My daughter Delia is disappointed that we can’t go to Paris for her seventh birthday this September. I don't know when it really started, but now, she's all about the City of Lights. Her favorite mug in our mismatched collection is one that features a line drawing of the Eiffel Tower, and when Angelina Ballerina ended on PBS Kids last Sunday morning and Rick Steves’ Best of Europe: Paris came on, she watched the whole thing as if it were a Taylor Swift special. She tells me that she needs to bring a sweater, even in the summer, and that the best value for a stay in Paris is an out of the way two star hotel: nice beds, continental breakfast and some evening room service, for little more a night than a one star hotel in the center of the city. If she had a bag, it would be packed.
I’d also like to go to Paris, but I have to admit that my motives for travel are not as pure as my daughter’s. I want to go to Paris to see if French mamans are really as thin, stylish and fulfilled as they are made out to be in all the books and articles comparing the ways typical American and French women dress, eat, and parent. Maybe you've read them too, because like me, you're sucked in by the accompanying photo or illustration of a chic, thin woman looking fabulously, yet simply, put together as she drops off the tots at the ecole and picks up a baguette and some cheese for the evening meal, which she will whip together effortlessly by adding a bit of butter, fresh market vegetables, and an egg or two. And maybe you've also read that she will never get fat and she will never raise her voice to her children because she has trained them since they were enfants, so an arched eyebrow or a raised palm will bring silence from the gallery d' peanut so she can calmly sip a glass of wine. No wonder Delia wants to go to Paris—it is a magical place.
Once in a while, I think that since I can’t take her to Paris, I can at least make an effort to be more like a French mom, so I follow a mash-up of all the tips from all the books and articles I've read about superior French womanhood. I pull on my black boat neck tee shirt over clean jeans and cute sandals, not yesterday’s yoga pants and comfy clogs, and put my hair back into a simple twist held with the one tortoise shell comb I have left after letting the girls play with my hair pretties. I have a full breakfast; a light lunch and a minuscule dinner that does not include macaroni or cheese that have ever seen the inside of a box. I keep my voice even as I explain, quietly, for the ninety-sixth time, that Barbie accessories are not acceptable living room décor, and then I hold up my palm, a la Francais, and accept no more discussion. I feel swell for about a day, then the Playdoh on my jeans, the questions about "what is this" on their plates, and the damned Barbie doll shoes undermine my Gallic efforts. Am I the only one who feels tres deficient compared to my French mom counterparts?
Of course, I know that my feelings of inadequacy about these Franco-American comparisons really stem from how I feel about myself. Clearly, I am dealing with something more than a cultural inferiority complex here. This woman I’d like to be doesn't have to be French, but I've got this chic ideal stuck in my head as shorthand for more general aspirations. I would like to look sleek and pulled together all the time, I want my girls to be well behaved, eat all kinds of food and play without hitting each other for more than a few minutes at a time. Should I despair because they were not enrolled at a government subsidized ecole months after birth? Or turn the glare of French superiority on myself and feel constantly frumpy because I can't maintain a perfect weight and simple wardrobe so that I can be trim and eager and never too tired to have sex because my well-behaved children play quietly while I sip an insouciant Beaujolais?
I know I've hashed together many different discussions about French women and their virtues here. I think we look to the French for examples because we—and I really mean I, but come along with me here—conflate looking more put together, healthier, and like a calmer mommy, with being all of those things. We’re not really that shallow—we know that isn't the case. We've all known a woman or two who seems to have everything together... until we find out she doesn't. I won't accuse the rest of you, but I know I'm always envious of her sleek, cool appearance and, to my deep chagrin, always more than a teeny bit glad when I find out her dark secret—like, her kids get lice because she hasn't vacuumed in years, or her husband is leaving her for a slightly frumpier, but definitely warmer, and younger version of herself.
So, not only does this French ideal make me feel bad about myself, it’s eroding my solidarity with other women. And I have to question how the amazing variety of French women can be squashed into a "typical" mannequin for us to admire and imitate because we know that we are all different, in our strengths and our weaknesses… I mean, when was the last time you met a "typical" American woman? So I'm going to try to remember that the best thing I can do, especially as a woman with daughters who will be facing their own insecurities soon enough, is to play to my own strengths, instead of driving myself crazy because I'm falling short of the French ideal. Maybe good old American individualism will win the day. Though, the last time picked up a magazine, I was captivated by an article about the tousled beauty of voluptuous, pasta-loving Italian women. I'm already so much closer to that ideal, even if I'm just being my own self. Maybe I can get Delia to watch the Rick Steves episode about Venice...