Sep 22 2012

The Devoir

I pressed my knees together and wedged them under the tiny desk, perfectly sized for a nine-year old but more than a tight squeeze for me. The other parents, their long legs jutting out into the aisle and chairs pushed back to accommodate adult-sized thighs and bottoms, looked just as uncomfortable. I suppose hosting the parent-teacher meeting in the children’s classroom gives us a sense of their day-to-day environment, but it does put parents at a disadvantage. Hunched over and stuffed into hobbit-sized furniture, it’s hard not to feel like we’re back in school, cowering under the teacher’s strict supervision.

I remember in grade school, every year, on a night in early autumn, my parents would go to school after dinner for a meeting with my new teacher. During the day, we’d have been given a few minutes to arrange our books in our desks and we’d all work to tidy up the classroom. My father would always return from these meetings shaking his head with feigned disappointment. “Your desk was a terrible mess!” he’d say. The next day, I’d find my notebooks and papers turned sideways and mixed around, the handiwork of my father. Somehow I can’t picture his long legs bent under my primary school desk – I think it was more of a standing around, open-house kind of meeting – but I can picture the smile on his face while he was making mischief inside my desk to complete what was his very predictable annual prank.

These school meetings are important because you actually get to see and hear the teacher. French schools are very much drop-your-kids-at-the-door-and-stay-out-of-our-way. Last year, aside from the initial school meetings, Short-pants’ teacher never once spoke to me, and Buddy-roo’s rather humorless teacher and I had only a handful of exchanges, mostly about logistics. At these meetings you also get data that you might not otherwise pick-up, like how that sheet of paper that you thought was scrap and almost threw out is actually the assignment to research and prepare an oral presentation on Vikings, due next Monday. And with some assurance, you get to see that the other parents – even the fully French ones – are just as overwhelmed by it all as you are.

As the teacher described the work that would be required for each subject, I sank lower and lower in Buddy-roo’s already low-to-the-ground chair. The school meeting is like the door to summer slamming shut behind you. Gone are the blissful evenings of after-dinner walks for ice-cream and a family game of Mille Borne. Now our nights will be spent conjugating verbs, memorizing math tables and reading about Merovingians and Carolingians. The curious what-do-you-feel-like-doing-tonight? is replaced with the commanding fait tes devoirs. The word devoir means to have to, an auxiliary verb that means must or ought. When used as a noun, it can signify an obligation or a duty, or, as in this case, homework. Plenty of it, despite everyone’s complaints and the feeble call to ban it.

So far Buddy-roo’s devoir has been rather reasonable. But supervision is still required. Not so much on the three math problems due for tomorrow, but on the tricky “look-ahead” assignments: the test for next Wednesday which requires more than Tuesday night’s review, or the poetry every other week, which takes several evenings of practice to be able to recite by heart. It is still beyond the capacity of my 9-year-old to take responsibility for anticipating the due dates of these longer-terms assignments. As far as she’s concerned, next week is ages away.

Every evening, then, after a compact day of anticipating my own deadlines and strategizing how to get everything done in time, I find myself having to anticipate their deadlines and strategizing how to get everything done in time. I must survey Buddy-roo’s agenda and manage her homework, pressing her to start memorizing earlier rather than later, to cement her appreciation of Clovis and Pepin the Short and Charlemagne and to place them via historic timeline and accomplishment tonight, even though the test isn’t until next week.

Short-pants is more self-reliant, but she still needs nudging. Her speech on someone she admires wouldn’t have been completed in time had I not elbowed her, twice, to get started on the script. Her science report, identifying and describing the three types of tree leaves she was asked to collect, requires a decent amount of research and it was at my behest that she got started early. I get to be the raised eyebrow behind them both, with my new mantra, “I know it’s not due until next week, but you need to do a little every night…”

Some of the assignments seem, to me, beyond Buddy-roo’s capacity to be finished independently. Then it really starts to feel like homework for me. Maybe I should leave her alone, and let her sputter through and suffer the consequences of failing, but that’s not going to teach her how to do the assignment or help her learn the content. So I give in and help, always starting out as the facilitator, “Why don’t you read those paragraphs and then tell me how you’d summarize it in your own language?” Two hours later, I end up not-so-gently suggesting the answer so we can just get on with it and go to bed.

