Sunday, November 11, 2012

Oh, Bébé

I'm coming pretty late to the party, but that's how I roll these days.  I would like to blame my baby, one of those didn't-sleep-through-the-night-until-one-year-old types, but that would just be showing the flaws in my American-style parenting.  Does that sound defensive?  Sorry.  I just read Pamela Druckerman's Bringing up Bébé, and I am bursting with thoughts.  And yes, defensiveness.  It's hard not to feel a little cornered when someone starts questioning your national parenting habits (even when they are simultaneously questioning their own).  For those of you not in the mom's group orbit, Druckerman wrote a bestselling book based on her years spent parenting small children in Paris, during which she realized that French children sleep, eat, and generally behave better than their American counterparts.

My basic conclusion is that yes, the French parent differently, but that it would be almost impossible for Americans to replicate their philosophy (which the French don't, tellingly, see as a philosophy), because we ourselves were not raised by French parents.*  Every culture raises children to live in their own time and place, and I think if American parenting is a confusing mishmash of tips and tricks, well, maybe it's because America is a confusing mishmash kind of place (people call it a "melting pot" when they want to be more kind).  Just like we don't have any one food tradition (and we then have to read about French diets, or Mediterranean diets, or Okinawa diets, or, mystifyingly to me, caveman diets), we also don't have one parenting tradition.  And part of America, we have to remember, was actually predicated on the very basis of getting away from stuffy European traditions.  We are free!  And we enjoy this freedom right up to the point when we realize that our freedom to eat what we want and parent how we want has somehow ended in obesity and tyrannical children.

Druckerman kind of acknowledges this conundrum.  She herself says that she doesn't want her kids growing up into "sniffy Parisians," even though she wants to imitate many of their parenting techniques.  But it's hard not to wonder whether only sniffy Parisians can really be successful at implementing the parenting practices she outlines so longingly, or, conversely, whether implementing those practices would in fact, inevitably, create little sniffy Parisians.  Control (the French have strict rules about when and where eating, dressing up, and using playground slang are appropriate) and patience (at just a few weeks old, the French teach their babies that they will not respond to their every cry) and prioritizing aesthetics (French women are expected to "bounce back" faster than a Victoria's Secret model with a big show coming up) are all good things, and they are qualities we admire, but I wouldn't say that those are the things that we Americans have been raised to believe are the core values of our country.  And because we weren't raised to believe that, it makes it very hard to convincingly parent a child under those principles.

As a bit of an aside, though hopefully an illustrative one, I've often thought about the difference between the kids I saw in Lesotho and American kids.  One image that is burned in my mind is of the waiting room of the Mokhotlong hospital filled with babies, toddlers, and small children who would wait with their parents for hours (hours!!).  Not a single toy graced what was really just a long hallway with benches (not even those weird wire and wood bead contraptions that I can only surmise must be sold by pharmaceutical salesmen).  Not only that, but the kids didn't even get down and start trying to wrestle with each other, or build forts out of the chairs.  Nothing.  They just sat there.  This was astounding to me even before I had a baby of my own, but now I am truly awed by what this small sight obviously illustrates about cultural differences.  These kids waited because that's what they had always done.  And, here's the key, the adults did it too.  Not once did I see a magazine or any other form of entertainment in the hands of one of the adults.  They had to wait for their medicine or to see the doctor, so that's what they were doing.  Waiting.  And they knew full well going in that it might take an entire day.  Americans just DO NOT GET THIS.  And I am American to my core in this regard.  Anyway, kind of a long-winded attempt at saying, even though we might think we are closer culturally to Parisians than to small-town Basotho, the principle remains.  It would be very hard for me to teach my daughter to wait patiently in line for eight hours, because it would be nearly impossible for me to do so myself without going out of my mind.  And it would be hard for me to tell her she can never snack, because I would hate to live by that rule.

Still, Druckerman does make a convincing case for being a little more structured and confident as a parent.  I wholeheartedly agree that we want to avoid raising little monsters (or les enfants rois, as they are known in France), and there are some suggestions here that even us hopeless Americans might be able to effectively employ.  Some suggestions are so simple as to be almost condescending, until you realize how hard it really can feel to set basic limits.  She relates advice from a French psychologist who says, "when a child has a caprice [whim]--for instance, his mother is in a shop with him and he suddenly demands a toy--the mother should remain extremely calm and gently explain that buying the toy isn't in the day's plan.  Then she should try to bypass the caprice by redirecting the child's attention, for example by telling a story about her own life."  Simple, yes?  But how many times have you seen American kids throwing fits in toy stores?

