Time capsule: written May 5, 2002.
Today I'd like to tell you a few things about what it's like to live in France.
The most disappointing thing about moving to France:
It's not original. Americans are always going to France, and with good reason. France has the perfect mixture of all the lazy joie-de-vivre that you love in a southern European country with all the civilization that you've grown dependent on as a citizen of the First World. Plus, it's just exotic enough to be non-threatening while giving you an endless stream of Tarantinoesque "It's the little things" moments to tell your friends at home about.
The problem, of course, is that countless other people have already had these same moments, and have beaten you to the punch of writing witty things about them. The inevitable reaction is to emphatically protest, "Yes, but it was so much more amusing when it happened to ME." Too bad. It's been done.
That's why I'm adding a second theme to this essay: babies.
You've heard about France, and you've heard about babies, but have you heard about babies in France? Together in the same essay? If so, you can probably skip reading the rest of this. Unless you're really bored.
Everybody hates a know-it-all-parent.
That's why my husband and I have no friends. Unfortunately, our in-depth studies of parenting handbooks, coupled with our seven months of intensive parenting experience, have granted us infinite wisdom on the subject of child-rearing. For example, another couple we know was explaining that the only baby food they were feeding their six-month-old baby was a big vat of apple-pear sauce that they prepared in weekly increments, and which they fed to their baby directly from the main vat (without first spooning it into a separate bowl or anything!).
Now you may not know this if you're not a know-it-all parent, but in fact you're not supposed to do that. Fortunately, we were able to muster up enough willpower to restrain ourselves from telling them that they're not supposed to do that. This is mostly because we didn't want to get trapped in a discussion involving other people's wacky parenting theories. (Also because the guy was nice enough to help us schlep some heavy baby furniture up four flights of stairs.) After all, if we start telling them not to do this or that, then we run the risk that they might point out that you're not supposed to drink any wine at all (not even one glass occasionally with dinner) if you're breast-feeding your baby. Strangely enough, this couple is really negative about wine, despite not being adherents of any peculiar religious group (as far as we can tell). My question is, if they don't like wine, then why do they bother living in France at all? Maybe it's because they were born here.
It's the guilt, stupid.
One thing you learn as a parent is that the human capacity to feel guilty is infinite. You can devote 25 hours a day, eight days a week, to your precious darling (plus your job), you can give up everything you enjoy doing (down to simple things, like sleeping), and still feel guilty. For example, my baby is seven months old, and I would like to finish the process of weaning him. The current popular wisdom is that it is good to breast-feed your baby for a full year. Yet, after 16 months of good behavior, I would selfishly like to have a glass of wine with dinner whenever I want to. Or two. Or three, if I'm feeling crazy. Or maybe even take an aspirin when I have a headache. After all, I don't want to turn into one of those martyr-mothers.
Are we really supposed to be feeding him so many baby-yogurts?
The weaning process is proceeding apace, due to strong motivation on the part of the mother (who was sincerely happy to do it for the first five or six months -- the time to get all the pregnancy fat off the thighs and into the baby -- but is now saying enough already). Baby, of course, is not so keen on the whole weaning thing, and, while unable to thwart it completely, he has found some clever ways to make it inconvenient. First of all he refuses to take a bottle at all under any circumstances. Not a show-stopper: Mommy and Daddy can always resort to the more labor-intensive technique of feeding him formula from a cup. The second problem is that he's really not so big on formula, even from a cup. I mentioned this to the pediatrician during his last check-up, and she said that at his age he is only supposed to have one semi-solid meal per day, and the rest is supposed to be formula or breast milk.
This is where the guilt comes in (see the paragraph above). I agreed to this, but immediately upon arriving at home, I consulted my vast library of baby-care manuals and found the second opinion I wanted, namely "seven months old? Feed him whatever the hell you want." Baby-care manuals can be very helpful sometimes, especially if you have enough of them to get the whole opinion spectrum. And besides, those other people fed their baby nothing but semi-rancid apple sauce at this age, and he's still alive.
Plus the guilt is partially defrayed by a miraculous substance known as baby-yogurt. The pediatrician mentioned that if I really can't get him to drink enough formula, there exists special yogurt for babies that is made with baby formula instead of regular milk, and that was all I needed to hear. This wonderfood has saved us because our baby absolutely adores it. He could eat it all day. And we know that it's OK to use it to replace the formula he won't drink because there's a helpful info-graphic on the package that tells us so. It's a cute little box labeled "tableau d'équivalence" which contains a little glyph representing a baby-yogurt, then an equals sign, then another glyph representing a baby bottle. So it's okay.
The main problem with this strategy is that I'm not sure what we're going to do during our three-week vacation in the U.S. It's not clear that baby-yogurt exists in the U.S. Raising my first baby while living in a foreign country has given me the surreal experience of knowing exactly how the French take care of babies but having only the vaguest idea of how it's done back in the old country. So as far as finding a replacement for baby-yogurt is concerned, we're opting for the time-honored planning method known as "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." Or, more precisely, my parents will be crossing that bridge.
The gift we're not giving him.
Another nugget of wisdom that I would like to share with you is that parents cannot give their children everything. Here is a good example. One the one hand, my husband and I speak to each other in English at home, yet from the kids at school our little boy will hear nothing but French. Thus, if all goes according to plan, he will be perfectly bilingual and speak both languages without an accent. Many people have pointed out what a wonderful advantage this will be for him.
But is it really? Consider this: Back in France, my sweetie was just another nerdy math guy who couldn't get a date. But upon arriving in the U.S. with that outrageous French accent, he was irresistible! Ditto for how cute I was during my first trip to Paris trying to communicate with the natives in their mysterious tongue. But when my little boy is old enough to want to pick up chicks during his vacations in the U.S., he'll have to go way out of his way to mention to them that he's French. He'll probably even have to show them his passport so they won't think it's just a line. How lame is that? If he follows in his dad's footsteps and becomes a nerdy math guy, he'll be at a major disadvantage because his cruel parents have denied him the fabulous accent that should be his birthright as a Frenchman. Poor thing, he'll undoubtedly have to go to some entirely different country to pick up chicks.
Published in the Utah Valley Monitor September 29, 2005.