Saturday, May 28, 2011

High heels and baby shoes

I used to be the girl who dressed in jeans and ratty t-shirts two sizes two big. I wore sneakers and hiking boots exclusively. I went to the hairdresser only twice a year, if that, and never knew what cut to ask for except "shorter." When I met my husband he saw potential nonetheless, and also saw me in a couple of flowing skirts that flattered my hips and evidently caught his eye. But, as a whole, he was mildly shocked at my so un-French lack of fashion sense or effort.

By the time we got to know each other well enough for him to comment on this -- which was early in the relationship because, well, he's French and not afraid to voice an opinion on such things -- I knew him almost well enough not to take offense.

"Why are you wearing that?" he asked earnestly and with mild distaste one morning as I got ready to go to work in an old, gray t-shirt that hung down past my hips. I wondered the same thing as I then looked in the mirror as if for the first time.

I soon learned that I couldn't defend my wardrobe to him and didn't want to anyway. The old computer geek t-shirts got reconverted as running clothes or tucked, for nostalgia's sake, into the back of the closet. I started to take my husband shopping because unlike every American guy I'd ever dated, he told me exactly what he thought of the clothes I picked up off the rack, and helped me find things that I felt beautiful in.

All this was new for me.

You see, I grew up in Seattle and went to high school in the 90s, and Kurt Cobain and his peers were sort of our anti-fashion icons. I wore flannel shirts that I "borrowed" for my dad or from my boyfriend, and slumped around in hiking boots and parkas. The best compliment I ever received was when I showed up at school wearing my dad's vintage tan suede jacket with an unbuttoned red plaid shirt underneath. "That is totally something Eddie Vedder would wear!" exclaimed my girlfriend, and was I proud.

I can't say I looked feminine back then but it felt better than the years of girlhood and preadolescence that I'd spent trying and failing to be "one of the girls," wearing the wrong kind of jeans, or my hair too short, or skirts when everyone else was wearing pants. In sixth grade, I and all the other girls bought green plastic Maybelline powder compacts at the drug store and spend the breaks between classes giggling in front of the mirror in the bathroom and patting makeup on as thick as we could. I felt like I could never put enough makeup on to hide the ungainly me that was trying to stick out.

Every once in a while I'd find something -- a flouncy shirt, a pale yellow sweater -- that made me feel good. Myself. And beautiful. But mostly shopping was painful self-doubt, where I'd stare at myself in the mirror in outfits that didn't fit my soul or my body and wonder just what was wrong with me.

It's the stereotype, yes, but I can't help but believe still that parisiennes just don't have this problem. This city is filled with put-together women who are stylish from head to perfectly polished toe. Since I grew up already feeling intimidated by all things clothes and accessories, I'm not worse off than I was before. Strangely, even, I'm gaining confidence now. Which runs me straight into an interesting paradox.

I get the feeling -- and please correct me if I'm wrong -- that when you become a mom in the US, you're supposed to stop worrying so much about your looks, already. You should be organizing play dates, not shopping for shoes. Forgetting the hairdresser appointment, and wearing a pony tail to the after-school soccer match. Things like pedicures are almost decadently Desperate Housewives, so don't even go there: what about the kids?

In France, on the other hand, or at least in Paris, the pressure is the opposite. After you give birth, you should get back to your pre-baby body, wardrobe, and mindset as quickly as possible. No one should be able to guess from looking at you that you're a mother. That means no giant mom-purses, no low-maintenance hair, and heaven forbid, no sneakers. And that may be fine for other Parisian moms, but it feels to me like it would be denying how much I've changed. I'm more stylish now than I was before le Petit was born, but I'm also more likely to be carrying baby wipes and band-aids.

Is it as extreme as all that? Maybe not. My particular experience certainly warps my perceptions. I'd be interested, however, to hear how other moms live these contradictions here, in the US, and everywhere else. (So feel free, if you wish, to tell me I'm completely nuts.)

Anyway, all this introspective introduction is to tell you that today I had the most remarkable fashion experience. I walked into a loft in Paris with my mother-in-law and Mademoiselle in tow. We were welcomed warmly, all three of us; there were moms and babies just like us everywhere, sitting on couches, playing on the floor. Toddlers toddled around. Infant slept in baby carriers. There was also a rack of brightly-colored dresses and tops in one corner of the room, and a couple makeshift dressing rooms. A photographer's backdrop was set up in the middle of a bright atrium. And in front of three tables set against the wall, professional makeup artists were ready to make us feel just a little more glamorous, and perhaps a little less tired, one mom at a time.

Mamanana, a web site I've blogged about before, was holding their first atelier d'essayage, and they'd invited moms of all shapes and sizes and with babies of all ages to try out their nursing wear. We would pick out outfits from their samples and later pictures would be posted on their web site to help other moms (who, you know, just might not have the same measurements as a typical fashion model) figure out what might look good on them, too.