What really makes me a little jealous, though, is the sense of confidence that Druckerman's French friends and neighbors seem to have about their parenting.  They advocate following your intuition (as do I), but it is certainly easier to act on your intuition if everyone around you seems to think along roughly the same lines.  I have had many conversations with moms who are tormented because their doctor or mother-in-law or some other person with possible child-rearing authority has told them that they HAVE to do something that feels completely against their instincts.  And often they end up doing it, because being a new mother (or father) is disconcerting and it doesn't matter how good you have been at every other thing in your life, this is something you have to figure out as you go along.  So we want advice, and we want a set of defined answers.  But in America they don't seem to come as easy.  Druckerman tells a great anecdote about how she and her husband were stymied by a question the daycare (crèche) lady asks about their daughter's feeding schedule.  They couldn't answer the question, and she was completely baffled by this ignorance.  How can you not know when your own baby eats?  Druckerman finds an answer to this cultural stand-off when she notices that the American website BabyCenter gives eight different sample schedules for five- to six-month olds, "including one in which the baby eats ten times a day."  A French parenting magazine, in contrast, offers one schedule. Babies eat at eight A.M., twelve P.M, four P.M., and eight P.M.  But then you just end up back at my previous point--she notes that this makes sense because it is the schedule almost all French adults follow as well (minus the snack, of course).  How many Americans do you know who are this scheduled?  Or, much better question, do you know any two American adults who follow the exact same eating schedule?  If not, how do we then implement it with our babies?

Druckerman raises some very interesting questions about American parenting, and I'm sure I will continue to think about them as I muddle my own way through raising a child.  I do want my daughter to learn to wait for gratification, and to respect adults, and to (while we're thinking big) start taking longer naps.  But these are only a few among many positive qualities we want to instill in our children.  It is good to be intentional about fostering whatever qualities you yourself think are essential to leading a good, fulfilling life.  So I'm glad I read this now, because as E enters the toddler years I do think it is important to start really thinking about what "family" values you want to emphasize.  And I think this will also make me pause to evaluate my own habits, because how can you teach qualities that you aren't modeling yourself?

Whether or not you buy the parenting principles (and I'll wager you'll be tempted to, because Druckerman makes French kids sound so....obedient), it's an interesting read for the anthropological perspective.  I would actually love to read a book that just compared cultural parenting styles--kind of like the movie Babies, but with words.  Just putting it out there.

* At the same time, while our current parenting culture might look very different than France's, my husband made the good point that a lot of French parenting practices sound like American parenting from 50 years ago.  I can't imagine my grandmothers or their cohorts climbing around on jungle gyms after their kids, waving baggies of Cheerios and narrating their every move.  

Friday, June 22, 2012

My Two Cents

My sister just sent me Anne-Marie Slaughter's incredibly smart article about "Why Women Still Can't Have It All."  Slaughter asks why, despite the message the older generation of feminists strove to impart, does this generation have a much more resigned attitude towards choosing between work and family?  She notes that older women are often offended by the choices their younger counterparts are making to sacrifice high positions or otherwise compromise their careers, but ultimately concludes that what looks like resignation or giving up might actually be a realistic reaction to a society that does not make it possible for women to both have a satisfying, demanding career and be the kind of mother that they want to be. 

 My friends and peers seem to struggle with this reality continuously, but I think the struggle and the willingness to discuss it is hopefully part of the progress towards a new model of working mother (and father, for that matter.  I definitely think that many of the issues Slaughter brings up are just as relevant for men).  I don't know anyone who wants to "just stay at home" (a problematic phrasing, in itself), but all of the mothers, or friends planning to be mothers, that I know have some elaborate plan of how to balance work and family.  Some plan on doing part time, some working from home, some taking a few years off and then resuming when their kids go to school.  Still, I can say firsthand that our culture doesn't make it very easy to reconcile these contortions with a satisfying work and family life.  

