Of Freaking Out and French Mommies

When I was four, I asked for a hunk of Parmesan for Christmas.  My subsequent Christmas lists were heavier on My Little Pony and Easy Bake Ovens (I never received the latter, possibly because my mom was afraid I would combine the two), but I’ve never forgotten that apparently odd request.  It isn’t really odd: who wouldn’t enjoy rich, flaky, salt-spangled Italian cheese?

That must have been my mom’s attitude when it came to feeding us.  As I’ve said before, she’s an amazing cook, and that gave her the power to overcome most of our picky-ness.  She didn’t try to make us eat tasteless, boiled-to-death things; she tempted us with the good stuff.  We were never forced to clean our plates, but she didn’t let us get out of trying whatever she had made, and she didn’t make everyone a separate meal.  “A child’s palate needs to be educated,” she told me later.  “How are they going to learn to like different foods if you only feed them what they ask for?”

Apparently my mom is French: this way of feeding your kids is praised in Bringing Up Bébé, the latest encomium to un-American parenting.  The author was amazed to see that French kids ate a variety of foods and only had one snack per day – somewhere along the way, maybe in the 70′s or 80′s, American parents went so off the rails that this now seems like a quaint Parisian travel fantasy.

I’ll have finally completed the herculean process of getting five young children out the door to go to an activity, and realize with a sinking feeling that I’m not done, because we’re required to bring snacks. I sign up to be part of a Bible study or a weekly prayer group, and one of the first questions I’m asked is which days I’ll be bringing snacks. My kids walk away from the dinner table leaving plates full of their favorite foods untouched, and I realize that the culprit is snacks.

