For 20 years, when I was living in Nashville, a city in the heart of the South where gentility and expectations of feminine conformity are sacred, I prided myself on a ball-busting professional reputation, general camaraderie with men, a penchant for convertibles, motorcycles, hard drinking and coarse language. I was a man's woman, with no interest in white wine, book groups, casseroles, ballerina flats, flower prints, throw pillows, tea lights, recipe exchanges, baking, crafts or any number of other predilections common to the Southern woman.
My only truly, though not exclusively, feminine hobby was gardening. Otherwise, the good stuff included a well-turned phrase, a hard-won scoop, a stiff cocktail and a gaggle of upbeat and motivated reporters who were all too happy to swap stories and share rounds of drinks. When kids came along, life certainly changed, but work trudged on in one form or another and soaked up the lion's share of my creative energy, not to mention my time.
Then, as trailing spouses often must, I gave up my career and we moved from Nashville to Paris — and not the one in Henry County — where stay-at-home mothers are rarer than steak tartare. Here, parents don't so much raise their children as pay other people to do it. At school pickup, park afternoons and most times in between, I coexist largely alongside the nounou class — women from the Philippines, Africa, Portugal and occasionally France, who raise the children that mine go to school with.
For me, the move meant a transition to what a home economics textbook might call "work inside the home." This came with not a small amount of resentment, angst and general disorientation, especially given that this new home was in a foreign land where you're less likely to have a dryer than pigeon poop coming in through your bathroom air vent. A home where the kitchen is smaller than my last closet. Where for a while my only friend was a New Zealand stay-at-home dad who once, during a play date at our apartment, took a photograph of his daughter's stool and emailed it to his wife, then brought me the little potty and proceeded to describe the merits of her excrement and the meals that gave way to this splendid display of feculence. Every minute or two, he'd say to her, "Amiria, do you need a wee-wee? A WEE-WEE, Amiria?" (When you decide to incubate tiny human beings who are born entirely dependent, you sign up for a certain amount of potty talk among friends, but this was a bridge too far.) That was, by the way, a really long winter.
So these days, while I write part time, the real work is, well, "homemaking." The process of accepting this circumstance has been occasionally unattractive. Once, in my deepest despair, I went to dinner with a friend, had a few glasses of wine and shared frustrations about the isolation of raising young children in perhaps the most aggressive city in the world.
As we left the restaurant, she leaned on a timeworn panacea for forlornness. Pulling me toward a dark little side street near the Seine, she sat down and rolled us a joint. My last — and only other — experience smoking marijuana was freshman year in college, when it made me about as high as would a cup of chamomile tea. Seeing no real downside to giving it a try again after all the intervening years, I sat down and we toked awhile. The response was immediate. I promptly, and prolifically, hurled. No, neither despair nor marijuana was the answer.
Eventually, I became at least sometimes grateful for the gift of time to raise my children without the constant interference of professional obligations, even if it is in a city where I am occasionally accosted by strangers in the grocery store for buying milk chocolate instead of dark, which is mieux, bien sur. (Whatever.)
And while I was being thankful, I was also witnessing a lot of slapdash parenting going on all around me. The convergence of the two somehow awakened certain unexpected — but surprisingly fulfilling — impulses to overachieve. For example, on birthdays, some families send their kids to school with a plate of bakery cookies or cake. Because nothing says, "Joyeaux anniversaire, Je t'aime!" like sending the nanny to pick up a patisserie-baked gateau.
Whereas I — someone who recently learned the difference between baking soda and baking powder — now prefer to wake up at 4 in the morning to bake a Star Wars cake, complete with icing light sabers, perhaps a TIE fighter and meticulously crafted lettering. I used to call out self-serving politicians and take down scumbags — at least a few, anyway. Now I want to out-bake Marcel's mom ... not that it's much of a challenge, the skinny bitch.
For my son's sixth birthday party, he wanted a Darth Vader piñata. Had I ordered on time, I could have gotten one online from the U.K. for a cool 96 pounds, or $145. In my former life, I would have whipped out the American Express faster than the pink-dress girl joined the Steeplechase catfight. And though there wouldn't have been anything wrong with that, except of course the price, this newfound domesticity had me following online directions for how to make one yourself. (As it turns out, all it takes to make papier-mâché glue is some corn flour and hot water.) This exercise doubled as my first-ever bona fide craft project, and the boys looked upon me as some sort of superhero.
No one is more surprised than I am at this personal evolution from Lois Lane to Martha Stewart. But, truly, it's a good thing.
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