My greatest concern, beyond the burden this puts on me or De-facto, is the lack of time and freedom for them to imagine, invent and play. I remember coming home from school when I was in 4th grade and going for walks in the woods, playing with neighbors, making up stories and games, reading for pleasure. I rarely had homework at that age, unless it was a special report or project. My mother was happy to help because it happened once a month, not every night. My daughters, in contrast, sit at desks and work all day long, and then are compelled to use their evenings to do the same – and my evenings too.

I’m buoyed by the fact that Buddy-roo’s new teacher exudes warmth and compassion – a welcome change after the last year – and I think her classroom is going to be a much friendlier learning environment. But there are still a lot of musts that come along with the rules of a French classroom, so even though I considered re-arranging the books in Buddy-roo’s desk, just to mess the order up a bit and follow a family tradition, I decided, for her sake, I really musn’t.


Jan 21 2012

How to Flirt

“Antoine keeps dragging me.”

This is a turn of phrase I’m accustomed to hearing from my contemporaries, reporting about a wildish night out or even just what happened waiting for me to turn up at our favorite café for an afternoon beer. I didn’t expect to hear it from Buddy-roo.

Dragging is a classic example of Franglais. In this case a French word transformed into an English verb by adding -ing. My friends often do this with French words to be funny or sarcastic. Buddy-roo simply didn’t know the equivalent word in English: flirting.

This use of dragueur comes from the French cineaste Jean-Pierre Mocky and his 1959 film, Les Dragueurs, in which an unlikely pair of men, one a serial skirt-chaser, the other more reserved and eagerly seeking a wife, go out on the town in Paris, flirting with every woman they meet. It was called The Chasers when it was released to English-speaking audiences, and if you watch even a short excerpt of the film you’ll see that the title is apt.

The original verb draguer means to dredge or trawl. It’s also used to describe the task of minesweeping. But as a result of the film, the term is more commonly used to describe the act of hitting on someone. As a noun, a dragueur (or dragueuse) is the consummate flirt.

“What about Vincent?” I asked her. Last week he was Buddy-roo’s true love. “Or Ethan?” He was last year’s heartthrob, and it’s my understanding that kisses have even been exchanged between them.

“I still love them,” she shrugged, “but now I like Antoine, too.”

This all sounded too familiar to me, in that transparent, embarrassing way that your children mirror a part of yourself or your past. When I was going through the boxes I’d left in my mother’s basement, I found several diaries from when I was Buddy-roo’s age. I sat on the dusty chair under a single light bulb, reading the pages of dribble and cringing at the recounting of the romantic details of my life at age eight: how Kenny smiled at me in the lunch line, or how Billy said he loved me but I really loved Phil. Would Timmy hold my hand at the roller-skating party? Five pages later, the names were changed but the passion was just as fierce. How fickle, the flame of young love.

How do we learn about flirting? Is it something that just comes naturally? Is it observed or inherited? Short-pants can’t be bothered to think about the boys in her school as anything but classmates, while Buddy-roo intuitively creates a hierarchy of her romantic preferences. I’ve seen her in action. If those boys are dragging Buddy-roo, there’s a good chance they’re merely answering her coquettish call.

Should I talk to my daughters about flirting, its benefits and consequences? I know a bit about the subject. I was named biggest flirt in my high school senior poll and I’ve been told I’m not so bad at barstool banter. I’m a good wingman for my single friends; I’ll start a conversation and leave it for them to finish. One English summary of Les Draagueurs describes how the two bachelors think they’ve struck gold until “it becomes apparent that these two wily lasses only want someone to pay for their drinks.” That’s a motive I understand. It could be my epitaph: She only wanted him to buy her a beer.