Jennifer Fulwiler’s manifesto nicely highlights the larger problem with endless snack sign-up sheets: there’s an inverse relationship there between maternal effort and real benefit to the children.  You can see this in that alarmingly popular “Invisible Mom” story I criticized:  “Some days I am only a pair of hands, nothing more: Can you fix this? Can you tie this? Can you open this? Some days I’m not a pair of hands; I’m not even a human being. I’m a clock to ask, ‘What time is it?’ I’m a satellite guide to answer, ‘What number is the Disney Channel?’ I’m a car to order, ‘Right around 5:30, please.’”  This (fictional) woman wears herself down to a dejected nubbin – why?  To help her children become more rude, more unimaginative, more helpless.  Imagine if the kids had to learn to tell time, memorize the number of their favorite TV channel, tie their own damn shoes!  They would be more confident, more self-sufficient, and much nicer to live with.  Mom could stop feeling like a Jeeves with multiple Berties to care for.
That seems to be the overarching message of Bringing Up Bébé (of which I’ve only read an excerpt): true freedom can only be attained through self-mastery, and giving children a “frame” in which they must practice self-mastery makes life nicer for the grownups.  Heresy! shriek the Puritans.  If you aren’t miserable, you aren’t doing it right, and your children will never grow up to be billionaires.  Sadly, this secular anxiety, arising in upper-crust parents who believe that more parental striving equals more brilliant children and that their own children must take the lion’s share of prestige and worldly goods or else be considered failures, has blended with Catholic/Evangelical guilt and fear to produce an even more virulent trap for religious people.  There are certain circles where you must have 11 children and homeschool them all the way through high school or face judgement, and some Evangelicals have created harmful parenting philosophies based on their unknowingly secularized readings of Scripture:  says Christian writer Leslie Fields, “A few of the more stridently conservative writers are so confident of their parenting methods and outcomes, they describe child-training as a risk-free venture analogous to staking out tomatoes, training dogs, and teaching mules, only loosely veiling B. F. Skinner-like techniques with swatches of strategically placed Bible verses.”  (My friend Sheila has documented one particularly horrifying system here.)  If you run the right training program, your children will become “spiritual champions” – and if your son gets a boyfriend or your daughter becomes an atheist, it means you messed up somewhere.  Never mind free will – all that guilt is on you.
Why am I so interested in French mommies all of a sudden?  Well, I’m getting married soon, and I’ve watched a writer friend of mine go through a really heart-wringing crisis because she feels she must choose between her writing and the happiness of her child.  Like any good Catholic, she sees greater degrees of self-sacrifice as the only answer.  There’s no way I can disagree with her in theory, but she feels trapped and I feel twitchy.
The other day it all came to head when a certain Natural Family Planning group sent me their magazine, which I started receiving after Aeon and I took the requisite NFP class.  I opened it to find out “Why My Spiritual Director Urged Me to Quit Blogging,” and – well, first of all, it doesn’t help the image of NFP when the author, Annamarie Adkins, talks about unexpectedly having four children in six years and going half crazy because of it.  Her reason for quitting her mom blog was, it turned out, not completely unreasonable – she found herself using the Internet as a quick fix whenever she felt bored or lonely, and documenting her children’s lives rather than participating in them – and she doesn’t say she intends to quit her freelancing work.  Hey, I’ve kicked myself many times for taking the quick high of a blog post in place of the money and professional cred a published article might bring.
But Adkins’ decision to quit blogging “to begin a more humble, hidden, full life,” as right and grace-inspired as it may have been for her, is not a good decision to hold up in front of young, female, Catholic writers.  How difficult it is for a budding writer to gather the confidence to submit something to an editor!  How insidiously sloth sucks us back up when the piece is rejected and we must face revising it or sending it off to the next editor!    Women in particular worry that they are consumed by vanity, while men never seem to give it a second thought:  if they want to write, they write, and they assume that someone out there will want to read them.  The Vida count put women writers’ minority status into stark, cold data; and while some wanted to blame discrimination, plenty of editors complained that they simply didn’t receive as many submissions from women.  For me, this rings true.  As a writer, I fight a constant battle against not vanity, but sloth.
The Invisible Mom was obsessed with mortifying her own “strong, stubborn pride,” even while her husband and children were marinating in selfishness.  She could never be invisible enough.  I’m not doubting the capability of Adkins’  spiritual director to diagnose “vanity” as his directee’s root sin, but I think any stay-at-home mom who quit or hid her blog would feel, like Adkins, “isolated, a bit friendless and a little empty on the inside at times.” (All those qualifiers!)   Stay-at-home moms these days are isolated, sometimes to the point that people have suggested ministries to visit them as if they were shut-ins.  Perhaps Adkins has plenty of extended family… or then again not.  She finishes the piece thus: “Whenever the hole left by blogging aches, I remind myself that only God could – and should – fill it for me.  When I want to go to the Internet, I really should be going to Jesus.”  I acknowledge the truth in this – but if every Catholic mom, to please Jesus, had to quit blogging and do nothing except tend to her family in the most obvious, material sense, that would suggest that married life also embraces another vocation: that of a cloistered nun, but with no silence for contemplation.
I wonder what one of those laid-back French mothers would think of the illustration that accompanies the piece: a nervous mother at her computer, angel and devil hovering on either shoulder, and five children running wild in the background.  There is a grinning boy with a squirt gun, a preteen boy teasing his sister, a baby flinging a bowl of cereal from his high chair, and a little girl singing karaoke.  I imagine the French mom would not consider the singing girl to be a problem, and would simply tell the boy with the squirt gun to play with it outside, leaving her with only two problems to resolve.  I’m not sure what the illustrator thinks the mother should be doing with karaoke girl and squirt gun boy.  Does he think they will suffer emotional trauma if their mother doesn’t drop everything to clap for her daughter and roughhouse with her son?  Both of them look ecstatic to me.
I don’t admire everything about Pamela Drucker’s French moms (really just Parisian bobo moms).  And I do plan to breastfeed, and to homeschool (if it is right for us).  But I don’t plan to stop writing, and I don’t want to writhe, “self-wrung, self-strung,” on a rack of endless, toxic, mother-guilt.  If I feel guilty I will either acknowledge my sin and go to confession, or recognize the feeling as that harmful anxiety that we beg to be free from at every Mass.  If I have a daughter, I want to show her that growing up doesn’t have to mean giving up her dreams.

About flirtyintrovert

I love reading blogs more than talking to people. I'm trying to change that by writing a blog.
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3 Responses to Of Freaking Out and French Mommies

  1. Sheila says:

    Oh, I do love it when you blog about motherhood. You needn’t feel a bit bad about doing it before the kids come along — I think you’re more or less spot on.

    I am tired, tired, tired of all the guilt heaped on moms if we fail to be perfect, or if we do anything that isn’t kid-related. Just last week that nasty little phrase popped up in Simcha Fisher’s combox yet again: “Don’t you have better things to do, like taking care of your kids?” Even though this is her PAID JOB, which she does to provide for her kids. But even if it wasn’t. A father works eight hours a day, commutes some, plays with his kids when he gets home, but no one snipes at him for keeping a blog — or, for that matter, watching TV or drinking beer. If my husband is allowed to relax once he gets home, I sure as heck am going to relax when I get a minute too.

