We already know they don’t get fat.
Now there’s another new book about what French women know that we don’t making waves clear across the Atlantic.
In “Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting,” author and former Wall Street Journal reporter Pamela Druckerman exposes cultural secrets, like why French babies sleep through the night as early as two months old and how French toddlers learn to embrace Brie and braised leeks instead of Cheerios in baggies.
Living as a Parisian expat, she—a wife and mother of three—finds herself slowly won over by an alternate version of motherhood: One in which preschool is free, involves five-course-meals and is available to nine-month-olds, while mothers work and still routinely make time for themselves.
What fictional land was this again? We sat down with Druckerman to pick her brain about how American moms can save time, money and maybe even a little sanity by adopting just a few French habitudes.
But, just so you don’t go hating them, we also asked her what American mothers have to teach the French.
Read on to learn how to master "la pause”—and why the French believe the perfect mother doesn’t exist.
What first interested you in writing about how French mothers are different?
I had my daughter in France and got the idea for the book when she was 18 months old. We were sitting in a restaurant, and my husband and I were having the typical terrible time trying to convince her to eat, and I looked around and I realized that the French families were having a much more pleasant experience—and so were their children.
In the beginning, you weren't necessarily sold on living in France—let alone adopting facets of French parenting.
I had never really thought about French parents—or I had only focused on the negative, and suddenly I focused on the positive, too: Why is it that French children can sit through a meal? Why are my kids in the park the only ones having tantrums? Why don’t they talk about the “terrible twos” in France?
It’s the norm for French children to sleep through the night at 2 or 3 months old. When my French friends come over, we can have a conversation without their kids constantly interrupting us.
I started to think: What are French parents doing differently—and can I steal some of their methods?
In “Bringing Up Bébé” you expose one of their secrets :“La Pause”—this mysterious thing that enables French children to sleep all night, while, meanwhile, many American parents are sleep-deprived for years.
In so many cases, when I found out what the French were doing, they were doing what even the American researchers were saying we should be doing. Sleep is a great case of this. The French—of course there are French babies who take longer—but the norm is two to three months to sleep through the night.
How does “la Pause” work?
French parents don’t immediately rush in when the babies cry at night. They watch and wait to see if the baby can connect the sleep cycles on her own.
Babies have roughly two-hour sleep cycles, and if they can connect them, they can sleep for four hours, then six hours, and so on. What French parents do isn't what American parents know as “sleep training.” They don’t let babies cry for hours, but they also see letting them cry for a few minutes as an opportunity for them to learn. Behind this is the idea that even little babies are rational and can learn things.
Why don’t American parents have these same insights? Where do we get our misinformation?
The hyper-attentive style of parenting that developed in America in the last 20 years comes from a few things: One is economic anxiety. The gap between rich and poor has been widening, and parents are anxious that their kids wind up on the right side of that divide.
We, that is, American parents, had the introduction of this ideology of attachment theory—and even if you don’t co-sleep or carry your baby in a sling all the time, the ideas have permeated that kids have to be with their parents as much as possible, that they can be damaged if they’re not.
Now, many of the precepts of attachment parenting have been disproven. But American moms do have guilt and anxiety about not being with their kids all the time.
So economic trends have had a direct impact on American parenting.
And starting in the '80s and '90s, you had studies showing that poor kids fall behind in school because they don’t get enough stimulation, so middle-class parents thought, Oh, I need to stimulate my kids, too.
It’s kind of a perfect storm. It started with the best of intentions, but also with a lot of anxiety about parenting in this very intensive style, which requires us as parents to sacrifice our own happiness and well-being to the worst possible extent in the name of raising the best possible kids.
But you also describe a backlash against that, even in America.
I think that there was a new, new wave of parenting starting seven or eight years ago, one describing this weird type of parenting and saying: “What are we doing, and what is the alternative?”
I think my book is part of the conversation in American culture about what we do next—and you can already see a new theory of American parenting emerging. All this conversation about date nights that we have now is about how parents can reclaim their own space. (Here are seven creative ways to plan a date night of your own.)
French moms don’t seem to feel the same guilt that American mothers do about taking time for themselves.
I think guilt is very much in the room for French moms, but they treat it differently. The tendency for middle-class American moms is to embrace guilt. American moms would say to me all the time when I was researching this book, “I’m a bad mother. I’m a terrible mother.” It’s almost like it made them feel good. We self-flagellate a bit.
French mothers say guilt is a trap. And they’ll tell each other when they get together with their French girlfriends: Guilt doesn’t exist. The perfect mother doesn’t exist. They see the risk of guilt contaminating all their free time. And they will take pockets of guilt-free alone time.
Most of them are working moms—you describe the fact that there are very few stay-at-home moms in France. How do they carve out the space?
One story that I heard from a French mom was, “I love taking my sons to the merry-go-round in the park. I turn off my cell phone. I lie down in the sun, and I have a half-hour little spa holiday.”
And I remember thinking: I know that merry-go-round because I spent every two minutes for a half-hour looking for my daughter so I could wave at her every time she came around.
Another time, I went to the park and bought this enormous bag of toys and books, and I bought a magazine to read, but I didn’t really expect to read it. I expected to spend the whole afternoon entertaining my daughter.
And next to me was this French mom who had bought one ball for her girl to play with. And her girl was fine. Her daughter knew how to play by herself.
That theory that even kids need alone time saves French moms a lot of time.
When you look at the studies comparing French and American moms, French moms prize kids playing by themselves much more highly. It’s partly for easier parenting, but it’s partly to teach kids to cope with frustration, to be alone as a basic life skill.
They believe you can’t be happy if you don’t have that skill. French parents give their kids opportunities to be absorbed—just as kids aren’t supposed to interrupt their parents.
For French mothers, if your whole life is centered around your child, it’s not good for you, and it’s not good for your child. They believe that one part, whether being a mom, or being a worker, or being a spouse, should not overhwhelm the rest.
And American moms are starting to think it’s OK to be a little bit selfish.
But there are also social constructs that make it easier—and cheaper—to be a French parent.
I think part of that is structural. You have the state providing daycare and subsidizing nannies from the time maternity leave ends. It’s affordable.
For example, your daughter went to la crèche—full-time day care, with five-course meals—at nine months old, which is the norm in France.
And France is tied with Ireland for having the highest birth rate. French women have babies because they know they can go back to work.
I think it is a lot easier to be a calm parent when you have a lot of social support. It’s hard to get a spot in the public day care, but you’re virtually guaranteed that when your child turns three, he’ll start public preschool. That’s an enormous structural difference, and it’s not just three hours a day. My friends in America are competing for these preschools that are $2,000 for three hours a day.
In France, it’s free, and it’s all day, and if your kid doesn’t want to go all day, he doesn’t have to stay. No one is forcing your kid to go to this school, but you have the option if you want it.
Which makes it easier to be a working mom in France.
In America, the message is more ambiguous: You should work if you want to, but it could be damaging to your kid to be in preschool for more than three hours a day.
OK, before we all start saving up for plane tickets, what do American parents do better?
I think there’s a positivity and friendliness in America that I’m struck by, and that I love, and that is really hard for me in France.
And I think there’s much more emphasis in school on making kids creative and on self-expression. We can take that too far, of course—any quality taken to its extreme, is negative, but I definitely emphasize that in the book, and we come back to America as often as we can.
I want my kids to have a little bit of both.