My mother never gave me any advice about flirting. I don’t fault her for this. It wasn’t part of the logos of her generation. But I’m wondering if some kind of guidance isn’t appropriate. What would I say? How it’s fun but you have to be careful, how it can be hurtful to someone who takes you more seriously than you intend, or you can inadvertently hint at something you don’t mean to convey and get yourself in a sticky situation. How it’s a dance, but you have to be mindful how you step. Unless drawing attention to it only hastens the 50-yard dash Buddy-roo is already making toward the world of love and lust. Arming her with a bit of information could make her wiser – or just more wicked. Either way, I think we’re flirting with disaster.


Sep 10 2010

#Fail

If you could evaluate my mothering style for the last week, it would be a giant hash tag: #Fail. I’ve been impatient, quick to shout, rushing through the to-do list, rushing through the apartment, rushing through my angry life. This is partly due to a big job, one with tentacles that reach far beyond the original scope of the project. It’s also due to the rentreé – what the French call this moment of back to school, back to work after taking most of August off. Or maybe it’s just me, drowning in my own expectations.

Despite my foresight in July to buy all the girls’ books and school supplies before the crowded and dreaded last week of August, I still scrambled to get them out the door fully prepared for their first day of school, and it didn’t keep me from being subjected to the annual French pedagogical practice of scorning the parents. There were messages from the maitresses in the Cahiers de Correspondence reminding me that their books have not been properly covered in clear plastic wrap (akin to working with fly paper) or the wrong kind of colored pencils have been purchased, we have to send another box of tissues to the school, we need ID photos for the kids by the next morning and even though it’s 7:00 and I just got home and there’s still homework to finish and dinner to be made and another teleconference at 9:00, something I try to avoid but inevitably with colleagues and clients in other continents this rule gets excepted and tonight of all the nights I have a call but yes we’ll find pictures of you both and print them out for school tomorrow.

Oh and what’s this other note from the teacher? I have to fill out medical forms with the name, address and all phone numbers of mother, father and babysitter, a form much like the three forms I filled out and sent to school with each child (6 forms!) yesterday, only I must attach a copy of the their vaccination records even though I did this last year and the year before and don’t they keep these records on file? Even though everybody would be happier if they just computerized the system mais non it wouldn’t be the same if those faded photocopied forms weren’t sent home every year to be filled out exponentially.

As you can tell, I’m about to lose it.

De-facto smartly steps back and leaves a larger path for me to run my Tazmanian Devil routine. My murmuring and muttering in the kitchen – and by the way why can’t he load the damn dishwasher correctly – is less offensive if heard from another room on the other side of the apartment. The girls attempt to console me, but they are wrapped up in their own dramas: new teachers, an increased load of homework, back to the weekday morning up-and-out when they’d rather hang-around-and-play. Everybody is adjusting to something.

Then the Skype phone rings. If I answer it, something that I’ve been trying to handle for the last three days can disappear from my list. I hesitate. I don’t want to answer it, but then that something will keep stalking me. The headset goes on.

I swear, after each job, that from now on I will be the kind of mom that does not work between 5 pm and bedtime, in order to be present, help with homework, sit on the couch and tickle, cuddle or read together, to sit calmly at dinner and inquire about their day, to be the mom who gives them the most precious thing ever – more precious than any new toy or gadget – the precious thing of time. But I am not really that mom. I cannot even manage this simplest part of mothering without interruptions.

Then I realize that I’ve failed to be the mom I want to be, the one who’s busy enough to set a good example about being engaged in the world and having a purpose and a profession, but also that mom who’s present: listening, understanding, caring, being there. I’ve failed to be zen, calm, cool and together. Failed to juggle it all the way I proclaimed I would when I was in my twenties imagining myself as the über-working-mother. Failed to live up to my own expectations. Failed to bridge the widening gap between my real self and my ideal self.

