For nearly 30 years, I had a love affair with France, and I was hoping to watch my kids fall in love with her, too. One spring my husband, Ed, and I cashed in some savings and took our kids on a trip that included three weeks in the land that had ignited my passions long ago. Loving France would be a point of connection a few years before parenting as we knew it would change forever.
The timing could not have been better because at 10, 11 and 15, Ben, Isaac and Hannah were old enough to appreciate French culture but still young enough to make wonderful family memories before they grew up, moved out and moved on to lives of their own.
Part of me was getting wistful about that last part. And yet they were all going through that stage the late psychoanalyst Carl Jung called individuation, where growing up to be your own person means rejecting everything your parents love.
Frankly, I was getting sick of individuation. When I hummed along to the soundtrack from “Rent” in the car, they groaned. “We hate ‘Rent’!” When I bought a new pair of jeans that looked and felt great, they deemed them “mom jeans.” And when I went off to yoga one night, one of them said, “Why can’t you play soccer like Miss Andrea?” My friend Andrea is an incredible athlete. I will never be Miss Andrea.
When your kids are individuating, it’s difficult to imagine they will ever approve of you again, much less love you like they did when they were little. The trip, I thought, would be my opportunity to reconnect with them. How could they not love France? It has so many cool things, including gladiator stadiums, funky street fashion and cafes where you can watch World Cup soccer. Was it too much to hope that the experience might win their favor and re-cement our bond?
My Francophilia began with a kiss from a gorgeous French boy when I was 16. It was my first real kiss, and one that promised more exciting things to come. I signed up for French 101 in college and later spent a semester in France. I was 19 going on 20, and from across the Atlantic, Paris and Provence glistened like a couple of tartes aux fraise in a sunny patisserie window. Once I arrived in Paris, I read “A Moveable Feast” and was beguiled by all things Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Monet and Manet. School was in Avignon, where I hung out with friends between classes in cafes, drinking coffee with warm milk and basking in the sun.
Ordinarily, I am not one of those people who try to mold my children into miniature versions of myself. I cringe at the father who pressures his son to play football because he did, or the mother who insists her daughter play piano because she had. The poet Kahlil Gibran summarized everything I wanted to be as a parent when he wrote: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They came through you, but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.”
This all went out the window, though, when it came to me needing my kids to love France. The concept of them growing up and moving on had apparently swept my parenting philosophy out from under me in pre-trip fantasies of them being astounded by the buttery croissants and awed by the blue stained-glass glow inside Sainte-Chapelle.
Their rebellion started shortly after our passports were in hand. “We’ll be gone for my birthday?” Isaac protested. “I wanted David to sleep over that night!”
I tried using peer pressure to make the trip more enticing by mentioning it in front of their friends (anyone whose mom is not forcing them to go to Europe must want to go, I figured).
Their balking lessened. Enough so that it even seemed Hannah, a big lover of literature, might be open to reading “A Moveable Feast” before we left. Or on the plane. Or in Paris when we arrived. But on my last-ditch effort to get her to do so, when we were tucked into our cheap-but-cozy Latin Quarter apartment for the night, she pushed the thin volume at me and said, “Mom, I don’t want to break your heart, but I am not going to read that ‘Moveable Feces’ book.”
Alas, France was not for our kids. First, the French smoked all the time, and they deemed that gross. Second, Parisian women dyed their hair what they said were weird colors (Tangerine! Pomegranate!) and yet had the nerve to stare at us in our perfectly normal polar fleeces. And what was with that disgusting French habit of cracking a raw egg over the spaghetti carbonara, they said?
To top it off, wanting our kids to love France made me more annoying than ever. Here was another thing I had wanted from them — clean your room, do your homework, walk the dog, love France — another chain they would have to break free from on their journey to their own loves, to their own selves.
In the airport as we were leaving, they all practically skipped down the moving sidewalks as they tugged their little rolling bags behind them, eager to get out of the land I loved. As the plane took off and we lifted away from Nice, I looked down at the sparkling Mediterranean, took a deep breath and told myself to let it go. France was mine, and it wouldn’t be ours.
Not until several years later, anyway, when Isaac said from the back of my minivan, apropos of nothing, “Remember when we went to Paris?”
I glanced in the rearview mirror. “Yes,” I said, wistfully.
“That was great.”
Renée Bacher is a longtime journalist and freelance writer based in Baton Rouge. Find her on Twitter @ReneeBacher.