Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Non sequitur

This has absolutely nothing to do with anything, but it's because I'm pregnant that I can't stop crying as I watch Gladiator for the hundreth time? It's not that moving a movie, is it?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Decision Made

I have been dragging my feet on putting LK in an halte-garderie (basically French day care) because I really wanted him to be in a bilingual one. It just seemed a little cruel to throw him into an entirely French environment when (i) he has so little exposure to French, and (ii) he's not used to being without me or in a familiar setting. But it's tough to find a bilingual garderie - at least one that's near my apartment or one that doesn't costs thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands (keep going - you'll get the idea) of euros a year. And with a new baby on the way, I really do have to think about both distance and money.

So, looks like he'll be going to an all-French garderie for a little while. There's one literally 5 minutes away from our apartment and another a little bit further away. The decision is finally made and yet I'm still dragging my feet. I know it'll be good for him to spend time away from me and away from a sitter. I know he'll love it once he gets used to going. But I know there's going to be a good month or so that will absolutely suck. Sometimes he pitches a fit when I leave him with his beloved father in our apartment - so how's he going to handle me leaving him among strangers in a foreign (and foreign-speaking) enviroment? The thought literally brings tears to my eyes. And yet, I know that it's normal and that we must all go through it at some point.

In my hearts of hearts, I must admit that my hesitation is not entirely related to separation anxiety (on both our parts) - it is in some part due to my fear of relinquishing him to the French establishment. This is not my country or culture. This is not my husband's country or culture. I feel as if I could easily fail him somehow - by not being able to interpret some sociological situation correctly, or literally not being able to interpret what his teacher, classmates, or classmates parents are saying correctly. I worry that he'll need me to understand something cultural and I just won't be able to. Once again, I'm sure I'm over-thinking this. He'll probably be in an all-french speaking environment for a maximum of a year. And my French is good enough to handle whatever comes up (I think) within the school context at this age. But still.

But if I really, really dig into my hearts of hearts, there's more. I am worried about him speaking French - but not in the way you'd think. LK is very quick with languages. I'm sure all parents say that about their kids, but LK speaks extraordinarily well for a 20-month old. He can use full sentences like: Papa's taking a bath, or I like to wash my hands or Where are you going? And he correctly uses abstract words like "gemutlich," which is a complicated German word that can loosely translated as "cozy" but means a lot more than that. (Well, he probably does mean cozy when he says it, but he's not getting it wrong for the German sense either). Anyway, he expresses himself very well and I almost always understand what he's saying either in English or German. But when he learns French, I'm not going to always be able to understand him anymore. My French vocabulary has not yet extended into halte-garderie talk. I've picked up somethings at the playground (pousse-toi! c'est a moi!) but there's so much I still don't know. The French have so many colloquialisms.

I guess I should look at it as a good opportunity for me to learn, but I don't like the idea of me not understanding him. And - I really hate to admit it - I don't like the idea of my almost-2 year old having to translate for me! It just reminds me that there will come a time, very soon probably, where LK will realize that I am not "Mom-all-knowing." And that he'll see that I'm "Mom-of-the-shitty-accent" or "Mom-who-only-knows-stuff-when-someone-speaks-to-her-in-the-right-language. "

Bof. Que sera sera.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Breast?

Sometimes I really, really wish I was raising my son back home. Other times, I'm relieved that I'm not.

I just read an article in The Atlantic titled, The Case Against Breastfeeding. Wow. Was that author angry! The piece was less about the benefits or detriments of breastfeeding than a rant (an intelligent rant, but a rant nonetheless) about how American society pressures mothers to breastfeed without leaving any room for an alternative. The author (Hanna Rosin) wrote of how formula-feeding is portrayed as tantamount to child abuse by breastfeeding fanatics, and yet science shows breastfeeding to be only marginally better than formula-feeding. She also sounded off about how she hated having to "stay at home breastfeeding" while her husband walked freely out of the door to go to work, and how much harder it is to breastfeed when you're on your third kid and have to make sure that your other two aren't "drowning each other in the tub." In the end, she just wished she could simply opt for a bottle of formula on occasion without being labeled a bad mom.

There'll probably be tons of letters to the editor roasting the author, but I thought it a brave, sensible stance. From what I can tell (from my vantage point across the Atlantic Ocean), attitudes about breastfeeding in the U.S. are strangely paradoxical. There seems to be this enormous pressure to breastfeed, and yet there's also this attitude that must be done in private or specially designated places. This surely must make a mom feel that she can't go just anywhere with her breastfeeding infant and thus is "stuck" at home.

