Apr 13 2012

The Façade

I had a kitchen pass last night, allowing for an after-the-kids-are-in-bed rendezvous with a girlfriend. We sat beneath the outdoor heaters on the terrace of my favorite café and slowly made our way through a carafe of Côte du Rhone.

The meet-up was not easy to organize. Family commitments and work schedules put our calendars at odds. After a half dozen back-and-forth emails, we realized our lives as professionals and mothers wouldn’t permit a daytime coffee or even a pre-dinner aperitif. The only way to meet was after the children were fed and bathed and tucked into their sheets. This suited me, I like the feeling of escaping my domestic responsibilities, kissing those tender foreheads and pulling up the covers, closing the door behind me, walking out to the street where unattached people navigate, spontaneously, the free hours of their evenings. Now we, too, were among them, on the terrace, sipping our wine, and as women unhampered with children we could catch up and talk about our lives.

What did we talk about? Our children. Whether the French school was right for them, the pros and cons of other education systems, whether a different school in Paris is more suited to cultivating their creative promise. We talked about the little quirks and charms of their emerging personalities, our worries and hopes for them as they grow into little people. In essence, we talked about all the things that we’d escaped from in order to sit at that café together.

Such a conversation inevitably tumbles into the stream of the parenting theories and practices. Last year it was the controversial Tiger Mom, terrorizing her children to perform. This year the spotlight hones in on the French method, contrasting the resulting polite, obedient, no-fuss-at-the-table children with the insolent Veruca-Salt-like youngsters holding their American parents hostage. There’s a lot to be said for it.

My friend is French, but because of stints living in foreign countries, she shares my understanding of being other, as in an expat living abroad, and shies away from stereotypes. Rightly so. They help us describe things in broad strokes, but neglect the nuances that most subject matter deserves. She argued that there are also French parents held hostage by their children. All those French mums in the park will tell you how firmly they parent, but is it that really that way when you peek into their salon? She wasn’t so sure.

“Every parent has a façade,” she said.

* * *

At least once a day I have a moment of maternal despair. It happens quietly, my head lowered while I stack plates in the dishwasher, my back to the family as I fold their laundry, or those first minutes, café-au-lait cupped in my hands after I’ve pushed them out the door to go to school, sighing with relief as their voices circle down the staircase and out of our building. Yes, yes, nothing can eradicate the love and laughter my children have injected into my life, but there is also the un-joyous part of parenting, a tedious string of commands to get up, clean up, wash up, finish up. Then there are those moments when the required enthusiasm and encouragement I must conjure up is, well, a façade, because I am, mentally elsewhere, in my own creative world, and when I want them to be elsewhere, not underfoot, not speaking to me, asking of me, wanting of me.

Do my children notice? Probably. But they seem to appreciate my maternal efforts nonetheless, and they can – and will – get me back for this when they are teenagers.

I tear through the moods of mothering, juggling what I feel with what I’m supposed to feel. Occasionally I sense the tough love of the tiger mom in me. Sometimes I believe I have taken on the practical approach that has now been categorized, as least for the Americans, as French. Other times I’m as indulgent as you can get, on the floor playing with them, giving them choices, watching their imagination flower unhindered. It’s not a very consistent measure. Some days the house must be ordered, I cannot stand to look at their clutter. The next week, I’ll leave the blanketed fort that’s been constructed between the couch and bookshelf standing for days, with its hidden treasures of trinkets and toys and make-believe and odds-and-ends stuffed beneath.

* * *

We all show ourselves to the world by way of the different roles we play. Our professions and familial positions define us broadly: teacher, lawyer, aunt, parent. Adjectives are added to narrow in on the quality of how we execute those roles: lenient, strict, engaged, detached. Battle lines are drawn. You’re a stay-at-home mom or a working mother. (Or a working-while-staying-at-home mother?) You’re a breast-feeder or a bottle-giver. Family bed or let-them-cry-in-the-cradle. It’s easy to glance sideways and make a judgment. I do it. Everyone does.

Sometimes I am certain, and possibly even a bit full of myself, reporting on this blog a conversation or a conflict I feel well handled, constructing a mosaic of proud parenting moments. Other times I disclose – not always without hesitation, and yet these posts are the most powerful – my faiblesses, my #fail moments, my vulnerabilities and obsessions, or the angry rants that seem ridiculous in retrospect but were, apparently, too impassioned for me to contain. When I write about it, I get to construct a façade of who I think I am as a mother, good and bad.

