It all began as a long-distance affair, one of those quixotic relationships
that fatten the coffers of the phone company and are usually doomed from
the start. I had met this Frenchman, Daniel, during an unlikely encounter at
a Los Angeles sushi bar and barely knew him three days when he took me by
the hand in a strip mall parking lot and declared, "We'd make great babies
together." I thought that sunstroke had momentarily impaired his powers of
reason, but he was
serious. And he was right. Today, years later, I'm raising our
18-month-old son as an expatriate in Paris, pondering the
differences between my homeland and my adopted land from the perspective of
a new mother.
My son was born in Paris at the Htpital Pierre Rouques. Originally
made for steelworkers in the 1800s and only partially renovated, the hospital
still bears the mark of its age: a paucity of bathrooms (two in a maternity ward for 20 women), nurse assistants with the
grim, forbidding air of characters in a Balzac novel and long, vaulting
windows that look onto squalid courtyards, from which the sky is a tiny
pinhole of blue above a rise of sooty concrete.
But never mind. Having a French husband qualified me for the
breathtaking generosity of socialized health care: nine months of
all-expense-paid medical, including the standard one week post-delivery
stay at the hospital and subsequent free trips to the physiotherapist. I
took the bathrooms in stride.
Those first few postpartum weeks I was an inhabitant of planet
motherhood, momentarily at one with all women while I rode the high seas of
hormonal tempests to that invisible bioplasmic wilderness beyond nation and
culture, a place that is
primal -- of womb and spleen and tissue and breast and blood and milk. This
feeling, however, quickly passed, replaced by other issues, such as "Do they
sell Pampers in France?"
The answer, of course, is yes, they sell Pampers and "Hoogies" and a seemingly infinite array of Lion King bibs.
What's different, however, lies in that gray zone where mores and
motherhood drift apart.
There are little things and there are big things. Take the little
things, for starters. In Los Angeles, I was weaned, for
better or for worse, on the open road. Mobility is in my blood. So it is
that during annual trips back home I experience a perverse sort of envy
around friends in L.A. who throw strollers in voluminous car trunks and
zip baby to and fro in more or less perennial sunshine, doing errands in record
time. I'm still mastering the art of pushing a stroller on cobblestones the
size of grapefruits, and while I used to loathe the rampant consumerism of
food mausoleums like Safeway and Ralph's, I now envy the convenience of
one-stop shopping. In the working-class Parisian beehive where I live,
grocery shopping is a long, exhausting affair of strained stroller bags and
lines at the butcher, baker, cheesemaker, tea shop, vegetable stand,
hardware store, pharmacy and newspaper kiosk. "But you live in Paaaaris,"
my friends gasp when they hear me complaining. Right. Paris.
Not that la vie Parisienne is without its serious advantages. One
of the most welcome differences is that my son, Max, won't grow up sucking on
the great teat Entertainment, adrift in the nonstop, 100-channel onslaught
of American TV. Granted, this lack of exposure will probably create a
yawning gulf between Max and his American peers that will dwarf their
language differences (to these peers it may appear as if Max were raised by
Lascaunian cave dwellers), but with around 19 centuries of history at our
doorstep, I'll hedge my bets in favor of local attractions.
That being said, we're not entirely without American TV: In the
five-channel world of French TV, there are dubbed reruns of "The Monkees"
(one desperately wonders why, though in some remote, bittersweet corner of
my heart I relish the flashbacks that rush back) and there is one station
that airs prime-time American news. Until recently it was the CBS Evening
News with Dan Rather who, seen from afar, had the vaguely alarming air
of a crash test dummy and gave me the feeling
that I was better off watching America from a cozy 3,000-mile distance.
Then Dan was dumped for Peter Jennings. Still, while America
is now beamed into our living room by a much more agreeable, Euro kind of
guy, I continue to be reminded of things that I'm gratefully spared as an
expat mom. Example: In a recent segment about the advent of children's
soccer in America, a group of kids were playing on a field somewhere in New
England while their parents cheered hysterically from the sidelines,
camcorders rolling, exhorting the kids to run faster, harder, longer. One
father, crimson with emotion, thrust his fists in the air and screamed, "Go
Johnny! GO!!" His poor kid ran so hard he looked like he'd have a heart
attack. Another mother, whose body looked about as supple as a wrench,
talked about how soccer championships were the pivot around which her
Fortunately, Max will be spared that particularly American
preoccupation with super-babydom that turns some kids into freakish
demi-adults. The French could care less if Jean-Luc or Marie-Claude is a
chess champion, a beauty pageant winner or a piano virtuoso at age 2.
What's important is that everyone eats dinner together at the same hour and
finishes every course, and at around 8 o'clock every evening you can almost hear
a great sigh as millions of French sit down at their dinner tables all
over the country, doing just that. (Family values that have been around so
long, nobody much talks about them.)
Still, I sometimes wonder if this absence of competitive American
drive will make my little Max any less capable of, say, raiding the stock market. Clearly he'll be different from Johnny in certain ways -- he'll be able to wear socks with sandals without getting abuse, or kiss girls in day care
without getting expelled ("Vive la diffirence," the French would say in the latter case) -- but later on will he have that somewhat older, self-contained quality that seems to set French children apart from their American counterparts?
I once interviewed cartoonist R. Crumb, who left the "bad taste palaces" of
California years ago to live in France with his wife and daughter.
Reflecting on these issues of child rearing in the two countries, he said,
"They raise brats in America. French children are better behaved. The
French are stricter. There are boundaries to things. Children learn to
respect those boundaries." And perhaps that's true. It only stands to
reason that an older, more "civilized" country should produce older, more
"civilized" children (a totally unempirical hypothesis, however, that many
French magnificently contradict).
So what exactly does this mean for Max? Will he learn about
"boundaries" through some sort of cultural osmosis? Because he certainly
won't learn about them from me. My own mother wasn't much for boundaries,
and she wasn't much for France, either. The first time she visited La
Republique she looked around and said quietly, "It's old here. The
vibrations are dense. People don't look happy."
Indeed, if it is our mothers who teach us how to mother, then I'm
in somewhat dire straits. A cultural chasm lies between my American mother
and my French mother-in-law: My mother-in-law tilled the land, churned her
own butter, raised eight children and ran an inn. She was born and came to
rest on a tiny plot of verdant farmland along with generations of ancestors
who lived in the same stone village where now the young flee, the old
cling and the only passers-by are Charolle cows. My own mother, on the
other hand, was a first-generation American who went west and stopped in
California because there was no more West left. (Had there been, she would
have kept on going.) She was a single mom, raised three latchkey kids, had
a burgeoning career and was on the New Age fast track before the term was
coined. When she goes, she'd rather not leave a trace and, in the
metaphysical logic of her worldview, she'll be lucky not to return to this
place called Earth.
Somewhere between these two extremes -- between the freedom of the
New World and security of the Old, between Betty Crocker and the
four-course gigot d'agneau dinner -- is a land called motherhood, where the
tides keep shifting, a place where I'm "mommy" or "maman," as the case may
be. It's unclear where all this will lead Max, but in the end, nature and
nurture will do their proverbial dance. And in the smaller scheme of
things, I can take comfort in knowing that those boundaries keep France a
couple leery, weary steps behind America. Which means, in more concrete
terms, that I've never seen a Chuck E. Cheese, and I thought, until quite
recently, that Barney was the owner of a famous L.A. beanery.