IS ANYONE ELSE IRRITATED by our fascination with the way the French do every little thing? Admiring them is one thing; trying to imitate the way they eat, make love, have affairs, raise children is another. There’s something unseemly about it. Figure out how to be stylish on your own, for god’s sake; if you need a manual, it’s quite hopeless.
That said, Bringing Up Bébé is fun to read. Druckerman’s first book, Lust in Translation, about French marriage, was also fun. But motherhood is a more sacred institution than marriage, and for those of us who have followed the mommy wars for decades, there’s no such thing as an apolitical stance.
We know about the pressures mothers face: the economy and the culture demand that we work; yet in this country there is no federal support for working mothers, in fact, we are routinely warned that daycare will emotionally scar our children. The how-to literature on motherhood ratchets up the pressure: a generation of “helicopter” mothers who micromanage their children from infancy to adulthood. The message is: We are doing it all wrong.
Which creates an endless appetite for accounts of how other people do it. A new crop of books, beginning with Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which famously told American mothers to both hover and demand more, and to use physical threat when necessary, is ready to tell us why and how. More debate. More stress.
The assumed insouciance of the French fascinates over-stressed Americans; for example, the way they diet without really trying. Bringing Up Bébé taunts the reader even more with that insouciance. French mothers don’t make their children the center of the universe. French mothers allow their children to cry before jumping in to save them (“the Pause”: delayed gratification means that children learn early not to go to pieces under stress; what a concept). French mothers insist that their children eat at regular intervals and keep regular schedules. French mothers fit their children into the rhythm of family life. French mothers assume good daycare is good for kids. French mothers don’t breastfeed. French mothers get their life back: they don’t stop working to raise their kids. French mothers lose the weight after childbirth. French mothers take classes for perineal restoration (so much for Kegels).
Okay! I get it! The French are better than us in every way! We suck at motherhood! So here is a modest proposal: We probably shouldn’t even do it! The government could pay each family a fee for not having children, thereby decreasing the amount of cortisone in the general population. Even better, we should drive mothers into a frenzy and create new ways to use maternal cortisone to power vehicles.
The gross irony is that each new book on motherhood that purports to reduce stress causes more stress, by giving us new impossible standards to meet. We’ve lost sight of the fact that motherhood is a great gift and a great opportunity. A little kindness and gratitude go a long way. A decent federally mandated parental leave policy and a really good government sponsored day care system like the one the French have in place (the crèche for babies and the maternelle for toddlers through kindergarten) would go a whole lot farther.