Bringing Down Bébé: How One Mother Mistakenly Hoped a Year in Paris Would Transform Her Sons
photo by Steven Simko
Inspired by a spate of books extolling the French way, Danzy Senna hoped a year in Paris would transform her all-American sons into model citizens. Au contraire.
One afternoon, a few weeks after we arrived in Paris, I took my sons to a playdate at the home of two French boys who lived in the neighborhood. Their mother, Christine, was like a poster girl for all I’d heard about Frenchwomen: Tall, thin, and effortlessly stylish, she was raising two sons while managing a career as a lawyer. She welcomed us into her pristine Saint-Germain apartment. My younger son, Miles, age four, raced past her down the hall in search of toys. My older son, Henry, age six, hid behind me, muttering hello only after I’d prompted him. She led me to the dining room, where I found an unfamiliar spectacle: her two sons, the same ages as mine, quietly curled over the table with pens and paper. They were dressed like miniature businessmen, with haircuts to match. The younger one appeared to be drawing a picture. Fine; my kids did that too. But the other one, the six-year-old, was intently writing down a row of math problems in one column and their answers in the other.
“Homework?” I asked Christine.
“No,” she said with a light laugh. “He just enjoys math.”
Her sons rose at the sight of me and, unbidden, held out their outstretched hands to shake. They said their bonjours before lifting their faces so that we could kiss on each cheek. Then Christine told her sons to go play, and they marched off, obediently, to join mine. When she disappeared into the kitchen, I peeked at the page of math problems, perversely pleased to see that many of the boy’s answers were wrong. Christine returned with tea and a plate of brightly colored macarons. We sat together, chatting, and I found myself relaxing. This was just as I’d imagined my life in Paris—me enjoying adult time while my children played independently. I’d imagined civility as something that people, even raucous American children like mine, could catch, like a bug.
The official reason we were in Paris was that my husband had a sabbatical from his university professorship in L.A. We’d decided to uproot the family for the year to give the boys a cross-cultural adventure. We wanted them to grow up worldly and bilingual. And for me, it was more than that. I was not sure I liked the overly precious culture in which I was raising them. In preparation, I felt I had to read Pamela Druckerman’s playground sensation Bringing Up Bébé. I was horrified to see myself in the book’s descriptions of the overindulgent American parent. My kids represented everything that was wrong with our country. They made too much noise in restaurants. They were picky eaters, to the point where I often cooked them two separate meals at night. Their toys lay scattered all around the house, as if to mark the territory they’d won. My husband and I had not had a conversation that didn’t revolve around them in years. I was forever sleep deprived. And long after giving birth I still looked, well, a little bit pregnant. Once, in a yoga class, the teacher asked me if I was expecting. “Actually,” I lied, “I just gave birth.” She congratulated me, and I waited until she was out of earshot to add, “Four years ago.”
Druckerman wasn’t alone in extolling the virtues of the French. In the same way that Julia Child once introduced American women to the exquisiteness of French cuisine, an entire cottage industry has grown around the idea that when it comes to living, Frenchwomen do it better. Consider French Kids Eat Everything; Forever Chic: Frenchwomen’s Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style and Substance;or the upcoming French Women Don’t Get Facelifts, by Mireille Guiliano, of the original French Women Don’t Get Fat. The list goes on. We’ve always admired their fashion; now it seems they’ve become standard-bearers for every facet of our existence. In contrast to our American child-ruled ways, French mothers apparently practice some elegant form of detachment parenting, which is why they look so much better than we do, and also why their kids are so much better behaved.
At home in L.A., my husband and I were at least aware of the problem. Whenever our sons complained that they were bored, my husband would reply, “This isn’t a cruise ship, it’s your childhood.” But the world outside our door sometimes seemed to be arguing otherwise. One mother I knew admitted she’d taken to asking her ten-year-old daughter on occasion: “How do you think your childhood is going so far? Pretty good?”
I’d always been susceptible to parenting manuals. When the boys were small, I read a book on attachment parenting that convinced me I’d already done them deep psychic harm. I’d failed to give birth to them in a bathtub. I’d failed to wear them strapped to my body all day in a sling while I cleaned and cooked and tended crops in the field. I’d failed to nurse them until they told me it was OK to stop. As a result, I learned they were doomed to be obese, anxious, and somewhat dim.
It was in some ways refreshing to read Bringing Up Bébé—except that it turns out I’d messed up my kids by being too attached. Frenchwomen didn’t believe that hoo-hah about “you’re only as happy as your saddest child.” Frenchwomen nursed for only as long as they felt like it. Frenchwomen didn’t feel the need to follow their toddlers around the park in earth shoes, interpreting their experiences for them. But, according to the book, it wasn’t too late. I could still turn this cruise ship around. And here we were, in Paris, determined to make our kids tough, gritty, independent, and exceedingly polite in two languages. They were going to attend the local public school, where they could put the French they’d been practicing to good use. International schools, I’d been told by the admissions director of a French lycée in Los Angeles, were for wimpy Americans who wanted to just have “a nice year.” We didn’t want a nice year. We wanted a French year.
