I knew when I became a mother that I would not conform to the stereotypes. As a kid I was a tomboy who detested playing with dolls. My own mother – devout, self-sacrificing, much loved and fondly missed these twenty-four years – was no role model for her eldest, renegade daughter.
The first of my two children was born in Toronto. A bouncing boy, he surprised everyone at 10 lbs., 4oz (4.7 kg), including his petite maman. Somehow I was able to keep my identity intact on becoming a mother: we had a midwife, used cloth diapers and my husband spoke French as he pushed the stroller around the neighbourhood.
Our second, a girl, was born in Lyon. I feared giving birth in French more than actual labour and childbirth, having been there and done that. The idea of expressing myself in extremis in what was then (and still remains) a foreign language terrified me.
I needn’t have feared. As the old joke goes, everything came out just fine. Including my daughter. She, by the way, was also a tomboy and has grown up to be something of a renegade herself. Was it because or in spite of the fact that I was no maman like the others?
Two memories from those early years stand out in mind: in the first, we are in the car, my daughter strapped into the car seat as we race forward and slow down, continually changing lanes to avoid parked cars and errant pedestrians – driving in the French way. Suddenly a motorcycle zipped by. My daughter, then two, pointed and said “Asshole!” Forgive me, dear Mother, I taught her well.
In the second, I arrive at school for the annual kermesse (end of year event). The school yard is crowded and chaotic as such celebrations are in France (in contrast to the structure and strict routine the rest of the time, they let loose at parties). My daughter came running up from where she was playing with a group of boys, crying “Maman, tu t’es déguisée en maman!” (Mom, you’re wearing a mommy costume!) I was wearing a skirt.
Much of the time my foreignness was my disguise. It hid the fact that I was not the good old-fashioned kind of mother. I did not take Wednesdays off like most working moms, I did not make crèpes, nor did I iron my kids’ clothes. I did the school runs dressed not for success but in my exercise gear, often walking our two French bulldogs, to whom I spoke only English. This often sparked comment from the other parents. (“Mais ils comprennent l’anglais? How clever! Bilingual dogs!”)
NB: It’s impossible speak a second language to small children or dogs. You have no credibility.
At parent-teacher meetings, I tried to go native for my kids’ sake. There is nothing more excruciating to a child than a non-compliant parent. But even when I managed to suppress my North American attitudes (“Don’t you think that four hours of homework is perhaps a little – excessive?”), my accent was a dead giveaway. The French will not let an accent go by without commenting on it. Nor will they suffer a mistake in grammar without some sort of grimace, however slight. For years, I believed this was indigestion.
Sooner or later, my foreign ideas always came to the fore. I would begin asking about art class and gym and all the things that made our children well-balanced individuals but that the French school system has little time for.
The other mothers would complain only if there was too little homework, in a sincere belief that if little Pierre, Paul or Jacques didn’t work his derrière off in primary school he would never get his baccalaureate. In France, everything in life depends on le bac.
I observed these bonnes mamans with a form of awe bordering on horror. It seemed their whole lives were devoted to feeding, clothing and educating their families, in most cases while holding down a job. The papas were rarely in evidence.
One woman explained to me that as she had to get up at six in the morning to get ready for work and school, and didn’t make it home in the evening until late, the only way she could serve her family a home-cooked meal was to get up and start cooking at five. Then, when she got home all she had to do was heat it up. Genius, non?
Another told me that she did her grocery shopping on her lunch hour, then stashed the booty in the office fridge. Her only regret was not having time to eat. I told her I went to the gym at lunchtime, stored my salad in the fridge and ate it at my desk. No regrets.
In addition to hours of ironing (French women rarely own clothes dryers, so ironing is de rigueur), most of the mamans also spent much of their free time ensuring that their kids did their homework. Drilling on grammar, checking sums.
When my kids were sick I let them stay home and watch TV. We only went to the doctor if things looked serious. French mothers took their kids to the doctor the instant they ran a fever, followed by a trip to the pharmacy. Dosed up with as many médicaments as possible but preferably antibiotics (which the French are convinced are necessary to cure the common cold), they were able not to miss any school.
I refused to do homework with my kids. I made them make their own beds and pick up their toys. I set out the breakfast things so they could get themselves ready in the morning.
I was certainly no bonne maman by French standards. But my kids grew up anyway. They even passed their baccalaureate exams with flying colors. So what did I do right?
I didn’t bend to the pressure that said women should be mothers first and individuals second. I took care of my children as well as I could while taking care of myself. I never missed a bedtime story. I baked banana bread and made sure they celebrated Canada Day and Halloween. And I did the one thing that truly defines a bonne maman.
I saved their Mother’s Day cards.