While I’m on the call, Short-pants stubs her toe on the kitchen island but it happens just at the moment I am building up to the climax of that critical point I really needed to make. Instead of comforting her, I hold my finger up to my mouth and she runs upstairs to her room screeching. Then it’s all pointless; I’m not really listening to the other side of the call anymore because I’m feeling the hollow dent in my gut as I join, once again, the failing-mother’s club.

By the time I finish, my daughters are at each other’s throats and I head upstairs to mediate. I am too exhausted to cope – I have spent an entire day being polite to people, listening through conference calls with far too many participants, carefully crafting emails meant to inspire a positive response. I have spent every ounce of my poise on other people and now, at home, hungry, tired and exasperated, I fly off the cuff at the littlest thing. I even use the F-word, much to my chagrin.

“Mama,” Short-pants says, “you just said fuck.”

“I know,” I say, “that’s really bad.”

They stare at me, waiting to see what I’ll do next.

“Shall we all say it together now?” I’m on a roll. “Ready one, two, three.”

We all scream it out loud and then I say “Okay it’s a bad, bad word. Let’s none of us ever use it again.”

They nod at me, still in shock.

“Okay, maybe one more time, to get it out of our system.” I count to three and we all scream it again at the top of our lungs and then fall on the bed giggling and laughing. Which turns to crying. Crying because it’s all so much, it’s all too much. Too much to do. Too much to miss. Too much to manage. There’s too much everything. Too much love and too much pain. There’s just too much.

Sometimes I feel like I’m failing spectacularly. Of course this not true: if you spend an hour in the presence of my daughters you’ll experience them in the most positive way: They are engaging with adults but still magically childlike. They are polite but expressive. They are little thinking, feeling people. They open their hearts to the world, without making too much of a fuss. I like to joke about Buddy-roo‘s materialism, but she has a good heart and she can surprise you with her thoughtfulness. And Short-pants, she’s as wise as a crone. They’re both turning out just fine. But still, my mothering is flawed and sloppy, inconsistent. (Clearly, it must be De-facto’s influence.)

Listen, I know this is all just a lot of noise. I know that the most important thing is to love them and to let them know they’re loved. I know that it’s better for them to see me as a real person with regular human frailties, not as some sort of bionic super-mom. But even though I profess that I’m not trying to be perfect and do it all – it’s a big fat lie. I know it’s impossible and futile, but honestly I can’t help myself. It’s in me.

What worries me is that I will pass this on, that it will be in them, that somehow they will think that they have not been good enough, that they will perceive my impatience as a reflection on them. It becomes imperative to let go, to lighten up and laugh at it all. If not for my own sanity, at least do it for theirs. But can I do that while under pressure? Not yet, apparently. But I’m working on it.


Sep 24 2009

The Words

Words count for a lot in our house; me being the aspiring writer, Short-pants, a voracious reader, De-facto, an enthusiastic speaker (goes to Toastmasters) and Buddy-roo, the consummate chatterbox. Not to mention that in our household we speak two languages, so we have double the number of words to navigate. Words matter.

Hang around with us and you’ll occasionally hear one of the adults suggesting calmly (and not to each other), “use your words.” Pointing and grunting are frowned upon. Our children have been indoctrinated to speak in full sentences and even the magic words are pretty well embedded. Not that an occasional reminder isn’t necessary, but frequently enough to impress me, the girls make good use of please and thank you – and do so with real feeling.

