To pull from Dr. Seuss, “The time has come, the time is now, Marvin K Mooney, please go. Now!”
This fall, the “baby” of our family will be leaving the nest, flying to higher education in the United Kingdom, and the looming adjustment has once again underlined the cultural variety in our lives.
My American friends send me, “awws” with sad faced emoticons, declaring, “Now you’ll be empty nesters.” My Parisian friends raise their glasses in a toast, asking if I’ll now be joining Mr. French on all his business trips so we can enjoy long weekends across the globe.
In America, the last child leaving home is a common syndrome, a defined illness that leaves parents suffering a lingering malaise. In Paris, it is a time to celebrate a job well done. To be very fair, a quick Google search shows that the syndrome exists in France, too, but it is not part of the national consciousness but merely a vague complaint mentioned by few.
When my first daughter left, my American friends expected me to fall apart. There seemed to be a learned cultural idea that having our kids leave home is a sad thing. I was delighted to discover that instead of loss, I felt the intense elation of someone nominated for an Oscar award. Every time my daughter and I spoke, I found myself reveling in her steps towards independence.
Speaking to my American friends, I worried that there was perhaps something wrong with me. Did I not love my daughter enough? Was I lacking in emotional depth? Did I have an attachment disorder? Speaking to my French friends swiftly reassured me. “C’est normal!” they’d exclaim, the understanding being that my nest had not emptied, but merely been filled with new opportunities and adventures. I was expected to join a gym, evolve professionally, embark on romantic adventures with Mr. French.
Before children are grown, parents in France do not necessarily focus on creating an idyllic childhood. Birthday parties are informal affairs in the park after school, no party favors, no themes, and the gifts are simple. Spankings are legal and may be dealt out publicly in local playgrounds. The impetus is on raising productive adults.
In school, there are no bonus points or AP classes to push kids beyond a 4.0 GPA. In France, with a grading system of 1 to 20, earning 12 points is considered honors level on the French Baccalaureat. Scoring 20 earns one a spotlight in the national news, so even the brightest students are constantly reminded they could have done better, should have strived harder. The elite do not go to university to find their passion, they go to a Grande École to prepare for a profession. For better and for worse, parenting in France is less about playtime and activity planning and more about discipline. There is more drudgery, which may be why we tend to be happier as the last ones fly the coop.
As our littlest gets set to take off, I am wary. Will I feel the grief and loneliness that defines the syndrome or will I concentrate on savoring the joy of a job well done and celebrate sending a competent young woman into the world? On verra.
Written by Sylvia Sabes for the HiP Paris Blog. Looking for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, London, Provence, or Tuscany? Check out Haven in Paris.