Well, it sounds kind of cheesy, but I assure you this made me feel beautiful indeed. I found two dresses and two tops that I fell in love with. I'd brought along shoes from my closet for the pictures -- love-match shoes, the ones you never wear for anything real because you either can't or don't dare walk anywhere in them -- and they were perfect. For once, I felt like I might just compete with the parisiennes. I also felt completely comfortable stopping to nurse Mademoiselle, because everyone else was nursing, too.

Maybe that's half of beautiful is, anyway: feeling natural about it. That's pretty much what my mom's being trying to tell me all these years, anyway... and that's probably what I'll tell Mademoiselle some day, too.

[Since this reads like one big advertisement for Mamanana, I just wanted to clarify that 1) they didn't ask me to blog about it 2) that wouldn't be much of an investment if they had, since not many people actually read my blog and fewer still live in France or are currently breastfeeding, but 3) for participating in the atelier I did get a small gift and a gift certificate, which 4) I've already spent (and more) as a Mother's Day present to myself. Because, you know, I deserve it and all that.]

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stalling out blues

I've been in a funk these last few days for no good reason, but it's kept me from writing anything on my blog, until now. Those that know me personally may tell you that silence is a heck of a lot better than listening to me whine. This time I know I have no real reason to complain, so I've been making an effort in real life -- no, honest! -- to tone down the unwarranted self-pity.

"I'm sorry I'm in a funk," I apologized to Mademoiselle on Friday, continuing in a cute sing-song voice, "Mommy's in a funk. Oh yes I am! And it isn't your fault, oh no, and it isn't fair to you." She looked at me and smiled her little uncertain tell-me-again-why-I-chose-this-family smile that makes me both melt and feel a bit guilty at the same time.

I know I haven't been playing with her as much as I should. I also don't go pick her up quickly enough when she starts to cry in her crib, so I'll find her flipped over and squished up in a corner, either making what my husband calls 'little prairie dog noises' or out-and-out wailing. Today I actually forgot to turn on the baby monitor when I put her down for her morning nap, and as I was cleaning the kitchen, I heard what sounded like a baby crying somewhere outside. "I can just ignore that," I thought to myself, "It can't possibly be Mademoiselle," and I let a couple minutes pass before I thought, "Gee, I should go check on her just in case" and realized what I'd done. I felt bad, but then I felt worse that I didn't feel as bad as I thought I should. (Some of you mothers out there must follow my twisted emotional reasoning, right?)

Why all this? Because I had one long week last week that I handled somewhat haphazardly. My father and stepmother were in town for a couple of days, a good visit, but one that as usual left me a bit homesick. Then on Wednesday, le Petit had minor surgery to remove a mole from his ankle. Since he's still little, the surgery had to take place under general anesthesia, which made it very scary for a number of family members (but not, against all expectations, for le Petit himself, who handled it with aplomb). I wasn't particularly worried myself, but the long afternoon at the clinic wore me down. During the procedure I left Mademoiselle at home with my in-laws without a sufficient quantity of pumped breast milk. She's a remarkably patient girl but she's nobody's fool, and the look she gave me when I got back said it all: I won't be parking my car in the mother-of-the-month spot in June, I'm afraid.

Speaking of cars, the highlight of the week was my first attempt at passing my French driver's license exam on Thursday. I'm 99.9% sure I failed. They're notoriously picky, you see -- the other candidates from my driving school were all on their second or third tries -- and I managed to be so anxiously concentrated on a maneuvering truck at a stop sign that I started out into the intersection without noticing a second car, a mistake which I'm pretty sure disqualified me instantly. Which is a crying shame, since I otherwise managed to parallel park on only my second try. (Go, team, go!) At least now I can almost laugh at myself while I wait to get the results in the mail, hopefully tomorrow. Then I'll go down to the driving school and write a hefty check for more obligatory hours of driving practice at 46€/hour and wonder just when I'll get this miserable process behind me. I'm upset because driving is something I as a good American take for granted, kind of like breathing, or like being able to find a fast-food restaurant to pull into when you need to use the bathroom. Now, humiliatingly, I can't drive and I'm not sure when I'm going to be able to drive again.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I actually blinked back tears of defeat as I took the train back home. Afterward I loudly moped around my in-laws' house for an hour (they were graciously looking after the kids) before going home to mope some more at my place. Mademoiselle and le Petit were cuddly and adorable as usual, didn't understand what my problem was and to their credit, didn't worry about it much. I've had to ask myself just what lesson I want to teach my kids: a) to give up when it gets hard; b) to give up when you start embarrassing yourself; or c) to stick with it, because after all, it'll make a good story some day.