One issue Slaughter raises that is often hush-hushed for fear of emphasizing biological realities over women's ambition and potential, is that in attempts to juggle children and work, women are waiting longer to have babies, then often frantically trying to conceive before it's too late.  In addition to causing much angst over conception, Slaughter notes, this puts many women in the position of reaching the height of their careers right as their children enter the teen years--a time when parents often find it just as crucial to be present as they did when their children were infants. Many women I worked with in academia were also facing the challenge of raising young children and dealing with aging parents at the same time: a stressful combination occurring more frequently when women wait to have babies.  

Slaughter's solution (if one can call it that) is an overhaul of how our society thinks about work.  Instead of negatively judging women who ask for more flexibility in order to accommodate and embrace their family lives, this flexibility should become a given.  She quotes Mary Matalin as  saying, “having control over your schedule is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.”  She observes that men like Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg have made efforts to accommodate work from home, but also wonders "how many women in similar positions would be afraid to ask, lest they be seen as insufficiently committed to their jobs."  She concludes that

The best hope for improving the lot of all women, and for closing what Wolfers and Stevenson call a “new gender gap”—measured by well-being rather than wages—is to close the leadership gap: to elect a woman president and 50 women senators; to ensure that women are equally represented in the ranks of corporate executives and judicial leaders. Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone.

Slaughter takes issue with Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg's claims that women need to be more aggressive and ambitious in order to make their way to the top, stressing, "these “mundane” issues—the need to travel constantly to succeed, the conflicts between school schedules and work schedules, the insistence that work be done in the office—cannot be solved by exhortations to close the ambition gap."  She makes the point that mundane issues require fighting mundane battles--even though it is so much more sexy to make sweeping claims about women's lack of ambition or men's misogyny.  

Along the way, women should think about the climb to leadership not in terms of a straight upward slope, but as irregular stair steps, with periodic plateaus (and even dips) when they turn down promotions to remain in a job that works for their family situation; when they leave high-powered jobs and spend a year or two at home on a reduced schedule; or when they step off a conventional professional track to take a consulting position or project-based work for a number of years.

I am currently reading Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent by Meredith Small, an interesting anthropological view of parenting, which makes it evident that we try to parent the kids we think our society needs.  (The documentary Babies made this point very clearly as well--American parents are horrified to see a baby in a field accompanied only by cows, but as that baby needs to grow up to live on the Mongolian steppe with little company, we might soften our judgment of that parenting technique.)  But as society changes, so do parenting and parenting goals.  Perhaps one realization women had following the gains feminists made in past decades was that a society where mothers sacrifice all for their careers doesn't actually lead to a place where any of us would like to live.  How do we create a society that both teaches our children that women are intelligent, strong, and capable of working in any profession at any level, but also that mothering and fathering are enormously worthwhile pursuits?  

I do agree with much of what Slaughter says about the difficulty of balancing work and family, and also about what would need to change in our society in order to make that balancing a realistic achievement.  But one thing I think she misses, from her perspective at the very top of her profession and our society, is that we also need to do a better job of respecting the women who either can't or do not want to go down that path.  She offers solutions for how to reach the peak of your career later in life and devote your life to your career after the kids have left for college, but at some level this still seems to be making a judgment about women who decide to opt out more fully.  We will have made real progress when women can be respected for all of the different choices they make: when we give stay-at-home moms the credit they deserve for all of the incredibly hard work they do, and also give the full-time working mothers the support they need. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Intuition Parenting

This post on the New York Times Motherlode blog expresses the exact emotion I have experienced reading many books by parenting "experts": anger.  Exasperation, confusion, and resentment pop up from time to time, as well.  Jacob Sager Weinstein, the author of the forthcoming parody How Not to Kill Your Baby (now, that sounds like an appropriately straightforward message!), criticizes the authors of books like What to Expect When You're Expecting and Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child for essentially terrifying parents into following their advice.  The funny thing about these "experts" is that they are consistently labeled and acknowledged as such, but what could make an individual an expert in parenting another person's child?  Sometimes this bias is acknowledged, though rarely in admission that the claimed expertise is bogus: Elizabeth Pantley, in her No-Cry Sleep Solution, explains that she came up with her sleep-through-the-night technique based on a few month experience with her own twelve-month old baby, but really glosses over the fact that, though it worked for her and may work for certain other families as well, it is essentially a unique solution to a unique problem.  Tips are great, tips are helpful, especially when coming from other parents you trust, but tips are just tips.  When someone tells you that your baby will have major psychological problems later in life because you aren't following their prescript, well, that's just blackmail.   

