A few days after I wrote my last post on work-life balance in academia, a dialogue broke out between the Catholic Moral Theology blog and Women in Theology about work-life balance in the context of motherhood in academia. My post wasn’t specifically focused on motherhood, though I contextualized my discussion in the dialogue over motherhood in academia, referencing the text Professor Mommy specifically.

As I mentioned to some of the women in my program, I read all of these posts through the lens of having just recently finished Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.1 Although I haven’t personally experienced the stresses of balancing motherhood and academia, as I read the whole dialogue between the blogs, all I could think was: There has to be another way! Maybe, just maybe, we can learn from some of the parenting styles in other parts of the world (like France) and find a better way to balance motherhood (and fatherhood) with the academic lifestyle.

Pamela Druckerman’s main purpose in her book is to place the American-style of parenting alongside the ways the French raise their children and highlight some of the ways in which American parents can actually learn from the French. Druckerman is actually the perfect person to write this type of book because although she lives in Paris, she’s not a total Francophile. But, she notes:

…for all its problems, France is the perfect foil for the current problems in American parenting. On the one hand, middle-class French parents have values that look very familiar to me. Parisian parents are zealous about talking to their kids, showing them nature, and reading them lots of books. They take them to tennis lessons, painting classes, and interactive science museums.

Yet the French have managed to be involved without becoming obsessive. They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there’s no need to feel guilty about this. (6-7)

That last part of the quote more or less sums up the whole text. As I noted in my previous post on work-life balance, “the approach of the French can more or less be summed up as: let go and let your child learn to handle things on their own, within reasonable limits. … Americans tend to micromanage and that’s part of the reason why we have so much trouble with work-life balance.”

The great thing about Druckerman’s book is that it’s set up in the form of a narrative of her life and her failures (and then successes) at learning from French parenting as she raises her own children in Paris.2 Since it’s so easy and quick to read, it doesn’t take much time away from the busy academic schedule. She begins with a story of the problems that she had in taking her child to restaurants on vacation because the child was not behaving properly and making their meals into absolutely horrific experiences. She explains that it was her observations about French families in the restaurants that led her to research the differences in French and American styles of parenting. She comments, “After a few more restaurant meals, I notice that the French families all around us don’t look like they’re in hell. Weirdly, they look like they’re on vacation. French children the same age as Bean are sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food, or eating fish and even vegetables. There’s no shrieking or whining. Everyone is having one course at a time. And there’s no debris around their tables” (2).

The book itself is broken up into chapters that allow the reader to follow along with Druckerman’s pregnancy and raising of her child. In each chapter, she illustrates a problem with American-style parenting and provides examples of how the French deal with these issues differently. She brings in psychologists, sociologists, pediatricians, etc. to support the methods of French-style parenting. Chapters 1-2 focus on pregnancy and childbirth. Chapters 3-5 cover how to deal with an infant, focusing on sleeping, eating at regular intervals, and letting babies develop naturally. For example, chapter 3 is about the ability of French infants to faire leurs nuits (“do their nights”), about which she notes that “everyone I speak to takes for granted that babies can and probably will do their nights by about six months, and often much sooner” (40). Then she moves on to dealing with toddlers. Chapter 6 covers the crèche (day care) and chapter 9 covers école maternelle (preschool). She also includes several chapters about the parents: chapters 7-8 cover taking time for yourself and being less of a helicopter parent, while chapter 11 looks at not losing the relationship of the couple (chapter 10 is an interlude about her pregnancy with her twins). Chapter 12 covers getting children to try new foods. Then the last two chapters are about the aspects of life that Americans think of as discipline and French think of as éducation: building the cadre (framework/boundaries) for your child and then giving them autonomy within it.

Now, there are obviously certain aspects of the text that are not directly applicable to American life. Americans won’t be able to duplicate the free day care and preschool provided in France or the structures within those institutions that support the French-style of parenting. There are certain things that many middle-class American mothers would absolutely be horrified about, like the lack of breast-feeding in France. And, there are certain aspects of French life that American women in general would be unhappy about, like the gender inequality in French society, especially in terms of housework: in France women spend 89% more time on housework than men, whereas in the United States women only spend about 31% more time in this area than men (cf. 189). As Druckerman explains, “Partly, this is because Frenchwomen don’t expect men to be their equals. They view men as a separate species, which by nature isn’t good at booking babysitters, buying tablecloths, or remembering to schedule checkups with the pediatrician” (191).

