Category Archives: Parenting the French Way

Frenchitude Lesson #24: Parenting is Not A Competitive Sport

Don’t let anyone tell you that parenting is easy. Yesterday, it had me in tears.

I guess I should back up a little.

Charlotte and Camille are home from school on vacation this week. I had promised them I would do Shrinky-Dink jewellery crafts that I (short-sightedly) brought home for them from Paris. I entertained a halcyon image of the four of us spending a nice, crafty, female bonding day together. I was a great mother; it was going to be perfect.

First wrinkle in the plan – Clem woke up yesterday morning piercing two molars. From the moment she entered consciousness, she expressed her rage at the universe by opening every cupboard in the house and emptying its contents on the floor. Repeatedly. She did this while screaming like a banshee. Whenever she felt that my attention was being diverted from her existential angst, she would storm over to where I was trying to cut out coloured Shrinky-Dinks and take a big chomp out of my leg.

As the morning wore on, and I struggled to thread little Shrinky-Dinks onto stretchy elastic cords while Clem took chunks out of my kneecaps, I began to mentally beat myself up.

Why can’t you ever seem to get a handle on this parenting thing? A nasty voice in my head demanded. Why is a day with my three girls making me feel woozy with anxiety and dread? Why does the idea of getting lunch on the table feel as exhausting and impossible as running a marathon? Why is everyone better at this than me?

And then came the kicker: What is wrong with me that I can’s get this right?

One of my closest friends here has a baby of the same age as Clem, and just like me she has days where she feels like she is going off the deep end. However, on such days she doesn’t seem to have to contend with feeling like a “failure”, unlike yours truly.

I know this, because I’ve straight out asked her.

“I just don’t see parenting that way,” she said. “There are days when you are exhausted and horrible and everything seems to be out of control and it’s really, really hard, but that’s just normal.”

“But doesn’t that make you feel like a failure?” I ask.

“It makes me feel tired and frustrated and annoyed, but non, not like a failure.”

“Why?”

“Because parenting isn’t a competition.”

Huh. Tell that to the voice in my head.

Just as I put Clem down for her nap (needed by Her Grumpiness, but MUCH more needed by me) and sat down with my beloved cup of after-lunch coffee, Franck got home from Beaune.

He had been working on the cellar so needed to clean his tools. This involved turning on and off the outside faucet which, unbeknown to him, made huge clunking sounds in the nether regions of the house. Clem woke up screaming, and I, I am not proud to say, went absolutely ballistic on my husband.

Even as I was freaking out on Franck, my internal monologue became a two-part harmony. Not only did I accuse myself of being a failure as a mother, but also a failure as a wife.

Why was just getting through a day so hard? Something was clearly wrong with me. Everyone else was a more successful parent / spouse / person than me. And this was not my first child, but my third child – I couldn’t get away with the “novice” excuse anymore.

Clem never did go back to sleep, but I eventually calmed down into silent misery and martyrdom once again. Franck tried to take on the brave task of asking me what the real problem was.

“I just feel like I’m doing it all wrong!” I yelled.

“Doing what wrong?”

“Parenting.”

“There’s no right way to do parenting,” Franck said, exasperated. “For God’s Sake, we all just do what we can.”

“Doing what I can obviously isn’t good enough.”

“Laura,” he said. “Parenting is not a performance activity.”

Thank God for that. If it was I don’t think I would have even earned a “Participation” ribbon yesterday.

The evening culminated in an exhausted me giving Clem a bath. After changing her into her pyjamas – a contact sport these days, as she’s really not into clothes – I was holding her in the hallway, yelling something at Franck as I simultaneously slammed the girls’ bedroom door shut (I spend about 2 hours every day simply shutting doors so that Clem doesn’t find things to choke on / cut herself / destroy in the bedrooms and bathroom).

There was a a sickening crunch, followed by an unearthly wail. My stomach heaved.

Without me noticing Clem had stuck one of her little fingers into the door jam, and I had slammed the door shut on it.

