French Children Don't Throw Food (24 page)

We’re able to put some of what we’ve learned about French parenting to use on the boys. We slowly nudge them on to the national meal plan, with four feeds a day. From the time they’re a few months old, except for the
goûter
, they rarely snack.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to try out the Pause on them. Having newborn twins who don’t even have a room of their own – and an older child who’s just a few feet away – makes it difficult to try out anything.

So once again, we suffer. After about a month of almost no sleep, Simon and I are zombies. We fall back on our Filipina nanny and her network of cousins and friends. We eventually have four different women to help us, on shifts covering practically twenty-four hours a day. We’re bleeding cash, but at
least
we’re sleeping a bit. I start to view mothers of multiples as a persecuted minority, like Tibetans.

Both boys have trouble breastfeeding. So I spend a lot of time upstairs in my bedroom, bonding with my electric breast pump. Bean eventually figures out that she can spend time alone with me if she sits with me while I pump. She learns to assemble the bottles and receptacles, as if she’s putting together a rifle. She does a great impression of the ‘wapa wapa’ sound the pump makes.

Most of the time, I look like a stunned animal. I come downstairs to deliver my bottles of milk, or send Bean down with them and go back to sleep. There are so many babysitters around that I feel more like a supporting cast member than a lead actress. I’m convinced the boys don’t know that, among all these women, I’m their mother. I must seem detached because at one point a friend grabs me by the shoulders, stares me in the eye and asks whether I’m OK. This isn’t easy for her; she’s quite a bit shorter than me.

‘I’m OK, but I’m running out of money,’ I say. I spend so much time singing ‘Silent Night’ to the boys – more as a command than a lullaby – that one of the babysitters asks if I’ve become a Catholic.

Meanwhile, our renovations are under way. Between pumping sessions, I dash over to inspect the new apartment. I meet with the head of the building association, an economist in his sixties, to discuss whether we can leave our double buggy in the vestibule downstairs. He won’t commit.

‘The previous owners were excellent neighbours,’ he says.

‘Excellent how?’ I ask.

‘They were very discreet,’ he says.

The apartment itself is an enormous mess. I had approved the plans one night, while the boys were having a full-on fit of colic. It’s suddenly clear that I had no idea how to read them. Two-hundred-year-old doors and walls, which I had thought were fine, have disappeared. They’ve been replaced with new, flimsier ones. It’s only when the renovations are done and we move in that I realize I’ve turned our nineteenth-century Parisian apartment into what looks like a high-rise condominium in Miami, but with mice. I didn’t understand quite how beautiful Paris is – the heavy doors, the intricate mouldings – until I destroyed a small part of it, at enormous expense.

Now I spend a lot of time ruminating on this. ‘You know how Édith Piaf said, “
Je ne regrette rien
”?’ I ask Simon. ‘Well, for me it’s “
Je regrette tout
”.’

Occasionally our life changes from expensive and exhausting to merely surreal. When the boys are a bit older, a single girlfriend of mine stops by before bedtime one night. She watches as the boys – in footed pyjamas – silently pull themselves up and down on the furniture, in a kind of Dadaist dance. Later they’ll march around silently while holding their toothbrushes aloft, like talismans. Simon watches them and pretends to narrate a documentary. ‘For these boys, in their culture, toothbrushes are these curious status symbols,’ he explains.

Mostly our new life is full of extreme emotions. Simon
mopes
around in exhaustion and despair, taking little passive-aggressive snips at me. ‘Maybe in eighteen years I’ll get to have a cup of coffee,’ he says. He describes the dread he feels when he approaches our house and hears the wailing coming from inside. Three kids under the age of three are a lot, even among our very fertile cohort.

Amid all the crying and complaining, there are hopeful moments. My whole mood lifts one afternoon when Leo is cheerful and calm for five whole minutes. The first night that he sleeps seven straight hours, Simon jumps around the house singing the Frank Zappa song ‘Titties and Beer’.

Even so, I still feel much as I did at the moment of the boys’ birth: that my attention is hopelessly divided. I ask my friend Hélène – who also has twins and a singleton – whether she’s considering having more. ‘I don’t think so, I’m at the limit of my competence,’ she says. I know exactly what she means. Only I fear that I’ve surpassed my competence. Even my mother, who spent years begging for grandchildren, tells me not to have any more kids.

