Slimmer, better in bed, now we’re told French women are better mothers too!
When an elegant French mother confided her embarrassment about the time it had taken to get her son to sleep through the night, Pamela Druckerman was all ears.
With a six-month-old who woke several times in the small hours, she assumed it would be comforting to share the nightmare. Until, that is, she found out what her French companion actually meant. ‘I can hardly believe it,’ she continued. ‘It took four months.’
‘Four months!’ Pamela , 41, recalls. ‘While all my English friends were still getting up in the night with their nine-month-olds and assuming that was perfectly normal, she genuinely felt a failure because she hadn’t cracked it at two months. In her French circle she was the exception. In mine she was the exception, too — but for entirely different reasons.’
C'est moi qui decide: In French homes Maman and Papa are the boss… which makes for better behaved children
A year later, Pamela — who has lived in Paris since 2004 — was holidaying with her husband Simon, 42, and their daughter — known as Bean — in a tiny French holiday resort.
She had pictured leisurely lunches and dinners by the harbour, but the reality, she recalls, was ‘a circle of hell’. Instead of allowing her mother and father to enjoy their moules frites, Bean constantly tore up the salt sachets and demanded to escape her high-chair.
‘Meanwhile, all around us French children sat contentedly in their high-chairs waiting for their food, eating fish and even vegetables,’ says Pamela. ‘Their parents looked so relaxed.’
It crystallised something that had occurred to her soon after she discovered she was pregnant: French mothers seemed to adhere to different rules to their English counterparts. She decided to investigate and, after interviewing dozens of French mothers, sociologists and doctors, wrote a fascinating book, French Children Don’t Throw Food.
Pamela, who now also has twin boys, believes that Gallic parents tend to be markedly happier and more relaxed — and their children better behaved than their British counterparts.
Pamela Druckerman believes that Gallic parents tend to be markedly happier and more relaxed and their children better behaved than their British counterparts
Predictably enough, not everyone this side of the Channel appreciates this notion. In recent years, the entente cordiale has been severely tested by a series of tomes from our Gallic neighbours telling British women how we could be slimmer, wiser, prettier — in short, better — if only we could do things a little more like them. Now we’re being told how to raise our children; this is like rubbing garlic in the wound.
Still, it’s hard to deny that Druckerman is on to something when she points out that British and American mums seem to suffer anxiety about parenting that is largely absent from their French counterparts.
‘French women certainly don’t suffer the same guilt about everything,’ she says, pointing out that she speaks as an unlikely convert to French ways. A successful international journalist, she moved to Paris, to be with her then boyfriend Simon Kuper, 42, a British football writer based there. ‘I was the last person to idealise the French,’ she insists. ‘I was in no way a Francophile.’
And until 2005, when she discovered she was expecting her first child, she says she’d given no thought to parenting French-style. ‘When you think about France you think about food and wine and fashion — not the way they raise their kids.’
British friends living in France expressed criticisms of the French way of parenting. ‘One English doctor even warned me about giving birth in a French hospital because they were very anti-breastfeeding,’ she recalls.
But during her pregnancy and after giving birth, Druckerman noticed her French counterparts were less anxious — and noticeably slimmer throughout. They also seemed to snap back into their size-10 trousers within weeks of giving birth, before hotfooting it back to work with none of the angst that afflicted the English mums in her circle. Above all, their children were eerily neat and well-behaved.
The French are absolutely not draconian
about their own rules. They actually believe their children are more
‘My French friends didn’t have to
hurriedly end phone calls because their kids were shouting for
something.’ she says. ‘When I took my daughter to her crche, the menu
resembled something from a bistro, and in the playground the French mums
stood nattering with a coffee while the English mums were running round
after their kids. They were, overall, just more relaxed. It was a
cumulative effect, which led to a “hang on, maybe they’re on to
something”. So I decided to look into it.’
she found, she says, were subtle rules which underpin the way they
operate — and which, she says, might best be summed up by the phrase
‘c’est moi qui decide’ or ‘it’s me who decides’. In
other words, in French homes Maman and Papa are the boss. ‘We’re not
talking about despot rule, but about the way they view the family
‘While I kind of assumed that when I had a baby, my marriage and my body was going to suffer, and I wouldn’t have any time for myself, the French just don’t assume that. They don’t have any illusions, but won’t subjugate themselves entirely to the will of the child.’
