The Mother's Load

Forget culture—French mothers are more relaxed because government policies actually support them. A response to Sarah Blustain.

By Sharon Lerner

Tagged FeminismMotherhood

Elisabeth Badinter is picking a fight with her book The Conflict, in which she demonizes pretty much every form of maternal bonding. And I was pleased to see Sarah Blustain give it to her in “Mère Knows Best”, rightly mocking Badinter’s attacks on social science, breast-feeding, and ecology. No writer should get away with defending the cancer-causing chemical BPA in the name of feminism, and Blustain doesn’t let her.

More importantly, Blustain calls out the extreme—and extremely annoying—tenor of the discussion of women’s rights, in which we swing from “Caitlin Flanagan’s prim serve-your-husband claptrap” (a description that made me laugh out loud) to the likes of Badinter, who seems to think that true women’s liberation must involve child neglect. Such Mommy War provocation sells, of course, which is why a breast-feeding three-year-old and his defiant-looking mom recently graced the cover of Time magazine, why consummate go-getter Anne-Marie Slaughter recently announced in The Atlantic that women can’t have it all, and probably why Badinter writes with what she admits is “a certain lack of subtlety.” People enjoy a smackdown.

The frustration is that as we focus on the mean-spirited fight we lose sight not just of the facts, which Blustain points out, but also of the arena in which the fight takes place, which Blustain overlooks. It is not culture or something else but major policy differences that shape the divergent French and American takes on motherhood. But Blustain only briefly alludes to this structural element, mentioning in her final paragraph “the litany of public policies that could help” with American women’s empowerment, and then dismissing her own point as moot because of the difficult economic times.

Yet public policy is not only not moot, it must be central to any discussion of American women’s empowerment—and certainly to any discussion that involves comparing ourselves with the French. The conversation that’s sprung up around the publication of both Badinter’s book and Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up B&#233b&#233 might be boiled down to a puzzled admiration for the French style of motherhood. How ever do they manage to look so good, eat so well, and steer clear of the morass of maternal anxiety in which so many American mothers get mired?

Somehow, in the wonderment over feeding toddlers foie gras, we’ve missed the obvious role of family policy: If American mothers are more uptight than French mothers, our relative lack of structural supports has everything to do with that difference. I don’t mean the kind of norms that Slaughter in her Atlantic piece recommends that employers voluntarily adopt—things like expecting less face time and recognizing the demands of parenting. I’m talking about bread-and-butter laws that our country still lacks. American policy around child care, paid leave, and flexible work options is so far inferior to the French, the question should not be why our experiences of motherhood are as divergent as they are but rather: How can they have anything in common at all?

Let’s start at the very beginning: birth. Had you just delivered or adopted a baby in France, you would now have 16 weeks off from your job, all paid in full (unless you already have at least two children, in which case you’ll have 26 weeks off, all paid). No worries about how to pay the rent should disturb you as you change tiny diapers and nap while the baby naps. You—along with virtually every other working parent—have income and, when you’re done, a job to return to. Oh, and a government-paid nurse will stop by to check on you and the baby, make sure everyone’s well-rested and healthy, and review your subsidized child care options. Though your husband, or perhaps significant other, is welcome to split the paid time off with you, he’ll also get an additional 11 days paid that only he can take. La vie est belle, non?

If you want more time, you can have it in France. Though you wouldn’t get paid, you could take an additional 296 weeks off to spend with your child and still be able to return to your job when you’re done. That’s about five-and-a-half years of job-protected leave. Yes, you read that right: Together with the paid time off, that amounts to 27 times the amount of job-protected time off Americans get—and that’s only compared to the lucky half who get anything at all.

In the United States, of course, you could—or perhaps did—have no paid leave at all. If you’re fortunate, you might be among the 11 percent of private-sector workers and 17 percent of public-sector workers who get some paid family leave through their employer. But most likely you’d be left to cobble together sick days and vacation to get even a little time with your newborn. You might be covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which grants 12 (unpaid) weeks off after a birth or adoption. But since it contains many exemptions based on things like the number of hours you work and the size of the company that employs you, chances are about 50-50 that you’re excluded. And because it’s unpaid, even if you are technically entitled to the time, you might not be able to afford to forego the pay. So if you’re like most working mothers in this country, you’ll be back at work before 12 weeks are up. (Hopefully, you won’t be among the 10 percent of new mothers who are back at work in four weeks or less.)

