Thursday, September 06, 2007

Domestic Disturbances: Judith Warner

September 6, 2007, 9:50 pm
Slummy, Yummy . . . or Dummy?
Tags: , ,

When you arrive, she will already be there. Well-coiffed, but not too well. Suntanned, but not too tan. Chic, but not too chic. Hanging off each arm she’ll have a perfect child, with a new backpack and a pretty, excited smile … begins the editor’s note in the current back-to-school edition of French Elle.

Naturally, she will have already done everything necessary so that her son is with the “right” third grade teacher. Naturally, she will already have told the lunchroom lady about her daughter’s problem with fish…. You, on the other hand, will grow even paler under your non-tan. Because, of course, you did not have the time to buy new backpacks, nor to attempt the slightest lobbying campaign for good teachers

I do not usually read women’s magazines like Elle when I am in France. I prefer the newsweeklies and, for a special treat, the French People-substitute, Paris Match. (All Ségo/Sarko, all the time.)

But this summer was special. I went to France not just on vacation, not just to reconnect with the place where my children were born and I put down the first roots of my adult life, but on assignment. I wanted to research how to be a Yummy Mummy.

A Yummy Mummy, in case you’re not familiar with the phrase, is the term used in Britain for moms (mums) who are soignée. Trim and fashionable, well-turned-out and groomed, equipped with the latest must-have bags and shoes, widely smiling, insouciant, skilled in home decoration, furniture restoration, competitive skiing, dressage, and … well, they’re not really all that. I am indulging in a little bit of wish-fulfilling projection.

Indulge me.

You see, I’ve never actually met a Yummy Mummy. I’ve read about them in the British press; I spent a good bit of imaginary time in the company of one earlier this summer, when I read Fiona Neill’s hilarious new “mum lit” import, “Slummy Mummy.”

Reading “Slummy Mummy,” the account of an unbelievably spacey, slatternly, careless and careworn stay-at-home mum, made me acutely aware of my own borderline slumminess. It awoke in me a desire for yumminess.

But lacking the time or money to put into being truly yummy (“Come on now,” you are saying, “even if you did have the time or the money you wouldn’t waste it on such shallow, narcissistic consumerism.” You are wrong.), I decided to go for the next best thing, and use my vacation time to study my French sisters for how to ape the grace, style, joie de vivre and simple, seemingly effortless chic for which they are famous.

(“Ugh!” American expats in France are now snorting. “You’ve been reading too much Mireille Guiliano!” And they would be right.)

In fact, for the past nearly seven years since the moving truck closed its doors on the rue St. Dominique and we left Paris for Washington, I have spent, I see now, far too much time nourishing the fantasy that motherhood in France is lived more prettily, more graciously, more calmly, happily and romantically than on this side of the Atlantic.

I maintained this belief even after “Perfect Madness” was published in France last summer and women there told me that there was a lot in my portrait of the anxious, self-doubting, self-effacing, guilt-ridden, sexless American culture of motherhood that they could relate to. I didn’t believe them. I figured they didn’t know how good they had it, with their five-week vacations, multi-month paid maternity leaves, government-subsidized nannies, 35-hour work week, guaranteed right to part time work, free public schooling for three-year-olds – all things that freed up plenty of time and money for vacations in the sun, exercise, dinners out, séduction and other vectors of yumminess. It was all so taken for granted by them that they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

But this year, for the first time, I saw it. Trawling for vestiges of yumminess among women who, like me, were now pushing middle age, I was confronted time and again by the yuckiness – the stress and mess and sense of too-muchedness — that so many of us know all too well in the United States. My friends, overwhelmingly, were kind of worn out.

They now all have children who are in the equivalent of middle and high school – far past the golden period of parental leaves and charming preschools that I remember from my time living among them. They’re facing an increased gap between the very best public schools and the mediocre mass. They’re seeing an increased tendency (in government-subsidized private schools) to kick out kids who don’t perform well enough to guarantee the school a 100 percent success rate on the baccalaureate exams.

There’s an increased sense of urgency to get into the very best colleges; there’s a sense that only top-level math and science studies can lead to admission to the best colleges; there’s a sense that the job market is being flooded by young talent from China, India and the rest of Europe; a sense that the fruits of success are being distributed more and more narrowly, that the gap between the rich and everyone else is being dug more and more deeply and that you have to do absolutely everything you can, from the earliest possible age, to guarantee your child a slice of the shrinking pie of prosperity.

The atmosphere of dogged competition provides fertile terrain for the Mommy Wars. (In the café, it’s with a heavy heart that you drop a third chocolate into your too-strong espresso and sit across from her, as she drinks an herb tea without sugar and finishes filling out the sign-up sheet for Wednesday afternoon swim lessons, Elle concludes. But be assured … The psychiatrists – no idiots – are already rubbing their hands. They know that, soon, in the privacy of their offices, it will be the children of the perfect mothers who will have the most to tell them.) The atmosphere fires all-too-familiar domestic wars. (“He does nothing around the house but criticize me when things go wrong,” one friend confided in me.)

Even vacation – always so precious – has now been compromised. By kids sitting at the dining room table doing remedial math. Or heading back early to attend pre-term class prep. Or taking off for an intensive language program or to meet a learning “coach,” or for a last-ditch attempt to find a place in a new school after all the neighborhood schools said no.

“You don’t understand what it’s like here,” a stay-at-home friend told me, one chilly late afternoon in Paris, as we sat outdoors drinking tea.

Seven years earlier, I’d interviewed her, also over tea, as she’d neared the end of her third maternity leave. I was writing an article on French mothers’ workplace advantages. Shortly after the article was published, she’d returned to work to find she’d been moved to an intellectually stultifying, more “family-friendly” position. “Petits-fours and seduction,” she’d e-mailed me. And she’d quit.

“It’s total madness,” she said.

I shifted in my seat, shivered, and stirred my tea.

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