Clem screamed in agony. I burst into tears.

Franck had to whisk her off to emergency in Beaune to have X-rays and make sure the little finger wasn’t broken.

I served the two big girls soup, ignoring their complaints as every thought in my head was pretty much drowned out by the mocking chorus of failure.

God knows where I picked up the bizarre notion that one can succeed or fail at parenting, especially at parenting babies and toddlers. However, I happen to know that I am not the only Canadian woman to have internalized, and then to have been beaten down by, the concept. I wonder if the question of how we perform in all aspects of our lives has permeated our psyches to such a degree that we just assume it applies to parenting.

One thing I concluded for certain yesterday was that judging parenting in terms of performance DOES NOT HELP ONE BIT. In fact, I’m quite certain it could drive a person insane.

Unfortunately those little voices are tenacious buggers, and hard to silence. However, by the time Franck finally got home from the hospital with Clem I had at least resolved to begin working on a more French, non-performance approach to parenting.

Clem was smiling happily, after having been stuffed with “ah-toes” and chocolate in the ER waiting room by Franck, and proudly waved around her heavily bandaged finger.

I had survived the day. From a French parenting perspective, that was just about all I could ask of days such as yesterday. Temporarily free of my internal judge, I felt instantly better about my kids and myself.

Clem was so cute that I went to get the camera to take a photo of her and her bandage. It was a good thing I had adopted Frenchitude by then, because by the time I found it and came back to take the picture, the bandage had disappeared.

Clem had eaten it.

Jeanne de Villers


Franck is studying his youngest daughter. “Did you cut her bangs?” he asks me.

“I tried putting in a barrette but she kept pulling it out and eating it.”

“It looks weird.”

I study my work. “It looks fine. Anyway, I’m not a professional hairdresser.”

“It makes her look like Jeanne d’Arc.”

I smile. “No, not Jeanne d’Arc. Jeanne de Villers.”

Carnavale!


Yesterday was Carnavale here in France. I bid a fairy princess hybrid and Hermione (pronounced Her-me-on here in France) good-by as they went off to school to enjoy a day full of doughnuts (beignets) and candy.

I knew if I hung on to my Oxford gown it would come in handy one day.

Frenchitude Lesson #19: Buy the Seven Year Old in Your Life A Watch

One thing that I personally feel is often missing from our lives are rites of passage. Nice rites of passage (as oppossed to fraternity hazing or anything that involves cutting flesh) make us feel like we belong to a group and allow us to pause a moment and savour the headway we have made in this life of ours.

For my bevy I try to build rites of passage into their lives wherever I can. As a result, I am constantly on the lookout for traditions to include in our family repertoire.

In my friend Charlotte Buffet’s extended family, it is traditonal for every child to receive a watch on their 7th Birthday.

There is a reason behind this tradition, and one that is well-ensconsed in french culture. In France it is always said that when a child reaches the age of seven, they enter into l’age de raison or the “age of reason”. “Sept ans, age de raison” goes the rhyme. The French see seven as the magic age when children definitively leave babyhood behind them; the seventh Birthday is seen as an important first step on the road to adulthood.

At seven, a child is therefore viewed as capable of learning “reasonable” things such as telling the time, hence the meaning of a watch.

Here is Camille at her seventh Birthday party on Wednesday just after opening her watch. She knew she was going to get a watch from Charlotte B. for her Birthday, and she has been looking forward to it ever since Charlotte G. got her watch on her 7th Birthday…

As you can tell by her expression, to Camille the gift is far more than a watch; it is recognition that she has earned the right to be treated with a certain gravitas by the world around her. Anyone who knows Camille can tell you that Camille deeply values being taken seriously.

I have no vested interest at all in Swatch, but I have to day I LOVE the “Flik-Flak” brand of watches (that are a sub-brand of Swatch watches) for the traditional 7th Birthday watch.

