La diversification: sometimes what’s good for the baby is good for the maman

La diversification: sometimes what’s good for the baby is good for the maman

There are times when living life (and being a parent) in a foreign language and as an ex-pat makes the simplest task a challenge. When you need to pull out a dictionary during your pre-natal doctor’s appointment, for example; when you’re not entirely sure where to find bottle brushes or bath sponges or muslin squares; or when the kindly baker corrects your le or la and you wish you could just buy plural everything. I’ve lived in France for nearly 15 years and it still puts me to the test, even more so since I became a mother.

But, fortunately, there are also times when the language « barrier » can offer golden opportunities for growth, learning and development. For me, my daughter’s five-month visit to the paediatrician provided me with one of those « ah-ha » moments that came at just the right time to get me back on track when I felt like I was not waving but drowning as a parent.

Chez le médecin

It was a routine visit, during which the usual things were checked. Yes, she’s gaining weight, starting to sit up better, responding to her name; no, she’s not got teeth yet, nor is she totally sleeping through the night. The French seem obsessed with getting a child to faire ses nuits at what seems to me to be a really early age, but this is just one of those times where I nod and smile at the doctor who says she « really should sleep through » and quietly put her words in my mental junk file. The (wise) doctor doesn’t press the issue. So, the visit is over and I’m getting Alice back into her clothes when she looks up from the feuille de soins she’s filling out and casually asks the million-euro question: « Au fait, vous avez commencé la diversification? »

What’s in a name?

La diversification. In English: weaning. In Plain English: introducing your child to foods other than (as well as, not instead of) breast milk and formula. It’s extraordinary the difference that terminology can make to one’s perception, isn’t it? I hear « weaning » and I get an image of a baby being slowly and painfully prised away from a breast – I think of something being taken away from the child, something being given up. But, diversification, that’s a whole different story. Diversify says, « try something new and different »; diversify says, « variety is the spice of life ». I imagine little Alice sitting, wobbling slightly, before a banquet of colourful purées and fun finger foods. Her eyes shine and she’s delighted by the spread – in my head she even reaches forward and cracks open an oyster or two.

A moveable feast

When it comes to all things culinary, I have to admit that France generally gets it right. The term diversification seems to sum up their general attitude to nourishment: eat a bit of everything and all in moderation. The very word seems to assume that starting to eat different foods will be an exciting and positive experience for a baby, and indeed for the parents.

Speaking of the parents… other than leading me to a faintly hilarious image of my baby daughter wielding an oyster knife with aplomb then throwing the empty shells over her shoulder à la Henry VIII, the doctor’s question really struck me because at first I thought she was talking about me. Have you started to diversify your life? At this point, I had been a full-time, stay-at-home mum for over five months. Sure, I’d seen friends in that time and dealt with such minor issues as moving house (when Alice was one month old – fun times), but in general, my focus had been my baby. The doctor’s question stunned me a little because right there and then I realised that just as it was time for Alice to taste the wonders of the world, it was also time for me to claim my seat at the table. Unwittingly, the doctor had put her finger on the reason why I had been feeling quite simply that I was, well, flagging.

The spice of life

I had been on a steady diet of « baby » for five months and I felt like I was losing momentum, running out of steam – I started to understand how people on the Atkins diet must feel. I needed other forms of nourishment. Talking to friends with babies, I noticed a pattern to this phenomenon. For mums like me who don’t go back to work after the standard maternity leave is up, there really is a point around the five to six-month mark where the routine that has helped us get through that all-important « fourth trimester » becomes a grind. In the doctor’s office, I realised that while I loved being a mother, it was time for me to re-activate other parts in my life – writing, coaching – if I wanted to carry on enjoying motherhood and, crucially, in order to be my best me as a mother.

Maybe my experience won’t speak to you at all, and if that’s the case, I say tant mieux! But if you are reading this and my words ring bells, why not think about your own diversification as you blend your child’s carrots or purchase les petits pots? What parts of your life are being left unfed? It might be as simple as starting a novel or picking up a long-neglected craft project. You might decide to enrol in a training programme or look for a new job. For me, weaning or « diversifying » my daughter’s diet has been great fun, and I’ve been able to enjoy it all the more since I started diversifying my life at the same time. Whatever you choose to do, keep in mind that a healthy diet is usually a varied one, whether you’re six months or 36 years old.

Oh, and for anyone actually wondering where to get bottle brushes or bath sponges or muslin squares, the answer to this and most other « where do I buy » questions is almost always… Monoprix.

Originally published in Message Paris magazine.