    As far as what’s best for kids, I think people tend to conflate attention with affection. You can’t spoil a child with too much affection. You can with too much attention. In my (albeit limited) experience, it makes kids anxious to be stared at like zoo animals. They just want to be left alone to play a surprising amount of the time. Of course a lot depends on what they’re used to. I have, through a part-time job and an internet addiction, accustomed my first son to entertaining himself. Since I had that first son to occupy me, the second one has jumped right in to entertain himself as well. Sure, there are days when I can’t seem to do a blessed thing but get climbed on. (And don’t get me wrong, that IS a martyrdom and exactly what all those women are talking about.) But on an average day when the kids are relatively happy, they really do just play on their own. Noisily. Sometimes a little dangerously. Definitely messily. But I’ll tell you, it’s a heck of a lot easier to clean up once at the end of the day than to try to keep kids happy without making a mess. If one cries, I come running. I offer free hugs and kisses and snuggles when they need them. And when they’re feeling better, I get them involved in a toy and go back to my own things. How the heck are they to learn to live an adult life if they never see anyone doing it?

    I don’t often play with my kids in a strict sense. Maybe a little while each day. But I let them play with me, if they’re willing to play my game — sorting spoons, washing dishes, sweeping the floor. Marko’s even old enough to stand up on a stool and watch me cook, smelling all the spices. I want to have a rich life that they are welcome to explore, not a kids-only zone where I am bored to tears and soon they are, too.

    I wouldn’t dictate to anyone else how they should do things. But I do think that utter sublimation of everything of oneself into the children’s desires isn’t the goal. Sure, I would lay down my life for them if they required it. But on an average day, I don’t think they do. All they want is love, approval, a little teaching (because it is a bit of a time investment to TEACH kids how to tie their own shoes or read their own story), and the knowledge that you’re going to stick around and not desert them.

    When I’m out there for your wedding, I’ll bring my copy of The Idle Parent. It’s one of my top five parenting books (along with Dr. Sears’s Baby Book, Free-Range Kids, Parenting With Love and Logic, and The No-Cry Sleep Solution) and you will love it.

  2. Finicky Cat says:

    Yes! Everything from the four-kids-in-six-years example to “Parisian bobo moms” to perfect-parenting v. free-will – you’ve nailed it! Don’t let your own children someday make YOU ever stop blogging… And, Sheila, I really enjoyed your long comment, too – and I’m going to check out the couple books I haven’t yet read in the list you recommended.

    Just for a tiny, random bit of background: 1) We have six children, none in their teens yet; NFP is easy for us (yes! it’s possible!) so they were all planned…for which I thank God mightily! 2) We homeschool – though frankly I don’t much enjoy it – because I do love the family relationships and healthy independence in allows. 3) I’ve read Bringing Up Bebe myself, and if you read the long excerpt from some magazine, you don’t really need the book. 4) As a recent convert from the Evangelical/Fundamentalist world, I have a keen nose for the bad whiffs of the same thing that crop up here in the Church…pants! guilt! submission! hell!…though I am still working hard to change the bred-in thinking I have myself on so much of it. 5) My own blog is one of my favourite pursuits with copious, painstaking narration and photography, although it’s a private one just for my own pleasure – and for the family record and keeping in touch with our families. Good luck to anybody who tells me to give it up… 6) I am SO TIRED of people running around telling other people how to live!

    Thanks for blogging, Flirty! And congratulations to Aeon… Did you tell us earlier when the wedding is – and I just forgot?

  3. Morticia says:

    Reblogged this on Morticia's Musings and commented:
    I loved this blog post by flirtyintrovert. Many believe that “invisibility is humility” and they reason that anything that encourages humility must be good.
    But what we forget is that not everyone wants us to be invisible. In my Reputation Shattered post I explain that one of my motivations for blogging is to leave tangible evidence of my existence for the sake of those who might want to remember who I was and know me beyond appearances. So many people don’t leave anything at all behind to be remembered by…not even pictures.
    I am a firm believer that everyone should keep a record of themselves. If you don’t keep a blog then keep a diary/journal…or even a photo journal if words are not your thing. Just do something expressive. If not for yourself, then for the people who love you.

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