While some of you may know that I am a fluent Spanish speaker (I often get mistaken for a native Argentinean), my interest in languages goes way past Castilian Spanish — I’ve also studied French quite extensively, dabbled in a little Portuguese, can throw out a few random words in German and once decided that Russian would be my next venture. With Spanish under my belt for years now, however, the French language has always sort of been that beautiful dress in the window for me, so delicate and stunning, yet where would I wear it? How can it be of use to me? Can I be the woman in that dress? I don’t have anyone with who I can practice my French; there are no French bakeries in my neighborhood (probably a good thing) and with all the other things going on in my life studying the philosophy that The French Do Everything Better isn’t always at the top of my priorities list.
But it is a top obsession.
In junior high it was the fashion; I remember the exact street in Paris where I bought a subtle gray-blue pencil skirt, the impeccably made black button-down to go with it and the twinge of sadness I felt when the skirt got stained and the shirt no longer fit right. In college it was all about the language — I was always a straight-A student in French class, and I still remember the two tiny Frenchwomen I knew from the university and around town who seemed so much more cute and bubbly than the stereotypical snooty attitude we’ve come to expect from some of our European counterparts. Because everyone under the sun knows Spanish in Miami, where I used to live, all of the schools taught kids French instead — so although we had only Latin-American bakeries and cafes around those parts, the allure of All Things French stuck with me.
Today, of course, it’s finally all about the food.
Now, I don’t mean this as an homage to America’s authority on French food Alice Waters or even a tip of my hat to the gourmet frills and decadent touches that French cuisine is often known for. That’s all fine and good, but it’s not the kind of food I cook or eat on a day-to-day basis. What I admire most about French food — and the culture in general — is its simplicity, the minimalist tendencies, the common sense, the delight by the senses in all things fresh, pure, untainted, and delicious.
In my I’ll-do-anything-to-be-thin phase, it was Mireille Guiliano who I turned to, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat and French Women For All Seasons, to “learn” how to eat like a French person — but I never tried a single one of her recipes, I ended up giving both books away because I didn’t find myself drawn back to re-reading or noting any specific pages, and all I specifically remember from her writings is that fruit tastes better and has more flavor if left and eaten at room temperature — which I now practice religiously (as long as you’re not talking cut-up chunks or fruit salad, which shouldn’t be left out for more than 2 hours or you risk it picking up airborne bacteria). So imagine my delight the other day when I can’t remember how, I came across 2 short videos of Pamela Druckerman, author of the new “Bringing Up Bebe” — a similar view of French culture, in a sense, but less about dieting and more about how to get your kids to eat right (and sleep more, and whine less, etc).
I was immediately hooked.
Reading excerpts on Amazon wasn’t enough, and I was already dreading having to wait the inevitable 2 days for delivery (but thank God for Amazon Prime!) when it suddenly occurred to me that we could lovingly combine a trip to the book store — complete with a train table for my son to play with while I ogled the children’s books — with a visit to the real train tracks, a sure win whenever it comes to child-centered outings. I snatched up the last of 2 hardcover copies of Druckerman’s book with the nerdiest of joyful smiles, ran my hand across the front cover, and died and went to heaven when the kiddo fell asleep in his high chair at dinner, giving me a full 2 hours to read before bed that first night.
I finished the book in just 3 days, more than eager to devour every last speck of advice and information on raising more well-mannered, well-fed children. The tips (and French books and magazines on motherhood, pregnancy, and parenting) she outlines are far too extensive to rehash completely here, but I will leave you with some of my favorites and a BIG recommendation to pick up the book if you’re a Francophile like me, or even if you’re just desperate to get your kid to eat better, behave better or sleep more — because while a lot of the basic premises around the food portion of the book relate to what and how French adults eat as well, it’s more dedicated to parenting issues on the whole albeit all the while increasing my hunger for practicing my French again, picking up “Madeline Says Merci” for my boy and asking my mom what those records were that we used to listen to in French as children. This obsession will never end!
Top Tips from “Bringing Up Bebe” (no matter how controversial or sacrilegious they sound to us Americans)
Pregnant women, put down the fork. Growing a small person in your stomach does not give you a free pass in line at Cinnabon, McDonald’s, or even the sweets aisle in the grocery store. Eat as you normally eat — or eat more healthfully, of course, if you didn’t before — and don’t fall into a pregnancy-diet trap, filling your every hour with protein-rich egg salad or crisp raw vegetables around the clock to try to meet some specific dairy or fiber quotient. Three sensible meals, one healthy snack, but yes, you can include starters and desserts (preferably fruit-based sweets). And remember those 2 nice little add-ons are not free-for-alls either. Cook rather than eating out and you’re already setting a good example for your baby-to-be.
