To interact with French people is to hear endless suggestions for improvement.
You talk like a baby.
This is not, I have learned, how American society often approaches love. When I’m with my wife, my brother, or my closest friends, love flows loudly between us. We hug hello and goodbye and for no reason at all. We say “I love you” constantly. The cousins I’ve known my entire life? Never.
As a child of two cultures, I am often confused by my interactions with my French family, unsure whether the snarky observations are a sign of love or of its absence. Is it truly a French thing to be mean to the people you care about? Or is it just my family?
French was my first language, though it is no longer my strongest. That phase ended when I headed to preschool in Tampa, Florida, where I baffled my teachers by speaking a mishmash of the two languages I spoke at home, and where English eventually took over. My mixed-heritage family felt easy and normal to me; in home videos, I can see my toddler self peppering English sentences with French words and vice versa. But nurturing our biculturalism took a lot of work for my parents, who wanted my brother and me to feel at home in both France and the United States. My parents both spoke English and French when they met, so language was never a barrier in their relationship. Until it came to expressing affection.
My dad, a New Yorker, is boisterous and effervescent with his love. Sometimes he gets overwhelmed by it, breaks into a happy dance, pulls you into an inexplicable bear hug. Growing up, he would ask my brother and me, “Do you know how much I love you two and your mom? Do you have any idea?” As an only child, my dad accounts for the shortest branch of our family tree, but he makes up for it with the enthusiasm and liveliness of six siblings in one body, wearing his heart on his khaki dad shorts.
It’s different with my mom and with her French family: She has five siblings and they have twenty-two children, my gaggle of cousins. More than a handful of them ask me why I look so tired whenever I see them; they notice when I’ve taken a second helping, even comment on how easy or hard my life appears. They’re good at sensing insecurities and calling attention to them, a strange way of conveying empathy: “I know you’re upset about this, and I see you!” Many families are like this—my wife’s extended family notes changes in each others’ bodies like it’s their job—but mine seems particularly proud of it.
To interact with French people is to hear endless suggestions for improvement. In the presence of her sister or brothers, my mom is more nitpicky, more attuned to details. When we go to France, I’m always ready to defend my wispy baby voice, what I wear, the little decisions that make up my day. My brother is more mindful of his American accent when he speaks French. My dad prepares for comments on the volume of his voice, the wideness of his gestures. We are all on guard.
To be clear, I have never for a moment questioned how much my mom loves me or our family. She is an acts-of-service mom, a quality-time mom. She doesn’t write much on a birthday card, but she spends hours making my favorite cheese soufflé whenever I come home for a visit. My mom expresses love by taking care of people.
And, occasionally, by reminding us that nobody’s perfect. Not even her kids.
I asked my mom recently if this really is a French thing, or if that’s the story we tell ourselves to excuse our family’s bad behavior. She swears it’s just what French people do.
“French education was all about telling children they’re not that great so that it won’t go to their heads when they succeed,” she texted me on a Sunday afternoon.
To interact with French people is to hear endless suggestions for improvement.
“So it is literally a French value to put people in their place as a way of showing you love them?” I asked.
In her opinion, yes, that’s model parenting: “It’s better to tell your children what they can work on to improve.”
This contradicts the way many of my American friends were parented in the 1990s: positive affirmations, constant validation, the like. My mom scoffs at the good-grade pizza parties we received as kids. When my brother received a participation trophy for playing on an elementary football team, she couldn’t hide rolling her eyes. In our childhood, an accomplishment was the natural consequence of hard work and persistence. No further recognition was required.
But as a kid, I always had a sense of being not quite good enough. On my first day of kindergarten, I got some kids to chant, “We want homework!” because I wanted to feel grown-up, and big kids did homework. I showed signs of depression early and went to my first therapist when I was ten. Caring too much about my accomplishments is kind of my thing.
Some of this is more nature than nurture. I have diagnosed mental illnesses; I am a worrier; I am a Capricorn. I’m not blaming my cacophony of anxieties on having a French parent. But I still wonder, as an overachiever in my thirties, whether I might be less neurotic if my shortcomings weren’t front and center when I spend time with my family. If love weren’t delivered by correction.
I asked my mom if she would have done anything differently, knowing now how hard I am on myself.
“I have thought about that,” she texted back. “I would have told you that perfection was not a goal. And that you were damn good enough.”
It felt validating to hear that negging-as-childcare isn’t an unconditional truth for every French parent. Perhaps there were times when she should have opted for something gentler, and we both know it. But when she sent a second text, I knew I wasn’t being delusional for noticing this habit, and now I believe even more that it’s a central part of how my French family thinks.
My mom followed up with: “You might have grown up to be an unbearable know-it-all if we had always saluted every one of your accomplishments.”
I cannot argue with that.
My wife and I are not ready to have kids, but we talk about what our lives might look like when we do. We want to teach them Spanish, the language her extended family speaks, and French, of course. We know there’s plenty about how we each grew up that we want to replicate, and plenty we do not.
For example, I’d prefer not to carry on the French tradition of judgmental love. I’m not the only cousin in our big family who feels a little unnerved by the last generation’s parenting preferences, and I’d like to do things differently when it comes to my own kid. At the same time, I don’t want my approach to be perceived as a slight, to suggest that the way they express love isn’t good enough for me; after all, they think they are being kind, and I already feel alienated living so far away.
Though the comments get to me, I’ve never doubted that my family loves me, that there is warmth and care under the ice. My aunt makes fun of the way I speak, but she also sends handmade Christmas gifts for me and my wife. I’m not sure where the line is, if it’s okay to ask to be loved in a particular way when you’re speaking across cultures like this. I don’t want to call attention to myself, to seem too American. God forbid a French child asks for what they want!
Through years of therapy, I’ve learned that I can’t change the behavior of those around me, only how I react to it. So I’m trying to abstain from that biting kind of love whenever I can, to tell people I love them in whatever words feel right.
These days, my mom and I mostly still speak English with each other. We say “I love you” at the end of a phone call rather than searching for the proper phrase in French. I’ve really only ever told my mom I loved her in English, her second language. It feels more natural than grasping at a French phrase that doesn’t quite work.
Something new, though: Lately we end text conversations with “love love,” which feels French to me: a way of saying “I love you” without actually saying it. There are words missing and it doesn’t translate exactly, but the message is there, clear and unjudging.
Camille is a writer living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in BuzzFeed, Bustle, Narratively, Autostraddle, the Daily Dot, and elsewhere. She's also the author of Queer Disbelief: Why LGBTQ Equality is an Atheist Issue.