Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Cécile David-Weill who is a French American author born and based in New York. She’s a mother of three and a grandmother of seven. She studied literature at La Sorbonne in Paris. She is the author of two novels in English called Crush, under the name Cecile De La Baume, and The Suitors. She was a regular contributor to the French magazine Le Point, P-O-I-N-T, I don’t know, can’t speak French — with a column entitled Letters From New York. Her latest book is nonfiction, part memoir and part guide, called Parents under the Influence: Words of Wisdom from a Former Bad Mother.

Welcome, Cécile. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Cécile David-Weill: Thank you, Zibby, for having me.

Zibby: Of course, my pleasure. I love this French accent of yours. I love it. It feels so exotic like we’re having such a chic little, like we’re having tea or something. I don’t know.

Cécile: That’s very kind of you. I’m a little sad nevertheless because I think I’m having a great American accent. Then each time I’m sad. I understand that I don’t.

Zibby: It’s great regardless. Can you please tell listeners what Parents Under the Influence is about? The subtitle is Words of Wisdom from a Former Bad Mother, which I still find hard to believe that you were a bad mother.

Cécile: In fact, it’s part memoir and part guide. The point of the book was to share my experience as a parent and to have it cross-examined by the specialist to which I talked during the very serious research I did for years. I put all this in very regular mom words. The book is about the huge gap between the usual stuff we’re told about parenting, things like all you need is love or trust your gut, and the reality of parenting which I found out from my own experience is much more complicated, anyway for me. Of course, love is totally indispensable. It’s crucial, but it’s not enough. You need also, as in any relationship I think, guidelines and advice and work because love can hurt even if it’s well-intended. As for the gut part, I thought it was the expression of our love for our children when I was thinking, trust your gut. In fact, I found out that it is more the reproduction of our own upbringing. That is reproduction. If we had amazing parents, which happens, it’s a good thing because we don’t have any problems. We reproduce very good behaviors. We bond with our kids. We enjoy being with them. We give them value, structure, everything. Then we don’t need to read the book.

Zibby: Don’t say that. Now you’re telling people not to read your book. No, no, no.

Cécile: Well, it is a rare thing to have absolutely amazing parents. If you have more regular type parents that are not flawless, which is of course the major part of people, chances are that you have suffered. I have suffered during my childhood even if it’s not in a really spectacular way or major way. That suffering still acts in us, in me, and the wounded child that is acting up and making us reproduce our childhood, even the very things that we fought and we really didn’t want to do. It is a very distressful thing to realize because we would like to think of ourselves as parents who are parenting with free will. I was familiar with the notions of unconscious mind. Everybody is. We know that we all are shaped by our childhood, that we have unconscious mechanisms and patterns that impact our life, but we don’t think and we don’t want to think about the fact that it could interfere with our parenting since it is, for us, the place where we are supposed to be the most mature. It is super disquieting.

Zibby: When you say under the influence, what you really mean is we are under the influence of our parents, good or bad. That’s part of it. We’re under the influence of the examples that they set, the way we think we’re supposed to parent, or what you were saying before, having a radically opposite approach to parenting because of the way they modeled behavior for us.

Cécile: Yes, we are totally molded by our childhood. Some things are really good. It’s a way to transmit cultures, values. That works because we mimic our parents. It’s most often very fine. When we do reproduce the behaviors that really made us suffer, then it becomes to be a problem. I had a hint that maybe it could happen because I knew about the thing about the unconscious mind. I thought that the good idea would be to do the opposite of what was really a problem in my childhood. I met many people who don’t speak about that to their friends, but they vow to themselves in a very solemn and deep way, when they have children, they vow to not do what they have suffered from. In fact, it’s the only thing that they really think about because we don’t have a lot of ways of thinking about parenthood. We don’t have many tools to think about it. That’s the only visceral thing that we think. I thought it was a good idea. It turned out not to be.

In fact, the very idea that we want to do the opposite is the sign that we are still very much under the spell of the suffering that we had, and that we are going to parent with us and this suffering in mind, and not our children. The funny thing is that, for instance, my parents were of the generation that really didn’t get or know that children really need us in a very, very close way, to be living with them and bond. It was not that generation. They were kind, but in a more distant, absent way. They gave lots of good things and structures and values, but the bonding part was a little lacking. I thought, okay, I’m going to do the opposite. I’m going to be very much with my kids. I’m going to be all the time with my kids, the most I can be. I thought it was great because what could be said against that idea? It’s a great idea. The only thing is that I didn’t know how to behave with my kids because I wasn’t used to being with my parents, so I didn’t know how to behave with my kids. Since I had lots of reasons to be nervous because I didn’t find I was doing so well, I was nervous and I was not engaging in a very enjoyable way with them. In fact, I thought I was bored or they were bored. Anyway, we didn’t really connect.

