The French may be onto something—and this time it’s not fashion or food. When American journalist Pamela Druckerman moved to Paris in 2003 and subsequently started a family, she took notice (and copious notes) on how differently the French parented compared to Americans. She has compiled her observations in a hilarious, relatable and smart new memoir, Bringing Up Bébé (The Penguin Press), which covers everything from schooling to snack time to sleeping habits. And while American critics seem quick to consider the book an antidote to Tiger Mom’s ferocious style of ultra-competitive parenting, a balanced temperament is what’s helping Druckerman make waves in the parenting world.
Your book has recently released stateside. Would you say the reception in the U.S. has been good, critical or both?
It’s interesting! I feel like the reaction in the media has been, at times, critical. But the reaction I’m getting from readers has been overwhelmingly positive. I’m struck by how there’s a larger conversation going on right now, and my book is just a small part of that. These conversations are about the intensive style of parenting that has developed in the United States over the past 20 years or so, and there’s a real hunger for alternatives.
Is it more important to you that readers give you positive feedback, as opposed to the media?
Absolutely! I definitely would like everyone to love me, but that’s just because I was over-praised as a child.
Was there an exact moment of inspiration that made you decide to write this book?
I think my “aha” moment was [what] I describe at the beginning of the book. I was at a restaurant with my 16-month-old daughter when I was on vacation and I noticed that the French families all around us were NOT having a horrible experience. From there, along with the things I had seen over that year and a half, everything just sort of clicked and I thought “I want some of that!” From there, it became this detective story for me to try and figure out what French parents were doing. It was both the reporter in me and the desperate mother in me.
In the book, French women are perceived as more confident in both themselves and in their parenting skills.
They definitely don’t worry that they’ve chosen the right parenting philosophy because there aren’t lots of different parenting philosophies to choose from. But also, I think they are really pragmatic—they stick with what works. That is one thing that stuck me regarding French approaches. The French are not reinventing the wheel. They hone in on and stick with [a] few key things that really do work. It felt to me, in most cases, [like] common sense. I didn’t have to leave my comfort zone exactly, as it was more about seeing these practices in action and trusting them.
You also talk about American women holding a lot of guilt in regards to parenthood.
Guilt is very much in the room for French mothers—it’s not that they banish guilt or don’t talk about it. But they treat it differently. I think American mothers, in some way, embrace guilt. We feel it’s a tax we pay for being able to do the things we want. For instance, if we say: “I’m a bad mother,” then that allows us to take time for ourselves. We don’t think it’s OK to be selfish. French mothers say: “Guilt is a trap. The perfect mother doesn’t exist.” They don’t want to contaminate their scarce free time by feeling guilty.
I loved your example about how French women don’t feel guilty for spending time alone with their husbands or going on dates.
They think every human being, even a baby, needs time to themselves! That’s non-negotiable. You just have to be able to find that free time. French women often work full-time and they have just as many babies as we do in America, but they prioritize this time to themselves.
Socially, it’s harder to make friends in France… There are no mommy groups and you’re probably not going to make friends for life with the mommy whose kid is playing with your kid in the sandbox… I’m also concerned about French schools later on; I think [they] get really tough. There’s a lot of emphasis on the negative, and not as much positive reinforcement in the schools.
Have you brought your children to New York?
I like to take them the Central Park. I just kind of take them all around–they like to ride in taxi cabs! We have lots of books about New York…so we read about it all the time. There’s this great kids book about a little rabbit who lives in France and flies to NY to visit his uncle–we read that all the time! I really want them to feel a connection with New York in particular. I was just in New York without them and they kept saying, “next time we want to go with you!”
You talk briefly about French fathers. How do they differ from American dads?
If you look at the statistics at how much childcare and housework French fathers do, they do less than American fathers, on average. So I would say there’s less of a battle of the sexes in households. In general, I think French mothers don’t expect things to be 50/50 as much as Americans do. So when they don’t get it, they are less disappointed!
What about French marriages?
When my American mom-friends and I get together, we do a lot of complaining about husbands and what they don’t do. Whereas with my French girlfriends, that conversation doesn’t go on as much. They might be just as unhappy as we are, but they don’t blame their unhappiness on their husbands. There’s definitely still divorce there, but couples in France have more of an assumption that after the first few tumultuous, all-consuming months after the baby is born, that you have to “find your couple” again, find each other again. Everyone in France expects that you are going to resume your relationship again!
So what role does sex play in a couple’s post-baby life?
The French state pays for perineal reeducation, which is the reeducation of the birth canal [including muscle exercises]. Part of that is for health reasons, but part of that is so you can have a normal sex life again. Once you become a mom, it doesn’t mean you are no longer a woman. There’s a part in my book when I tell my French friends about the term MILF, and they thought it was hilarious because they think there is no reason why a woman shouldn’t be sexy just because she’s a mom!
What is the most important lesson we can take away from French parents?
Definitely the lessons around food. There are no “kids foods” in France. You can find a chicken nugget if you look really hard for it, but its not like French kids are offered it everywhere they turn. In America, the fact that kids can eat everything and that they snack all the time is so different from the French way. French kids snack once a day, in the afternoon. That makes it more likely that they will actually be hungry when they sit down to eat. The tasting principle is also great! The French practice this, which basically means you don’t have to eat everything; you just have to taste it.
Can you tell us about the practice of “autonomie” that the French teach their children? You said it was hard at first for you to get used to it.
I think autonomy begins with reading kids’ clues and being in touch with their rhythms and not interrupting when they are absorbed in something. It’s not about turning them loose when they are babies. It’s about giving them freedom to entertain themselves, and having them learn how to cope with frustration and being alone. It’s important for them to be comfortable in their own skin and to enjoy their own company. And not need to be stimulated all the time. The reason I feel like I could write about French families is because I feel like I have a lot in common with them. They believe in reading to children, and talking to them and stimulating them—just not all the time!
Author photo by Benjamin Barda; Book jacket illustration by Margaux Motin and design by Darren Haggar