Bringing Up Bebe

Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela DruckermanFull Title: Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting
Pamela Druckerman
Publisher: The Penguin Press (2012)
Number of Pages: 284
How long it took me to read: 1 month, 3 weeks, 3 days
Where I got this book: Amazon
ISBN: 978-1594203336

Like a Moth to a Flame

I came across this book on Amazon early on in my pregnancy. It felt premature to get it, but I couldn’t resist. I’m not sure I’m comfortable raising my child in the States, so the idea of an American woman sharing her experiences of raising her child in France (a place close to my heart) was very appealing; it almost felt like a lifeline, actually. I don’t yet know how I’m going to find information from local like-minded people about how to bring him up in the healthiest, most enriching way, so learning about Druckerman’s work is comforting amongst all the turmoil—as well as the excitement—of preparing to become a mommy.

Favorite Five

Whittling 20 down to 5…I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “In French, giving birth without an epidural isn’t called ‘natural’ childbirth. It’s called ‘giving birth without an epidural’ (accouchement sans péridurale). A few French hospitals and maternity clinics now have birthing pools and giant rubber balls for laboring women to hug. But few Frenchwomen use these. That 1 or 2 percent of nonepidural births in Paris are, I’m told, either crazy Americans like me or Frenchwomen who didn’t get to the hospital on time.” (p.30)

4. “When we Americans talk about work-life balance, we’re describing a kind of juggling, where we’re trying to keep all parts of our lives in motion without screwing up any of them too badly. The French also talk about l’équilibre. But they mean it differently. For them, it’s about not letting any one part of life—including parenting—overwhelm the rest.” (p.147)

3. “These mothers aren’t just chic; they’re also strangely collected. They don’t shout the names of their children across the park or rush out with a howling toddler. They have good posture. They don’t radiate that famous combination of fatigue, worry, and on-the-vergeness that’s bursting out of most American moms I know (myself included). Expect for the actual child, you wouldn’t know that they’re mothers.” (p.119)

2. “Each Monday, the creche posts its menu for the week on a giant white board near the entrance. … A typical menu starts with hearts of palm and tomato salad. This is followed by sliced turkey au basilica accompanied by rice in a Provencal cream sauce. The third course is a slice of St. Nectaire cheese with a slice of fresh baguette. Dessert is fresh kiwi.” (pp.111-2)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “…even though French children consume enormous amounts of formula, they beat American kids on nearly all measures of health. France ranks about six points above the developed-country average in Unicef’’s overall health-and-safety ranking, which includes infant morality, immunization rates until age two, and deaths from accidents and injury up to age nineteen. The United States ranks about eighteen points below average.” (p.122)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: solipsistic (adjective)

Definition (Source: WordBook iPhone App): [solipsism] (philosophy) the philosophical theory that the self is all that you know to exist
Origins: 1881; from Latin souls ‘alone’ + ipse ‘self’; the view or theory that self is the only object of real knowledge or the only thing that is real
As in: “The maternal has loft goals. It is, in effect, a national project to turn the nation’s solipsistic three-year-olds into civilized, empathetic people.” (p.150)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“I’m nesting. That could mean a million different things, depending on the woman’s hormone levels, her personality, and how much chocolate she has in the house. For me, it means working through a multi-stage process of preparing for the arrival of a very special little person who I often feel is already here. The process involves preparing the nursery, which will be done as soon as Amazon delivers the last few items on our list. It involves stocking the pantry, the fridge/freezer, and the cupboards (to the point where my darling husband is sure nothing else will fit—until we take everything out and organize and reorganize again and again). It also involves my doing something for myself, which is where this book comes in. You see, we’ve done our share of preparatory reading already, but all those books have felt like homework. We’ve read about the experience of Birthing from Within, and we’ve even read a hideous 600+ page book on pregnancy and birth preparation that the insurance company sent us. Now we’re on The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, and then we’ll move on to learning about the sticky world of vaccines. But I think it’s time I come back to the book I purchased months ago and allow it to remind me that once I’m done baking this delicious muffin, it’ll be time to get to know myself anew, and start thinking about what motherhood will mean to me. Here goes!”