My husband, who by now knows when to solicitously tiptoe around my wounded pride, found time this Saturday to straighten the house, do the dishes, and cook lunch on in between taking le Petit to the market and to the hardware store while I worked out, napped, and tried with limited success to stop feeling sorry for myself.

"You never know, maybe you passed," he told me hopefully. "Your problem is you don't have my first-hand experience with failure," he asserted. How my husband, who is no failure in anyone's book, had his ego bruised and toughened by the French educational system is a post in and of itself. Suffice it to say that the system forms a tiny, smug elite and teaches everyone else to get used to swallowing their pride. So he can laugh, more or less, when he remembers failing the driving exam on his first two tries, twenty years ago.

Today he decided to drag me and the kids all the way to southern Normandy to visit a garden in the Perche and change my attitude. That (and this blog post) is what finally cured me of my blues.

And the kids, well, they're being themselves, which is the other incentive I have to stop moping and be an adult already. (Kind of step out of myself and, slapping myself a few times in the face, sternly say, "You think you've got problems? Sheesh! Look at these beautiful kids! Now, whatcha complaining about again?")

So, backing up a bit: on Tuesday, Mademoiselle laughed for what I'm pretty sure was the first time. So cute! It may be a warm-up for laughing at her mother, but that's OK. In time, she'll surely help me laugh at myself.

Anyone else got stories of taking yourself too damn seriously, then snapping out of it thanks in large part to your kids?

Monday, May 09, 2011

From the mouths of babes

[Irate note: This is the very last time I'll ever attempt to compose a blog post on an iPad. After an hour of painstakingly typing away on the touch screen with its irritating busybody of an automatic spell-check, the damn browser ate my post. The moral of the story: some technologies are great for reading the Economist in the dark while nursing your baby to sleep, and not so great for enabling personal expression. I'm back on my good old-fashioned laptop now.]

Le Petit is now making disarmingly frank observations about the world, usually when I least expect them, like in between quoting Sesame Street and announcing that he's washed his hands all by himself. Or from the back seat of the car, when I thought he wasn't listening to our conversation. For instance, on our way back from vacation, I mentioned to my husband that I wanted to take the kids to Alsace for the Christmas holidays one of these years.

"But, Mommy," le Petit interjected urgently, "Alsace is really far away. And you don't even have your driver's license yet!"

That made both of us laugh. True enough.

Then this weekend he told me, "Mommy, in French, it's crêpe. And in English, it's... in English, it's..." He hesistated. Sometimes you can almost hear the gears turning in his brain as he processes the language that matches his thoughts, and I wait in amusement to hear the result.

"In English, it's... burrito!"

I was baffled where that came from, since we were all in the car, we weren't talking about dinner, and we'd already had lunch. Also, I was certain I'd never served him a burrito. Part of the charm of his observations is that they are often apropos of nothing, or at least nothing other than the new, mysterious connections he's constantly building in his own head. Preschool wisdom is impenetrable.

They also make me laugh, which is a good thing, because many of my recent days have been a long, exhausting slog. Right now Mademoiselle has two brand-new teeth, a runny nose, and a singular obsession with learning to crawl, which have all (along with the phases of the moon and the alignment of the planets, I assume) been seriously screwing with her sleep. On good nights she wakes up twice and on typical nights she wakes up four or five times. Even if propping myself up on a pile of pillows and scooping her out of her crib to nurse has become so hazily automatic that I'm usually unsure just how many times I've had to intervene, I'm still tired and grumpy and guiltily aware that if I just hauled myself off to bed after dinner (instead of, say, after writing and rewriting a blog post) I'd solve much of my problem.

One day last week I was especially exhausted, and started yelling and stomping around over several unrelated annoyances at once -- le Petit's recalcitrance on something or other, a package that arrived damaged in the mail, the Legos strewn about my living room floor. When I finally managed to regain my composure, I apologized to le Petit.

"I'm sorry I yelled. Mommy's just frustated. Everybody gets frustrated sometimes."

Le Petit accepted this, reflecting on it for a moment.

Then today, I put Mademoiselle down on her play mat on the floor of the living room while I started throwing dinner together. Eventually she flipped herself onto her belly and started to fuss, and as whenever we don't pay her proper attention, attempted to scoot off and take her business elsewhere. Failing, she began to cry in earnest.

"I'll be right there!" I called from the kitchen. She hears me say this at least fifteen times a day, and I suspect that her received language comprehension has caught up to the point that she now understands that it means "That's it, Mom's abandoned me for longer than my undeveloped short-term memory capacity." When I finally did poke my head in, I saw le Petit lying on his belly next to her, his arm wrapped protectively around her back.

"It's okay," he said reassuringly, "You're just frustrated. Everybody gets frustrated sometimes."