Every household has its “words,” part of the family folklore that is generated by the cute or clever mistakes made by children as they learn about life and language. Often these words relate to scatological subject matter; a topic which I deliberately avoid in this blog because a) I find it unattractive, b) nobody cares about my children’s potty habits, and 3) it would be a nightmare if a Google search on my name produced something so distasteful and yet memorable. But it’s a subject we all talk about – at least privately – and it is often the cornerstone of a family vocabulary. My brother and sister and I made a blood pact never to divulge the words to another living person, a vow we all have kept. Even De-facto doesn’t know the words from my childhood, and never will.
graffiti_word
Having said that, there is a word that De-facto and I introduced to our lil’ nuclear family that I will share – because my friends love it so much – the word we use for one’s “private parts.” It’s not that we have such a hang-up about the technical terms; we’ll get to them when the girls start posing probing questions about the birds and the bees. But honestly, I never wanted my 3-year old over-employing the word vagina in a loud voice at the supermarket, so we came up with a gender-neutral signifier instead: the business. Typical use at bath time: “Did you wash the business?” Another common usage: “If your business doesn’t hurt, why are you holding it?”

It’s a bit easier on the ear than the v-word or the p-word, and can be used discreetly in public, like a code. It only backfired on me once, when Buddy-roo, at the age of about 4, bounded into my office despite the closed-tight door, to announce something important. I shushed her in a panicked whisper: “Shhhh! Mama’s on a business call!”

Business?!” she shrieked as De-facto apologetically pulled her out of the office and shut the door behind them. I could hear her laughing in the hall, “Mama’s making a call from her business? Ha!”

Yes, well it seemed like a good word when we first came up with it.

Some of these invented family words come into common use because of an adorable mispronunciation or mal-interpretation that turns out to be quite astute. Buddy-roo is the originator of some of our best terminology. She of course utters the typical breafquist, an oft-mispronounced word. Don’t get me wrong, it’s cute when every child says it, but it’s not that original. Part of Buddy-roo’s linguistic charm is her strange non-rhotic accent which amuses us to no end because even De-Facto, who hails from Boston, doesn’t share her aversion for the letter ‘R.’ But accent and odd pronunciation habits aside, Buddy-roo excels at inventing words. And they make more sense than you’d expect. A few examples:

Rainbrella: the round, collapsible device one uses as protection from the rain. This makes so much more sense to us than umbrella, which, um, has nothing to do with the element against which it’s designed to offer protection. (I guess it makes sense if you speak Latin, which we don’t.) She also suggested the word Sunbrella, similarly styled and found at the beach. No doubt Buddy-roo’s French has informed the invention of these two words, as parapluie and parasol are both used for the rain or the sun.

Unlistener. This is a person, initially a child in the first grade – but you can imagine this applying to any segment of the population – who, despite being within auditory range, prefers to remain in the state of “not having heard it.” An unlistener can be quite selective, but ultimately, this is someone that you can’t really count on to receive or re-transmit information of any importance. Common usage: “You can’t ask him anything, he’s the biggest unlistener in the class.”

Smashed potatoes. So much more descriptive than mashed ones, don’t you think?
three_dictionaries
Short-pants, on the other hand, takes very seriously the correct acquisition of new words for her vocabulary. Last week, she got the idea to sleep with her dictionaries, reasoning that the words might seep into her brain by osmosis, a word she then had to look up. It makes for an uncomfortable night’s rest, as she feels compelled to stack under her pillow three dictionaries – English, French and French/English – to accommodate her hunger for words. Hard to say if it’s working, but we must admire her commitment to learning.

Short-pants is a stickler for correctness, and this kicks in when she overhears me speaking French. My French is operable, but I don’t have the linguistic muscle that she’s acquired by starting it at such a young age. Since she feels compelled to correct my pronunciation and grammar, we’ve made a deal: I will receive her corrections enthusiastically, as long as she delivers them gently with the intention of helping rather than humiliating me. It’s a beautiful thing. She’ll wait until nobody is around and leaning toward me, in a conspiratorial tone, she’ll suggest something like, “Mama, you might want to say le instead of la with the word pain.”

Buddy-roo, I can already tell you, won’t treat me so kindly. Her corrections, when they start coming at me, will be marked with eye rolling and heavy sighs of disgust, which I will tolerate for only a short while before I tell her to mind her own business.