much like their personalities, Cole and Adele have each adapted a distinct style for learning French: Adele through verbalizing, Cole through listening. Adele has long had a habit of singing to herself, providing a musical accompaniment to her games of babies, dress-up and tea party. Now, that singing has a distinctly Gallic melody and includes a mix of French and English words. It’s like when she first learned to talk; the way she would babble incoherently before clearly articulating the words.

Cole, however, is learning by observing, be it his favorite French cartoons or snatches of overheard conversation. After listening in as Greg and I spoke in French (something we have always done for non kid-friendly topics), Cole proudly jumped in, “But I don’t want to do that,” he said, flashing a knowing little grin.

It’s all taken me back to my own experience of high school French, reading incomprehensible words on the blackboard and scribbling in my notebook. Je vais, tu vas, il va…My kids’ experience is nothing like this. They are learning-by-doing, by full immersion. We chose this method with speed in mind, believing that it would both quicken their learning and shorten our potentially difficult adjustment. So far, it appears to be working.

But now that we’ve settled on this new path, I can’t help but wonder where it all leads. Will my Boston-born babies end up feeling French? Will they develop faint accents when they speak in their native tongue? As Cole abandons Spiderman in favor of Tintin and Osterix, I sometimes think about what’s lost as well as gained.

We believe, of course, that this experience is a gift to them. Depending on how long we stay, they will likely be bilingual. This most storied of cities will form the backdrop to their memories — its carousels, manicured gardens, and pierre de taille facades. They will never know that awe of first seeing Europe through adult eyes, of realizing that the world is vast after years of rarefied American youth. To them, this city will always be a place they once (and perhaps still) call home. These are things I celebrate even as I mourn them the tiniest bit as each day we become more of what we set out to be: an American family living out our dream in Paris.