Base and Superstructure in Bringing Up Bébé

I swear, I really do read Serious Literature from time to time. But lately I can’t seem to get enough of well-to-do ladies giving me life tips (hello, Lean In). The latest of this hybrid genre of self-help/memoir/journalism/ gossip/aspirational lifestyle manuals to cross my nightstand is Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Druckerman, an American expatriate raising her three children in Paris, noticed that French children eating in restaurants behave far better than her own toddler, so she embarked on a quasi-anthropological study of national differences. Her conclusion: the French are better parents than we are.

I’ll start my response by saying that I’m a Francophile, so this book in some sense can’t lose with me. If someone is in France and telling me about it, all is good. I’m already willing to believe that the French most likely do everything better than we do, so she’s practically won her point from the start. Plus, Druckerman’s writing is solid: there’s none of that weird filler that makes many books of this genre seem dashed off.

I thoroughly enjoyed her observations of French parents, but even more amusing (and cringe-inducing, because how many of these things have I done?) were her observations, on her trips home, of American parents. She notices that American parents frequently hover around their children at the playground, narrating their playtime to them. They overly lavish attention on children at family gatherings, leading the kids to believe the world revolves around their cuteness. They anxiously monitor their children’s progress through milestones instead of calming the heck down. I found it helpful to be reminded that there are people in the world who do not do these (very tiring) things and yet they have not broken their children.

I have only two problems with Bringing Up Bébé. My smaller problem is with how easy she makes being a better parent seem. Your child does not sleep through the night? Well, just institute La Pause, which is her term for the French way of waiting an extra moment before going to tend to a crying child. That way they can learn to depend on themselves rather than becoming overly needy. As someone who has tried La Pause before even knowing it was French, I can attest that it’s not that easy. Those on a diet may similarly bristle at her description of why French women stay thin: they merely “pay attention” to what they are eating. If that’s all it took, we could all be French overnight!

There are plenty of other examples of this tendency. Need to convey more authority to your children? Just make les gros yeux (the big eyes) at them. I’ll admit, I tried some of her suggestions—les gros yeux are especially fun—but I kept wondering if there was perhaps more to the French way than these pretty easy fixes.

My larger problem is that Druckerman buries the lead. Deep within her chapters, after expounding on the French character, she’ll drop a bomb like: “It also helps that couples in France don’t have some of the big financial stressors, like high costs for child care, health care, and college.”

Hmm, YA THINK? Perhaps there are other reasons besides our lack of French sophistication that American parents are stressed out and unhappy? Or take this passage:

There are structural reasons why Frenchwomen seem calmer than American women. They take about twenty-one more vacation days each year….There’s the national paid maternity leave (the United States has none), the subsidized nannies and crèches, the free universal preschool from age three, and myriad tax credits and payments for having kids.

Yes, I think there are perhaps structural reasons. In fact, rather than starting with the niceties of parenting philosophies and relative national gaucherie, we should first look at the material conditions in which families exist in both countries. I, too, would be svelte at three months postpartum, wear something other than activewear, cook delicious multi-course dinners, and never yell at my kid if I had national paid maternity leave, universal healthcare, and free preschool and college. OK, maybe I still wouldn’t be able to cook delicious multi-course dinners. In that, the French will always have us beat.