The Biggest Difference Between French and American ParentsSarah Stankorb
Apparently, American women want to be French now. French model tiger-mother equivalents are better disciplinarians, calmer and represent a repositioning of what has become the American natural order (kids first, you, haggard lady with that burp rag on your shoulder, way down the list). Who wouldn’t want to be lithe, in control and rear little French dollops of polite reserve?
This might be a new feeling for some women – for me it has been a battle I’ve been waging for years. The truest manifestation of the so-called Mommy Wars that I’ve experienced is my own internal battle. Within me, the French life (or my best approximation) battles against the practical demands of needing funds for rent and food.
My first lesson in American capitalism came via the middle school lunch line. Each day, I’d eye my classmates’ scrunched dollars and linty nickels jealously as I did everything within my power to hide my own green, laminated Free Lunch card. Their money meant they could pay for what they wanted, even extras from the Ý la carte menu. As they giggled raucously over snack cakes and white cheddar popcorn, I knew belonging would mean having what they had.
So regardless of the fact that we had so little, I’d plead with my mother nightly to empty the dimes from the bottom of her purse. Sadly, I’m realizing, my tastes have not evolved much since childhood, but merely developed a higher price point.
Now, my desire for having what other people have could result in financial ruin for our family. You see, I’m pregnant. We have one son already, a toddler (who already possesses an insatiable appetite for that same popcorn I keep stocked in the house, some twenty years later). I have spent the past two years as a typical young, working mother: schlepping a breast pump back and forth on the train for the first year, making the sweaty daycare hustle to arrive before close, praying that our son doesn’t remember I wasn’t the one to rock him to sleep through much of his babyhood. Like many of my friends, I’ve ticked through jobs, scouring for a boss who will understand that when the baby has a fever and explosive diarrhea – and when a report is due in three days – the report will still get done, but today, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go” means just that.
And throughout all of this, I keep remembering a scene from Michael Moore’s Sicko in which a new French mother is visited by her government-assigned helper. The helper gives the mother – who is eligible for a 16-week, paid maternity leave, with up to 104 weeks unpaid leave – assistance around the house. The helper tidies and does the laundry, giving the mother time to be with her baby. As if that isn’t enough, I’ve heard tell of French mothers getting government-subsidized post-birth perineal therapy. Apparently, even their nethers are happier.
Now given, France has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world, but that thought is inconsequential in my fantasy of how I would live given the same choices. In my fantasy – as I do in real life – I would use that extra time to breastfeed, and I would have the support I needed to do it. Like a middle schooler muttering the words Ý la carte to herself over lunch hour, I covet the French woman’s life.
I want the freedom of the French. I want the benefits. I want not only to be able to call people “bourgeoisie pigs” in a glorious French accent (because that’s what makes it so funny), but to be bourgeoisie myself. Because, honestly, that is the only way I will be able to pull off my dream of long-term, tranquil, home nursing parenting Ý la Mothering Magazine.
Even though I’m not French, in this country, I’m one of the lucky ones. At my current job, I have at my disposal 16 weeks of maternity leave, six paid. Meanwhile, most American women can’t take the full 12 weeks of unpaid leave guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act, because financial pressures send them back to work sooner.
But here is what my lucky life looks like: Most years, I make more money than my husband. Together, we owe enough in student loans that we could have instead bought a house, a nice one. We pay rent that I’m certain we could not afford if I didn’t work. The dimes and dollars scraped together from the bottom of my own purse now fund someone else’s popcorn and Thomas the Train Engine habit. Daycare for two children will end up costing two-thirds of my take-home pay.
On the last go-around, with child number one, I was home 10 weeks and sobbed on the way to the office for weeks. For all my talk of teaching my son feminism by example, a native cry within me screamed that I’d rather be home, with him. These days, I find myself occasionally clicking on “work from home” internet ads, with images of cheerful, smiling women telecommuting while their babies crawl in tidy circles at their feet.
Although I love my job, and find it stimulating and rewarding, and in moments of honesty know I’d lose my head if I were trapped in a house with an infant and toddler all day, I want what those parents with jogging strollers and part-time nannies have. Time.
For all the marketing that is now directed toward me – Buy these organic, gluten-free chickpea crackers, and be a good Chinese/French/Non-American mother – time is the only consumable good that interests me. If I could save the money left over from Pull-Ups and Oshkosh to purchase minutes to tack onto my day, I would. I’d spend those minutes on my son, often the first dropped off at daycare and one of the last to be picked up.
I tried once to make the argument with a childless friend that the decision to become a stay-at-home parent is a form of radicalism. It eschews the drive to work, work, work for stuff, stuff, stuff. It prioritizes basic instincts to rear and raise children over an ingrained sense of measuring up to some false yard stick of accomplishment.
“Yeah. Try being radical like that without the support of someone else’s paycheck.” Ouch.
The reality is, there is no French helper elf assigned to me by the government. Now that I am in the middle class, I see there is no safety net for families like mine, and moreover, talking about the financial hardships of raising kids these days is often greeted with ill-concealed disdain from onlookers. “You brought this on yourself,” they seem to say, as though having children was a luxury I decided to afford myself instead of the natural continuation of the species.
And yet here is the French woman of Moore’s movies, showing me that there is another way. Her appeal is that she is relaxed – though not her breasts (for they are French, perky and likely too busy nude modeling for lactation). No, she is relaxed in a profound way, a way that is literally foreign to me. She has a job waiting for her once her body heals and her kid is crawling. She isn’t given an either/or option. It’s, I’ll do this now, and that later: would you like a croissant? My helper can fetch one.
Like a kid on the Free Lunch plan begging to spend nearly a meal ticket’s worth of cash on bagged popcorn, I not only want what I cannot have, I want what is, given our circumstances, ridiculous to yearn for.
Alas, I, and my breasts, made in America, will be going back to work, at a time when, frankly, I’m among the lucky to have the choice to work at all. I’ll tuck a photo of my baby into my breast pump’s black messenger bag to help me stimulate my milk, and between meetings and writing, when I look at that image, I’ll know that one day, when he or she asks for tiny Nikes or Juicy sweatpants or a jetpack, I’ll buy whatever I can with the loose change at the bottom of my purse, and that will have to be enough.