As if to cement my status, Bean comes home from school one day and announces that I’m a ‘
maman crotte de nez
’. I immediate type this into Google Translate. It turns out that she has called me a ‘mummy bogey’. Given the circumstances, it’s a very good description.

11

I Adore This Baguette

FRIENDS TELL ME
that parents of twins have a high divorce rate. I’m not sure this is statistically true, but I can certainly understand how the rumour got started. In the months after the twins are born, Simon and I bicker constantly. During one argument, he tells me that I’m ‘rebarbative’. I have to look up this word. The dictionary says ‘unattractive and objectionable: a rebarbative modern building’. I march back to Simon.

‘Unattractive?’ I ask. Even in our current state, that’s a low blow.

‘OK, you’re just objectionable,’ he says.

To remind myself to be civil, I tape up signs around the apartment that read ‘Don’t Snap at Simon’. There’s one on the bathroom mirror. Simon and I are too tired to realize that we’re fighting because we’re tired. I no longer care what he’s thinking about, though it’s probably still Dutch football.

During rare moments of leisure, Simon likes to burrow in bed with a magazine. If I dare to interrupt him, he says:
“There’s
nothing you can say to me that’s more interesting than this article I’m reading in the
New Yorker
.’

One day I have a revelation. ‘I think we’re actually quite compatible,’ I tell him. ‘You’re irritable, and I’m irritating.’

Apparently we send out a scary vibe. A childless couple we know come to visit from Chicago and conclude, after four days, that they don’t want kids after all. At the end of one weekend
en famille
, Bean decides that she doesn’t want to have kids either. ‘Children are too difficult,’ she says.

On a positive note for our relationship, we get places in the crèche for both boys (even my mother is relieved to hear this). Twins are still uncommon enough in France that our application got priority status. The crèche committee took such pity on us that they assigned the boys to a tiny crèche two blocks from our new home, which I’d been told had no vacancies.

The crèche offers some hope for the future. But we still have to survive as a family and, perhaps more dauntingly, as a couple until we hand the boys over in a few months. We’ve decided to keep them at home until they’re a year old.

It’s not always obvious that Simon and I will make it that long. It seems no coincidence that as the labour-intensive parenting style has become de facto for the middle classes, research shows that marital satisfaction has fallen
1
and that mothers find it more pleasant to do housework than to take care of their kids.
2
Social scientists now pretty much take for granted that today’s parents are less happy than non-parents. Studies show that parents have higher rates of depression, and
that
their unhappiness increases with each additional child
3
(or in Simon’s case, with merely seeing those additional children on an ultrasound).

Maybe we just need a date night? While I’ve been living in France, date nights have become the new penicillin for Anglophone couples with kids. Hate your spouse? Have a date night! Want to strangle your kids? Go out to dinner! The Obamas go on date nights. Even social scientists now study them. A paper on middle-class Canadians
4
found that when couples got leisure time alone together, it ‘helped them tremendously as a couple, rejuvenated them personally, and re-inspired their parenting’. But they rarely got this time. ‘Many [participants] felt pressured by the wider culture to always place the needs of the children above the needs of the partnership,’ the authors conclude. One husband said that while speaking to his wife, ‘we would be interrupted on a minute-to-minute basis’ by the children.

This is, of course, another consequence of concerted cultivation, which eats up leisure time and makes fomenting the child’s development the family’s overwhelming priority. I see this all around me when I visit America and the UK. A cousin of mine – who’s a nurse with four kids – has family near by who’d be willing to babysit. But after a week of getting everybody to school, gymnastics, track meets and church, she and her husband – who works nights as a policeman – don’t even consider going out. They’re too tired. A schoolteacher from Manchester tells me that she’s taking her toddler on her honeymoon, even though her mother has volunteered to look
after
him. ‘I’d just feel too bad leaving him behind,’ she explains.

