By Maggie Kim
When my daughter’s artist godfather asked what gift I wanted for her birth, I didn’t hesitate: a co-sleeper crib. I had to describe it to him because — trust — there’s no French translation for “attachment parenting.” He spent weeks making a beautiful wooden crib, painted pale blue with pastel circles, one side open to attach like a sidecar to my platform bed.
We used that artful crib a grand total of five times. My daughter hated being even four inches away from me and it was easier having her cling to me like a barnacle, especially since I breastfed her. I finally, painfully sleep-trained her when she was ten months old. Her father had already decamped to the living room couch months earlier. (God forbid his sleep got disrupted.)
If my husband wasn’t filming for weeks in a foreign country, he was in the guest bedroom two floors down.
If that sounds bitter, wait until our second baby arrived nearly three years later — a gigantic boy of ten-and-a-half pounds, born with a broken collarbone and a wail that reverberated down the maternity ward all the way back to our home. There was no question he was sleeping with me. The handmade crib stayed dusty in our cellar.
My son nursed every twenty minutes, and when he wasn’t literally sucking me dry, he was turning me deaf with his screams. Where was his proud papa? If my husband wasn’t filming for weeks in a foreign country, he was in the guest bedroom two floors down. “I have to be rested for work, and who will take care of our daughter in the morning if I’m too tired?” [A: The nanny.]
Five months and thirty days later, I Ferberized that boy, and my husband rejoined me in our marital bed. The question was whether I wanted him there.
Women are finally allowed to speak about the hardships and isolation of motherhood. It’s an odyssey of sleep torture; mental, physical and emotional burnout; shame, guilt and the persistent fear of maiming the baby or irrevocably ordaining her to a therapist’s couch in thirty years. This bewildering experience is exacerbated when you’re an expat.
France is a funhouse mirror of the United States. From afar, the glittering Eiffel Tower seems so familiar. Sure, they speak with those round vowels and nasal diphthongs and yes, they have five weeks of summer holiday. But, socialist inclinations notwithstanding, how different could this country be?
Très, très different.
More than family, “the couple” is prized in French culture. (I have . . . feelings . . . about how this exemplifies the patriarchy and internalizes misogyny in the women.) In the context of baby-rearing, it means that mothers feel the pressure to be women — thin, sleek, sex-ready — as soon as the stitches are dissolved.
In-laws, French friends, and doctors were a mixture of horrified and fascinated — in the weird bug/rare disease/freak accident way — when they heard I was not only breastfeeding for longer than three weeks (try eighteen months), but co-sleeping.
“What about your couple?”
“Babies can sleep through the night at one month!”
“Breasts are for your husband.”
“Where will you have sex if the baby is sleeping in the bed?”
“Only Africans breastfeed longer than a year!” (said by an actual doctor)
“This can’t be good for your marriage.”
They weren’t wrong with that last one. Not because we couldn’t have sex in our bed (there’s the couch, the shower, use your imagination, people), but because the lack of cultural and social support was palpable and insidious.
As someone who’d always prized her independence, I was naive about how much I would need my maternal choices to be validated. Creating and raising a human is, frankly, frightening. Being constantly judged on how you’re doing it — when you’ve pored over the latest baby research and they’re spouting sexist old wives’ tales — is frustrating at best, debilitating at worst. It’s like being in a bizarro baby world and, when your sanity is already wobbly from exhaustion, it’s easy to get dragged into the undertow of crippling doubt. And resentment.
What I’d wanted from my husband was something he was incapable of or uninterested in: battling the naysayers, even if they were his family, and shielding me and our babies from a culture that was foreign and frightening during my most vulnerable moments of new motherhood. I wanted him to vociferously defend my desire (and right) to raise my children as a 21st-century Korean-American-New Yorker in an impossibly Old World. I wanted him to be equally invested in the hands-on childcare that was wearing me down to the bone. Instead I had a Frenchman who was perplexed that another snide comment about my mothering could make me so upset. Who couldn’t understand why it was so hard for me and my aching breasts to leave the baby with the nanny so we could have dinner out with friends. It no longer mattered where the babies slept, he and I barely slept together.
French mothers don’t feel guilty for having lives and identities outside of their children. They drink the wine and often smoke the cigarettes.
Co-sleeping wasn’t the wedge that came between our couple. It simply spotlighted the many fault lines in a marriage straining under cultural and personal differences. If I had to do it all over again, I would still choose to co-sleep and breastfeed. My beliefs on what newborns need haven’t changed. My beliefs on what new mothers do has. What I deemed selfish or judgmental on the part of French people had more to do with how my identity was drowning under the perfect mother pressures I had placed on myself.
Now that my grade-school children go to bed on their own, I look back and recognize my mama bear rigidity could have benefited from a more laissez-faire attitude. Women (or at least this woman) aren’t designed to be wellsprings of selflessness, even in the service of their progeny. I should have gotten my hair done more often. We should have accepted more dinner invitations. I should have devoted more time to our marriage. Instead of completely rejecting the culture I was in because I felt so rejected, I could have accepted the good with grace and truly had the best of both worlds. French mothers don’t feel guilty for having lives and identities outside of their children. They drink the wine and often smoke the cigarettes. They keep having sex with their husbands or a lover [no comment]. I could have been a mother and a woman; Korean-American and French. I believe I (and my husband) would have been happier. It has taken me years of mistakes and frustrations, but I have learned this balance. And for that . . . Merci, France.
Maggie Kim is a writer, musician and the founding editor of LES LOLOS, the award-winning feminist culture magazine for international women.
Actress Brigitte Bardot with her newborn son Nicolas Jacques.