Sunday, March 28, 2010

Parenting in France

What kind of a day are you going to have when this is the first thing you see in the morning? Daylight Savings Time was celebrated at our house with the girls dressing up as Aztecs (I have no idea where that one came from) - Oliver chose to stay in bed and read. Ok, there's the expression of Eleanor's face which, truly, speaks volumes about the pluckiness and gutsiness of that girl. And then there are Iris's accoutrements (do I dare call it an outfit???) - paper towel rolls intended for recycling now carry pencils, including one with a princess on top, and her pj top now holds a comb (the blue shape), a dagger and the mysterious pencil cases. They had such a good time - grain festivals, invading neighboring countries (Oliver finally had to get out of bed), preparing temples (the pains au chocolat I managed to get out and buy this morning), and generally being completely involved in a world of their own creation. Outside our doors, Palm Sunday was going, with people walking up and down our street with palm fronds. There was also an old car rally driving down the street (deux-chevaux and old Citro├źns) - I love France!

If you know me as a mom, you know that I fret a great deal about how/if I'm doing right by the kids. I worry about not having enough control (no, they don't always do what I say - ha!); I worry about preparing them for the public eye (where I still feel uncomfortable myself); I worry about the fine line between guiding and nagging (sometimes I think I'm guiding, but I'm really just nagging); and I worry about the gulf between letting them find their own way and make mistakes and wanting to protect them from ever making mistakes (ok, at least with that one I know which one I should do - uh, the first). It's been a very interesting mini-social experiment to be a parent here, for two reasons: First, I always associate France with research and not just independence but the pinnacle of intellectual freedom - i.e. when I've been here before I've been accountable only to my grant-givers and to some men and women from the 13th-15th centuries (a pretty quiet lot). This time around, of course, I'm much more involved in seeing France through the children's eyes than my own - and consequently I'm seeing an entirely new France (much more modern, although if you ask the kids, we're still seeing plenty of old stones!). Secondly, back in the States, we're always talking with colleagues who are also parents and comparing notes on the balancing act between work and home (sometimes between work and work and home, but there you have it), and here we are raising the kids in a total vacuum. I have no comparative conversations within which to frame the kids' behaviors or desires or expectations of life - let alone my own. All of this leaves me feeling pretty up in the air at times: should I be pushing studying harder with Oliver? should I be making more efforts to get the girls playdates? etc. Is having control over your kids over-rated? Is unleashing their creativity the whole point?

I watch a lot of French moms (especially in these two weeks when I was alone for child pick-up and not talking Mac's ear off), both at school and just out in the world, and I always marvel at how incredibly quiet and well-behaved French kids are. They truly are amazing. They're clearly fun-loving and boisterous at school in the play-yard (we can hear them even right before they get out of school), but they do the little two-cheek kiss with their parents, and take their hand and walk quietly away. Restaurants? They're seated and quiet and eat very well indeed. Now, I have to give my kids credit for going out to restaurants (all those meals in my parents' retirement community taught them well!), but when we reunite at the end of the day, or when we're out and about on walks, we are the biggest bunch of goofballs you've ever seen: hugging, talking loudly, running around, not putting our coats on. I don't walk down the street with my kids in a calm and orderly manner - it's more trying to get them to be quiet enough so that I can hear their stories/requests/what-have-yous. Sigh - I just have to embrace my own goofiness. For that is the one thing I don't have that French moms do: dignity. I am just not dignified and stately, and my poor kids aren't either. But they are really cool. And if a moment like this morning can happen, and they can be happy (even if half naked) and adventurous (even if absurd), things are all right, aren't they? In my heart of hearts, I say a resounding YES. But I'm simultaneously sensitive to those expectations of A Mom who At Least Looks Like She Knows What She's Doing.

Meanwhile, in the land of the not-so-neurotic... Sarkozy is in the States! Woo-hoo, everybody! The big talk around here is that the Sarkozys are going to have an intimate dinner with the Obamas. I'm fairly certain that this image is from a previous visit, and not even in America (we don't usually have truck with metal helmets, do we?), but it pops up about 80 times when you Google "Sarkozy Obama" - I think because poor Sarkozy is raising himself up on his toes (lots of Napoleon jokes, etc.). Well, we'll see what those guys talk about!

And then: I have a guilty confession to make. There were enough quiet moments today (hoorah for coloring books, plastic knights, and elaborate plans to make paper TVs (again: ???)) that I was able to press ahead with another great novel I found in our wonderful house: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Reading a novel in the daytime usually means that I'm hooked and I'll need to read gobs of it to finish it soon. The poor Three Musketeers will have to wait for a few evenings until I'm done with this tale of academic intrigue (count Drakula and various locales in Eastern Europe) - at least there's mention of medieval Turks, so I could stay connected to work thoughts today (ha ha!). Tomorrow, a full report on how the first day of writing goes (of course, if I didn't build it up that way, it would go better!).

I had several other random thoughts I wanted to note (like why my mom's curriculum even included that speech by Camille from Corneill's Horace? Was it to promote this conflict of the self vs. the State? Was it really just the aesthetics of the language? Was it the perpetual embrace of the beauty of female martyrdom? a problematic legacy...) but I'll save those for another night!

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