I nibbled Christine’s macarons and asked her the question posed to Frenchwomen through the ages: How do you do it? I swept my hand around her apartment. Taking my question literally, she explained that she had it all down to a system. She saw the kids on Monday evenings, Thursday afternoons, and then Saturday mornings were reserved for their grandparents, and then. . . .
From the back of the apartment came a loud crash, followed by a scream. The dreamscape was shattered. I rose and followed Christine toward the commotion, trying to think of a way to explain my children. I’d tell her there was something wrong with them, that they’d been officially diagnosed with a mental disorder—something vague but clinical-sounding, like oppositional defiance disorder—and then I’d get us the hell out of there.
But when we reached the back of the apartment, we found her older son straddling his younger brother on the floor, clutching his neck tightly, while the smaller one flailed around beneath him, his face turning scarlet. My two sons stood at the sidelines, each clutching a toy car, watching with mouths slightly open.
“Ça suffit!” Christine shouted, leaning down to pull the one brother off the other. She slapped the older one swiftly several times on his bottom and then helped the younger one to his feet, berating them both in a tone I have yet to master.
If I was looking to the Old World for help with parenting, it was probably because I had no cultural tradition to draw from in my own background. The only tradition in my family, going back on both sides for generations, was to break with tradition. One of my grandmothers was an Irish playwright from Dublin; the other grandmother was an African-American jazz musician from the Deep South; one grandfather was a blue-blood Harvard law professor turned civil rights activist; the other grandfather was a professional lightweight boxer from Nuevo León, Mexico.
I was raised in 1970s cultural chaos. Dinner was tacos one night, spaghetti the next. My mother’s idea of discipline was to occasionally throw shoes at us while shrieking, “I can’t take this anymore!” Other times she just laughed at our misbehavior like an older teenage sister. Once, when I was eight or nine, she told me her theory that everyone had two ages, an actual age and a spiritual age. “For example,” she said, “I’m always going to feel seventeen.” She glanced at me through cigarette smoke. “And you’re always going to feel 40.”
I once saw a sculpture by the artist Charles Ray that seemed to sum up the American family as I’d known it: four naked mannequins—a mother, a father, a young boy, and a toddler girl—standing in a row, holding hands. They appear at first glance to be your average nuclear family, but the artist has slightly enlarged the children and shrunk the parents so that they all stand at equal height. It unsettled me because it spoke so clearly of a land where children were treated as adults and parents acted like children.
Before I knew it, the French school year had begun. From the outside, the boys’ école looked like a huge fortress, the playground a crush of screaming children—kind of like the public schools I’d attended as a kid. The class sizes seemed alarmingly large. I had to remind myself of our mantra—childhood is not a cruise ship—when I left the boys there behind the gates that first day.
At pickup, I leaned down to ask Henry how his first day of school had gone. He told me, his mouth smeared with pain au chocolat, “Weird; I feel like I don’t exist. How many days before we go back to L.A.?”
When I looked for Miles inside the maternelle, I found him sitting in a corral with the other four-year-olds. He looked calm enough, but he was wearing a purple jacket I didn’t recognize with a name tag that read mohammed. I tried to tell his teacher that there had been a mistake, but the elderly M. Rousseau just nodded and said, “Oui, oui.”
I tried to laugh the misunderstanding off, but by the second week it didn’t matter, because Miles had changed his name anyway. He was insistent that everybody call him Oui and he would throw a fit if we dared call him otherwise. He also began to speak in a drunken slur that made him hard to understand. It took me a few days to realize he was trying to sound as if he had a French accent.
When I went to a school official and told her my concerns about the kids’ adjustment, she assured me they’d be fine. “You pay too much attention to them,” she told me. “Keep yourself busy with other things. Enjoy Paris!”
And so, I tried to put away my worries about Henry, a previously sunny, popular child who now played with his hands constantly, making conversations between them. After writing at home in the mornings, I wandered Paris during the days, searching for the city I’d read about in books. I discovered a farmers’ market near our house like nothing I’d ever seen before. And I admit I did forget the children’s woes as I perused the exquisite displays of cheese, the glistening fish, the beautifully arranged fruits. Once, on my way home, I bumped into a neighbor, a Parisian mother of two. I asked her if she, too, shopped at the farmers’ market, holding up my bags proudly.
“Never,” she said, clucking her tongue. “That’s for American tourists. Tomorrow I’ll show you where real French mothers do their shopping.”
The next day she led me to a store called Picard. The logo on the sign out front was a giant blue snowflake. Inside, it looked a little like a morgue—a bare white space filled with rows upon rows of freezer chests. I followed her through the aisles, peering at the boxes and bags of frozen food. The French had found a way to freeze everything: escargot, foie gras, stuffed salmon, tiramisu. Pumpkin soup came in a bag of frozen blocks you just melted in a pan. “Is this what you feed your children?” I asked, thinking of the pressure back home to buy only fresh, local, and organic.
“Every night,” she said, laughing at my expression. “Oh, you didn’t know? This is the little secret of Parisian mothers. We don’t cook. Who has the time? At night I put Picard in the microwave, and dinner is ready in five minutes. Voilà!”