The appealing, but devious, premise of these books is to show very confused and insecure new parents the "right" way to raise their child.  As Weinstein notes, and I've recently experienced, as you get a little farther along in the process you gain some perspective and confidence (she really ISN'T going to go to college not knowing how to lift her head above 45 degrees / roll over / sleep longer than 3 hours at a stretch / eat without making horrible grunting noises), but those niggling doubts, the ones that creep in at 3 a.m. when she's up for the fifth time and you are sure that you really are doing something dreadfully, disgustingly wrong, are what the whole parenting-"expert" industry thrives upon. 

Reid and I are not really the types to have a "parenting philosophy," but we decided if we do have one, it is basically one that refutes the idea of having a philosophy at all.  We call it "intuition parenting," which is just an unnecessarily technical way of saying "go with what feels right at the time".  Trying to follow the "experts," against your own personality (taking into consideration strengths, limitations, and varying points at which one begins to need a stiff drink) or the personality of your child (taking into consideration needs, desires, and varying abilities to wail like an ambulance siren), is just silly.  And it makes me mad.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Egg and I, and I

I just finished reading The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald, she of Miss Piggle-Wiggle fame.  (Reid has never heard of Miss Piggle-Wiggle, which makes me deeply sorry for him.)  The book was apparently a massive hit when it was published in the 1940s, proving that our culture's current romanticization of chicken raising and back-to-the-land adventures is actually pretty old news.*  But what is it about the telling of the hardships of farm life that, illogically, makes us long for the bad-old-days of planting and canning and hauling water?  As an long-time devotee of the Little House books, I can't quite explain my predilection, but I can say that this book scratches the vicarious farming itch quite well. 

As a 20-year-old Seattleite, MacDonald falls in love with an older, gainfully employed man, who, soon after their wedding, tells her of his dream to run a chicken ranch.  Trained by her mother to support a husband's whims, MacDonald shoulders the plow, more literally than she had hoped to do, and throws herself into the relentless work of a ranch in the remote mountains of the Olympic Peninsula.

The book could probably described as a comic farce: city girl bumbling along in the wilderness, surrounded by eccentric, larger-than-life characters (so THIS is where Ma and Pa Kettle come from--I'd heard the reference, but never knew who they actually were).  But, at the same time, it is a meditation on loneliness and alienation, which simmer right below the comic surface:

Being lonely all of the time, I used to harbor the idea, as who has not, that I was one of the few very fortunate people who was absolutely self-sufficient and that if I could just find myself a little haunt far from the clawing hands of civilization with its telephones, electric appliances, artificial amusements and people--people more than anything--I would be contented for the rest of my life.  Well, someone called my bluff and I found that after nine months spent mostly in the stimulating company of the mountains, trees, the rain, Stove, and the chickens, I would have swooned with anticipation of a visit from a Mongolian idiot.  And if the clawing hands of civilization could only have run a few telephone and light wires in there they could have had my self-sufficient right arm to chop up for the insulators.

About nine months after she arrives on the farm, she finds herself with a baby as well as a barn full of chickens to look after, and it's hard not to conclude that "women's work" is often a good deal more strenuous, or at least more isolating, than "men's work."   I've been drawing inspiration from MacDonald these days, as I adjust to baby-minding and home-making as a full-time enterprise. When laundry starts to seem overwhelmingly onerous, I can at least feel grateful that I don't have to haul the water and stoke the fire in order to wash Eleanor's endless stream of dirty clothes.  At the same time, and this is maybe where the longing for our mythical agrarian past comes in, the sense of purpose and necessity that accompanies the farm chores could actually be comforting.  It's not that laundry is so bad, but it's the doubt about whether you should be doing something more worthwhile, or that justifies your student loans, that can really throw you into crisis. 

The other dark, but not-quite-spoken, undercurrent in the book is the conflict in Betty and Bob's marriage.  She doesn't mention it, but when I looked up some biographical details about her, I wasn't surprised to find out that she left the ranch and her husband soon after the events chronicled in the book.  Her references to him are generally amusing, but also frequently indignant about his lack of attention and ignorance of her needs. 

Perhaps I've painted an unfairly grim picture of the book.  It's fun, it really is.  And if I had to choose a guide to the wilderness, I'd go with Betty MacDonald over Ma Ingalls any day. 