MON DIEU! HOW SMUG
It’s not the first time we Brits have been told we could learn from the ladies across the Channel …
FRENCH WOMEN DON'T GET FAT
The grandmaman of ‘learn from the French’ books, this purports to unlock the key to how, despite eating mounds of cheese and fois gras, French women retain their figures. Author Mireille Guiliano claims that while they don’t forbid themselves anything, they eat it in moderation. Rather than obsessing about diets, they take pleasure in staying slim while eating well.
CHIC AND SLIM
Never mind diet, it’s undies that’s are key to French women’s figures, according to Anne Barone. ‘Even French women’s lingerie helps to keep them slim,’ Barone writes. ‘It’s a constant reminder to make choices that pay off in slimness. Their belief in this principle is demonstrated by the fact that there are almost as many lingerie shops in Paris as bakeries.’
WHAT FRENCH WOMEN KNOW
. . . is the importance of understanding ‘the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure’, writes Debra Ollivier. In other words, they’re more pragmatic than the rest of us.
FRENCH WOMEN DON'T SLEEP ALONE
Aside from an inbuilt knowledge of how to tie a Hermes scarf, French women never seem to have any problem finding a boyfriend. Yet, according to author Jamie Cat Callan, they don’t go on dates — instead the secret to finding love French-style is to adopt a ‘coterie’ of fabulous friends through whom you are introduced to men in a relaxed social context. Of course, it also helps if you’re slim and fabulous.
This approach, Druckerman learned,
starts from the moment the child is born. ‘When I heard these stories
about babies sleeping through at six weeks, I initially thought the
French parents were just being horrible and leaving their child to cry
for hours. But they weren’t.
‘Instead they employ what I call “the pause”. French parents don’t jump on their baby the moment it wails, but give it a chance to self-soothe. And they do that every time.’
Druckerman says: ‘The idea is that the baby is not helpless, but a thinking being who needs to learn the skill of sleep.’ The same values are applied to eating. ‘One thing they don’t have in France is this sense of grown-ups’ food and kids’ food. They have this principle which is “you just have to taste it, even if it’s just one bite.”
‘British parents have that, too — and usually, junior takes one bite and pronounces he doesn’t like it. The difference is the French don’t give up after two or three tries and assume that’s it. They just keep introducing it,’ she says.
And that’s not all. Unlike in most British households, there are few snacks on offer. ‘They have one official snack, le gouter, around 4pm, but other than that kids eat only at meal-times. Which means that when they do sit down they’re hungry. Meals are not at the same time every day, but kids know that meal-times are when you eat.’
Countless other lessons are dispensed throughout the book, like allowing your child one swearword they can use to get things off their chest (Druckerman’s kids are allowed to say caca boudin, or ‘poo sausage’). Anything beyond that isn’t tolerated. So are British mothers simply not strict enough
That, Druckerman says, is to miss the point entirely. ‘The point is that the French are absolutely not draconian about their own rules. They actually believe their children are more capable, in some ways, and believe in their autonomy. They just give a clear framework in which they can learn and see it’s a process — you don’t suddenly arrive at being a brilliant parent.’
Pamela insists, of course, she is testament to the efficacy of their rules. ‘I was too late on the sleep front but I would happily wave the flag for everything else,’ she says. ‘It’s not perfect and there are days when you still get driven crazy but I think my kids are happier, I’m happier and my marriage is happier from taking inspiration from what I’ve learned.’
She adds: ‘The point of this book isn’t to say we should do everything the way the French do it, but to use it a way to get perspective.’
Assuming, of course, you’re not too exhausted and depressed to read it.
French Children Don’t Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman is published by DoubleDay at 15.