“Although living in France has gotten easier, I haven’t really assimilated. To the contrary, having a baby—and speaking better French—makes me realize just how foreign I am.” (p.55)

“I couldn’t agree more. Druckerman’s words bleed my reality. You’d think that living in different countries would eventually give me enough practice to figure out how to be a happy ex-pat, but it still hasn’t…and I’m on country number four. It’s as though each transcontinental relocation puts another layer of separation between me and everyone around me. It’s sad when the closest connections you have are online with people living so far away you can’t remember what timezones they’re in. With each move I make, I desperately hope it will answer the same recurring question: is this where my life will finally start? Because up until now, it seems like it’s only been about getting immigration paperwork in line, figuring out how to get around without a map, and not going crazy amidst the inevitable isolation once the unpacking dust settles.

“I was hoping that having a baby would make assimilating easier, but evidently that hasn’t worked out for Druckerman. I suppose that it would be silly to think that it would. After all, raising a little human makes parents all the more aware of what beliefs and ideologies they want to pass down to their offspring, and in my experience, that sort of self-awareness has just made it clearer how different I am from those around me.

“To be honest, I’m not sure how possible assimilation is anymore. People are too busy. Life is too technological. I used to believe that the Internet had the power to bring like-minded people together, but it’s just become an excuse to be more separate. Yes, technology can bring together remote workforces to create something that may not have been born otherwise (take us at The UBR, for example), but work can’t be all there is to life, can it?”

“I just finished my first slice of Gateau au Yaourt (Yogurt Cake). Druckerman includes this simple recipe on page 77 of her book. It’s so simple to prepare that French toddlers are trained to make it practically on their own. I won’t lie, I’m fully committed to exposing my little bumpkin to a rich culinary world that will definitely include lots of time in the kitchen with us. I love this French tradition of baking a sweet every weekend so that we have it ready in the house for the upcoming week—whether it be to treat guests or to enjoy during afternoon tea. I’ve never considered allowing myself to indulge in my passion for baking because I tend to be quite good at binge eating, which I inevitably follow with dry spells of kale and egg whites, but I want to learn better. I want a life of moderation—of balance—and if I expect my child to eventually learn delayed gratification, I want to start getting the hang of it before he arrives.

Gateau au Yaourt

“I really wanted to make this recipe this morning, so I improvised a bit to use the ingredients I had in the house. I substituted the plain whole-milk yogurt with non-fat greek, cut the sugar to a little over half, used gluten free flour, and added chopped frozen strawberries to the batter before popping it in the oven. The result is this rich, moist, cakey cake with a delicate flavor that goes perfectly with a morning cup of decaf. I love imagining that one day, making and enjoying this cake could become a cherished family ritual. Thank you France!”

“I’m realizing that being an expat is a very tricky game of politics, social customs, and sometimes unexpectedly differing definitions of human decency. And once you start playing this game, you have to learn to master it while you figure out where your local grocery store is, how to pay your monthly bills, and how to get around without spending a fortune on taxis (or rentals).

“Druckerman’s discussion of the reasoning behind teaching French children the importance of saying hello and goodbye to everyone they meet is no exception to how this book is illuminating some of my social gaffs from the past. You see, although I was raised to be polite, and be courteous to the adults around me, polite and courteous the way I interpreted it meant that I spoke when spoken to, but I didn’t have to say much and I didn’t have to go out of my way to greet and bid adieu to visitors who came to our home or say a polite hello to people with whom I’d share an elevator or pass by in a corridor. In fact, to spontaneously say hello to a stranger just because our bubbles of personal space were temporarily overlapping would have been perceived as strange and aggressive behavior. Not so in France.

“In France, teaching a child from a very early age to acknowledge those in his surroundings by greeting them with a self assured bonjour and parting ways with an equally alert au revoir is not only taught as a sign of politeness but as a way of acknowledging that other person’s humanity. Saying hello in France is an expression of human decency. Saying hello in my neighborhood will get me a small smile if I’m lucky, but more likely a weird look and a little more personal space as people slowly creep away from me.

