To Paris, With Tot: One Mother’s Story of Parenting

A young family’s first trip abroad dredges up parental insecurities.

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To Paris, With Tot: One Mother's Story of Parenting

As we arrive in Paris, the skyline is cloaked in grey that matches the city's cool temperament. My family's look is less refined-dominated by a red stroller festooned with toys.

Our plastic caravan arrives at L'Ecritoire, a bistro on the Place de la Sorbonne. There's not another child in sight. I unravel my son Tokki's travel high chair and unpack rice cakes and organic vegetable purée. I consider myself always prepared, but according to Karen Le Billon's rules, I've already racked up two strikes.

In 2012, there was a mini-boom in "momoirs" exalting a no-nonsense French style of parenting: French Kids Eat Everything, by Vancouver academic Le Billon, and Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, by Pamela Druckerman, focus on how well Gallic children eat and behave. Tokki was a serene baby at birth, but he has since perfected a shriek that's between Mariah Carey's high C and a dog whistle. So when my husband was invited to a film festival in France, I decided to go full immersion. Every first-time parent is looking for answers. The French seem to have them.

Lesson 1: Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner

Tokki is not used to being on a terrace at the decidedly adult hour of 9 p.m. From his perch, he cranes his neck to make saucer eyes at a nearby foursome: chic adults sipping wine, oblivious to the Parisian rive gauche. Laying out baby spoons in triplicate, I feel a twinge of self-consciousness. Never mind looking like tourists-looking like nervous parents is worse. 

When our plates arrive, I crack open Tokki's purée tube, but he shakes his head. He only has eyes for the steak. Since there's no way I'm feeding him my husband's medium-rare meat, I break my burger open to examine it for pinkness. As I rack my brain for the rules about babies and blue cheese, Tokki's fingers are already in my food. I fashion a morsel of hamburger meat running with jus and offer it up. Still saucer-eyed, he chomps furiously as I cool off a small pile of fries, which he scarfs as quickly as 10-month-old coordination allows.

At the end of the meal, the rice cakes and purée sit untouched. Across the pond, we tend to concentrate on nutrition, whereas the French focus on pleasure. Watching Tokki fill his chubby fists with my meal, I have to admit I've never seen him devour purée with such passion.

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Lesson 2: Oh, Behave!

The sun shines on the heads of children riding ponies along the Jardin du Luxembourg's gravel paths. We park Tokki's stroller and step into the Théâtre des Marionnettes to wait for the puppet show to begin. There's a rustling behind us, and my son turns to stare as a grandmother unwraps cookies for her granddaughter's snack. Offering one to me, I politely shake my head no, but the little girl protests. "Non. II n'a pas le droit," the grandmother says brusquely to her charge. French children either have le droit-the right-to do something or they don't.

Evidence of this strictness is everywhere, including Annecy, in the country's southeast. One rainy afternoon, Tokki and I take shelter in the town library as a kindergarten class files past us. I watch as they neatly hang their purple pinafores on hooks. Two guardians mix among the class, neither shushing nor raising a voice. No one fights over a book.

We spend the next day sprawled on a lawn overlooking Lac d'Annecy. Families cluster around peacocks in the open-air aviary, while girls in Sunday dresses play badminton. When a toddler starts to scream, I observe the unflappable French mother in action. Marching the girl into a field in full view of everyone, the mother takes several paces before turning her back while her daughter wails. After what feels like an eternity, the child is tenderly collected and they walk away hand in hand. I'm in awe. Had the mother been too harsh? Or did I want to be more like her?

French parents do not panic in the face of meltdowns, but I am not French. On our last night in Annecy, in my desperation to feed the baby on schedule, we sit down at a café with no wait. As Tokki's fussing turns to shrieking, I become so stressed that I tersely part ways with my husband and return to our hotel-forgetting he was about to find out whether he had won a festival prize. (He does.)

That night I'm filled with pride and then remorse. Why couldn't I have finished eating and given my husband a kiss for good luck? Looking back on my own childhood in Toronto, I wonder if my Korean immigrant parents were secretly French. When I was growing up, they let me know who was in charge, and it def­initely wasn't me.

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Lesson 3: Two's Company, Three's Loud

The French don't understand the way North American children can eclipse the very thing that brought them into existence: the couple. The night I forgot to wish my husband good luck, I learned of his big prize alone. As Tokki slept spread-eagled on our hotel bed, my husband was partying in a ballroom at L'Impérial Palace.

In the crowd of filmmakers was a European duo who had decided their children weren't going to keep them from enjoying the festivities. The French father pushed a snoring toddler in his stroller, while the Dutch mother had their sleeping nine-month-old strapped to her back. When my husband told me about them the next morning, I was full of admiration and bewilderment. Where did they get the nerve to keep their babies out past midnight?

Now that we're home, I still prioritize Tokki ahead of ourselves. Does this mean he will become a "child king," as the French say with disdain? Is the idea of a well-mannered toddler a fantasy I should file alongside my dream French wardrobe and flawless accent? At the end of the day, my child is perfect to me just the way he is. He doesn't need to be French, and I don't think he minds that I'm not, either. Although I may keep trying.