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Sunday, April 10, 2022

Bringing Up Bébé - aka How to Now Lose Yourself in Motherhood And Other Important Things

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman - thoughts and a review

Before I had kids, I envisioned myself as the type of parent who would be as involved as possible. I would have all the workbooks to help my kids get ahead, let my kids try each and every sport, and basically, follow the sequential steps to be by their side to nurture them every step of the way. I thought I would set them up for success in the very typical way of American parenting. 

Once I was old enough to see friends and family have children in a more personal setting, it turned into a social experiment and I did a bit of a u-turn on what I thought was the right way and what wasn't going to work with my lifestyle. I quickly saw how toxic this "overparenting" culture was not only to our children, but to the relationships we spent a lifetime cultivating with our partners, family, and friends.

One of the first books I read about raising kids was "BabyWise". The book has a heavy focus on sleep training and essentially helps you to teach your baby the benefits of a schedule and has a heavy focus on teaching babies to fall asleep independently. After that, I dove into SolidStarts on babyled weaning before turning to a few books that were centered around more of the big picture parenting techniques. I read "There's No Such Thing As Bad Weather" and found a culture of parenting that more closely aligned with the way I actually wanted to parent, in a way that made sense to me and my lifestyle. I looked back at the books I read and quickly realized I was really drawn to a more structured parenting style that focused on independence.

I read about "Bringing Up Bebe" and added it to my request list at the local library, knowing this book had similar themes to the books I have read, but under the lens of a different culture. I was right and soaked up Druckerman's advice as an American living in France. I saw so many similarities between this book and There's No Such Thing as Bad Weather, revolving around autonomy and independence but I also saw some differences. While both cultures emphasize good eaters, the French take food ten steps further and it's admirable how important food is to the French culture right from the start. Sweden is the leader in sustainability and environmentally conscious actions in nearly every aspect of their life.

You have to read the book through the lens that the American and French Cultures are quite different and these differences have shaped the way we parent, for better or for worse. You don't have to read this book and implement every single thing Druckerman tells you. You are entirely welcome to read this novel and take what you like, leave what you don't.

This is a fantastic read for the "Modern Mom" who wants to balance their identity as a professional, wife, mother, and, and that parenting this way is wildly positive for their relationships and their children. This is for the parent who values structure and rules and wants to parent in this type of framework.

I like how Druckerman worded it when she said "The French have managed to be involved without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren't at the constant service of their children". Druckerman instills her witty sense of humor as we dive into the French beliefs, centered on the understanding that children are rational beings and that sets them up for success doesn't involve a worksheet but instead, involves structure. Maybe we don't have to be as involved as possible but involved as necessary and that is the key to their success. That parents have the ability to maintain the important parts of their identity before they took on the label of "parent". I left the "Allemanstratten" of Sweden and took to the streets of Paris to add a few more foundations to my parenting toolbox and of course, I'm sharing it with you. 

Simply put, the French refuse to make child-rearing an all-consuming vocation and I-am-here-for-it.

Framework - The Cadre (kah-druh)

One of the terms you will come across over (and over) again in this book is Cadre. It's the foundation of French parenting and sets the stage for a lot of the other talking points in this book. The cadre is the framework of boundaries set by parents. While the framework is strict, everything else around this frame is pretty loose and flexible. 

‘What struck us, and bothered us was that the parents never said ‘no.’ … It suggests that the American kids don’t have firm boundaries, that their parents lack authority, and that anything goes. It’s the antithesis of the French ideal of the cadre, or frame, that French parents talk about. Cadre means that kids have very firm limits—that’s the frame—and that the parents strictly enforce those limits. But within those limits, the kids have a lot of freedom,”

The best analogy I have (and the way I implement cadre) is a rigid food and sleeping schedule. I think children thrive on structure and this schedule is the framework of our day. Around those set times, there is a ton of freedom in his day on what he plays with, what we do, etc. The schedule also changes with age and I used BabyWise to help me set up the schedule. It allows me to plan my day around his schedule and lets me set boundaries with him. Snacks are no longer offered every time he cries and he knows when he gets food. He naps at 9 and 1 and goes down again at 6:30. When we travel or have plans, the schedule is shifted a bit and it's the 80/20 rule in our house. 80 percent of the time we follow this strict schedule but the other 20 percent, we go with the flow and adapt with a set of tools to help us adapt to the schedule. Knowing the schedule helps children behave more rationally, knowing when meals are coming and when sleep is planned. 

"It's Me Who Decides" - Strict Parenting

If you are someone who is off-put by sleep training and believes in the "gentle parenting" philosophy, this book may not align with your values. While gentle parenting philosophies don't believe in punishing or correcting a behavior. It seems to focus on acknowledging a child's feelings and understanding how those feelings affect their behavior. I spent five minutes reading about this parenting style and instantly knew gentle parenting wasn't for me. 