They are sturdy and water-proof, but have gorgeous colourful designs for both girls and boys. They also come out with a cardboard clock and are designed to teach all those reasonable seven year olds how to tell the time.

As for the purple ribbon tied around Camille’s head, I’m frankly not sure quite what that is all about. Anyway, it would be pretty boring if she was reasonable all the time.

**Frenchitude Fridays (French + Attitude = Frenchitude) give ideas for injecting a bit of frenchness into your life, whether you live in Macon or Maine.

Frenchitude Lesson #17: Consider "Fighting French"

Sorry the posts have been a little thin on the ground this week. After the holidays there is a LOT of catching-up to do but things should be back to normal by next week.

However, I do have a Frenchitude topic that has been just itching to be written, so here it is;


Frenchitude Lesson #17: Consider Fighting Like the French

When I moved back to France five years ago one of the first things that hit me was how many French adults seemed emotionally suspended in childhood. Unlike the North American adults I knew (including myself) the French didn’t even make an effort to do what adults are supposed to do; suppress or hide their emotions.

When the French are sad, they weep openly, when they are happy, they laugh hysterically and grab each other around the necks, and when they are mad…they yell.

At first, this was deeply disconcerting. I was brought up in a society that taught me there was only one proper way for adult couples to “fight”. They, being adults, should have the self-control to discuss the “disagreement” rationally and fairly without raising their voices or throwing objects against the wall. A little bit of pouting was allowed, as long as it was done in such a passive – aggressive manner that when your partner asked you what was wrong you could stiffly respond “nothing’ as you make the bed with unwarranted viciousness.

But the French are utterly comfortable with conflict. French people have no problem yelling and screaming at each other, or hugging each other five minutes later. Such open conflict and quicksilver emotions made my head feel like it was going to explode.

But time passed, and without realizing it, I too began to fight in a more French way.

I know that many couples say they never fight. While living in Canada I often felt very bad that Franck and I were not one of these couples.

Franck and I get along beautifully for 95% of the time, but then there is that other 5%…that percentage is even higher during the first year after a baby is born, though I must say it really helped to know that going in this time around.

Before coming to France our fighting styles were very unmatched. Franck would raise his voice and let all his griefs come gushing out while I would sit there on the couch trying to be fair and rational and above all, adult. As a result, all of my rage was directed inwards instead of outwards, where I now believe it belongs.

Since adolescence I have had an irksome tendency towards panic attacks, at times very debilitating ones. After years of grappling with this issue I have come to accept that my panic attacks are largely the result of a glitch in my cerebral make-up which I am proud to share with many riveting characters, most notably (albeit fictionally) Tony Soprano.

While I don’t think panic attacks will ever be so kind as to leave me altogether, my new habit of letting out my emotions certainly seems to have reduced them dramatically. I now wonder if my anxiety issues were not exacerbated by trying to shoehorn what is essentially an emotional, tenacious (Franck would say stubborn), strong-willed nature into the accepted North American mould of a restrained, pliable, and, god forbid, “sweet” female.

Fighting “Canadian” may work for some people, but it sure as hell wasn’t working for me.

Now when Franck and I fight, I yell, I holler, I shake my finger, and I slam doors. I (mostly) restrain myself from throwing things. I meet Franck’s anger head on with my own, and let me tell you; I have discovered that my anger is a strangely beautiful and awesome thing to behold.

It feels so GOOD to get all of that OUT of me rather than having it roil away inside, eating away at me in the name of rationality and self-control.

The French view conflict as a natural and integral part of being human and, as a consequence, of any human relationship. A lack of conflict is seen as far more menacing than raised voices, because it symbolizes that death knell of marriages; indifference.

Franck and I are not completely juvenile about our fighting. We try to hustle the children out of earshot, we don’t hit each other, and we try not to say anything too damaging (though we don’t consider “YOU’RE ACTING LIKE A TOTAL GOBSHITE!” damaging in the least).

