I want to read and learn all I can, write thoughtfully and truthfully, live according to reason and ever more mature wisdom, and savor every wonderful little gift of life.
The contenders: All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior and Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman
The battle ground: modern parenting
The battle terms: This is not actually a true, fair battle in any sense, because I will not be taking an objective, pros-and-cons look at each of them, and one of these books I did not even finish. I just thought the idea of a “book battle” was fun. Maybe I’ll do it for real sometime with a different set of books!
The battle: But as it stands, here’s the conflict I experienced between these books.
I could not get all the way through All Joy and No Fun, and it was Bringing Up Bébé’s fault. While both books are very well-written and engaging, going from reading Bringing Up Bébé to reading All Joy and No Fun, was like—to draw on my childhood piano lesson days—going from an advanced-level piano book to a beginner-level one.
All Joy and No Fun journalistically examines modern American parenting through a review of studies, statistics, history, experts’ opinions, and anecdotes of prototypical American parents that the author, Jennifer Senior, spent time with. Senior brings up some interesting points, such as the fact that our modern views of children and parenthood are vastly different from those of our ancestors even just a hundred years ago. Unlike in those times, children today, says Senior, quoting sociologist Viviana Zelizer, are considered “economically worthless but emotionally priceless”—and as a result, modern American parents focus so intensely on their children that they themselves are worn out and stressed out from, depending on the age of the kids, getting up several times each night, trying to entertain their children all day, or driving their kids to and from extracurricular activities every free second.
The book does its job as a purely journalistic effort—it thoroughly and vividly describes the mental state of American parents—but that’s all it does. The effect, at least as I felt it, is sympathetic and passive: “Poor things.”
But I could not feel sympathetic and passive, especially not after imbibing the wisdom offered in Bringing Up Bébé. I kept wanting to shout in frustration at the sample parents Senior describes. For example, a mother named Angie explicitly refuses to make self-care a priority in her life even as her husband begs her to; she refuses to sleep train her one-year-old (again, ignoring her husband’s pleas—she had previously given in and let him do it with their older child, but she can’t bring herself to that same point with her second baby) with the result that she gets up several times each night with the baby and then resents her husband for not getting up instead; and—perhaps most clearly problematic of all—she actually carries her one-year-old around all day, on her hip, as she lives life one-handed, because he cries if she puts him down.
And Angie is held up as a prototypical American mother, not a person with serious issues that need to be resolved. But the fact is, according to the research reviewed in the book, Angie’s mindset is actually very typical of middle-class American mothers, especially working mothers, who already feel so guilty about not spending enough time with their children that they can’t bring themselves to ever say no to them.
There is another way.
According to Pamela Druckerman’s own journalistic-style research in Bringing Up Bébé, French mothers—most of whom work full-time—do not live with this kind of guilt. Of course, their stress levels are already lower by virtue of the fact that they have access to low-cost, high-quality childcare and more vacation days and maternity benefits than American mothers have. But regardless, it’s a whole different mindset in France. There, parents highly value taking care of themselves and providing boundaries for their kids.
French parents view waiting as an essential skill for their children to learn, beginning in infancy, when parents wait a few beats before responding to their baby’s cries, while observing to see what the child needs. It turns out that this also leads to pain-free sleep training: by not instantly going to their babies when they make noise in the night, parents give babies a chance to learn how to connect their sleep cycles, which is why most French babies sleep through the night starting at around three months. When the children are a bit older and a parent says, “Wait, please, I’m talking on the phone right now,” this gives the child a chance to learn how to handle frustration and waiting, which, as French parents say, is an essential life skill.
Another (and related) essential life skill they believe children must learn: how to entertain themselves. French parents value giving children lots of free time for imaginative play, both alone and with other children; they supervise but do not interrupt. They respect their child’s space to be an individual, and they respect their own needs in that area as well. Later, they limit their children’s extracurricular activities so that the schedule is conducive to both the child’s and the family’s peaceful wellbeing.
French parents set boundaries and enforce them; they provide an atmosphere of love, support, and safety for their children, but not constant activities and whim-indulging. They also prioritize their own needs, and they place a high premium on leisure and teach their kids to do the same. They approach parenting (and life in general) with the mindset that each person in the family, even an infant, is his or her own individual person who needs some degree of autonomy, privacy, and respect and who will ultimately be responsible for his or her own life choices. In other words, there’s not so much of the codependence and enmeshment that we see all the time here in America—French parents view their children as a wonderful and important part of their lives, but not their whole, entire life. As a result of these attitudes, they are generally calm and happy, and their kids are calm and happy.
If you don’t believe me, read the evidence for yourself as presented in Bringing Up Bébé. (Even if you do believe me, read the book! It’s a very interesting and engaging read, especially as the author relates her personal experiences of being a new parent and native New Yorker living—not by personal preference—in Paris.)
I don’t mean to sound like an evangelist or groupie; perhaps my enthusiasm about this subject will wane once I actually have kids and am no longer merely an outside observer. But even as I just consider my own childhood and growing-up experiences, Bringing Up Bébé has revolutionized my thinking about parenting and selfhood.
If being a parent has to mean indefinitely sacrificing my sleep, my sense of self, my sanity, my sexuality, my hobbies, my friendships, my marriage, and my overall sense of wellbeing—as I always thought it would, and as All Joy and No Fun seems to indicate—then there is no way I would sign up. But I understand now that there’s an alternative to this American attitude toward parenting (at least, the typical American mother’s style; All Joy and No Fun does point out that fathers tend to more easily attain a healthy balance of self-care and child-care). That alternative is parenting á la français, as described in Bringing Up Bébé.
If/when I have kids, we’ll see how well I actually manage parenting like the French while living in America! But one thing I think will help is that I already live in a local small-town culture that’s more laid back than the big-city, big-business American lifestyle. I also plan to keep being a Francophile and doing things like reading French/France-related books and watching movies set in France, with the hope of imbibing as much of that healthy, leisure-loving mindset as I can! But most of all I hope to continue growing towards wisdom in general.