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Do French women drink wine and eat runny cheese while pregnant?

As an American mother of two, living in France, (thanks to a semester abroad which has ended up lasting fifteen years), I’m a source of great envy for my friends back in the U.S. They’ve bought into the notion that France is the perfect place to raise children, because they believe the following: You can drink wine when you’re pregnant. Childcare is free. Kids are fully integrated into adults’ social lives.

In other words, you can still do everything you used to do before kids, and you can spend balmy summer evenings at the local fete, financially unburdened, while you listen to the sound of children dancing in the village squares.

If everything they thought about France were true, parenting guidebooks would be one sentence long: “Marry the first Frenchman you meet.” Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated. Here’s the truth behind those three big legends:

1. Wine and Cheese While Pregnant

For understandable reasons, one of the most popular myths about France is that French women eat runny cheese and drink wine during pregnancy. The truth is not all that far off. There are government campaigns here to get pregnant women to stop drinking alcohol and smoking, but they seem to be about as successful as the campaign to get Parisians to curb their dogs.

For plenty of French women, the notion of going without wine, cheese, cigarettes or caffeine for nine months is as crazy as saying a French man must go through forty years of marriage without taking a mistress.

One hot summer day when I was about eight months pregnant, I was having lunch with a friend in a cafe and dying for an ice cold Coke. But I saw another pregnant woman at a nearby table and worried that she might judge me for drinking caffeine. So I resisted – and she promptly pushed away her plate and lit up a cigarette.

During both of my pregnancies here, I was cautious but not fanatical about what I ate and drank. With my doctor’s approval, I had the odd glass of wine and an occasional espresso, and sometimes the cheese course was just too enticing to pass up. I, like most French mothers I know, adopted a philosophy of moderation, seeing it as key for both mother’s and baby’s health and sanity.

In France, there isn’t the same puritanical disapproval that sometimes exists in the States, where over-zealous do-gooders cast disparaging glances and shout abuse at any pregnant mother they believe is acting in an un-motherly way. You might hear the odd tut now and then, but for the most part, pregnant women in France aren’t shrouded with a fear/shame/guilt complex.

2. Free Daycare

This myth sounds great, but isn’t exactly true. Government-subsidized childcare and healthcare is available for all, yes, but it’s not completely free. I always laugh when I hear new arrivals to the area talk about “interviewing” nurseries. Last year I paid around 80 Euros (approx $130) a month for my youngest to go to nursery school one full day and two afternoons a week. I know from talking to friends back home that this is considerably less than they pay. But there’s a downside: In my rural part of the country, day cares are few and far between. I always laugh when I hear new arrivals to the area talk about “interviewing” nurseries. In reality, you put your name down on the only waiting list and hope like hell your number gets called.

If you don’t have grandparents handy, the other childcare option is to employ a government-subsidized nanny. I struggled to find a nanny who found it financially attractive enough to take my girls part-time, but those that might have been interested had been booked long before I contacted them. I’ve now learned the secret. Most French mothers, just after their post-coital cigarette, sign their newly conceived offspring up for a place in the nearest nursery. Not because it’s a nursery of any particular renown, but because it’s the only nursery in a 50 km radius.

Of course, you don’t need day care for long in France, because children start school at the age of two and a half or three. They then stay in this pre-school until they start the obligatory school system at the age of five and a half or six. Both are, indeed, free.

This enables mothers to go back to work when their child is three without the continued worry of finding and paying for day care. When I told friends back home that my three-year-old had just started school, I was met with protestations that it was much too early. “How can they go to school in diapers?” my friend asked. Another difference: in France children are usually potty trained by two and a half.

3. Child-friendliness

I’m often struck when going back to the States how different the atmosphere feels at restaurants and weddings, where it seems an adult-only rule has been set and the presence of children discouraged. Child are omnipresent here, whether it’s in posh restaurants or dancing until the wee hours at parties. In France, it just isn’t a party unless there’s a gaggle of little ones running around, entertaining the adults and being over-fed and over-pinched by the elders.

Children are omnipresent here, whether it’s in posh restaurants or dancing until the wee hours at parties. Several times my husband and I have been scolded for getting a babysitter. “You must bring the kids!” is often included in an invitation, whether it’s for a house party, a meeting in a bar, or dinner out with friends. Children are included from the earliest ages in all parts of their family’s life, so they adapt quickly to social situations and know how they are expected to behave.

The French have a way of worshipping their children while maintaining a high level of discipline at the same time. I’m still working on this one; like mastering the innate French skill of looking chic in jeans and sneakers, I, too, hope to one day master the skill of indulging and scolding my children with equal elegance.

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