The only parenting book I read before my almost-four-year-old son Leo was born was Pamela Druckerman’s 2012 Bringing up Bébé. As an American transplant raising kids in France, Druckerman observed that the French child is not the sun in the familial solar system. I prepared myself to nurture and prune a bien-élevé (well-mannered) toddler—the kind that wears smocked Liberty print dresses, sits and colors, and eats braised endives while her parents hold forth about a new podcast. The book’s thesis and the key to a civilized French household: the parents are in charge, not the children. “C’est moi qui décide,” is the French mother’s last word to her obstreperous child.
I thought of Druckerman’s credo several years ago when I accompanied a friend and her two-and-half-year-old to get ice cream. “He only likes strawberry,” my friend told the teenager behind the counter. “And it cannot contain seeds.” This part, my friend repeated in the sort of non-negotiable tone that a pop star’s tour manager might demand the absence of carnations from a dressing room flower arrangement. Obviously ill-versed in the toddler mood-swing, the teenager informed us there was no more seedless strawberry ice cream to be had. Gamely, if naively, she suggested strawberry frozen yogurt that would be made on the spot with actual strawberries —!!!—and their seeds. Reluctantly, my friend agreed, and then proceeded to meticulously de-seed every spoonful as her son suspiciously appraised her efforts. As I watched, I thought of all of those French children surely quietly, gratefully, tucking into bowlfuls of seed-ed cassis sorbet, and I smugly told myself—with the superiority of the childless—that I would never be one of those mothers who tend slavishly to the demands of their offspring.
Then I had Leo. And I have been his butler (I mean mother) for almost 4 years. To my relief, he is all for a seeded ice cream, which is not to say that he does not have other, let’s call them, eccentricities. It occurred to me that things might be taking a problematic turn when Leo was about two, and I found myself carrying a breakfast tray upstairs so that he might enjoy a morning bed picnic. He sat in my bed in his pajamas, reclining against more pillows than you’d find in a guest bedroom in a Nancy Meyers movie. I had long nurtured a Downton Abbey fantasy, but here I was, cast in the wrong role.
“Master Leo just needs a little bell!” a friend suggested, laughing. But he already has one: at about 18 months, I’d attached a plush musical pull-toy to the edge of his crib. Instead of playing it before going to sleep, Leo took to yanking on the string—prompting a Brahms’ lullaby to sound—upon rising from his nap, ostensibly ringing for service. “I’d like water!” he’d say. As I’d scurry downstairs, he’d call out, refining his order: “Freezing cold!” Now, whenever I hear Brahms, I feel a Pavlovian urge to leap to my feet and beeline to his side, like a flight attendant heading towards a first-class passenger who’s just buzzed for beverage service.
I had many misconceptions about motherhood, the most egregious being that I might continue to have some vague control over my time—and over the child, his tastes, his temperament, his hobbies. Though I had heard the saying, “You’re only as happy as your least happy child,” I’d dismissed it as depressing cliche. Determined to guard my autonomous, pre-parental self from Motherhood, I rejected the notion that my happiness would be so tangled up in a child’s—or in anyone’s. I’d rather be a Druckerman mom, I thought. She argued that in privileging the happiness of your child, you are under-privileging your own, thus dooming yourself to the misery of maternal martyrdom.
But Leo’s happiness did become knitted with mine, and not just in that heart-filling, idealistic, I-love-him-more-than-I-thought-possible way. Life with a small child can be an unrelenting battle. I’m sure there are compliant, mellow three-year-olds who merrily toddle off to bed at an age-appropriate time. I just don’t live with one of those. There is so much bargaining going on in my house, I am basically living with a used car salesman. Everything is a negotiation: for more time, more cookies, more books. And giving in can be a relief—for me. It is, let’s be honest, easier to pamper than to police. Plus, if the indulgence may be small (what’s one more chocolate chip, one more minute, anyway?) the joy he takes from it is inordinate, providing deep pleasure for all involved. Which is to say that in indulging him, I am often indulging myself: that extra cookie might buy me a few more minutes of reading, say, or a more peaceful exit from the grocery store.
Motherhood is a long, steep learning curve. Luxury, on the other hand, has a short learning curve. In Leo’s defense, if he’s developed a taste in the finer things, I can only blame myself. A couple of years ago I overspent on a toddler bathrobe—a masterpiece in cloud-blue waffle with a tasseled hood. It was intolerably cute, and I could not deny myself the pleasure of seeing him in it. Children, like cats and the elderly, are creatures of habit, and Leo has worn the robe every day for almost two years (it’s now hitting mid-thigh). Upon emerging from the bathtub the other day, tufts of bubble-bath clouds on his little shoulders, he pronounced: “My robe!” as if he were Louis the XIV. “Soon, you’re going to have to start walking backwards out of the room!” my friend told me when I described this ritual.
In an era of hyper-consciousness about the dangers of white male privilege, here I am ratcheting up the privilege of this (albeit tiny) white man on the daily. I worry about this, of course. I worry that I’m spoiling him, that he’ll develop what the child development sages are now calling “false self-entitlement,” i.e., the believe that he is owed all of the nice things that I now happily provide. I worry that he’ll be ill-prepared for the reality that life isn’t always a breakfast bed picnic. But then, I worry about everything; this morning, I worried that I didn’t worry enough.
Maybe I am spoiling him. But I like to spoil myself with this theory: perhaps, in tending to him, I am teaching him to attune himself to the comfort and happiness of others. There are signs that this is not pure (self-indulgent) conjecture. Leo’s best friend at preschool is a year younger than he is, and his teachers have told me that he likes to look after his buddy, tending to him gently and patiently. At home, he is not always so charming, of course: he can be infuriatingly stubborn and demanding and more melodramatic than a soap star. But he is tender-hearted and sweet and seems inspired to coddle those around him— he loves to offer pillows and blankets and snacks, to me, to my husband, his toys, the cats. One recent morning, he insisted on feeding me a clementine, then asked if I wanted a drink, maybe a hot chocolate or water? “I’ll have water,” I said. “Sure! We have that today!” he said, scurrying off to fetch me a cup, like a tiny waiter. I called out to him, refining my order: “Freezing cold!”