I remember feeling this way when I took LK to the U.S. when he was 4 months old. We went to my 8-year old nephew's football game and as the game went on and on, I began worrying about whether he would need feeding before the game was over. I didn't have anything to cover up with (if those apron-like things exist in Paris, I don't know where to find them), and I felt that it really would have been some gross error in etiquette had I whipped about my boob and started feeding him in the stands. Which annoyed the hell out of me. I mean, he's a baby and he needs to be fed. We all know that. So why can't I just feed him where I was without feeling that I'm making other people feel uncomfortable? No one would have been able to see my breast, even without an apron-thingy. But people would have simply been uncomfortable knowing that my breast was not safely tucked away in a bra, and that my child's mouth was sucking on it.

I was irritated with myself for feeling uncomfortable - why should I care how others feel about me feeding my kid? But I cared all the same. And lest anyone says that it was all in my imagination, both my mom and brother (who were there) thought that feeding him at the game would have been a huge no-no and that I should probably return to the car to feed him, if necessary.

Admittedly, I'm from DC which I find to be an impossibly (socially) converative town. So, maybe it's not like that everywhere. But I get the impression from reading that article that many places in the U.S. are uptight about public breastfeeding. On that same trip to the U.S. I breastfed LK on the Amtrak from DC to New York, and I almost cracked up at the expression on the face of the guy sitting across from me. He looked liked he wished he could have been anywhere, anywhere else....sitting in the dining car...standing in the aisle...still waiting on the freezing cold platform. For some reason, it didn't bother me to feed LK on the train, even though I knew others would be made to feel uncomfortable. I guess it's more initmate than a football stadium.

Now, let me just say that I don't have a phobia about breastfeeding in public. I breastfed LK all over Paris. From the legendary Cafe Flore to the park at Palais Royal to any old Starbucks, I had no problem with it. True, At first I was a little self-conscious, but I quickly realized that it was no big deal. It took my mom a little longer to catch on. The first time I fed LK in public with my mother present, she insisted on holding an old-fashioned cloth diaper in front of us and glared at any passersby who dared look our way. I thought that was hilarious and told her that they were probably staring because they were startled to see a woman holding a big white cloth in front of a breastfeeding mother.

But even while it's no big deal to breastfeed in public here - many French women only maybe a month or two, if that. The stereotype is that French women worry about what will happen to the firmness of their breasts if they breastfeed for too long. I don't know whether it's true -- the few French women that I know with children have breastfeed. (Though I remember being mildly shocked at seeing a picture of a French friend bottle-feeding his newborn son while they were still in the hospital. I immediately realized that this was unfair of me -- I don't know whether there was breastmilk in that bottle, or why they might have been feeding the little one formula. And moreover: it was none of my business. ) But breastfeeders or not, you almost never heard militant views on either side about breastfeeding here -- well, except against breastfeeding toddlers. I can't even imagine a French woman doing that. My mind is simply unable to conjure the picture.

In the end, I'm with Rosin. Perhaps it is better to breastfeed, but it's not such a huge benefit that we can actually distinguish between children that were breastfed and those that were formula fed later in life. As Rosin says, it isn't as if she looks around her daughter's second-grade class and thinks, "Oh, poor little Sophie, whose mother couldn’t breast-feed. What dim eyes she has. What a sickly pallor. And already sprouting acne!” And, though I live in a nation of primarily formula feeders, I don't read about French children having more health problems than American children. It's just unreasonable, I think, to insist that breastmilk is the only path to a healthy child. And I hate the way so many loving, wonderful mothers are made to feel guilty for not being able to breastfeed, and are put under a great deal of pressure to keep trying, keep trying, keep trying, keep trying, even while their child is not thriving on their breastmilk, or the mom is running herself ragged trying to work, and breastfeed, and pump.

I do wish, however, that Rosin had addressed the Puritanical attitudes toward breastfeeding in public. For the 10 months I breastfed my child, I never felt "stuck" at home or "kept down" because I had to breastfeed. Stuck at home because I was exhausted, yes. Stuck at home because there's so few places to change a dirty diaper outside of your house, yes (the idea of changing tables in public restrooms pretty much doesn't exist here). But breastfeeding never slowed me down. In fact, I loved the convenience of it. Once I accidentally locked myself out of my apartment with the kid, and I remember sitting in a Starbucks waiting for my husband to come home, and being very relieved that I carried LK's food with me all the time. And how easy was breastfeeding at night? Just roll over, stick the kid on your breast, wait awhile and put him down, then go back to sleep.