*I'm sure you could do a fascinating analysis of this drive and how it relates to our current political and socioeconomic reality, but for now I'll be content with making some sweeping, completely anecdotal, claims.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Settling In

Wrapping up my first week home with the baby, I'm feeling completely sure about my decision to leave my job, but full of many swirling emotions.  Maybe that's a defining point of motherhood?  The highs!  the lows!  The doldrums!  It seems a rare day when you don't experience a mix of all three.  The highlight of my week?  Probably the twenty minutes I spent lying on the floor, laughing at the fan.  It's a strange, new world, but I think I like it. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Nap-Time Hustle

Something I did not fully appreciate for my first 28 years on earth was the luxury of free time.  Time that was truly free, whole days stretching out, malleable and unformed.  I could decide what I wanted to do with a day, and then, barring laziness or catastrophe, do it.  With a baby, time is a completely different beast.  Babies are demanding of time, but not of action.  In fact, babies seem to resent any action that does not directly relate to them.  (Perhaps we all do?  We just learn to live with it at some point?).  So, in a day full of baby minding, the nap is a very precious thing.  

I was thinking about this the other morning, when I was experiencing a violent cake-baking urge (it happens, from time to time).  E was due for a nap, and the moment she went down I RAN to the kitchen to begin mixing things up.  I had mulled over which recipe I would choose all morning, as I changed diapers and sang Baby Beluga for the seven-millionth time.  So I measured and stirred and poured with an urgency all out of proportion with the actual gravity of the task.  I stuck the batter in the oven, sat down, had a sip of coffee, and then heard E wake up. 

So that was one nap.  But I'm curious about how other people approach these glorious little windows of free time.  My mother-in-law (who raised 5 children) told me, a few weeks after E's birth, that she always tried to do all of her housework while the kids were awake, so that when they went down for naps she could take a few moments for herself, to read or drink a cup of tea.  I thought that was an excellent attitude, and promptly stopped doing any dishes during naps.  But then what?  Do you put your feet up and read People magazine?  Try to dash off twenty e-mails?  Do yoga?  Take your own nap? 

While it can all seem a bit hectic and stressful, I think the positive light to shine on this is an increased intentionality with time.  If you only have an hour to yourself, how do you really want to spend it?  What are your priorities?  While I was pregnant with E I felt like I was really ready to have a baby because I felt so sick of only having myself to think about.  Sure, the unfettered days were nice, and I now long for a day in which I could both run and go to the grocery store, but the new preciousness of time, the rush of the efficiently used hour, the huge smile greeting me when E does wake up...a worthy exchange. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


I remember one of my sister's friends describing some tenet of Buddhist philosophy that required  you to meet each apparent setback or bump in the road of life (even Lesotho-sized potholes) with a disciplined sense of curiosity.  When facing potential catastrophe, you were to sit back and muse, "I am so curious about how this will all turn out."  I have no idea if this is a legitimate element of Buddhism or not, but the idea has returned to me many times through the years as an ideal reaction to stressful changes.  Either that or massive numbers of chocolate chip cookies washed down with red wine, the whole concoction shaken up on the dance floor of Boatclub.  But alas, Boatclub is no longer with us and E's presence makes gallons of red wine a less viable option.

So yes, when I realized last week that it was either quit my job entirely or come back full time (an option neither desirable nor even advisable, given my paltry salary and the cost of childcare in DC), I took a deep breath and tried to be very CURIOUS about how this next stage in our life will unfold.  And lo, I am feeling very Zen about the whole thing.  The very next day, R was offered not one, but two, part-time positions--an immense relief.  And I feel enormous joy at the prospect of the days ahead with E.  There are little frissons of anxiety, too--what will we DO all day, will we never see R again, what about health insurance??--but what more can you do but go with what feels right and have some small confidence that it will turn out in the end?

Meanwhile, E is more delightful every day (though not, come to think of it, every night).  She goes through phases of determinedly practicing her rolling, then gives up the enterprise when she realizes that all it does is get her someplace she doesn't want to be.  She loves oatmeal, squash, and apples; adores bananas; and detests avocados and green beans.  She wriggles in excitement every time we open the dryer (why??).  She is, in my completely and utterly biased opinion, the cutest baby that ever rolled the earth.
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The Illiterate Peanut by Bridget Rector is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.