Once baby arrives, practice a lot of careful observation — I know in America we’re instructed to feed babies every 2 hours when they’re newborns, but this book points out the possibility that babies simply wake up after every 1.5- to 2-hour sleep cycle and we often confuse their stirring for hunger. I’d even go so far as to say that if they wait a bit longer between feedings they might feed better if you’re having breastfeeding struggles, but that’s just a guess (and this may take a while, as their stomachs are only so big at the earliest of stages). I can already hear the moms out there guffawing as they read too much between the lines, but the simple idea here is that with just a slight Pause — a topic the book spends a considerable amount of time on — babies may learn a lot sooner how to self soothe, be on their own without us jumping down their throats at every little whimper and how giving it just a few extra seconds or minutes before feeding when necessary may translate into more patient toddlers and kids once they’ve grown. To clarify: Parisians don’t believe in “crying it out.” They just observe their babies for a bit longer than we do to make sure it’s actual hunger that’s happening and not just the end of a sleep cycle. After all, if we offer them milk every 2 hours, you know they’re going to get used to it and that repetition will go on until you stretch it out yourself eventually anyways.
The chapter on daycare is a little mind-blowing as well — if you read some of the menus French children are offered (and eat!) at the creche (French daycare that EVERYONE wants to get into rather than avoid like here in the states), they sound more like menus from a Michelin-starred restaurant than a table full of 4-year-olds. To me, the point of this section is to not give up the fight when it comes to crappy school lunches in the USA and the “food revolution” — when you hear of cold vegetable starters that get devoured, main dishes like turkey with basil, rice and cream sauce that the kids claim to love, a cheese course and, yes, dessert (either fresh fruit or a chocolate eclair, for example), it’s impossible to be okay with hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. I am SO motivated to give my son a hot lunch every day now that he’s home, it’s heartbreaking to think what he’ll face when he’s in school. I know I can pack something for him, but it will never be as yummy and soothing as fresh-made soup, baguette, Brie, and fruit compote with me at the kitchen table.
Another motivating section for me was the chapter called “The perfect mother doesn’t exist.” French women have no inner drive to be competitive stay-at-home moms like we do in the US — and yes, I admit I wish I could ‘stay home’ myself — so I found it refreshing to hear how French moms are somehow able to juggle work, home-cooked meals AND have well-behaved, healthy kids without seeming so frazzled and disjointed like American moms…and it’s almost as if we are proud of this daily household craziness we create. I know, we don’t have amazing child care and health care like the French, which would help immensely. But there are other ways to create a more calm household, like limiting school activities and sports to one per child per school term and all of the other tips (The Pause, for example) that Druckerman offers up in the book that does start at home, not in school or daycare. Whatever path you choose, an important takeaway here is to not feel guilty about your actions as long as they are reasonable and fit your family’s rhythm. Facedown the guilt after maternity leave, for example, and then let it go. (We’ll see if I can do this better than the first time, within the next few months.)
And last but not least, the “It’s me who decides” and “Let him live his life” chapters have already created some changes in our house, too. While my husband has always considered me to be the more “permissive” parent (and yet I’m the one who handles the time outs — so how that makes sense in his head I have no idea), he’s the one who says no and then gives in…which is a big no-no when it comes to the French style of parenting (THANK YOU). I like how the author emphasizes the importance of giving your child certain freedoms, to foster independence, resilience, and self-reliance, while at the same time stressing certain unbreakable rules — constructions that are often founded on the necessity to show respect for people and things (think “things” that are fragile or dangerous, for example) so that a child isn’t constantly told no but when he is it’s irrevocable. The French cadre, or framework, relies on set boundaries with lots of opportunities for liberties and discovery within those rules. I like the sound of it a lot, frankly.
I will say that it’s much easier to love these ideas than it is to put them into practice, especially when you have kids who don’t always understand what you’re saying to them. Just this morning, for example, my son could not comprehend why he couldn’t have a piece of chocolate after breakfast. But after explaining to him several times that one only enjoys something sweet after a meal is finished (okay, it was breakfast in this case anyway, but I used the excuse that he didn’t finish his fruit, applesauce, or yogurt), he eventually forgot about it. I didn’t give in. Nor did I in the store yesterday when he asked for random toys we passed by, and we got through our entire Target trip without him whining for “juice” (aka a kid-sized Horizon milk carton from Starbucks). So even though these are small victories, to me they are still victories that have only happened since I’ve started putting these philosophies in place. Why did I choose to do so? Because, in part, I realized that I had no parenting philosophy, per se, and it feels a lot better to have some guidelines and principles to go by — even if they’re “foreign” — than it does to feel like the kid is the one ruling the roost. My husband still has a lot of adjusting to do (2-year-olds hate it when Mommy cooks dinner, and Daddy would rather do the cooking than listen to a temper tantrum, but that would be giving in to the child!), but when I explain the reasoning to him he gets it…and from the look on his face last night I’m pretty sure he also feels pretty amazed at my patience and his lack thereof. NOT that this is a competition — but it’s important to get everyone on board.