The time we spent was rarely very good quality time, so they felt as lonely as if I wasn’t there. The paradox was I felt lonely during my childhood because my parents weren’t there. My children felt lonely because I was too much there because I didn’t know that I was not supposed to do the opposite, but do better. Since I didn’t know very much, how to enjoy myself with them, I had to learn that. I had to maybe stay less with them, but do only enjoyable things and the usual stuff you’re supposed to do with them, that’s of course. That would’ve been a revelation that I would like to have had beforehand. That’s what the book is about. The very ideas that make you do mistakes are the ideas of parents who want to do well. That, I find very unfair because it’s not the bad parents, the bad mother in the way that we do it on purpose or we’re bad persons or we couldn’t care less. The bad parent I was, was a parent who tried too hard without self-knowledge, without self-awareness, and without tools to understand what was happening to me.

Zibby: Wow. What made you want to take all the time out of your life to turn this into a book and share it with everybody else?

Cécile: As I said, I was very caught up in my distress of not doing the right thing. As every parent under the influence, I was very much doing things and regretting them afterwards, snapping at my kids, not being the way I wanted, not parenting the way I wanted to do. I was really distressed. I was caught up in myself, so much so that I didn’t even look that much at my kids. I was, in fact, looking at myself being miserable and being not a good mother, but I wasn’t looking at them. One day — it was well into motherhood because my elder one was fourteen, so it was kind of late. I looked at my kid. I don’t know why, suddenly, I saw them. I got out myself, and I saw them. I saw that the three of them were not happy, not thriving, and there was a problem. I thought, what did I do wrong? When I started, I thought, I’m going to be a great mother. I wanted to be a great mother. I had the time. I had the energy. I had the benevolence. I had the goodwill. I had everything, but it turned out to be much more difficult.

I didn’t want to address that thing at first because I didn’t know how to, so I put it at the back in my head until I found out and I discovered that they were not doing well. Then I thought, I have to change, but I didn’t have a clue what to do. I started reading a lot of parenting books. I started going and see shrinks, psychiatrists, and doing a real study of what you’re supposed to do. All the people I went to see who have all this nice talk, “Don’t worry,” and everything, I said, “Uh-uh, what do mean when you say — what is it we’re supposed to do in a real way?” I want number of times we have to say yes to our kids. I want actual very concrete things and answers because all the kind stuff we’re told is not helpful. The thing I learned during my experience and the thing I learned during that research that really took me ten years, and the fact that all that I learned made me turn things around — I really wasn’t hopeful that much because I was late. I thought if I did turn things around in my relation with my kids — really, I have a great relation with them now.

They have their problems and their insecurities as everybody, but they are really interesting people. I’d love to meet them if they weren’t my children. The fact that it worked, what they told me worked, I thought, I have to share this. I’m probably not the only one who has the problem of trying too hard and being a bad mother because bad results, not a bad person, but bad results. In fact, when I changed my behavior, the result came. I thought, everybody thinks it’s impossible to do it right. It’s impossible to be perfect. I think it’s not even a good idea even if it were possible because then the children would never want to leave us. Hopefully, they have some things that are against us so they can go away and have their own life, but it is possible. Once you have the tools and you have the right state of mind, you can decide how you want to actually parent. There is not one way to parent. You need to choose your way to parent, especially nowadays where families are really different. You have lots of sorts of family and lots of sorts of beliefs and way that you want to raise your kids, but you need to have tools to know how to implement this.

Zibby: And you gave us the tools.

Cécile: Yes, that’s what I’m doing in the book. I hope so.

Zibby: I thought it was also great, by the way, that at the end of the book after you go in-depth into all the different topics, that you have cheat sheets with some of the most salient points all laid out. In case you forget or you want to refer back, they’re all right there. That was lovely.