What will you do with your child if you do go back to work? In France, you are guaranteed a spot in the government-subsidized national child care system, which charges parents based on a sliding scale and is of such high quality that 99 percent of French three-, four-, and five-year-olds use it. Think of it—very rich kids napping alongside the middle-class and even poor ones! The center that cares for kids between two months and three years is even open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., so you can stop by the café and meet a friend for a glass of Chardonnay after work. C’est merveilleux!

Here? Well, we have no national child care system, so you’re going to have to figure it out—and pay for it—on your own. This could be expensive. If you have two kids, the cost of putting them in a center will likely be either the first or second largest category of all expenses, including mortgage, health care, and transportation. And if you’re poor, the cost of child care will eat up about a third of your income. But since the U.S. government spends about one-fifth the amount per child the French government puts toward child care, what can you expect?

Perhaps, then, you’ll be one of those American mothers who stays home—and gives up that independence French women cherish. Are you doing it because you’re obsessed with your children, as Badinter might suggest? Because you don’t really care about your own liberation? Or is it because you can’t afford—or don’t want—to leave your six-week-old with a stranger? Hard to say—and anyway you’re probably too focused now on how to support yourself and your baby to have a minute to think about it.

Why not just split the difference and get a part-time job, then? That way you could spend some time with the little one and have an income. In France—and throughout the European Union—you’ll be guaranteed pro-rated pay and benefits as a part-time worker. And by benefits, I don’t mean health-care coverage, which, of course, is your right as a French citizen, regardless of employment status. I mean things like entitlement for unemployment benefits, participation in pension funds, and paid sick days. If you’re worried about making ends meet, know that, if you have at least two kids, you’ll also get a family allowance from the government. Fèlicitations á vous!

In the United States, unfortunately, a part-time job typically comes with little status, low pay, and no benefits in the American sense of the term—which is to say you probably won’t have health insurance. Well, at least you won’t be alone: Almost one in five mothers don’t have health coverage. No doubt, this linking of health care to full-time employment is why so many American mothers who say they’d like to work part time actually work full time. If you’re among them, you’ll just have to cram your various responsibilities into your unaccommodating work schedule and hope for the best. But try not to worry, okay?

In case you’re getting a little uneasy, I’ll stop here, sparing you the details of how, in the United States, this lack of support translates into higher rates of poverty among American mothers—higher than among men, women without children, or for that matter French mothers—not just while they’re raising children, but also later, in old age.

It should be clear by now why anxiety might infuse American mothers’ behavior and choices. There is no doubt in my mind that the relatively harsh realities American families face contribute to some of the panicky, obsessive parenting we see here. I know mothers who decided to co-sleep and nurse all night because they had to go back to work way before they were ready. And I know others who, after feeling dissatisfied with the lives they were able to offer their kids while they worked full time, threw themselves into the stay-at-home lifestyle with a bitter vengeance.

Then there’s Slaughter, who left her job at the State Department with her own bitter vengeance—which apparently led to her revelation that we American mothers can’t have it all. To her, too, I say, “D’oh!” Or rather: “Of course you can’t.” And if you can’t—you, with your competent, agreeable husband and enough money to pay for all the help you’d like—just imagine how it is for most everyone else, who face the distinctly American lack of support without your resources.

This is not to say that France—or the French ideal held up by Badinter—is perfect. Like Blustain, I find the lionizing of bottle-feeding and toxic chemicals absurd. But the French have, for decades, sustained an infrastructure that’s been incredibly supportive to families and has broadened the possibilities for women. (They began offering 16 weeks of paid maternity leave back in 1979, by which time most other rich countries had also started adopting some paid leave.)

If I had a baby in France, I’d probably be drinking wine and elevating my conjugal relationship, too. Hell, I’d even have another—baby, glass of wine, who’d care! But I live in the United States. And here we first have to institute family-supportive laws like France’s. Then we can relax a little—and figure out how that liberation should look.

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Sharon Lerner is the author of The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation and a senior fellow at Demos.

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