Every Anglophone mother I speak to has a cautionary tale about a mother in her social circle who refuses to leave her child with anyone. These mums aren’t urban myths; I frequently meet them. At a wedding I sit next to a stay-at-home mother from Colorado, who explains that she has a full-time babysitter but never leaves the sitter alone with her three kids. (Her husband has skipped the wedding to look after them.) An artist from Michigan tells me that she couldn’t bring herself to use a babysitter for her son’s whole first year. ‘He seemed so tiny, he was my first kid. I’m really pretty neurotic. The idea of handing him over to someone …’ Her voice trails off.

Other Anglophone parents I meet have adopted such specific diets and discipline techniques that it’s hard for anyone else – even a grandparent – to take over and follow all the rules. A grandfather from Virginia says his daughter became livid when he pushed her baby’s buggy the ‘wrong’ way over a bump. The baby’s mum had read that there’s a smaller chance of brain damage if babies go over bumps backwards.

Obviously, Simon and I aren’t against babysitters. We’re currently employing half the Philippines. But since the boys were born, I haven’t spent more than a few hours away from home. Mostly I do what that mother from Colorado does: I use the babysitter as a kind of assistant who changes nappies and does the laundry. But I’m usually on the premises.

This system has the advantage of both depleting our savings
and
destroying our relationship, simultaneously. I feel rebarbative much of the time. I realize I’m losing my mind a little bit when – about fifteen minutes before one of our babysitters is supposed to arrive – my phone beeps, indicating that I have a new text message. I panic, fearing that the babysitter is late. In fact, it’s a message from a news service that I subscribe to, informing me that there’s been a deadly earthquake in South America. For an instant, I’m relieved.

Of course, it’s easier to get along with your spouse if your baby sleeps through the night by three months old, your kids play by themselves, and you’re not constantly shuttling them from one activity to the next. What also seems to help is that French couples view romance differently, even when they have young kids. I get an inkling of this when my obstetrician writes me a prescription for ten sessions of r
ééducation périnéale
– perineal re-education. She did this after Bean was born, and again after the birth of the boys.

Before my first re-education, I had only been vaguely aware that I had a perineum, or what exactly it is. It turns out to be the hammock-like pelvic-floor area, which often gets stretched out during pregnancy and birth. The stretching makes the birth canal a little less ‘tight’, and can cause mothers to pee a bit when they cough or sneeze. To prevent this, mothers in British antenatal classes are advised to do pelvic floor exercises on their own. Some of them probably do.

In France, getting a woman’s pelvic floor back into shape is
a
priority. Friends tell me that their French obstetricians gauge whether a few sessions of perineal re-education are needed by asking, ‘Is
le monsieur
happy?’

I think my
monsieur
would be happy to have any access to my perineum. The region hasn’t exactly lain fallow in the year or so since the boys were born. But I wouldn’t say there’s any danger of overuse. For a while, as soon as Simon went anywhere near my breasts, it was like a fire alarm: they began spurting milk. Anyway, sleep is more of a priority.

I’m intrigued enough by perineal re-education to give it a try. My first re-educator is a slim Spanish woman named Mónica, with an office in the Marais. Our introductory session begins with a forty-five-minute interview, during which she asks me dozens of questions about my bathroom habits and my sex life.

Then I disrobe from the waist down, and lie down on a padded table covered with crinkly paper. Mónica slips on surgical gloves and leads me in what I can best describe as assisted crunches for the crotch, in sets of fifteen (‘and up, and release’). It’s a bit like Pilates for the below-the-belt region.

Afterwards, Mónica shows me a slender white wand that she’ll introduce in the next phase. It resembles a device you might see for sale in an adults-only shop. The wand will add electro-stimulation to my mini-sit-ups. By the tenth session we’ll be ready to try out a kind of video game, in which sensors on my groin measure whether I’m contracting the muscles enough to stay above a running orange line on the computer screen.

Perineal re-education is at once extremely intimate and strangely clinical. Throughout the exercises, Mónica and I address each other using the formal
vous
. But she asks me to close my eyes, so I can better isolate the muscles where her hand is. My doctor writes me a prescription for abdominal re-education too. She’s noticed that, more than a year after the twins are born, I still have a kind of bulge around my waist that’s part fat, part stretch, and part unknown substance. Frankly, I’m not sure what’s in there. I decide that it’s time to take action when I’m standing up on the Paris métro and a decrepit old woman offers me her seat. She thinks I’m pregnant.

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