But, in spite of these problems, I find Bringing Up Bébé as a good reminder of ways in which to avoid the helicopter-parenting trap that seems set for middle-class women by American culture. This should be a must-read for academics (or anyone really) trying to balance parenting and their job. The constant reminder that you don’t have to do everything and you can give your child autonomy early on and still raise a successful, healthy child is important. As one of my colleagues commented to me about Bringing Up Bébé, the book is especially good at reminding parents “that the ‘American-style’ of child rearing is not the only option.”

One of the things I noticed in the posts over at Catholic Moral Theology is that in discussing the difficulties of work-life balance, they inevitably have fallen back on the standard of the need for a totally structured life. Toward the end of my last post, I commented:

And sometimes the advice that is given to women in academia about how to achieve work-life balance seems to be to ultimately sacrifice the time that you need for yourself. For example, in the (very helpful) advice given in Professor Mommy, the authors note, “One thing that the vast majority of women we surveyed have in common is this: they are very careful with their time. They don’t do anything that doesn’t directly benefit their scholarship, teaching, or family life” (181). It is so easy to read that last sentence and think that all the time that you spend not sleeping should either be benefiting your scholarship, teaching, or family responsibilities and that is ultimately an unrealistic expectation that it is very easy to fall into.

Note what Beth Haile says about her way of balancing motherhood and academia with her first child:

All this being said, I have grown very disturbed at the way in which my female peers and colleagues who are working moms live such incredibly busy lives (maybe men do too but I sense this more with the women I know). My working mom friends live lives that are extremely disciplined, structured, and scheduled more tightly than the heads of states of most nations. After the birth of my daughter, I lived such a life. I woke up early (around 5) to plan lectures and grade while pumping milk for the day. I nursed by daughter and got her and me dressed and ready. I taught classes, met with students, bounced home to nurse, went to meetings. I also went to mom groups around town, Books and Babies at the local library, toddler sign language classes at our local children’s museum. I made my own baby food, cooked meals for my family at night, cleaned the house. At night, after putting my daughter down, I would grade, answer emails, plan classes for the next day, work on scholarship. I also tried to find time to pray, to go to confession or daily mass, to read scripture. My calendar was always full, and full weeks in advance. My conversations with my husband were almost always logistical. We were committed to being her primary caregivers without relying on daycare, and I am lucky to have such a hands-on husband, but it required constant planning to make sure one of us was with her at all times. I worried constantly about trying to do everything.

The emphases above are my own because I wanted to highlight what Bringing Up Bébé calls the American Question. Druckerman explains:

The standard for how much middle-class mothers should engage with their kids seems to have risen. Narrated play and intensive spoon training are expressions of the “concerted cultivation” that the sociologist Annette Lareau observed among white and African American middle-class parents.

These parents “see their children as a project,” Lareau explains. “They seek to develop their talents and skills through a series of organized activities, through an intensive process of reasoning and language development, and through close supervision of their experiences in school.” (139-140)

Now, I don’t want to suggest that Professor Haile was necessarily falling into the helicopter-parent trap. All I know about her life and how she managed it is what she expressed in her blog post, which isn’t really enough to make a judgment, even if I wanted to.

What I would like to do is recommend Bringing Up Bébé to Professor Haile and any other academics dealing with the specifics of the parenting work-life balance. It’s not that the French don’t have to deal with work-life balance. According to Druckerman, it’s that they approach it in a different way. She explains:

When we Americans talk about work-life balance, we’re describing a kind of juggling, where we’re trying to keep all parts of our lives in motion without screwing up any of them too badly.

The French also talk about l’équilibre. But they mean it differently. For them, it’s about not letting any one part of life–including parenting–overwhelm the rest.” (147)

Maybe we can all find some inspiration from Druckerman’s experience that would help us to rethink our approach to parenting in such a way that we are able to restore some balance and time for ourselves in our lives.