Cécile: Thank you. In fact, it’s my son. I wrote this book as a grandmother. My children have children. I had them participate because some things I had forgotten. My son told me, “You know, many parents don’t have time or energy to read your whole book, even if it is great. Do that at the end, the basic points, what to do, what not to do, because it can be useful. Then they could go back to the book if they want.”

Zibby: Good tip, son. Let’s talk about your writing also. Your novel, The Suitors, which I was telling you earlier, I downloaded on my iPad. I think it was the first book I ever read on an iPad and possibly the last. No, one of the only ones. Any time I only had an iPad in my purse, because I often like to read when I’m waiting for anything or whatever, I would read little bits and pieces. It took me a very long time to read your book, but it stayed with me for so long like a little friend in my purse or something. I’m also really excited about the fact that you wrote that book. Even just seeing the cover, it conjures up the entire scene. It was so real, all these people who descend on this beautiful home from France. I don’t know exactly where in France, but they all come for this weekend. It was a beautiful, very snippet of life type time and place — I’m not saying this very well.

Cécile: Thank you. Thank you very much. It’s the story of a family house that is set in in the French Riviera. It’s the story of two sisters who don’t want their parents to sell the family estate. They have suitors, three possible rich suitors, come each for one weekend to check them out and see if they could be possible contenders to marry and buy the family estate. It’s a social comedy. I really had a lot of fun writing it. Also, it was something important to me because it is a novel and the characters are made up, but the house isn’t. It is actually a house of my childhood. It is a place that I wanted to portrait and to make it stay in something like a book that can stay forever because it is such a way of living that is no longer anywhere. It’s like a little Downton Abbey before the 2008 financial crisis and with the guests, the staff, and all the menus and the recipes and all the rules of the house. It is also a book about conversation and also about being sisters and the love between two girls.

It is also something that is close to my heart because it was kind of an homage to a way of living that is no longer, not even in this house that we still have in our family, but it’s no longer that way. It was also fun because it’s about new money and old money. That house is set in a bay where that family is the only French who stay in the bay. They have Russians and Saudis and Iraqis and Greek. They are surrounded by the new money. They are old money. When they have mosquitoes, they just light a candle. Whereas the others have very expensive machines to burn mosquitoes with a lot of light and a lot of noise. Also, with the new suitors, the suitors that are new money arriving in the house, there is the Wall Street guy. There is the tech billionaire who loves yoga and vegan food. It is a book I like. I’m happy that you like it too.

Zibby: You even wrote a guidebook about New York, things you’ve noticed in New York in French. You have a number of books in French.

Cécile: Yes. I usually write novels except for those stories about New York that I wrote for the magazine Le Point. I put myself in the shoes of a newcomer, which I was fifteen years ago. I just arrived in New York after being born here and spending my early childhood here. It was the look on New York that seemed so amazingly exotic for us French. That was one nonfiction thing. Otherwise, it’s only novels that I write usually.

Zibby: Are you working on anything new? Another novel or anything?

Cécile: Yes, I’m working on novel right now. I don’t really know what I’m doing, as usually. It turns out at one point, I hope. I’m not very good at talking about it because when I do actually talk about the book I’m writing, when it sounds good and then when I write it, I think it’s not as good as I when I talked about it. In fact, when I talk about it and it doesn’t seem interesting, I think, why on earth am I writing it? I can’t actually talk about a book I’m writing. I think it is the way I make myself think about topics and put my ideas in my head. I don’t know if I would think at all if I wasn’t writing, so it’s important that I go on.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Cécile: No, I wouldn’t be that presumptuous. I only have advice about parenting.

Zibby: Great, let’s hear parenting advice. I’ll take that.

Cécile: Because I turned it around and it works. It worked for me. For the rest, no. I think writing is so difficult and so lonely and so slow for me. Yes, it is wonderful because it’s amazing to have the luxury to actually sit in the quiet and ask yourself what words you’re going to choose. It seems like such an old-fashioned way of living. It is precious, and I love it. It’s also terribly frustrating not to find the way to say things like you want to say. I’m sure you have, sometimes, the feeling.

Zibby: Yes. Sometimes I can’t even remember what words things are. I can’t even remember, like, microphone. What’s that word? I don’t know. Yes, it can be a struggle. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and sharing what you learned about — I’m sure you were not as bad a mom as you thought, but from everything that you learned and how you were able to turn your parenting around, thank you for letting the rest of us benefit from your experience. It was very kind and generous of you to do.

Cécile: Thank you very much. Thank you.