If our kids do question the noises of warfare emanating from the living room I try to be honest with them.

I tell them that most couples fight, that it is normal for most couples to fight, and that it just so happens that their parents both have very strong personalities which means that, while their love is very strong, their clashes can be equally as strong. I reassure them that we are not getting divorced, that we love each other, and reiterate that conflict is a normal part of life.

Many people may disagree, but I am convinced that seething and unspoken resentment can be far more frightening for children than open, honest conflict.

And I find one of the best things about fighting French (besides reducing panic attacks far more effectively than Prozac) is that the fights are remarkably short-lived. You get it all out, you make up, then you move on.

And once the storm clouds have cleared, I feel light inside, and notice that the sky has never looked so blue.

**Frenchitude Fridays (French + Attitude = Frenchitude) give ideas for injecting a bit of frenchness into your life, whether you live in the Okanagan or Oregon.

Authentic France Travel Tip #15: Eat Fromage!


France is truly the land of yummy cheese. The dairy aisles at the local supermarkets are an epicurean’s utopia, not to mention the cheese stands at the local French markets.

The French like to say that there are 365 different types of cheese in France, one for every day of the year. However, you don’t have to be a math whiz to figure out very quickly that there are WAY MORE than 365 different types of cheese in France. Almost every region, and then every little part of every region, boasts one or more varieties of their own local cheese.

Check out the cheese platter(s) served at our New Year’s feast at Charlotte Buffet’s house. That blurry hand is our friend Martial, who brought a delicious selection of cheese from the neighbouring Jura region where he works, describing each cheese to us.

Just a word to the wise, don’t be scared off by smelly cheeses, they are often very mild in taste and you may find yourself developing a penchant for them. Camille never misses the cheese course. She sniffs around the platter like a bloodhound and then asks me, “which do you think is the smelliest?”

It is invariably a Munster or an Epoisses, and that is the one she chooses. She often turns away cheeses such as Comte because in her words,”it isn’t smelly enough.”

Tasting French cheeses gives you a glimpse of the mind-blowing diversity of France’s regions and cuisine. Here are few of my local Burgundian favorites;

Fromage de Cîteaux

We pick up this round, mild cheese whenever we go to Vespers at the local Cistercian monastery just outside of Nuits-Saint-Georges. The monks make it themselves, from milking the cows to wrapping the final product up in its traditional blue and white wrapper.

Epoisses

A local cheese that is renowned for its smelliness (it is one of Camille’s favorites). However, even though it can make you think perhaps you have left a pair of filthy socks in the fridge by mistake, its taste is surprisingly mild and creamy. It is matured using repetitive washes of marc de bourgogne, which is the hard alcohol made with the grape stems left over after the grapes have been pressed for wine. We always buy Epoisses made by Berthault – in our humble opinion it is the best by a long shot. They also make a wonderful Soumaintrain, which is a larger, milder form of Epoisses.

Ami de Chambertin

This is probably my favorite local cheese, and is pictured at the very top. It is basically a smaller, stronger version of Epoisses. I was introduced to this cheese by my first host mother when I was freshly off the plane from Canada, and the love affair has continued ever since.

Delice to Pommard

This is an extremely mild, triple cream goat’s cheese that contrasts very nicely with stronger cheeses such as Epoisses. It is a ball shape and rolled in crushed mustard grains (Dijon mustard being another one of our famed local products here in Burgundy). This cheese is made by Alain Hess, one of the best cheese makers around and who also runs a gorgeous store on the Place Carnot in Beaune under his own name. Not to be missed, for the smelly smells alone!

Christmas Eve Escargot Scoff


Many French people celebrate their Christmas on Christmas Eve – known as “Le Reveillon de Noel” – rather than on Christmas Day itself. Franck’s family, however, traditionally has the big celebration at lunchtime (but, this being Burgundy, “lunch” goes until around 7:00pm) on Christmas Day at my sister-in-law Stephanie’s house.

