mom kissing baby

Credit: Karim Rezk on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)– French mothers have a bad reputation, which they owe to an old practice that is considered contrary to nature and morality: removing the baby from the mother unusually early.

In the 1700s they entrusted their newborns to wet nurses; today they hand them over to child-care facilities or nannies. Judging from statistics, it is clear that French mothers are not all that keen on staying at home or breastfeeding. This attitude, so unlike that of most of their contemporaries, has elicited a good deal of disapproval from psychologists and anthropologists. As early as the 1920s, renowned anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski referred to French women as “notable aberrations.”

At the moment of birth, the mother’s instinctive impulses are approved and reinforced by society which, through various customs, moral rules and ideals, sees the mother as the child’s wet nurse and nanny. This is the case in both the upper and lower classes in almost all European nations. And yet, even with such a fundamental, biologically endorsed relationship, there are societies in which certain customs, as well as a weakening of instinctive impulses, give rise to notable aberrations.

A case in point is the system whereby a child is removed from the mother for the first year of his or her life and given to paid nannies. At one point, this custom was very widespread among the French middle class; as was the almost equally regrettable custom of protecting the mother’s breasts by hiring a wet nurse or feeding the child with artificial milk.

According to Pascale Pontoreau, the “concept of a good mother did not exist” in France traditionally. It seems it still does not exist in France. Most mothers balk at the idea of giving up work, even in the first year of their child’s life, and most of them bottle feed. Public events like La Leche League‘s “Big Nurse-Ins,” held in big cities to encourage breastfeeding, mostly draw smiles, shrugs and sarcasm.

Surprising High Birthrate

There is a fairly direct line of descent from the unworthy mother of the 18th century to the mediocre mother of today, which is full of implication for the historic social status of French women. That social status, along with a nonchalant approach to motherhood, might perhaps explain the country’s high birthrate, a phenomenon that all demographers find surprising. Although French women are also drawn to childlessness, they have the most children. The key to this apparent paradox lies in the past.

As we have seen, Scandinavian women are Europe’s champions of breastfeeding while the French are at the bottom of the league. The two nationalities share the highest rate of professional activity in Europe, although French mothers continue to work full time, particularly after the birth of their first child. With the second and, more noticeably, the third child, the numbers of working mothers decline: nearly 50 percent with one child work full time compared to 25 percent with three or more children.

While the Scandinavians and Dutch opt to work part time, most French mothers see that as more of an imposed constraint than an advantage. Only 22 percent of French women aged 20 to 49 work part time: 21 percent of working mothers with one child, 32 percent with two and 45 percent with three. Overall, few women want to work less: only 9 percent of 20- to 49-year-olds who don’t have access to part-time work wish that they did. Part-time work is often a sign of weak job security and is used by companies more as a means of adjusting the payroll than as relief for busy mothers.

Given the high numbers of working mothers, the French birthrate poses a conundrum. Most recently estimated by the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies at 2 children per woman, it was the highest in all 27 European countries for 2008.

The French Exception

Francois Heran, director of the National Institute for Demographic Studies, suggests three explanatory factors for this “French exception.” First, free nursery schools that take children at three years old (and sometimes younger–a French invention); second, broad, flexible arrangements for couples (most children are now acceptably born out of marriage); and last, many women who plan pregnancies after the age of 40.

These factors go hand in hand with another notable feature: France is world champion when it comes to contraception. In 1997, out of 100 women between the ages of 15 and 49 who had partners and claimed they did not want to become pregnant, 80 said they were using a method of contraception. This figure is much higher than the global average (58 percent) and slightly above the average for Europe and North America (72 percent). However, this does not stop French women, unlike their Irish Catholic counterparts, for example, from maintaining a high abortion rate: more than 210,000 a year.

One frequent assumption is that France’s high birthrate is due to the country’s immigrant population. But according to demographer Laurent Toulemon and others, this supposition “is not valid: The overall level of childbirth in the 1990s would be a mere 0.07 child per woman less if it were based only on women born in France. Furthermore, immigrants’ daughters born in France have exactly the same total fertility as women born to mothers themselves born in France.”

As a last resort, demographers explain this French phenomenon by pointing to the country’s family policies, which are fairly unusual and, according to some, even unclassifiable. They are certainly generous, given that family spending has risen to 3.8 percent of GDP (including tax benefits), and puts France in third position among the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, where the average is 2.4 percent, yet they are not as far-reaching as those in Denmark and Iceland.

From the book “The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women” by Elisabeth Badinter. Copyright by Elisabeth Badinter. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, and imprint of the Henry Holt and Company LLC.

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