Monday, February 13, 2012

Ya'll. Come on. I am still recovering from Amy Chua's book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It's the last book I read before giving birth to Simon. I still quake when I see it on my bookshelf because just the sight of the book's spine reminds me of how awful and mediocre and American I am.

If Oprah ever asks me to contribute to her magazine by naming the 5 most influential books, which of course she will as soon as she gets all the way through the D list, my honest answer would include this book. I literally think about it at least once per day. I think about it when I am at gymnastics with Sadie and I find myself praising Sadie for doing nothing more than remaining conscious and refraining from homicide during the 45 minutes we are there. I think about it when she shows me a picture she has drawn and insists it's an octagon, when it's just a straight-ish line down the page. I want to praise her joy and her delusions and her sheer audacity-- she's trying to convince me that a line is an octagon-- my little future lawyer or Republican. I usually do praise her, but then I fret about whether I am fostering mediocrity or teeing her up for a lifetime of jobs at the Old Country Buffet or a currency exchange.

I also sometimes wonder what Amy Chua, who famously rejected a birthday card made by her daughter because she didn't put any effort into it, would think about my genuine joy and elation at my children's creations. Because, you know, sometimes I just feel happy that my kid put a crayon to paper instead of eating it and throwing it on the floor for me to pick up. It's genuine joy. And yes, my bar is low.

While I do not aspire to spending my vacations looking for a piano for my kids to practice complex sonatas, I do want them to have the experience of discipline and mastery and expertise. I won't lie: I do not know if my parenting style will result in any of those things. It's taken me about 55 weeks to come to peace around the fact that I am not a tiger mother (or a Yale Law professor or a daughter of an immigrant).

Enter the French. Circulating among Facebook friends and other mothers is an article all about how the French are apparently stellar parents who raise children who sleep through the night straight out of the womb and never binge on jelly packets at Wishbone.


Here we go again. Let's get a few things straight: I am totally defensive. About everything. I am defensive about being American and being a lawyer who is currently non-practicing and being a mom who stays home (mostly). So when someone tells me about a great article on French parenting my first reaction is to close my mind shut and remind myself that I live in the good old U.S. of A and I don't have to pay any attention to the freaking French model of parenting. And while those are true statements, they don't really advance my deeper calling to keep an open mind.

I decided it wouldn't kill me to read the damn article about the perfect French families who can dine al fresco with their wee tots and sip wine and never have to rush through dinner hoping to avoid a public nuisance fine because their children have turned croissants into missles.

I read it. (There is a book too: Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman.)

It's compelling. I thought about it all afternoon when Simon woke up from his nap in an extra-clingy mood and Sadie thought it would be funny to break all of her colored pencils. I thought, "This shit is happening because I am American. If I was French, I'd be standing here in a black pencil skirt and preparing a brie tart while my kids played with their free trade toys and left me the hell alone." You can tell I really absorbed the finer points of the article and applied them to my situation.

The bottom line for me is that this article and the debate it has generated are just more fodder for the mom anxiety and handwringing that I despise. Do any of us need more information about how we are doing it wrong? "You can't make your child the center of your life!" "If you were more present with your child, she would be better behaved and happier!" "You shouldn't push your children because childhood is short!" "If you want excellence, stop giving every kid a trophy!"

What does this new anecdotal "study" of the French do for me?

It's given me the opportunity to do some more math, because now I can be sure that the mothers in the play group who know how to decoupage better than I do (because I don't do it at all) are not the only ones better than I am: the entire country of France is too. Add that to China and the Attachment Parenting moms and the moms who can balance full-time careers and motherhood and that makes about 1 billion people doing it better than I am. I bet the Finnish people are better at getting their children to pick up their clogs than I am; I also bet that the Tibetan moms are more attune to spirituality than I am.

This may sound crazy but I mostly feel like it's too late for me. Yes, my kids are both under 3 years old, but it's too damn late for me to revise my whole nationality and cultural orientation. Call me crazy, but I believe I should probably spend my time trying to figure out how to cook a decent chicken recipe and not worry about how people along the Seine have figured out ways to have more pleasure while raising children.

I will henceforth console myself by telling myself that the French are enjoying it more because they are all smoking and drinking Beaujolais and paying more attention to their lap dogs than their children. Of course that is no more true than the notion that American parents suck and are raising a nation of self-obsessed, uncontrollable, illiterate children and having a miserable time doing it. At the end of the day, I answer to the three people who live under my roof, and we're muddling through the best that we can in our clumsy, idiosyncratic, and sometimes haphazard way. If that's not American, what is?

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