April 1, 2013

The Balanced (Expat) Family

Have you read Bringing Up Bebe?

Me neither. I thought I'd mention that before you get all impressed with me reading and reviewing a book while in the midst of an international move.

But I did read an editorial about it in the New York Times a while back. Bringing Up Bebe is a book written by Pamela Druckerman, an expat-returned-to-the-US mother, about what she calls "discovering the wisdom of French parenting." What particularly caught my eye in the article was where she describes a fundamental difference in how French and American parents regard the role of children in the family. In France, she observed, kids who came running up to their parents to talk to them about something or other were typically told to wait until the adults were finished talking. She also reminisced, after having returned to the U.S. and resumed her hectic after-school-sports-and-activities life, about the times she'd sit in a park somewhere in Paris sipping her wine with friends while idly watching the kids play at a playground.


I cannot help but feel a certain kinship with her. After only a few weeks back in the U.S., I am also reminiscing about what now seems an impossibly leisurely life in South Africa, versus what is shaping up to be a crazy schedule.

And I'm also reminiscing about sipping my wine while the kids were playing nearby. Or, come to think of it, mainly about sipping my wine, with or without kids.

Granted, there we lived within walking distance of our school, and here we don't. If my kids could get to all their activities on foot, my life here would be a hell of a lot less harried.

And I had domestic help in South Africa. Which, as you all know, means that I sat by the pool with my feet up all day and rang for service with a little bell every once in a while when I needed a refill for my drink.

But that's not all of it. Here, I noticed, the sidelines at any sporting event are always packed. Even if it's close to freezing and getting dark, you will find whole families camped out watching their child play in what, let's be honest, can only be a very minor regular season game. Entire households are moved to the sidelines of such games. The baby, the baby stroller, the family dog, grandma and grandpa, an assortment of chairs and toys, an ice chest with food and drink to last for three days.

A rare view of me camped out on the sidelines in South Africa, at an Alexandra Baseball game.
Photo courtesy of Natalie Irwin.

In South Africa, mind you, sports are just as big as here in the U.S. Kids are recruited heavily for their sporting prowess, even as young as twelve years old, and entire school dynasties are built around rugby or cricket programs.

However, there is a difference. And I think that difference comes down to balance.

Just like the French parents in Mrs. Druckerman's stories, South Africans seem less obsessive about their kids. They're involved in their kids' lives, but not pushy or ultra-competitive. A sideline brawl in the country where there is tea break in the midst of a cricket match is simply unimaginable. You will hear polite clapping and shouts of "well done" when things go well or "unlucky" when they don't. Parents don't overschedule their kids, and often play down their successes. They may attend a match, or they might not.

Most of all, they seem to have the ability to retain a life of their own (which, you might have guessed, more often than not seems to involve sipping wine).

The life of your typical American family, in contrast, seems to completely revolve around the kids' sporting schedule. Not only that, it is often held up as a perverse badge of honor how busy you are on your kids' behalf. A friend of mine confessed to feeling inadequate after talking to another parent who took extreme pride in the fact that the family never had any weekday meals together because every evening had to be divided and conquered by both parents running themselves ragged.

Some of that is not only an American phenomenon, I give you that. It's part of a worldwide trend of uber-zealous parenting focused on giving our offspring an edge over what we perceive as the fiercest competition since the beginning of man.

When I think back to my own childhood, I almost laugh at the contrast. When it came to sports, I was pretty much left to my own devices. I was about twelve or thirteen when I started scouting out my own sports teams in various clubs, rode to practices on my bike, and hung out with kids my parents had never met and no desire to meet. I eventually settled on basketball and will never forget how my mother once asked, a few years into my career, whether basketball was the sport with the net in the middle or the hoops at the end. She had never watched a single match.

Of course I was hoping for parents who had more of an interest in my life. But in hindsight I cannot help but admire how little my busy life affected theirs. I chose to hang out in all these gyms, but why should they?

I've said it before - four children, one sport each, you do the math. In a country without public transport, that's a hell of a lot of chauffeuring right there.

Maybe it's my need for quiet time and reflection. Or maybe it's the bonus of having lived as an expat and seen the virtues of other parenting styles, whether French or South African. But I am determined not to let supporter-in-chief to my children crowd out every other aspect of my life.

Come on, say it with me: It's okay to have your kids tough it out on the sports field in the freezing rain while you and your spouse sit at home enjoying a relaxed cup of cappuccino over the New York Times crossword puzzle.