The real façade, perhaps, is that any woman is one kind of mother. The rhythms of our days and weeks and the passages of our lives stretch us across the boundaries of prescribed parenting styles. When I am not overworked, I am more creatively engaged. When I am stressed, I am stricter, firmer, even impatient. When I’m tired, I’m laissez-faire. When I’m inspired, I bake heart-shaped cookies. As I straddle the abyss between my ideal self and my real self, it helps to accept the fact that I might be every kind of mom. Except to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, I’m just their mom, and they seem pretty devoted. Maybe that’s where I should look when taking measure of myself as a mother.


Sep 11 2011

This Mad World

All week I’ve been mad at the world. Blame it on the rentrée, which each year feels more brutal than the previous. There is the onslaught of work that I should have done over the summer, let alone the full-time job that is getting the kids back-to-school, with the long lists of books and supplies that must be acquired precisely as indicated and the organizing of their extra curricular calendars for the year. Mothers all over the city nod at each other knowingly; a friend with whom I had a rushed lunch answered the obligatory question how goes the rentrée? with a long sigh and an eye-roll. She didn’t have to say a word.

It’s not only what you have to do, it’s how long it takes to do it. I want to minimize Short-pants’ weekly trips to the conservatory, so I went over in person to try to schedule her classes back-to-back on the same day. But nobody there could help me. An hour later I left with an email address and no certain solution. Buddy-roo is begging to take tap-dancing classes (thanks to Ann Miller and Kit Kittredge) so I rearranged several appointments in order to arrive at the dance school early enough to assure her a place on the list. That’s when I learned I that the tap-dance teacher doesn’t participate in the standard inscription process, I needed only to phone him to sign up. (Thanks for putting that in the flyer.) Once again, a reminder that I’m an outsider here. No matter how long I’ve lived here or how much as I’ve figured out how to System D on some fairly challenging tasks, I’m still slapped in the face, each and every year, with some shrugging French person who explains, “C’est comme ça.” That’s just how it is.

Sent home in Buddy-roo’s cahier de correspondance, a letter from her new teacher outlines in detail the punishment system within the classroom; no mention is made of the learning objectives or the educational climate. Oui, but it’s a traditional French school, I tell myself, why should I expect anything different? And why am I in France? These are the geo-existentialist questions that come to mind every year about this time.

So I grumble about town, muttering under my breath while running inefficient errands and waiting in line to discover I didn’t need to, feeling like the clock is ticking away while I manage all these angry details of what I wish was somebody else’s life.

~ ~ ~

Ten years ago, my mother was visiting us in Paris when some crazy men flew those airplanes into the big office towers. Like most everyone, I can tell you exactly where I was that day; just like my parents could for the assassination of John F. Kennedy or my grandparents for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Short-pants was just shy of two months old, my mother had come over to meet her. She was so tickled to see and hold that little baby; I think she’d given up on me in the grandchildren department and it was a pleasant surprise to have a new little grand-daughter but also to see me with that child in my arms. I’d sworn off children in high school, after a particularly terrorizing babysitting incident. She’d begun to believe I really meant it.

That afternoon we strapped Short-pants into her stroller and ventured out to show my mother an artist’s squat on rue de Rivoli. I’m not sure that she was so curious about the squat, an old ceilings, ornate molding and marble fireplaces that had fallen into disuse and was then inhabited by artists who collectively managed the building. The city shrugged its shoulders and allowed them to stay, letting eccentric culture win over law-and-order and by-the-book. My mother was much amused by it, each room a working space of a different artist, some set up very typically as an artist’s studio, others more daring and whimsical, showing their eclectic work under black light or with rhythmic music to set a mood. The squat is still a working studio and public gallery; in those days it was open to the public only once or twice a week.

When we returned home, I went to my computer to check email, ignoring the news item that flashed on the welcome page, something about a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers. I dismissed it as a light-craft error, and didn’t investigate further. Short-pants was still asleep from the walk home, I wanted to take maximize my time on-line. It was not until my sister, on a business trip in China, phoned and prompted me to turn on the television that we learned the severity of this “freak accident” which wasn’t a small plane and wasn’t an accident, either. It had all been done very much on purpose.