I believe in consequences (time outs and canceled plans) and I think we have all gone a bit overboard in the feelings department. I don't like how a lot of American parents revolves around constant praise and participation trophies to soften the blow of defeat. 

It seems the French would agree with me and they use the term "child king" for the American child who is in charge of their family, dictating what they do and what they eat (we all know a child king..). French children appear to be more disciplined because their parents are firm, following le cadre and their nonnegotiables. As one of the french parents simply told Druckerman in her book, "It's me who decides". 

The French put parents at the top of the family hierarchy and sharing power with a child doesn't exist. There is some softness, it's listening to your kids but being firm about who is in charge. Druckerman uses the analogy of a screw to describe the reason behind strict parenting. "It's easier to loosen the screw than to tighten the screw, meaning you have to be very tough if you're too tough you loosen, if you were too lenient afterward to tighten, forget about it".

A tantrum happens when a child is overwhelmed by his own desires and doesn't know how to stop himself. The other kids are used to hearing no and having to accept it. You have to be authoritative but not authoritarian. The French truly believe that the more spoiled a child is the more unhappy he is.

Daycare and Preschool

Pamela spends a lot of time talking about the differences in the American vs French daycare systems. The differences are startling and revolve around time, money, and quality of care.

While Druckerman is pretty harsh on the American daycare system, I don't think she is wrong. I've never met anyone who truly thinks the American daycare system is working for parents and their children.

Druckerman discusses the origins of daycare and preschool and how daycare has a working-class connotation in America while middle-class parents use preschool". It also explains why today's American preschools often last just a few hours a day. It's presumed that mothers don't have to work or can afford nannies. The closest comparison to French daycare (the crèche) here in the US is the military/department of defense. It's America's largest daycare system, they accept children from as young as 6 weeks old, and are typically open from 6:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Operating hours wrap around the workday, fees are scaled according to parent's income, and the government subsidizes about half the cost. Does anyone else know of a daycare system like that here in the US?

Druckerman acknowledges that the quality of American daycare is extremely uneven. "There are no national regulations...some states don't require caregivers to have any training.  Pamela's daughter is in the French daycare system and she details her daughter's caregiver as a grandmother in her 60s (and a pediatrician and a psychologist each visit the crèche once a week).

Crèches are subsidized by the state and parents are charged sliding fees based on their income because high-quality child care should be available to every parent. I know it's an apples to oranges comparison as France can be called a socialist country and tax dollars help fund Frances high-quality daycares. However, a lack of funding isn't an excuse for the hefty price tag, erratic hours and mediocre care offered by many American daycares.

A lot of American families see daycare as a necessary means for childcare when going back to work and often send their kids with a fair amount of guilt. American parents who can afford to tend to instead hire full-time nannies. 

French Crèche (not a pastry)

The daycare in France is called the "crèche" and it's full-time subsidized daycare. The 
crèche offers high-quality care with hours that revolve around the schedule of working parents. Space is limited and a spot in the crèche is coveted by parents of all socioeconomic walks of life from doctors to doormen. 

While I was amazed by the weekly pediatrician visits and the quality of the food, it's the crèche caretakers in France that are on a whole different level.

Of the more than 500 people who sit for the test to work in the 
crèche, just 30 will be admitted to the training school. The selected 30 then do a year of course work "including internships that follow a curriculum set by the government. They learn the basics of child nutrition, sleep, and hygiene and practice mixing baby formula and changing diapers.

In France, this daycare system is the gold standard and a distant second choice is part-time daycare or nannies which are subsidized as well.

Four-Course School Lunches 

The food is another aspect of the French culture that is so drastically different from ours. The 
crèche posts the menu each week and it always centered around a four-course lunch. It looks something like this: a cold vegetable starter, a main dish with a side of grains or cooked vegetables, a different cheese each day, and a dessert of fresh fruit or pureed fruit. A typical menu starts with hearts of palm and tomato salad followed by sliced turkey paired with rice in a Provencal cream sauce. The third course is a slice of cheese with a slice of fresh baguette and dessert is fresh kiwi. "An in-house cook at each crèche prepares lunch from scratch each day and aside from the occasional can of tomato paste, nothing is processed or precooked. A few vegetables are frozen but never precooked". I don't even need to explain the differences between this four-course lunch and the cafeteria at many American schools. We've all seen the slop poured out of a bag and into a carton, something the cafeteria staff call "food".

The French have decided the teaching healthy eating habbits is a priority, they believe in taste training their children, and sitting at a table together for a meal. You are probably astounded by the level of detail, the care and variety that goes into a menu for children. The French approach to feeding kids is that if you keep trying things, you eventually come around to liking most of them. This standard is slowly gaining speed here in the US as many parents shift to this baby-led weaning style of feeding our kids with the hopes of preventing picky eating. 

