I’ve just returned from a way-too-quick trip to Paris, where I started reading Paris to the Moon, a memoir by Adam Gopnik, a New Yorker writer who moved his wife and baby son to Paris in the late ‘90s.
He describes a dreamy Parisian life of lingering in cafés, frolicking with his son in the Luxembourg Gardens, learning to cook French cuisine and acculturating to the way children are raised in France. (No, I haven’t yet read the more recent book on this topic, Bringing Up Bébé. It’s on my list!)
Anyway, on the subway this morning I read the funniest passage, comparing his wife’s prenatal care in New York while pregnant with their first child to her prenatal care with their second child, conceived and delivered in Paris. Pregnancy, he argues, is perceived differently in France than it is in North America: “The elaborate hospital rigmarole of American hygiene and American obstetrics — the white coats, the dressing gowns, the lab gowns — is dispensed with. They make no sense, since a pregnant woman is not only not sick but in a sense has doubled the sum of her health.”
Interestingly, he reports that most of the OB/GYNS in France seem to be bearded men who, inexplicably, wear black denim and open-chested black shirts to the office. Gopnik’s wife’s OB-GYN asked them repeatedly whether the baby had been conceived late at night, or in the early morning hours, of the likely conception date. He wanted all the sexy details, and he was only half-kidding.
Writes Gopnik: “It was part of his profession to view that precise moment of passion or lust with a special tenderness. The moment of conception, the sexual act…was not incidental information to be handled discreetly or pushed aside altogether, as American obstetricians do all American “What to Expect” books begin with the test, not the act.”
Later, a second doctor, a woman, offers a bit of post-partum advice: “We talked a bit about the approach of those hard, exhausting first weeks with a newborn. ‘Get a night nurse,’ she advised. ‘Go out with your husband. Be happy again.’
In New York, in other words, pregnancy is a medical condition that, after proper care by people in white coasts and a brief hospital stay, can have a ‘positive outcome.’ In Paris it is something that has happened because of sex, which, with help and counsel, can end with your being set free to go out and have more sex. In New York pregnancy is a ward in the house of medicine; in Paris it is a chapter in a sentimental education, a strange consequence of the pleasures of the body. … In France… a pregnant woman is alive, since she has demonstrated both her availability and her fecundity: We Have a Winner.”
It’s interesting that the French are so relaxed about pleasures of the body — be it food, wine, or sex — and don’t treat pregnancy like a medical crisis to be managed, yet they are not big fans of natural childbirth, and, he writes, seem eager to medicate themselves. (Gopnik also observes that you can’t leave a regular check-up in France without six prescriptions for various things.)
“Though Lamaze childbirth began here, it remains cultish and sectarian. Most women nurse for three months, no more. (It shrinks your breasts and gives you an uncomfortable accessory.) And when the anesthesiologists are not striking, they are, as our baby-sitter says, fully busy. (Two French friends of ours talk about natural childbirth: ‘What is the English for accouchement sans douler?’ one asks. ‘A lie,’ the other answers.)”
I do wonder, though, if the French attitudes toward natural childbirth have changed since 2000, when this book was published.
I found the cross-cultural look at pregnancy attitudes, and the way parenting is perceived around the world, pretty fascinating. (Have you seen the adorable documentary Babies?) And for some reason, at Today’s Parent we get tons of pitches from ex-pat Canadian moms raising kids abroad. (See our July issue for an “At Our House” article called “Far and Away,” by Kali Pearson, a mom bringing up her baby in the U.K.) Would a baby born overseas automatically grow up to be more… chic? This isn’t scientific, but all the little kids I saw in Paris were impossibly cute and stylish, pedaling around on red tricycles, wearing blue and white-striped T-shirts, slim-cut shorts, and yellow rain boots. I wanted to kidnap one!
I’ve always thought it’d be an interesting life experience to raise kids in a foreign country. My husband occasionally takes on foreign assignments for his job, and while I’m not sure I would have liked to tag along to Kandahar, his last international posting — call me crazy but giving birth in Afghanistan is not at the top of my bucket list! — I think I’d be OK with India, South Africa, China, or anywhere in Europe or South America (all places where his company has offices). We already live halfway across the country from both of our extended families, so we wouldn’t be missing out on that aspect. Then again, once you’re sleep deprived and desperate for one night of babysitting, maybe moving to a new city and new culture, where you have no friends at all, is the worst idea ever.
Do you have experience raising kids abroad? Is it harder — and more complicated — than it seems?