Oh bebe: Parenting in France

Jan 25, 2013 at 10:00 a.m. ET

Claire was raised in the U.S. but currently resides in Marseille, France, with her partner and 1-year-old daughter.

A French perspective on raising kids
Claire and Lila

She lets us in on the differences between parenting in France and America and how her unique background has shaped how she parents her little girl.

Claire lives in France with her partner and toddler daughter, and lets us in on the differences — and similarities — of parenting in the two countries. All of Claire’s views are her own, from her own observations and personal experience in France (as well as via her own upbringing) and while she wants to avoid overgeneralizing, she wanted to share her thoughts on French parenting.

Claire’s mom and dad

Claire's mother

Claire’s mother, who passed away in 2003, was from France, and her father is American. We wanted to know how the couple met and fell in love, and we were lucky enough to hear it straight from Dad. While he was stationed in Vietnam in 1967 to 1968, Claire’s maternal grandparents traveled to the U.S. to visit the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan. “My mother was on the staff at Interlochen, taking care of VIP visitors, and she met Madame Giulj,” he said. “Somehow, they discovered they had a single son and daughter about the same age, and my mother gave her my address in Vietnam.”

A series of letters were exchanged, and once he was back stateside and employed in New York, they arranged to meet. “I picked her up at JFK with a rented car (the one in the photo) because, living in Manhattan, I was without wheels,” he shared. “And we were married in December! Her parents, having survived the German occupation, were pleased to have a Yank for a son-in-law. That's probably not too common nowadays!”

Claire’s upbringing

Claire and her family, which included two younger sisters, grew up in the New Jersey area, but traveled quite a bit before they settled there. Her dad’s job in New York City ensured that she had a lot of mom-time at home, and she reported that her experience was a little different from her friends’.

“I would be lying if I didn't say I found my dad to be much more easygoing than my mom,” she reported. “The same goes for my friends' moms — they seemed to be much more affectionate, and less... controlling. I don't know how much of that was due to cultural difference, versus personality.”

Every summer, the family traveled to France to visit and spend time with family there, which made for a host of wonderful memories for Claire and her sisters. “My favorite place was our family's house here in France,” she said. “The beach is right out front, and I could run free most of the day.” It was a natural choice for her when she decided to move back to Europe. The economy was a deciding factor, and it happened earlier than anticipated.

Bringing in Lila

Claire experienced her first pregnancy and birth while in France, and while she didn’t have an American experience to compare it to, there were definite differences between the two. For example, France has socialized health care, which can mean that, while health care is free, not all hospitals are the same.

Claire with Lila

“At one of the city hospitals close to where we live, I saw things I would never have dreamed of seeing in an industrialized country,” she explained. “Mold on the walls, full-on construction (including use of electric saws) in hallways of wings that were still being used — it was ridiculous. That, coupled with the fact I had heard the two public hospitals were viewed as 'baby factories,' with correspondingly high C-section rates, made me search for an alternative.”

Another difference that she noted was that most pregnancies and births are handled by midwives. “An OB will sometimes come in just as you're about to give birth in case there's a complication, but otherwise they are very hands-off," she said. “From what I gather, that is standard practice in all French hospitals.”

Claire’s birth went well at a hospital about 20 miles away. She had no major complications and everyone was healthy at the end of the day. One unexpected thing did happen, however. “My sister, who lives in the U.S., was present for the birth!” she reported. “She had arrived the day before I went into active labor, and was the one who drove me to the hospital. It was like a scene in a movie: Her trying to not take corners too fast, me askew on the back seat, one hand on the seat and the other pressing against the roof, trying to calmly give directions in between howling like a wounded lion for a minute and a half at a time.”

French parenting

Claire says that “typical” French parenting is nearly the opposite of attachment parenting (AP). “Many of the principles of AP are seen as spoiling your child, being a slave to their whims and wills, and lead to creating what they call the 'king child' (l'enfant roi),” she explained. “Bribery, yelling, belittling and punishment (both physical and psychological) are the norm, as is [the practice of] crying it out.”

Lila breastfeeding

Claire reports that, while France has the worst breastfeeding rates in Europe, breastfeeding and breastfeeding in public are generally not looked down on — in fact, she has been complimented on it on several occasions. However, there seems to be a mindset that breastfeeding is simply a fad. “These people seem to have forgotten that, up until about 50 years ago, breastfeeding was the norm,” Claire said. “In reality, this makes formula the fad — albeit a long-lived one!”

Crying it out (CIO) also seems to be the norm in French culture. “From what I can gather, CIO is not frowned upon here at all,” she said. “Quite the contrary. The line of thinking is that you have to train babies, otherwise you end up with ‘difficult’ children.”

Doing her own thing

Marseille France

Claire does sometimes feel like she’s doing her own thing, as she doesn’t have a lot of friends who are parents and it’s hard to find moms who parent in a similar way. That’s when the internet comes in handy.

“I belong to a Facebook group of wonderful French mamas who full-term breastfeed — besides being like-minded on a variety of AP topics, they give me great insight into typical French parenting via their stories about people they know,” she shared.

Claire stays connected with her stateside family via the usual channels — Facebook, email and Skype. She concedes that it’s hard living across the ocean. “It's hard, but since having a child, I'm finding it even more so,” she confessed. “There are many times I have wished I lived closer to my family in the U.S., not least of which so Lila could grow up with them.”

She also has a bit of advice for moms who aren’t living close to their families. “It is very important to build a support network where you are, in whatever form, be it in person or on the internet.”

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