Friday, October 15, 2010

The French are Different From You and Me

I've been obsessed with this Monday New York Times article about French working mothers. Not so much the part about the state-sponsored "vaginal gymnastics" coaching that all mothers receive to get them back into shape to make more babies. (Although it is pretty mind-boggling that the state provides postpartum punani care. Helpful, though not as useful as the free nursery school all French kids are entitled to.)

What I can't stop thinking about is the photograph of 31-year-old Fleur Cohen, a doctor, walking her four tiny children across the street to drop them off before heading to work at the hospital. She's carrying a baby in a sling while wearing stilettos and a sexy above-the-knee skirt. (I will spare you the details of my current outfit, but I assure you that it does not include stilettos.) All five of them look to be bathed and in clean clothes (a miracle in itself). Fleur is holding the hand of the second youngest, and the other two are walking unaided in the crosswalk.

First of all, how did Fleur manage to become a doctor and give birth to four children by age 31? (Is it all thanks to the vag gymnastics, which were designed to increase the birth rate?) And where in the hell is her husband, also a doctor? I guess he must have already sailed off to work, sans kids and, presumably, stilettos. Or maybe he is enjoying a petit dejeuner avec colleagues. The point of the NYT article is that while 82 percent of French mothers work, they also do the bulk of the childcare, and are expected to look gorgeous at all hours, so they are super exhausted. In addition, Fleur says she cooks dinner every night.

I hope she changes her shoes first.


  1. SO many thoughts.

    I think all of the French policies discussed were passed by men because they benefit men. Who benefits by having a wife who wants and enjoys sex? Who benefits by not having to pay taxes when you have 3 or more children?

    Mrs. Cohen was seen in one picture that I doubt reflects everyday life, tho it might. How many doctors wear mini-skirts and strappy heels to work? Who would take them seriously? Altho throwing on stylish skirts and shoes is only really as hard as buying them and having them in your closet, ready to go.

  2. J, thanks so much for commenting. I think French doctors may dress that way and are taken seriously nonetheless. I disagree that throwing on that type of clothes is easy. Stilettos and tight skirts are not comfortable for working and carrying babies around, in my not-so-humble opinion.

  3. Also, she's taking them to school on the subway. Even I, just a mere aunt, wouldn't hazard a subway with more than one child.

  4. i'd have to say that i'd rather be a french woman, having enough time to myself to shop around for clothes that actually make me feel sexy, dropping off my amazing kids before i go to my amazing job, and maybe having enough energy and sanity to actually WANT to have sex at the end of the day than be an american woman, who is also expected to do the bulk of the childcare, with very, very little assistance, stressed out constantly about time, work and finances and hence too exhausted and frustrated to ever enjoy having sex with my husband.

    i think these things actually benefit both men AND women. where do i sign up?

  5. I'm going to read that article right away.

  6. I wondered the same thing about Fleur after seeing her photo. Is she superwoman?!

  7. I believe there are, in this world, ladies for whom being schleppy is not an option. Most of them live in other countries. I was at a jungle lodge in Costa Rica years ago, there was an Italian couple with pressed jeans, new polo shirts, loafers and gold chains every day.
    But forget about the shoes, I'm still stuck on the "vaginal gymnastics". My impulse is to get very down and dirty here, but I'll just leave saying the Frenchmen can just go FUCK THEMSELVES. That's me being restrained.

  8. Um, why would vaginal gymnastics be a bad thing? Ok, I'm not french, but having had a french boyfriend at one point in history and being European myself, I'm just going to leave my two cents here:
    As far as I know, new mothers are entitled to housekeeping help in France. I can't remember if the state provided them with a nanny part time or full time and for how long, but they do. So that's a big help. Secondly, as I currently live in a country where neither the state or healthcare system give a damn about female sexuality, I've often thought that I'd be so lucky as to give birth in France. There's a whole lot of stuff that can rip or descend during childbirth and the answer here is to ignore it. I mean, who gives a flying fart if the woman enjoys sex, right? Or if all her downstairs bits are where they should be, right? I mean, she's only meant to give birth and fake orgasms and work hard for less pay... right? I'd love it if after popping out a new human being, I could still enjoy sex and not have to wear tampons to keep my uterus from hanging out just because the doctors think it's not a big deal since mums don't have sex and who cares anyway since you can just have it all cut out once you hit 45.

    When it comes to the countries in central Europe with longer cultural traditions (than we have in Finland), appearances are appreciated in a different way. I'll go through the entire day in the same clothes and sometimes the same clothes serve for going out occasions also, but for someone from France or from the Baltic countries, that would be out of the question. You have your work attire, your home attire, your out-with friends-for-a-cup-of-coffee attire.
    And yes, I totally agree that there's a high degree of "keeping up appearances" there that is exhausting. And that's backed up by the ex, the french boyfriend. It's a good thing to take pride in yourself, but sometimes it's hard to know the difference between taking pride and worrying about other peoples' opinions.

  9. Dang, sorry for the long rant there. Will shut up now. :)

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  11. I lived in France for four years (and have several friends who still do) and am married to a French man.

    In response to Mireille, I left France when I was 7 months pregnant and THANK GOD I DID. Having a baby there is a nightmare. The system of hospitals for giving birth, the policies in these places. It's not good. Episiotomies with no warning, things said and done to women in labour that I can't even believe (I won't get into it all in a comment). I have many friends there who have babies and I don't recall ever hearing that they had help that they didn't have to go find and pay for themselves.

    The culture of motherhood is just different there. Nearly every woman I know there works full time, but they also have nannies and les maternelles daycare and they aren't punished or looked down upon from having those things even when their child is very very young. I don't see women clobbering each other they way they do over here with the supposed "Mommy Wars."

    I think the article doesn't begin to tell the whole story. Yes, there are "les maternelles" but until then, it can be very difficult to find a spot for your child to be in a daycare, and from what I have seen of many of these places, I wouldn't want to leave my child there for an hour, and certainly not 9 hours. I don't like the culture of childhood over there. I have so many thoughts swirling around in my head about the place of women and children in society that I can't even begin to explain them in a comment.

    The short story is this: There are some really great things over there. There are some really bad things over there. There are some things that seem great that I don't think really are at all if you scratch the surface a bit. But really, I don't think things are that different than North America... or maybe that's because I'm married to a French man.

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  13. I spent a night in a French hospital a few years ago (I was chaperoning a field trip, and one of the kids got sick) - we ended up on the Pediatric/Maternity Ward. The birthing rooms in this particular hospital had hot tubs (!!), and the moms were served champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries after the birth of the wee ones. It was so amazing...I NEVER wanted to leave!! No wonder these women are making lots of babies (spending time in the Maternity Ward is like a spa vacation!) and looking chic at the same time. Je suis jalouse!!!