  1. Pamela Druckerman, Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2012). 
  2. She has a second book, Bébé Day by Day: 100 Keys to French Parenting (New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2013), which is a more concise version of the advice and tips given in Bringing Up Bébé

4 thoughts

  1. I generally detest books that suggest French women are better at life than their American counterparts, but I did appreciate the way Druckerman questions the whole culture of American middle class parenting. As a new adoptive mom of twins, a lot of the trappings of that lifestyle aren’t available to me. I couldn’t police our birthmother to make sure she only ate organic food. I’m not breastfeeding at all, much less exclusively breast-feeding for nine months. I wasn’t offered a complete leave from teaching responsibilities, so I’m often feeding a bottle of evil formula with one hand while grading papers with the other. But the more research I do about the whole cult of attachment parenting, the more it looks like a plot against women, and the likelier it seems that breast or bottle, stay at home or daycare, cry-it-out or leap out of bed at every whimper–those decisions have nothing to do with the work of raising children to be happy, healthy, responsible, well-adjusted members of society.

  2. Thanks for a nice review of a great book, Elissa, which I too read. Though I would caution over-idealizing the French or European culture, there are a lot of great insights in the book, as there are in many parenting books. My experience, however, is that no parenting book ever gets it exactly right for the parent who is reading it. Parenting is very much an on-the-ground experience, one which requires a lot of introspection and flexibility. There is no one correct parenting style; there are only better and worse ways to parent, and much of the continuum depends on the parent in question. You have to figure out what is best for you and your kid and your spouse and your community and try and find a way for all to flourish.

    And this is the bigger issue I have with your response to my original post. For me, part of my happiness as a mother required that I get to do things like breastfeed, go to mom groups, and spend leisure time with my child. I never felt a duty to do any of those things; I simply felt a desire. Mom groups especially provided me with dear friends who were able to empathize with a part of my life (i.e. mothering a young child) that none of my colleagues were able to do. I look forward to these groups because not only does my daughter have community, but so do I. They are good for us both. It is the same with unstructured leisure time, where we paint and craft and dance and sing silly songs. I don’t feel a duty to do these things, nor do I think you need to in order to be a good parent. But I want to do these things. I am happy when I am able to, and unhappy when I am not.

    I am what you may call an attached parent. I don’t think this is the best style of parenting, but I do think it is best for me and it is definitely best for my daughter. I would never impose my methods on anybody else. Heck, I may have to change them for the next baby, depending on what she or he needs, what I need, what my daughter needs. Every woman (and man) must have a certain level of introspection and self-knowledge to know how to flourish with the various dreams and responsibilities they have before them. For some women, two children is perfect and having more feels like an insurmountable obstacle to doing what they want to do. For me (three days from my due date), I can’t wait to have more. For some women, daycare is a welcome break to do what they really want to do. For me, childcare has always been torture. For some women, a career is an integral part of their happiness. For me, it was an easy sacrifice, at least for the time, while I do what I want to do, which is parent in the way that suits me.

    My post was about discernment and vocation, not social structures. Social structures need to change to support whatever decision a woman makes, but in the end, what women need to feel free to do is act on God’s call echoing in their hearts and find the time and degree of self-knowledge that will allow them to hear that call. No social structure and no parenting philosophy would change the decision that I am making now. I don’t intend for my decision to be normative to other women in any other way besides encouraging women to discern and to act in ways conducive to their happiness. But in the end, these will be personal decisions that are hard to extrapolate from one person to another.

    1. Yes, with all due respect, Professor Haile, neither Elissa or I were attempting to argue that you should keep working a job you don’t want to work. We were however commenting on the parts of your post that asked questions about other women and implied that working mothers would be happier if they stayed at home. Please stop acting like your post was simply a personal meditation or reflection piece. It was not.

      It is perfectly reasonable for people to want to write responses to your post, either disagreeing with what you wrote or pointing out aspects of the conversation you omitted (for whatever reason). Some of us for example disagree that you can ever write about personal discernment without also talking about social structures. Others of us are keenly aware of the way in which personal desire itself is socially constructed or influenced. Some of us speak out of different experiences of the academy. Others of us want to lend support to women who feel like the obstacles to working and being a mother are insurmountable.

      You seem to think it inappropriate for people to make public responses to your public post. This baffles me. If you did not want to start a public conversation about working mothers in academia and what your personal experience as a working mother in the academy says about motherhood, the academy, and the intersection of the two in general, then I’m not quite sure why you decided to write a public post about it.

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