In the days that followed we sat, stupefied, around our television watching the crumbling towers, the jumpers, the ash and dust everywhere, the heroic fireman and rescue workers, the grieving families. It was all so horrible, yet I couldn’t take my eyes away, as if I had to see it repeatedly to believe it was true. While Short-pants nursed at my breast, I’d watch those two towers fall, again and again while her little paws beat against my chest. What kind of world had I brought this little child into? Listening to the new reports as events unfolded, and subsequent anthrax scares and the fear that gripped us all so fiercely, I thought to myself – and probably out loud to De-facto – that the world had gone completely mad and that this was the beginning of the end. Would we spiral down to dystopian religious wars and Short-pants won’t live to be ten years old? I remember caressing the soft flesh on her arm, touching the tip of her nose and fingers and toes and wondering what the world would be like in 2011. Would any of us survive? I really thought the world was about to implode in a series of well-timed terrorist plots. The outlook was pretty bleak.

Three years later, when Short-pants fell sick and I was desperately searching for the reason, I wondered if breastfeeding in front of that repetitive, horrible news had put the mysterious abscess in her head.

There was, on a positive note, such a tremendous amount of good will shown toward the American community by the French on 9/11. Families opened up their homes to stranded air passengers, people in the neighborhood who knew I was American would stop me and ask if I knew anyone who’d been in the towers or at the pentagon or on any of the planes, expressing their condolences to our grieving nation. Despite the horror of what happened, it produced an element of hope from that outpouring of thoughtfulness and solidarity, and I remember thinking how glad I was that we lived in France. It was probably safer here, and people were being awfully considerate.

~ ~ ~

I had the best intentions of taking the girls to the 9/11 memorial service at Place du Trocadéro. It rained steadily all day – and poured even harder at exactly the time we would have had to leave – so I opted to stay home and commemorate the somber occasion with the television news. Neither one of them could have any memory of the event and it’s not a subject we’ve talked about other than as an explanation for why it’s necessary to practically disrobe when we go through airport security. They fired questions at me as the coverage of the ceremonies droned on in the background: Why did the plane fly into the building? Why are those people covered in dust? Why are you crying, mama?

I couldn’t really explain why. I wasn’t trying to spare them any pain that might come from the knowledge of what happened that day. I simply couldn’t find any words, or enough words, or the right words to convey what was lost that day. All those lives, lost. All the potential memories that will never happen because a parent disappeared that day, lost. The dignity that accompanies liberty and privacy, the compassion for foreigners and (what I thought was) our signature religious tolerance – if not lost, is seriously diminished. I long for the optimism we knew prior to September 11, 2001. Even though life eventually returned to a normal rhythm, something I couldn’t imagine at all during those mad, panicked days immediately following the event – it’s still not the same. It never will be.

I didn’t lose anyone that day. If anything, I was given extra time with my mother, who was grounded in Paris, and with other close family friends who happened to be visiting France that week. We huddled together and comforted each other, watching the news, non-stop. With the exception of the nuissance of airport security, my day-to-day life is more or less unscathed by 9/11. Listening to the victims’ family members as they took turns reading out loud the names of those killed, one by one, I felt pretty silly. Silly for my exasperation about the rentrée and all its inconvenient errands. Silly and sorry for those harsh words I snapped at De-facto the other night or my impatience with the girls when they pick at each other. It all seems just plain silly when you think about what these families have endured. Just like Short-pants’ hospital scare put everything in perspective, so does this occasion give me pause to remember – and relish – how absolutely lucky I am, with all of my luxurious burdens, to be alive and breathing in this mad, mad world.


Jan 30 2011

The Auto-dictée

She was in a puddle on the floor. “I’ll never learn this!” The text Buddy-roo was trying to memorize had been in her assignment agenda all week, but somehow we hadn’t gotten to it. Her homework was already heavier than usual, it was all we could do to get through the obvious assignments, let alone a special one. With her 7-year-old level of knowledge, maturity and motor skills, writing out sentences and circling the subject and conjugating the verb takes a lot longer than you’d think. Add some math problems and spelling to that, and the night is shot. It’s a bit easier than it used to be, but it’s still a grind. De-facto and I take turns being firm but friendly about getting homework done, one of us taking over when we notice the other’s voice taking on that getting-to-the-end-of-my-rope edge.