We had big plans for Christmas Eve, going to the evening Mass, maybe having friends or family over for dinner…But we were so blinking tired by the time the 24th rolled around, not to mention the fact that Clem had come down with a fever and a cold, that we just opted for a family evening chez Germain.

Franck bought 4 dozen escargots and we settled down to a Christmas Eve escargot feast – something that was so delicious, easy, and fun that I think it may become a new Germain family tradition.


Here they come out of the oven, piping hot and smelling of garlic and parsley.


Charlotte and Camille were deft in their use of escargot pinchers, and tucked into their dozen with enthusiasm. Clem was in her high chair, eating “ah-toes” of course.

As far as Camille is concerned, snails are far more finger-lickin‘ good than chicken.

And here are my three girls, two with tummies full of 12 escargots each, and one with “ah-toes”…next year we’ll start her with a half-dozen.

The Petit Gateau Monster

The Gateau monster is in the bottom right hand corner there…the one with the helmet.

On Wednesday I was conducting a Christmas cookie making session with Charlotte, Camille, and their cousin Lola.

Clem spent a happy hour after getting up from her nap crawling under the table eating every little bit of squashed cookie dough and rainbow coloured decorative balls off the floor.

Yes, let me just take a moment to confirm that whereas your parenting principles start to slip with child #2, they go into a blistering nosedive with child #3. I just couldn’t work up the motivation to be up to the herculean task of trying to stop Clem from hoovering up the baking detritus from the kitchen floor. If I recall correctly my thoughts were along the lines of, “Good! Nice to see she doesn’t have an allergy to raw eggs, and at least the floor will be clean.”

You’ll also notice that Camille wanted to take her shirt off so it wouldn’t get mucky, and even though it is December and was snowing outside I just gave a mental shrug and figured that wasn’t worth being one of my battles of the day.

Anyway, I eventually put Clem in her high chair and gave her an actual baked sugar cookie to try. She ate it with relish, chattering away to herself while I dealt with a food colouring crisis.

After the crisis had abated I realized that Clem kept chanting the same word over again, “Ah-toe, ah-toe, ah-toe.” Then it struck me; my daughter was saying “gateau” as in the “petit gateau” (meaning “cookie” in French).

“Ah-toe” is now her favorite word, and she wakes us up at 6:00 am every morning chanting it over and over again in her crib. She must be dreaming about “ah-toes” all night long.

Frenchitude Lesson #15: Equip Your Child With Cute Shoes


One thing that many visitors to France remark upon is the gorgeousness of the children’s shoes. It’s true. Take a gander, for example at Clémentine’s first pair of “real” shoes that I bought her in Beaune a couple of months ago.


I swear to God, they are so cute, at times I wonder if I’m not going to eat them.

But as you can see in the above photo of Clem, the gorgeous shoes are not just for looks. They are properly designed to stabilize the child’s ankles to help them stand up and walk, and support the little muffin feet.

And proper, leather shoes are not just for babies. In France, parents generally only allow their younger children to wear running shoes, which are referred to here as les tennis or les baskets in an interesting bastardization of English sports terminology, for playing sports.

But shoes of such undeniable cuteness must cost a fortune, you say? Mais non! Clem’s little boots cost me 19.00 Euros at La Halles Aux Chaussures across from E.LECLERC in Beaune.


Furthermore
Clem, like many French children, only has this one pair of shoes. I find one pair is all she needs.

Older children such as Charlotte and Camille usually have two pair; les tennis specifically for playing sports, and then a pair of really beautiful leather shoes in neat colours and with whimsical design for school and gadding about town with the parents.

Below is a photo of Clem gadding about at her friend Mauhault’s house in Beaune in her French shoes.

And this week, Clem has been taking her first steps in her first pair of shoes. I think after she’s grown out of them I’m going to have to frame them or something.

**Frenchitude Fridays (French + Attitude = Frenchitude) give ideas for injecting a bit of frenchness into your life, whether you live in China or Colorado.