“Well, oops! My bad. I’m guessing that the social customs in Italy are similar to those in France given that I was scolded (and most likely never forgiven) for not greeting my neighbors on the stairs of my apartment in Milan while I lived there for a few months. No weird looks there. That would have been way too passive aggressive. No, I was full out scolded by the landlord for being insolent and lacking respect for her community. This is in direct contradiction to the lesson I learned a few years later while living in England. In English society (through a foreigner’s eyes), it’s rude to start a conversation with any of the other commuters who share the train car with you, regardless of the fact that you’re likely to see them as often as you would your charming Italian neighbors each Italian morning. At one point, I was convinced that some of my English commuter friends (no, sorry, strangers) brought the newspaper with them to have something to hide behind on their way to work.

“So, having gone through all these enriching life experiences and now receiving Druckerman’s help in understanding the deeper meaning of my experiences, I’m left wondering whether I’ve learned anything at all about assimilating to local customs. Now finding myself stumbling through the streets and highways and neatly paved park trails of Northern California, I’ll confess that it’s taken me a long time to admit that I’m not comfortable wearing hiking clothes to work, and that my world is not a very happy place without the vibrant hum of a city center surrounding me. I’ve also come to realize that I think I would actually like to get to know my neighbors and to be able to say hello to strangers in the elevator so that one day they could actually become friends. But going even deeper than the superficial details of my everyday, I’m wondering what sort of world I want to raise my child in. I guess I have another week or so before I have to set my plan in motion, but by the time he greets this world with his first cry, I’d like to at least have a clear understanding of whether it’s ok to say bonjour and au revoir, or whether society really is going in the way of robots.”

“I started reading this book as an expectant mommy hoping to get two things out of it: a reconnection to my European roots and an introduction to parenting that doesn’t dictate what to expect and what not to expect, but rather one that shows me what it’s like through the eyes of a real life expat trying to make sense of a foreign world as a new parent. Now I’m a mommy, so I’ve been quite busy lately (which is why it’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to finish this read), but based on recent personal experience, I can certainly understand the emphasis Druckerman places in the book on breastfeeding, weening, and sleep schedules. It’s interesting to learn that French women generally stop breastfeeding after the first three months, and even more fascinating that so many of them manage to wear high heels to the playground soon after giving birth. I don’t relate to them on either count, but I appreciate learning about the way cultural differences impact such a commonly shared primal process as becoming a mother.

“I think I would have liked a bit more of a story to have been woven through the pages of this book, but I can’t say it was a disappointing reading experience. Druckerman provides a lot of examples of the differences between American vs. French parenting and as a new parent, I really appreciate being able to sift through the dichotomies as I begin to carve out my own path.”

“I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned in the last 54 days (the length of my journey with Druckerman) is that I want to do this parenting thing my own way. Case in point: last night I went out for dinner with my husband for the first time since Pickle was born. We were celebrating two milestones: our sixteen-year anniversary and Pickle’s one-month birthday. And yes, we brought him long to celebrate.

“We made quite an entrance: the only ones with a stroller walking into a fashionable dining lounge spotted with floor-to-ceiling torches and foot-long miniskirts. To top that image off for you, imagine me knocking a glass to the floor with my diaper bag on my way to our table. The glass shattered so loudly that it overshadowed the music throbbing out of the invisible wall speakers. But we did it! We managed—quite comfortably—to have a lovely dinner on the quieter outdoor patio, engage in interesting conversation, all while Pickle nursed on my lap (just as he is now while I write out my last reflection). My world of parenting doesn’t come with many rules, but I have a feeling my husband and I will eventually be tempted to adopt a collection from the many cultures that make up our family life. Raising Pickle in California: a little granola, a little pasta sauce, and a couple pierogi for good measure. Quite a recipe we’re concocting.”

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1 Comment

  1. G Kelly says:

    Bringing up a baby in a big city can be either a very lonely experience or an opportunity to meet with others: we can be isolated in a bubble with just baby for company all day, or walking out with the baby can provide a chance to meet other mums with their babies, equally starved for adult company.
    Having reared 3 children to adulthood I now know that there is no template for ‘proper parenting’. Rather, we each strive in our own way to do the best we can, often using gut instinct. I’m fascinated by different social mores of behavior. I love the way French boys greet each other by shaking hands. They will stop their bicycles to shake hands when passing someone they know. Young Irish men, on the other hand, would only touch each other when they meet again following a very long absence possibly of years -and then usually with a thump on the arm or back!!
    I enjoyed this account of cultural differences and I particularly like your conclusion to do it your own way – with a well-rounded mix to prepare him for living in a diverse world.

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