"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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You Say "Nounou," I Say "No, No…"

Most mothers have considered the question: Would I hire a “hot” nanny or babysitter to look after my kids?

Someone younger and more fit, with perkier you-know-what’s? Someone who gets a full night’s sleep and even if she doesn’t (because she’s out clubbing) she’s young enough to shake off the prior night’s abuses with a diet coke and Egg McMuffin (or here in Paris, un cafe and a pack of cigarettes). She’s breezy, carefree and more than happy to sit on the floor with your toddler for hours at a stretch with nary a complaint aimed at your man when he comes through the door.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably come to the same conclusion: No way.

Because really, who needs it? When we’re in the ballpark for a new sitter or nanny, we’re not likely to be at our very best. We’ve probably given birth recently, or are about to, or perhaps did so awhile back and are therefore perpetually tired, under-showered and overall less attractive. Or at least it feels that way.

So, the very last thing we need is a super attractive babysitter.

With this in mind, I interviewed a new sitter yesterday. Let’s call her Veronique. Veronique, a French “student” from the chic coastal town of Deauville, came highly recommended by another American mom in Paris. She raved: “Veronique is fabulous. She took care of my four children everyday after school…took them to activities..they loved her…10 euros an hour.” Sounded great.

We are actually looking for more than just an occasional sitter — a part-time nanny (“nounou” in French) for a year-long commitment. We recently lucked into renting a ridiculously cheap extra room in our building known as a chambre de bonne that we hoped to exchange for a handful of babysitting hours. Veronique wanted this exact arrangement. Parfait! No money would change hands; she’d stay in the room (entirely separate from our apartment) and Greg and I would get our long coveted two nights out per week. The room is tiny and lacks a private shower but hey, this is France. She’d manage.

Then yesterday, I met Veronique. Actually, we met Veronique. Greg was home slightly earlier than usual enabling him to participate in the bizarre ritual of sitter interviewing — a task which normally falls to me alone.

Not sure what struck me first about Veronique: the tussled blonde mane, the micro-mini, bare legs and high-heeled ankle boots? Or was it perhaps the sexy/nerdy glasses framing her heart shaped face? No, none of those. Perhaps it was the ridiculously low cut tank top worn sans bra? Ah, yes. That was it.

And if I hadn’t noticed, you can be absolutely certain who did.

Poor Greg. I actually felt kind of sorry for the guy. Not because of the young, French – and virtually topless – woman in our living room, but because I was right there to observe how he reacted to it all.

Suffice it to say, he handled it like a gentlemen. After asking some routine questions about her background and experience with kids, we sneaked off to the kitchen to let Veronique engage with the kids.

Greg looked at me with a half smile and shook his head. “I don’t think this is right. She seems like a party girl. And besides…where would she shower? Here?”

Hmm. Not the first concern that sprang to my mind, but clearly something Greg had been considering.

I agreed that Veronique didn’t feel like a fit for us. I had been told that she was bilingual — she had spent a year in Chicago as an au pair — but it seemed like her English was fairly limited with a particular fondness for the phrase, “It’s cool..

When I asked if she could read English, she responded, “You mean, like, Virginia Woolf?” Uh, no, more along the lines of Cat in the Hat, I said. She giggled. Hair toss.

In fact, there was altogether too much giggling and hair tossing; far too little interest in the kids. No sitting on the floor, no asking to see their room, no inquiries about their favorite toys. (minimum requirements for a babysitter to pass muster). So we parted amicably with me mumbling something about other babysitters to interview and being in touch.

As she sauntered out of our apartment and into the Paris evening, I tried to be level-headed. Was I overreacting because she was young and attractive? Overly put off by her lack of appropriate undergarments?

Well, maybe.


But I’m still not hiring her.

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.