At least that's how I remember it. Check back with me in July.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

On Alcohol

Is it weird that my nineteen-month old can distinguish between champagne, wine and beer bottles? Seriously. He knows the difference. Okay, sure, he sometimes points to a bottle of olive oil and shouts: "Beer!" But most of the time, he's right. It's really embarrassing when we pass through the spirits aisle at the supermarket, he's all: Beer! Wine! Beer! Beer! Cham-pagne! Of course, the French are not fazed by this. They smile indulgently and tell me that it's good that I'm starting him on his English so early.

It's not like we drink a lot -- certainly we drink less than the average French family. Of course, being pregnant, I'm not drinking at all right now. But prior to the pregnancy, I had at least one glass of wine every night. And before LK was born, we probably drank an entire bottle of wine every night. I guess most American families would view us as having a problem, but having a bottle of wine with dinner is standard for France, and maybe below average for Germany. That said, when we have a party or a dinner, we do have lots of wine and champagne bottles in our wine rack and LK notices.

There's nothing really wrong with him knowing the proper names for things. But I don't like any kind of glorification of it. Like last weekend. We were in Germany with Dawg's parents, Dawg's dad found it amusing to pour a glass of beer and ask LK: "What is it? What's in the glass?" to hear him shout "Beer!" I found it less funny. I feel that by drawing attention to it, we're emphasizing that it's something desireable - and something he can't have, which, of course, makes it more tempting.

Am I being too sensitive? Not sure. All I know is when yesterday he pointed at a beer bottle and said, "I've some? I've some beer?" then wept hysterically when I said no, it creeped me out.

Then again, he does the same thing when I deny him matches...

Saturday, February 28, 2009

On Parisian Playgrounds

One of the most frustrating things about living in a 3rd culture (meaning not mine or my husband's) is not knowing the rules. Sure, I've absorbed plenty of rules and codes regarding appropriate behavior at dinner parties and other gatherings with French people, but now that I have a child, I find myself back at square one.

Take playgrounds, for example. There's a definite etiquette for both parents and children on the playgrounds here, but I'll be damned if I know exactly what it is. Whatever it is, I'm pretty sure I'm not following it.

Like most toddlers, Leroy Klaus always wants to play with other kids' toys. I don’t care when other children want to play with LK’s toys (as long as they aren’t snatching them from him while he’s playing with them), and if another child picks up one of LK’s toys and plays with it while we’re on the playground, I barely notice. I keep a periodic eye on it to make sure it doesn’t end up in the back of someone’s stroller or broken into pieces, but otherwise – who cares? I figure an unused toy is basically community property at a playground.

Now, when LK wants to play with someone else’s toy that’s just lying around the playground, this is what I usually do: (i) I figure out to whom the toy belongs;(ii) I make some kind of eye contact or gesture that suggests asking permission to play with the toy, or if the parents/guardian are within speaking distance, I ask (iii) I keep a close eye on LK while he plays with it to make sure he doesn’t abuse it, (iv) when LK is finished playing with it, I make sure the toy is placed back exactly where we found it, or if we found it in the middle of the playground, I give it directly to the parent/guardian, and (v) I make sure that LK immediately relinquishes the toy if the kid to whom it belongs wants it back.

Sensible, right? Well, maybe, maybe not. I’ve gotten different reactions from this method.

Most of the time, it’s fine, particularly during on weekdays. On weekdays, the nanny-parent ratio on the playground is 5:1. Nannies don’t care who plays with their charges’ toys, and are respectful when their charges play with the toys of others. And if there’s a stay-at-home mom on the scene (we’re in France, it’s almost always a mom), she’s generally pretty cool too. But parents on the weekends….well, many of the parents here genuinely seem to believe that children should only play with their own toys. I wish someone would correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s really how it seems.

Like today, for example. LK spies a little plastic tricycle behind a bench, and immediately makes a bee-line towards it. Now, to me, the fact that the trike is behind the bench, i.e., where it is less likely to be noticed, seems very deliberate. So, I distract LK and lead him away. Everything’s fine for a half-hour or so, but eventually he remembers the trike and returns to it. But he’s not trying to ride it or move it, so I let him stand beside it, and watch him exam it lovingly with one finger.