Le Goûter  

It's common to see american children with an arsenal of (packed and processed) snacks, brought along for every and any outding. Constant snacking often leads to a less hungry kid, which then leads to one who is much less likely to explore new foods. French children typically eat at their meal times and at one afterschool snack (Le Goûter) which children are often involved in preparing. 

I quickly noticed how guilty I was of the constant snack dispensing, often as a tool to quiet a fussy baby. This book convinced me to cut the snacking and focus on full meals with one "after school" snack, Le Goûter. I noticed an almost immediate change in his disposition as he quickly realized crying for snacks throughout the day is a thing of the past. He was always a great eater but now he knows he eats at 7am, 11am and 5pm with one snack after his last nap. Yes, sometimes meal times change and an extra snack happens causing us to deviate from this plan but 80 percent of the time, this is it.


I found the differences in breastfeeding to be groundbreaking and somewhat astounding. While it's definitely getting better here, there is a ton of judgment around mothers who choose not to breastfeed. Here in the US. Mothers beat themselves up about breastfeeding and so did I. I felt an abundance of guilt when I switched to formula at 6 months old (and in hindsight, it was the best thing I ever did for my sanity and identity).

In France, it's the exact opposite. Some mothers reject breastfeeding to be able to gain their independence, their bodies, and their return to work at a quicker pace. It's also to ensure their partners participate in the feeding ritual. Another reason? It has a “peasant image.” While some mothers don't have access to formula and breastfeeding is the only way, French mothers see the convenience of formula available at their fingertips as the only reason they need to use formula. Breastfeeding may be the only option in Subsaharan Africa but it isn't in middle-class Paris. While the health benefits of breastfeeding are known, "culture is far more powerful than science". While "breast is best" was a common theme that has recently been changed to "fed is best", French mothers often feel that breastfeeding is above and beyond the requirements of motherhood. 

An Identity More Than Mom

This isn't going to be popular with a lot of people but I found the honesty behind France's bounce back culture to be a breath of fresh air. Here in the U.S., there seems to be a competition of who "suffers the most" in the trenches of parenthood. Americans often feel "morally righteous committing to motherhood at the expense of your body". It is often viewed as selfish to "take time away from their babies to tend to their fat". I wasn't willing to consume the number of calories required to maintain a milk supply and I wasn't willing to sacrifice how I looked and felt to breastfeed long term. I allowed myself to be a priority, knowing he would thrive just fine on formula if that is what happened. 

While I appreciate the blatant honesty around body image, I do see how France takes it a bit too far. France has enormous pressure for moms to keep weight gain to a minimum and to lose it all quick. However, I saw the benefits in women allowing themselves to take time and energy away from their children to focus on themselves, especially for their health and self-esteem. It often feels forbidden to talk about postpartum weight loss and I (almost) felt guilty for how quickly I regained my sense of self, physically and mentally. In America it's a "mom zone, you get a pass on your appearance to take care of a baby". The French still view you as a woman after becoming a mother and the visual benefits that go along with it. There is an unspoken three-month rule to getting your body back that can be seen on many of the mothers in Paris. 

"American mothers wear these sacrifices as badges of honor as if suffering through motherhood is the only way to know that you’re doing it right."

Back to Work

In France, the mom and woman rolls are fused at any given time you can see both. No one asks if you go back to work it's assumed that you don't just drop your career.

French mothers go back to work and college-educated mothers really ditch their careers temporarily or permanently after having kids. Druckerman said "when I tell Americans I have a child they usually ask are you working whereas French people just ask what do you do? Back in the U.S., I know lots of women who stopped working to raise their kids. In France, I know exactly one." 

Yes, French mothers go back to work in part because they can.  French women have the high-quality subsidized daycare system among other subsidized options to lean on when they have to go back to work. French women are supposed to get their figures back in 3 months and that's roughly when they go back to the office.

While I don't believe every woman needs to drop her life at three months and head back to work,  think there is a lot of positive in it. Going back to work does wonders for an identity besides mom. F
rench women work not just for financial security but for status. You'll rarely find parents at the playground because they're all at work. Beyond that, I truly believe women should have a sense of financial independence. I think Druckerman explains it well when she says "French professional women tell me that quitting work for even a few years is a precarious choice... if tomorrow your husband is unemployed what will you do? Husbands can disappear she explains".

"Le Pause"

The pause was actually a French parenting strategy I was aware of before picking up this book. The thought is there is a brief pause before you rush over to your crying baby. This is particularly important with sleep training as that "pause" usually gives babies a chance to connect their sleep cycle without relying on you.