Everywhere I went in Paris, I saw beauty, history, nattily dressed children, and fantasies of America, from the movie posters in the Métro to the names of the French clothing labels—American Vintage, American Retro. It was as if, at this moment of identity crisis, with France’s economic future somewhat uncertain, the country had finally come to appreciate our pioneering spirit. I noticed that the French remained, however, stubbornly attached to quality and tradition, and as I walked the streets, it was impossible not to be impressed by the cut of a silk scarf or the elaborate window display of our local pastry shop. At the boys’ school, it was true that there was a lot more rote memorization than they were used to, but I was glad that Henry was learning to handwrite in the most beautiful cursive, a far cry from the iPads that had been dispensed to every kid in his L.A. kindergarten class.
Whatever Paris’s charms, the boys were deeply homesick. At night, in their twin beds, they whispered back and forth to each other all the things they missed the most about Los Angeles—horrible things, like the garish outdoor mall with the fountains that “danced” to pop tunes, or the Santa Monica Pier, where they’d both shrieked with terror on a ride before throwing up their cotton candy. They missed it all—especially their preschool, which I had affectionately called Kumbaya Academy, where, instead of their being corrected for any mistakes, every smear of paint or mindless utterance was met with “Great job!”
It was fall, and the U.S. presidential elections were in full swing. One evening, I found Henry standing in the living room watching CNN footage of a Mitt Romney campaign rally. He was chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” I switched off the TV and sharply reminded him that we were Obama supporters—but even I could see that wasn’t the point. In bed beside my husband that night, I asked him to remind me what we were doing here with the kids. “Exposing them to another culture,” he said, trying to reassure us both. “They’ll adjust in no time. Remember? Kids are resilient.”
Everything crystallized the next weekend when my husband and I attended an American-fiction festival in Paris. There I met a French photographer who was doing a series on contemporary writers. Sixty-something, gray-haired, he asked me to lean against a wall while he fiddled with his camera. We chatted. I told him we were here for a year with our kids, that we’d put them in French public school. “We’re hoping they’ll pick up French,” I told him.
“Ah,” the man said, nodding. “My parents did that to me when I was seven. We moved here from Sweden, and they dropped me in a French public school without having any French. Because, as they say, kids are like sponges.”
I tried to laugh away my growing discomfort. “I guess it worked,” I said. “You sound French now.”
“Funny you should say that,” he said. “Fifty-five years later, I’m still trying to remember that year. According to my parents, I didn’t speak for the first six months after we got here—not a word. I was rendered completely mute by the shock of it.”
He hid his face behind the camera. “Now let’s start with one of you smiling.”
One Monday morning soon after, Miles pretended to be sick, and I pretended to believe him so he could stay home. As I was walking Henry to school, he tripped on the curb, fell, and skinned his knee. Though the cut was tiny, he began to weep like I’d never heard him weep before. I sat down beside him and held him in my arms, and a memory floated back to me from my own childhood. My father, in the late seventies, in the wake of his divorce from my mother, had sent my sister and me to a black-pride academy deep in the heart of Boston’s African-American neighborhood. The founder’s motto was to “instill racial pride while teaching.” During our time there, we performed in an all-black Christmas pageant called The Black Nativity, learned to sing the black national anthem, and were swatted with a switch by a dance teacher in an Erykah Badu–style head scarf when we forgot our steps.
My sister and I wept each time we were led up the steps into this new world where we were generally ostracized by the other kids. My father had the best of intentions—to make us proud of our black heritage in the midst of a predominantly white city—but in a haze of idealism and political ideology, he couldn’t see the more immediate reality of our daily misery. He inflicted this education on us like a bitter medicine. Someday we’d be proud to be black. Someday we’d reach the promised land of Negritude, and this would all make sense.
Henry sobbed in my arms over the cut on his knee that wasn’t really the problem. I held him and told him, “It’s lonely, isn’t it, being in that school? I’m so sorry. Let’s just stop. OK? Today we’ll go inside and say goodbye to your schoolmates and your teacher. We’ll thank them for having you. Then we’ll leave and we’ll never go back again. I’m finding you a school where people speak English.”
He looked confused for a moment. “Really?”
The following week I had both boys enrolled in bilingual international schools. We weren’t abandoning the language project altogether—half their day would be in French, half in English. But along with French children, there would be other Anglophone children like them.
The first day, I took Henry to his new classroom. We found a group of rowdy American and British boys crowded around a table building a Lego castle. They were neither self-contained nor well behaved. They were everything Bringing Up Bébé claimed French kids were not. I nudged my son to join them.
Afterward, I sat in a nearby Starbucks, drinking a soy chai latte, surrounded by brash Americans. I thought about all the parenting books I’d read over the years, with their shifting and contradictory advice on how to do right by one’s children. My husband and I were still just making it up as we went along. My kids would not go home bilingual, with scarves wrapped artfully around their necks, happy gourmands who greeted visitors with kisses to both cheeks. I wasn’t going home as a French mother, real or imagined. It was shameful to admit, but I was the happiest I’d been in weeks.