I look around, trying to make eye contact with the owner of the trike, but I can’t tell to whom it belongs. But again, I figure, he’s not moving it or trying to ride it, no other kid is claiming it, so no matter.

After about 5 mins or so, LK decides to sit on the trike. I try half-heartedly to discourage him, reminding him that’s not his, but as I haven’t yet figured out whom it belongs to I’m still thinking no harm done. But I’m vaguely uncomfortable. Eventually, a man wanders over and picks up a bunch of sandbox toys that are on the bench. He glances at LK on the trike -- but he doesn’t look at me. I force him to make eye-contact with me by saying, “Excusez-nous” (excuse us) and he responds, “Ce n’est pas grave” (no big deal). But he didn’t smile as he said it. He didn’t look particularly annoyed or hostile, but he didn’t smile.

Now, in the U.S., smiling or not smiling means so much –but in Paris, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. As a rule, the French aren’t big smilers. They often just don’t see the need for it with strangers, as they see it as frivolous. But I am an American, and I need to see a smile to feel truly at ease in such a situation.

Soon, LK starts to try to ride the trike, but he’s unable to work the pedals so he shuffles it between his legs. I limit him to moving up and down the length of the bench, but that only works for a little while. As he breaks free of the bench, I call out to the owner-parent – who is sitting nearby on the edge of the sandpit – Is this okay with you? with an air of being ready to wrest the trike away from LK if need be. He glances at his daughter who is busy playing in the sand, and then nods, sort of half-shrugging. Still not smiling.

I follow LK closely as he shuffles around the playground. After about 10 minutes or so, the little girl to whom the trike belongs rushes over. I say – oh, are you ready to play with your bike? She turns away from me, shyly. I go over to LK to pry him away from the trike, and, of course, he starts screaming I’m murdering him. As I carry my shrieking, struggling bundle of love away, I try to make eye contact with the father to thank him. But he doesn’t look at me as I pass, even though LK is wailing like an air raid siren and we were nearly close enough to brush elbows.

I really don’t know what to make of this whole thing. Was I wrong to let him play with the trike when it was, I think, deliberately placed behind the bench? Should I have interpreted the father’s unsmilingness as reluctant acquiescence? Was the father kind of an ass? Or was he just being normal, maybe even courteous, by a French person’s standards?

This has happened several times before. I remember once LK was playing another child’s truck and the parents absolutely refused to make eye-contact with me the entire time. When LK was finished playing and toddled off, I said “merci” and the parents never even looked up. Dawg was right there with me and we just exchanged baffled glances, then spent the walk home pondering who had been the rude couple in the eyes of the French: us or them.

I guess it doesn’t really matter. I just follow my own conscious, and teach LK the manners that I want to instill in him -- i.e., share your toys.

What really bothers me is this: I don’t even know if my playground etiquette is appropriate on an American playground. I assume so, but I don’t know. LK hasn’t been of playground age for very long, and the last time we were in the U.S. it was too cold to play outside. When I dwell on the fact that I don’t even know how things like this work in my own country, I start feeling kind of homesick and lost. If I don’t know the right thing to do in the U.S. nor the right thing to do in France, then where do I belong? And if I don’t know where I belong, then how will I help my son to know where he belongs?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cast of Characters

OK. Let me start again. I poured out my heart in the first post without even introduing the International Family. So here goes:

Barb - that's me. I'm in my late 30s (very late), a former attorney, now SAHM and freelance writer. I'm a black American.

Dawg - my husband. In his 40s, still an attorney. He's a white German. We've been together for 10 years, married for almost 6.

Leroy Klaus - also known as LK or Lil'Dawg or just The Kid. This is my son, almost 19-months old. So very cute. Silky black curls, pert little chin, mischievous smile, skin the color of toasted almonds. And he's brilliant, naturally. He speaks both English and German pretty well, and has picked up a few French phrases such as "Au 'voir" and "Oooh la la!" I guess he got that from me because he isn't around French people a lot yet (subject for a later post). I don't know whether I'll post any pictures of LK here as Dawg objects to his face being in the public domain. So we'll have to see... I think it's a bit overcautious, but hey - nobody's reading at this point anyway so who cares?

Die Kleine (pronounced "D Kline-nuh") -- the surprise baby. A little more than 16 weeks in the making, so won't be playing a huge role in this blog until he makes his appearance this summer. Then again, he's been giving me lots of thumps and nudges, as I write, so maybe I'd better start practicing giving him some attention now.

So that's the family. Typical and not typical in so many ways....