Synopsis: Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman (2012) provides a practical, comprehensive approach to parenting based on French parenting techniques designed to address some of the most common struggles faced by American parents. Part guidebook, part memoir, Druckerman entices readers with a self-deprecating and whimsical tone that encourages rather than intimidates.
Review: I have to begin this review by confessing that this is the only parenting book I have read cover to cover because it was the only one I could stomach to get through. I perused a couple of pregnancy guidebooks including What to Expect When You’re Expecting and The Mama Natural Week-By-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth and skimmed a couple of books about being a mom to boys, such as Mother and Son: The Respect Effect by Emerson Eggerichs, but so far, I have found that most of these books are intolerable as a full read.
What makes Bringing Up Bébé different is the tone and structure of the book. Druckerman is not trying to present a step-by-step parenting model or rulebook that solves all of your parenting problems. It’s not a parenting Bible. Rather, she offers both the story of her own experience as an American raising children abroad in Paris and an exploration of some of the differences between American and French parenting. Out of this experience, she offers suggestions of ways to adopt some of the French techniques that seem to alleviate much of the stress and anxiety that bog down so many American mothers. What I love about it is that she never takes an attitude of “You have to do it this way, or else!” In fact, she frequently discusses many of the ways in which she herself didn’t follow the directives perfectly, and how everything still worked out largely okay. Rather, with both her writing style and her suggestions, she adopts a calm, relaxed attitude that puts parenting in perspective by giving it the respect it deserves, but without taking every minute detail too seriously. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is also the attitude I would use to describe the French parenting techniques she presents in the book.
She perfectly describes some of the at best, unhelpful, and at worst, toxic, attitudes held by many American parents that I have observed both in others and noticed as tendencies developing within myself. She critiques the “culture of total motherhood” that so many women have adopted and that buries them under the constant weight of guilt and feelings of inadequacy. She acknowledges the pressure young parents put on themselves to be perfect for fear that “every choice we make could damage our kids.” She challenges our obsession with child development and tendency to constantly evaluate whether our children are ahead or behind others, as if growing up were a high-stakes competition that could result in catastrophe if our child doesn’t come in first. All of these foibles, she claims, amount to an undue amount of stress placed on both parents and children that, more often than not, cause unrest and conflict for all parties involved. The universal solution she offers is basically to just relax and focus on the basics.
The relaxed attitude of French parenting was extremely freeing for me because I am the opposite of a relaxed person. I struggle with anxiety and perfectionism in all areas of my life, and I know I will struggle with it as a parent as well, but I don’t want to. This book gave me practical ways to get out of my own head and focus on the essentials while letting go of unnecessary hang-ups.
The book has amazing strategies for mothers of toddlers as well as infants, but because the infant stage is the imminent one for me, those were what I focused on with this read. Some of the specific take-aways that stood out to me were the French attitudes toward giving birth, sleep schedules, and feeding. In the process of choosing where to give birth and coming up with a birth plan, I found the number of choices and varying perspectives overwhelming: hospital vs. birth center, vaccinations vs. no vaccinations, medicated vs. unmedicated, induced vs. un-induced, etc. As a first time parent, it was honestly scary trying to make a decision about what to do. I was afraid to make the wrong choice or do something that would hurt my baby or impede our bonding in some way. It also felt like choosing a philosophical camp in some way. According to Druckerman, these questions related to how one gives birth aren’t really a big deal to the French.
“They don’t seem to care,” she says. “In France, the way you give birth doesn’t situate you within a value system or define the sort of parent you’ll be. It is, for the most part, a way of getting the baby safely from your uterus into your arms.”
Re-contextualizing birth in this way made the stakes seem so much less high and allowed me to relax enough to make those tough decisions based on my gut instinct, rather than fear or idealism.
When it comes to sleeping, French parents also have a more relaxed approach, but one that is also backed up with science. Druckerman explains how most French babies sleep through the nights by four months old, an unheard-of pipe dream for many parents stateside. The key to their success is understanding how babies sleep and having the presence of mind to pause long enough to observe the baby and understand what it really needs. Did you know, for example, that babies have to learn how to connect their sleep cycles the way grown-ups do or that there are different levels of being awake or asleep? Well, I did not, and learning this information and how it related to pausing before picking up a baby the second it cried out at night was revolutionary to me.
Feeding is one of the only aspects of parenting that I already had strong feelings about before getting pregnant. As a foodie, it is important to me that my child isn’t a picky eater and if there’s a way for me to prevent food allergies, I want to try it. Being married to a lifelong picky eater has developed some more compassion for me in these areas, because I’ve had to come to accept that some people truly just taste things differently, but I still hope to encourage our children to eat a wide variety of foods. The French approach to this has to do with how children are introduced to foods and how the family approaches meal-times. One of the best tips I learned was to start by introducing babies to pureed fruits and vegetables, rather than starting on cereals. Another was not falling into the trap of making different foods for different members of the family.
Overall, Bringing Up Bébé was not just a highly informative read, but a thoroughly entertaining one as well. It combines practical advice with a relaxed attitude that any parent can work into their pre-existing routine or personality. If you only read one parenting book (like I did), this is a great pick.