In Druckerman's words, "French parents come to learn their babies’ natural rhythms and encourage self-soothing, To b effective, you have to believe that a baby is capable of coping with some frustration. 
To believe in The Pause, or in letting an older baby cry it out, you have to believe that a baby is a person who’s capable of learning things (in this case, how to sleep) and coping with some frustration.”

Le Pause extends beyond sleep training and in general, is an important tool to teach a child the art of patience. 

The Couple Comes Before the Kid - Adult Time

I really love how Pamela over-stresses a french mother's commitment to staying true to herself. Woman first, mother second. Or as the French say "The couple comes before the kid". This also may sound jarring but I completely agree. It's simple really, how important it is to teach children that he's not the center of the world - an essential lesson for their development.

"French experts don't treat having quality time together as an afterthought and they're adamant and unambiguous about it. The couple is the most important. It's the only thing that you choose in your life your children, you didn't choose. You chose your husband so you're going to make your life with him, especially for when the children leave, you want to get along with him".

Whenever my friends ask about our sleep training, I try to overemphasize how important it was for our marriage. Whitney goes to bed at 6:30 and it's our time after that. While that time will shift as he gets older, there will always be a strict timeframe and a distinct shift between family time and "adult time". The French have seemed to master this and their emphasis on the couple with zero sense of guilt is a breath of fresh air. This isn't the popular opinion but there is also immense value in children learning that their parent's world does not revolve around them all of the time.

Independent Play

Another big theme in this book is independent play. Druckerman quickly discovered the large differences in how we socialize with our parents while with our children.

“When American families visited our home, the parents usually spent much of the visit refereeing their kids’ spats, helping their toddlers do laps around the kitchen island, or getting down on the floor to build Lego villages. When French friends visited, by contrast, the grown-ups had coffee and the children played happily by themselves.” Bigger picture - a lot less alternating shifts of parenting in Paris.

She has another analogy she uses to compare the American parents to the French parents she sees with their kids at a playground. French mothers sit on the benches and talk to their friends while kids play on the playground with the other kids. Meanwhile, American parents were following their children around the playground, monitoring most of their moves and serving as a playmate.

A lot of independence and independent play relies on the idea of autonomy (a person's ability to act on his or her own values and interests). American parents aren't sure autonomy is a good thing and we tend to "assume that parents should be physically present as much as possible to protect kids from harm and to smooth out emotional turbulence for them."

Druckerman talks about a French friend and her parenting style and you can quickly appreciate how beneficial her idea of autonomy is. "Delta was talking about leaving a child alone safely to figure things out for himself. She also means respecting him as a separate being who can cope with challenges. And Delta's view by the time a child is six years old he should be able to do everything in the house and in society that concerns him. The French believe that autonomy is one of the child's most basic needs.

Say Bonjour

The idea of teaching your child to respectfully say "hello" and "goodbye" to other adults when entering or leaving a room seems so simple but I really loved how profound it is. French kids are required to say "bonjour" and "au revoir". It acknowledges them as a person. "The child greets therefore he is". Druckerman says "just as any adult who walks into my house has to acknowledge me, any child does too. French parents also judge other parents by their ability to teach their kids this respectful greeting. When you say bonjour it shows that someone has invested in your upbringing and that you're going to play by some basic social rules. Children must learn to consider others and be considered".

Druckerman talks about habits of some of her French friends and I found a rule I even intend to steal one day. During the weekend mornings, the rule was that the kids don't have the right to enter their parent's room until they open the door. Until then they've learned to play by themselves.

In so many ways, this way of parenting is like stepping back in time. We don't have to go as far back as "children are meant to be seen and not heard" but far back enough to some of the ways we were raised as kids. I don't remember my parents sitting on the floor to play with me every day or planning "structured activities" or googling how to build developmentally appropriate sensory boards. I remember them kicking us outside to play with the neighbors and staying out far too late at my grandparent's house while the parents enjoyed adult time.


I feel like a lot of what I know about parenting and learned from this book can be summed up in this saying. You put in the work when they are young and everyone reaps the benefits in the end.  It's all about the long game. 

Before I had kids, I was apprehensive about the seemingly overbearing style of parenting I watched unfold around me. I knew I wanted kids, but not at the cost of everything else in my ife (my career, my relationships, my hobbies). 
Parenting this intensely has its cost and I think this "get ahead" culture is creating overdependent, anxious, overwhelmed children. A lot of what Druckerman observed from the French is a more passive way of parenting, meeting kids where they are at developmentally, but allowing them to grow under the umbrella...the framework of structure.  I think the catchy phrase these days is "let them be little".

Parenting is hard work no matter what cultural divide you stand behind but it doesn't mean you have to give up everything. Everyone will tell you it's hard but I also hope you understand just how fun it can be. 

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