When my son was four months old, we moved to a tiny village in the South of France. It was the most idyllic place I’d ever lived, with 18th century stone façades, vineyards, and a quiet river running through. The perfect setting to raise a child.
Like most women, I’d imagined my parenting style would look something like my own mother or the moms I saw on social media. But moving out of American culture and into French felt like stepping into a world of possibilities. I could suddenly be something very different than anything I’d ever seen.
Cultural pressures were still there, of course, but they felt muted by distance or lost in translation. I didn’t know the language well enough to overhear the commentary of strangers, so I lived in a world blissfully unburdened by mommy judgement.
I could do things my own way, and I found the happy middle ground between the American and French ways of mothering.
While the American in me felt pressure to hover over my son at the playground, I took a page from the French and sat on the benches, piping up only when he needed help or encouragement. When French people found my attachment-style parenting and extended breastfeeding odd, I shrugged them off and said, “I’m American!”
But I didn’t ignore everything. One of the biggest influences on me was the French belief that a mother should have her own life. She should be able to work (if she wants to), spend time alone, and take care of herself. This idea is so pervasive in French culture that they’ve created one of the most comprehensive and accessible childcare systems in the world.
At first, I felt guilty every time I left my son with his dad or the nanny we hired during busy seasons. Most of the American women I knew were staunch stay-at-home mommies whose lives revolved around selfless devotion to their husbands and children. Part of me was convinced that my son needed this constant time with me, or that my husband didn’t want to do the hard work of day-to-day parenting. But I soon realized how wrong I was.
The more I invested time in feeling like myself—through work and self care—the more my son thrived. Our quality time together was better, and his ability to connect with people outside our family grew exponentially. Plus, the postpartum depression and anxiety I’d struggled with for months became much more manageable until it eventually dissipated.
My husband also looks back on this as a crucial shift in his parenting life. He tells me how grateful he is that I took a step back, so he could be more involved and central in our son’s life. Their bond is closer than ever, and I’m so thankful for it.
Taking a cue from French laissez-faire culture, we developed a relaxed and slow style of parenting designed to keep us all sane. We didn’t enroll our son in any activities or schedule many playdates (as we are all introverts). We didn’t have noisy toys or a TV. We didn’t fuss over developmental milestones or dirty carpets. We let our son play in the recycling bin and jump in muddy puddles. We went on walks, shopped at the market, and threw rocks in the river. We spent quality time as a family and made sure we talked and listened to our son. We assumed that would be enough to turn him into a well-adjusted adult. So far, so good. I know every mother thinks their child is great, but my son is one of most peaceful, kind, and imaginative children I’ve ever met.
Now that we live in America again, we’re still taking things slow, sharing the work of parenthood, and taking time to care for ourselves. And even though I can understand strangers’ comments again, I don’t mind them much. I know that this works for us, and most importantly, it’s good for my son.
If you’re interested in the more relaxed style of French parenting, Bringing Up Bébé is a good book to start with. Or you could just read Escargot—a delightful children’s book about a French snail—in an exaggerated accent to your kids. Your call.
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Photo: © Elizabeth Steere