An International Perspective on Parenting “Choices”

December 28, 2011

When my husband and I moved our family, sight unseen, to a tiny village in southern France, planning to stay for a year, we thought we knew what we were doing.  In our mind’s eyes, it was crystal clear: our children would magically learn to speak French, I would somehow master recipes and cooking implements that had previously thwarted me, and we would all become vastly more stylish and worldly than we had been before.

Not so much.  These were useful fictions that helped us overcome our fears and grab onto an adventure we had long wanted to try, but the idealized version of a year away wasn’t anything like what actually happened.  Not surprisingly, we were still plain old us, bumbling through the lavender, the way clueless Americans do.

The big surprise of our year away?  We were still ourselves, yet simply by living elsewhere, we become a very different kind of family.  We adopted the schedule, the rhythms, and the habits of family life in a small French village. We sent one of our kids to the village school, and homeschooled the other.  We used (cheap, terrific) French health care to get ourselves through more than one crisis.  And while we did not become French by any stretch of the imagination, we did begin to shop, eat, socialize, and parent more like the people around us than we did like the folks back home.

As a result, our family of four spent scads more time together, often eating long meals together, even long lunches together.  Family time became sacred.  Although we had been accustomed to socializing through the social channels of our school in Brooklyn, this was not the case in France.  In New York, I had worked as an administrator at my daughters’ school, responding to parents’ questions and concerns much of the school day. As parents in France, my husband and I had virtually no contact with our daughter’s school, and in fact never even learned the teacher’s name.  She was simply la Maitresse, putting our daughter through a rigorous and rote state-mandated curriculum that no parent would dream to challenge or change.

When we met parents of even younger children during our time away, we came to see just how different life could be with high-quality state-funded childcare provided for all.  Parents worked their 35 hours, and then they could come home and have time with their children, rather than rushing headlong in the harried misery so common among working families here.

We all eventually learned just enough French, and I now cook three or four new recipes reasonably well.  But the biggest breakthrough for me as a parent, and an educator?

I learned firsthand just how much culture drives the bus when it comes to everyday life — but particularly parenthood.

For years, I had thought parenting was something one did well or did poorly, a series of fraught decisions that, if navigated effectively and carefully, would produce well-adjusted children.  Like other young parents in post- 9/11 New York, I believed that my “choices” about working or staying home, protecting my children from perceived or imaginary harms, and feeding them, clothing them, educating them and shaping them in particular ways were things I wisely chose of my own free will, as opposed to just the way parents do things in our time and place.

This belief — that our private, individual “choices” as parents are a marker of our success or failure, and the marker of success or failure for our children — runs deep in our culture.  It is the belief behind the Mommy Wars, which pit parents against one another, as though our individual choices, rather than our shared circumstances, that shape our children.

These domestic squabbles are most obvious and most easy to caricature among upper-middle-class families fussing over the narcissism of small differences.  In these sorts of households, we myopically focus our attention on the relatively smaller distinctions between households with mothers who “choose” to work or “choose” to stay home.  But it’s also evident in the blame our culture passes back and forth between teachers’ unions and impoverished families, as though the perceived failures of our nation’s schools are the “fault” of lazy teachers or uncaring parents.

At our worst, and all-too often in the comments section of blogs like Motherlode, we find ourselves judging other parents — and ourselves — all too harshly.

A little international perspective on our domestic disagreements could go a long way.  Katrin Bennhold’s recent piece in the New York Times, “Treatment of Motherhood Illustrates Divides in the European Union,”  provides American readers ample food for thought.  She outlines her experiences giving birth and raising children in three European nations, and links her personal experience to larger social and economic forces.

I would love for American parents to read this and understand just how aggressively cultural factors shape what we perceive to be our most personal and intimate decisions regarding parenting.

In England, Bennhold was stiff-upper-lipped right out of the hospital three days after a C-section, and mothers were widely encouraged to breastfeed and deliver babies without unnecessary anesthesia.  In Germany, she and her baby were afforded a week of state-sponsored care and education before they left the hospital.  And in France, where she lived the longest, she was offered months of physical therapy to get her abs back in to shape.

Bennhold also noted what I would perceive as a shocking 97% epidural rate for laboring mothers in France, and explained that in part because Kindergarten ends at noon in Germany, many of that nation’s most ambitious women never have children at all.  As she puts it, ” Mothers are nudged into different directions and choices in neighboring European countries.”

As an economist and journalist, Bennhold’s point is about the future of European economies — the ways in which birthrates, health care and policies having to do with education, maternity leave, and childcare will shape Europe going forward.

But as a parent and a writer, what I took away was an even broader view than I gained in my own single year away in one tiny town in France.  Even in parenting, which feels like the most personal thing we ever will do, we are shaped far more than we will ever know by things far outside of our control.  When large formula companies are allowed to pass out “free samples” at hospitals just at the moment when women are first trying to breastfeed, that shapes their choices.  When it is harder to get decent childcare than it is to actually do our jobs, that shapes the careers of millions of parents who could be more productive at work.  When schools are overburdened because of large cultural trends, students suffer, shaping our individual and collective fates.

Writing like Bennhold’s bravely merges the personal and the political, and helps us see why talking about parenthood can be more than navel-gazing.  My generation of parents is writing more openly about the struggles inherent in parenting, helping us to begin to see the true variety of families, and the universal nature of the struggle to get it right.  A curious and interested parent engaged in that struggle has at his or her fingertips the resources of the entire internet, rather than just a well-worn copy of Dr. Spock.

This discourse has gone a long way towards demystifying parenthood, and telling the hard truths that previous generations kept under wraps.  Our next step? To better understand how otherwise invisible cultural assumptions often force the hands that rock the cradles, including the ones in our own homes.

Stacey January 1, 2012 at 10:32 pm

How very interesting. Thank you for drawing our attention to this article- lots of great food for thought.

Christine @ Coffees & Commutes January 19, 2012 at 5:17 pm

As I read your piece I naturally began to think about how our culture in Canada has affected my parenting choices. We are blessed with a year-long maternity leave (with reduced-pay), a fully insured health care system, and a country that is “officially” bilingual. Each distinct and separate, each with specific connections to the way we choose to raise our family. I stayed home for the first year of both my children’s lives, and breastfed both for the full 12 months because it was easy for me to do so without having to work. My children are fully-immunized, receive regular annual check-ups with anticipatory guidance on developmental milestones, and go to school and learning in both English and French. All this to say, I never thought about it how you’ve presented it, but I can see how critical the difference can be.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: