The French vs. American Moms Debate Continues

To assume that an entire nation of parents is great is as silly as assuming that an entire set of people born in under one birth sign are exactly the same. But that hasn't stopped the ongoing "Where is it better to be a mom?" debate.

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To assume that an entire nation of parents is great, and another nation terrible, is as silly as assuming that an entire set of people born in under one birth sign are exactly the same. But that hasn't stopped the ongoing "Where is it better to be a mom?" and "Where are the moms, themselves, better?" debate. Part of this is because books of this ilk keep being sold, which prompts more attention, followed by incentive to write more books. Another part of it is that we're nationally competitive, and parenting is something everybody, even non-parents, have strong feelings about. So it's not terribly surprising that the French vs. American mom debate would eventually make it to the entertainment pages of The New York Post, a paper not often known for its Francophile tendencies.

In a piece titled "Be a Mom Like Moi," Sara Stewart tackles two new books from French authors on the subject of momhood, and gets some reactions from American moms. In one of those books, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, Elisabeth Badinter "whom you can almost hear smoking as she writes," says Stewart, posits that Western moms are doing it all wrong, submitting to stay-at-home mom status and 24-7 caregiving, while the French have managed to maintain freedom and "the ability to be both mother and women." American moms have given up their freedom, lest they be branded "reckless" and, essentially, terrible moms, explains Badinter. (And you know how American treats a terrible mom. Look at the most recent target of everyone's ire, the problematically complected New Jersey tanning mom.)

The idea that there are stages of momhood, and stages of ways in which we look at momhood, can't really be disputed. There are trends and themes and backlashes to those trends and themes, and then backlashes to the backlashes. This is how it works. There was a backlash to the independent careerist mom championed in the recent past (until it was realized, actually, that "superwomen" don't exist and moms are just trying the best they can), which led to moms deciding to stay at home (because they have the right to decide that) and devote themselves to their kids fully (if they had the income in which to do that; and keep in mind, with these books, we're talking about a certain socio-economic level of mom). That, then led to charges of helicopter parenting and all that followed from that. Which leads to this. So, how do moms figure out how to "have it all," or "have it better"? Move to France?

Some moms in New York don't agree (even though, interestingly, The New York Post's poll on this matter is distinctly in favor of the French mom.):

“I’m getting sick of these books about how other cultures do everything better than our own,” says Forest Hills mom Elaine Cipriano, whose daughters are 3 and 6.

“I don’t think we need any more of that.”

That point notwithstanding, there is more. The other book that Stewart discusses is the recent-ish book by Pamela Druckerman, titled Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Druckerman said, essentially, that by being a little more relaxed, French parents have better behaved kids who will eat Frenchy foods and such (because they're French!). Again, American moms disagree (to the Post), saying that this is just European snobbery. At the same time, they admit that the American companies don't give as much time for paid maternity leave or government support to new moms as do the French. And much should be said for the positive impact of French wine and cheese. So maybe French moms do have it a wee bit better? Oui?

But the most sanguine point is not one of international mom-petition, it's that books like these are books that sell. (Look at the glut of "controversial" parenting books that have come out of late, from Tiger Mom to Vogue "diet mom." Look, again, at how we relate to "bad mothers.") This is a topic that gets everybody's dander up, a universal subject that everyone has a different opinion on, an opinion which they feel is valuable and have a stake in defending. Writing books like these is almost, or maybe exactly, trolling parents.

But we couldn't end this post without mentioning a parenting view that came before any of this discussion and is neither French nor American. That's the nostalgia POV, a longstanding trope among those who came before and walked a mile in the snow to the schoolhouse during a blizzard with potatoes in their pockets to keep them warm. As Kelcey Kintner, Westchester mom and blogger at The Mama Bird Diaries, told the Post:
It sure wasn’t this way back when she was growing up, Kintner observes ruefully. “In the ’70s,” she says, “you’d get in the car and say, ‘I’m thirsty,’ and they’d be like, ‘Great. Drink your own saliva.’ Now if you ever get in the car without drinks and snacks, your kids are floored.”

Kintner: We see a book in that.

Image via Shutterstock by Ekaterina Pokrovsky.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.