Breaking the mould

Breaking the mould

Whether you conform to society’s current physical ideal or not, you can only gain from opting out of the rush to look like the latest image of perfection and taking the time to find your own beauty – whatever it looks like.

Hungry but chic. What does that mean to you? Think about it for a moment while I give you some context.

This week, I was blithely staring out of the window of the bus as we jerked through the 11th arrondissement of Paris when I saw a poster that made me sit up and take note – literally, I wrote down what I saw. It was a picture of a woman crouched down before a slightly open refrigerator, eating what appears to be a yoghurt. She’s nicely dressed and perfectly coiffed, but her eyes suggest we have surprised her in some kind of clandestine food-fest. Below her floats one of high-street retailer Kookai’s new advertising slogans: hungry but chic.

A widespread trend

I have to say that, living in France, you get somewhat used to slightly sexist advertising (I have never understood the need for naked women in TV ads for yoghurt) and provocative billboards. But this really did stun me, so I went online to see if anyone else had noticed the ad. I remember when I was a student, the university women’s group successfully campaigned against another of Kookai’s ads – a woman in a bikini with a miniature man pushing a lawnmower trimming stray pubic hairs – on the grounds that it depicted a judgemental and violent image of a woman’s body. I assumed that the web would be filled with outraged blog posts and perhaps even an online petition. I was wrong.

I found a couple of French blogs that echoed some of my own shock, but nothing that really interpreted the ad the same way I did. So, I checked with the beloved. He’s a down-to-earth guy with a naturally unsexist attitude but very little actual engagement in any kind of feminist debate. I figured if he could see what was wrong with this, I wasn’t over-reacting. His analysis? “Well, it kind of sounds like they’re saying it’s ok to starve yourself, as long as you look good doing it.” Then, warming to his subject, “It’s almost encouraging or at least condoning eating disorders, isn’t it?” Aha! This had been my exact reaction, and I wasn’t the only one! I read that slogan and immediately saw: this woman doesn’t eat enough and is always hungry, but you shouldn’t feel bad for her, she’s chic so it’s OK. Her perpetual hunger isn’t a problem, it’s for a good cause!

The vital statistics

B-eat currently estimates that 1.6 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, and 6.4% of adults display signs of disordered eating. The National Centre for Eating Disorders has found that over half of all dieters are not actually overweight, which means that 1 in every 2 people on a diet does not need to be. In a time when weight and eating issues – anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, excessive dieting and even the flipside, obesity – are so much in the news and on our minds, Kookai’s choice of advertising seems at best irresponsible, at worst dangerous.

I’m not suggesting that seeing this one advert will instantly provoke the development of eating disorders up and down the country, but this kind of message does contribute to our society’s continuing cult of skinniness which it has been proved is indeed having an effect on women (and men – 11% of people with an eating disorder in the UK are male). Between the proliferation of dieting products offered in pharmacies (terrifying to behold in France, I have to say), the size-tiny actresses coming out of Hollywood, the increasing acceptability of cosmetic surgery to “correct” natural body shapes, catwalks displaying ill-looking models, and the insidiously generalised attitude that certain foods are bad and that we all have to “be careful” all the time, it’s true that Kookai’s nasty little contribution is but a drop in the ocean.

For me, though, it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. I write regularly about self-acceptance, being kind to ourselves, and learning to treat ourselves as we do other people. But seeing this advert made me seriously think about my own capacity occasionally to beat myself up for not being thin enough, willowy enough, this enough, that enough. Messages just like Kookai’s abound in our society, and I for one have had enough.

The ideal prison

The path to self-love and contentment doesn’t start with internalising someone else’s – or society’s – version of what is good and attractive and acceptable and then spending your life trying to conform to it and judging yourself by it. It starts with making sure you’re healthy and then celebrating your body and your looks, enjoying the way you are, flaunting your assets and playing to your strengths instead of lamenting “cankles” and “bingo wings” (that we have actually given names to perceived bodily imperfections is horrifying). Happiness cannot take root in an attitude of “I’m not thin like the models, but that’s ok” as that upholds the notion that the models are an ideal of how we all should be. Happiness comes from throwing away the supposed ideals and the notions of what’s right and perfect and revelling in our different shapes and sizes, seeing beauty in more than one physical type, and deciding on our own what we find attractive and how we want to look.

I intend to start down my own path to self-respect and self-love by no longer shopping in Kookai. It’s a shame as I often like their styles, but until they produce advertising that shows me and all women more respect, I’ll celebrate myself elsewhere.