An incoming email message coincided with our parental angst. A thoughtful father made an informal survey of some of the parents, wondering, “Is it just us, or has there been an increase in homework?” Within hours, a flurry of responses. I’m usually annoyed by group email conversations using reply-all, but this was different. I opened each message eagerly. Another parent drowning in homework. Another classmate of Buddy-roo’s spending two plus hours a night to get it done, like her. Another mother wonders why, with all this work, there’s also an auto-dictée. Another father wishes the time spent with his children in the evening wasn’t always spent dogging them to finish their assignments. What a relief to discover we’re not the only ones plunged into shock from the amped-up after-school workload. A few of the more experienced parents tempered the complaints, commenting gently that this particular year is a tough one for French school kids and we just have to gut it out. But the main message in this email string was clear: most of us are exasperated.

We’re not a tightly-wound gang bent on steering our children toward the grands écoles. Most of us (I think) are just trying to help our kids keep up. Or more important: not to be stressed out. And the message string wasn’t only a rant. The discussion was a heartening reflection on the parents, ultimately morphing into a back-and-forth of constructive solutions and possible responses. Do we approach the teacher and complain? If so how to do it? Individually? Collectively? What are the consequences? How do we understand her challenges? Will it make any difference? Or do we just persevere and wait for the year to finish?

Then a message from a harried mother, apologizing for hijacking the conversation, but could someone scan and send her a copy of the auto-dictée because her son forgot to bring it home. That was when it dawned on me, the way something can come to you too late, even though it’s been right in front of your eyes like a series of neon billboards. Auto-dictée? It’d been mentioned several times in the back-and-forth of parent emails. What was this auto-dictée?

Minutes later a message from someone’s father who’d typed in the text. “I’m sending it to you from memory,” he wrote. There was a weary tone to his words. “After working on it for hours with my son, I’m afraid I know it by heart.”

I called the mother of one of Buddy-roo’s classmates. Even while I was dialing the phone, I had a bad feeling this had something to do with that folded piece of paper in the agenda we’d been ignoring. She confirmed this, and explained the task: Unlike the usual memorization assignments where you have to recite a poem by heart in front of the class (I find this charming), the auto-dictée means to write out the passage from memory, without being prompted or having it read out loud first, as in a standard dictation. This would be a challenging assignment for Buddy-roo if we had started preparing earlier in the week. To begin to memorize it so she could write it unaided, on the night before it was due, left us little hope for success.

Buddy-roo stomped and cried, insisted that we were wrong, that the teacher said she only had to learn the poem, she didn’t have to write it from memory. Rather than fight her, especially this late on a Thursday night, I said, “Okay, let’s just learn it by heart.” I started to work with her, line by line, but it’d been a long day. I was tired. I was angry. It wasn’t going well.

“Hey Buddy-roo,” said De-facto, “Why don’t you teach it to me?”

She handed him the paper. He read the passage a few times and handed it back. Then he started, “Alors, les source…” and he hesitated. She prompted him. Each time he missed a word, she corrected him. She transformed into the teacher, guiding him through the poem. And when he’d finished, he said to her, “Now see if you can do it better than I did.” And she did. It wasn’t perfect, but she had the basics. We had no idea if she could write it from memory, but it was ten o’clock and you know what? That was good enough.

I did write a note to her teacher in the cahier de correspondance, explaining that we had understood the instructions of the auto-dictée too late, wondering if in the future she might give us more specific guidance on new types of assignments so we could help Buddy-roo to be prepared. In the end I wished I hadn’t. The note she sent back to me wasn’t very empathetic. She started with how I had incorrectly referred to the text of the auto-dictée as a poem. Had it been a poem, she wrote, it would have been in the cahier de poesie. (It was downhill from there.)

But hey, Buddy-roo managed to eke out a minimum grade on her auto-dictée, and even got a few words of praise from the teacher, despite her lack of preparation. She also volunteered, in a sheepishly sweet way, that I’d been right about the assignment. (That’s a first!) As for De-facto, he has no recall of the text he’d learned. But at least now he knows it’s not a poem.