I live in Chicago. Like most metropolitan areas, it has a lively population of over-educated, upper middle class parents. They wheel and deal Bugaboos and Maclarens with the deftness of seasoned car salesmen. They have read absolutely every book ever written on parenting and subscribe to a specific philosophy. They are exhausted.
When my daughter was born I couldn’t stand to hear her cry. Not for a second. I imagined her feeling terrified and alone if she whimpered for more than thirty seconds before I tended to her. At first I thought I was creating a healthy bond between mother and child. I thought I was making sure she knew I was reliable. By her two-month birthday, however, I started to worry that my behavior was extreme. I imagined her turning into a totally dysfunctional adult. Living in my basement, even.
It didn’t take long for a therapist to connect the dots and determine that I was over-correcting for the failure of my own mother to create a secure environment for me. She’s an alcoholic. Still, I couldn’t help but note all of the other urban mothers and fathers around me parenting with a particular franticness.
When these parents would visit my husband and me when our daughter was a newborn, they had no encouragement to offer. Not sleeping? Get used to it. Breastfeeding your baby around the clock? It doesn’t get much better. Missing your adult time? Try to carve out some in five years.
It became clear that their primary goal was to excel at parenting, where good parenting is defined by the impossible standards of contemporary, American books on the subject. Their secondary goal was to dismiss their perfect children from their care in eighteen years and “get their life back.”
By their definition, parenting was going to be nearly two decades of waiting for the weekend — in the process of which I may or may not lose every ounce of self-respect and signs of a waistline.
In a desperate search for another way, I consulted Pamela Druckerman’s book, Bringing Up Bébé. It confirmed much of what I had already intuited about parenting but ignored while trying not to be my mother. Its premise is that children should not have every one of their needs met immediately. It suggests that kids must experience some struggle in order to gain coping skills.
The book claims that many French parents don’t tell their children to “stop.” Instead, they say “wait.” For example, if a child interrupts an adult speaking, he is told to wait for the parent to finish. Some parents believe that to be a successful adult you must be able to wait without getting rattled.
It makes sense. So much of the way we feel and act day-to-day hinges on our ability — or lack thereof — to wait for things. We wait for public transportation. We wait for job advancements. We wait for relationships to progress. Those who can’t wait while maintaining a certain amount of decorum are chastised. And rightly so — they’re probably assholes. Like the guy who shoved you out of the way to get on the train this morning.
Unlike many of their American contemporaries, some French parents don’t give in to their children. They don’t bargain or negotiate. They don’t pose idle threats. The result is that many French children clearly understand and respect boundaries for behavior.
This is not to suggest that these French parents are heartless authoritarians. On the contrary, they lavish their kids in love and a healthy amount of praise. They just insist on raising them within a “cadre,” a term referring to a strict framework of limits, within which there can be a certain amount of freedom. By insisting a child wait, you remove him from a constant state of want and allow him to adopt a peaceful existence.
An example of the cadre at work is giving a child the choice of chicken or fish for dinner, versus open-endedly asking him what he wants to eat.
Doesn’t this sound great? It does to me, too. It resonates with my instincts about parenting on a very basic level. However, implementing strict boundaries and teaching my child to wait is tough in urban America, where I recently read an article suggesting that it’s cruel to face your child out while wearing him in a carrier because it prevents you from responding to his needs quickly enough. (Are you effing kidding me? How much faster can your response time get when your kid is strapped to your chest?!)
I still question myself when I tell them that, while I don’t leave the room when she’s crying at bedtime, I don’t pick her up either.
I am not yet adept at brushing off the disapproving looks I receive from other parents when I don’t instantly respond to every disgruntled noise my baby makes. I still question myself when I tell them that, while I don’t leave the room when she’s crying at bedtime, I don’t pick her up either.
Druckerman suggests that the overparenting Americans are doing now is a backlash to eighties divorce culture. We want to be less selfish than our parents were. The trouble is, in our vehemence to be available to our children, we’re smothering them. We’re depriving them of the autonomy necessary to function effectively as adults later in life — a success that is arguably the endgame of parenting.
In the process of inadvertently rendering our kids incapable, we’re exhausting ourselves so completely that the rewarding moments of parenting are made obsolete.
Can I just tell you something?
I can’t stand to live my life dog tired anymore. I’m twenty-six years old and I have spent a good deal of my time as an adult being miserable for the sake of some distant, unsure payoff. I can’t treat parenting as yet another string of herculean tasks that may or may not result in future satisfaction.
I want my daughter to see that I am happy with my life now. I want her to understand on a fundamental level that she deserves happiness, too. And, I want her to be able to handle life’s obstacles as a confident and capable individual… Preferably one who doesn’t grow up to live in my basement.