A new study has found that the French are having more babies than any other European country. If you are, like me, an American mother who has felt at once both obsessed with, and inferior to, French parents for years now, this probably isn’t a huge surprise. French people are the best at everything, according to all the literature.
Sometime around the fourth or fifth month of my pregnancy, I discovered Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé, a book about raising kids in Paris, France, where children are well-behaved and calm, where they sleep through the night and eat what they are provided. I tore through it. American parents, Druckerman found, were doing things pretty much all wrong: too many toys and gifts, too much allowing children to eat only bread and pasta, too many roving bedtimes. In short, she found that American tendencies resulted in children who were less happy and less fun to be around than the French parents she encountered. Thus, the book.
I loved the book, and hoped to apply as many of its techniques as possible when my daughter, Zelda, came along. By then, I’d added some other books to my arsenal of French parenting. I read French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon, and French pediatrician Michel Cohen’s The New Basics. I was armed and ready to bring my baby up in a distinctly un-American way, right there in Brooklyn, New York.
The idea that French parents, and in particular French mothers, are superior to American parents — which is really almost gospel in some circles — is a complicated puzzle when you really start to think about it, because it’s part of a larger narrative that American women have bought into about French women. They are superior in almost every way, goes the story, and effortlessly so. They are slimmer without working out (remember, French Women Don’t Get Fat!), they have better complexions with less makeup, their hair is never fussy or over-the-top and yet they often claim they don’t wash it very often. And in parenting, it’s much the same: Bringing Up Bebe is littered with tidbits about how French mothers insist their babies start sleeping through the night all on their own, when sleeping is one of the most tragic and pressing concerns of new American parents.
Still, even if the myth of French perfection is too much to be believed, there’s no doubt that something is off. American parents are the least happy in the Western world. We are overweight and our children are, too: Obesity in childhood has more than doubled in the last 30 years, according to the CDC. So yeah, maybe, I thought, I should seek counsel in the French way of living. Maybe they have something figured out that we do not.
I agreed with everything I read. It seemed sensible, more laid-back and yet more structured about things like eating and sleeping that particularly seem to drag my American parent friends apart. But the new study — the one about how the French are the best baby makers in Europe — adds a whole new wrinkle. Why do French women, who work at about the same rates as American mothers, report being much happier than we do? And why are they having more babies than every other country in Europe?
Well, it gets back to the tips in Bringing Up Bébé. Because Druckerman was living in France, she had access to the French government’s incredible services for families. In France, mothers get 16 full weeks of paid leave (26 for your third child), and the government pays an allowance to parents for each child.
There is a national child-care system, which, though it has a notoriously long wait list, is staffed with trained child-care workers who are paid better than their American counterparts. It provides full meals for children (most American day cares do not, adding to the time burden at home), and it’s funded at a rate of about 80 percent by the state. Some parents pay nothing. Nothing at all.
Nannies are licensed by the state. Health care in France is incredibly affordable (and nearly free for some). The French get five weeks off per year: 25 paid days per year. Druckerman notes all of this, adding that in America, where these things don’t exist, parenting the French way can be a lonely road. But that didn’t stop us from becoming raging addicts for all things French in parenting.
The point here isn’t “France is awesome and we suck.” The point is that it’s not a huge fucking surprise that French parents are happier than American ones. Of course they have time to present a vegetable to a child ten or 20 times before giving up and cracking out the Goldfish crackers. Of course they are better rested and less fat. Their government supports them. They live in a country that has accepted the reality that most people eventually have children, and then continue to work outside the home.
It’s not simply that work and family aren’t ideal or workable: It’s that they’re not workable here, in the United States, where our government isn’t interested in providing us with much more than lip service when it comes to equal pay and paid leave and child-care workers who are well-trained and well-paid in child-care centers and schools that are safe and affordable.
It helps that French people seem to have more communal agreement on what constitutes the “correct” way to parent. In America, we can’t even muster agreement on the basics, and often view ourselves as embattled not just by our government but by other parents, by schools, and by nonparents alike. We feel judged. We’re overworked and tired, undervalued, and overwhelmed. And the disparity between people with the money to afford better services for their children vs. those without is only increasing.
So, yeah, I want to parent my kid the French way. I want her to feel loved and valued by a society whose common goal is teaching her to have better manners, to be patient and polite, and to be able to sit still for 40 seconds while I order dinner in a restaurant. It’s just that having a child for the past few years has clued me into the truth.
It’s not all just on me, and in fact it’s not possible if we’re all on our own. French parents are supported by hundreds of years of social agreement and services. American parents are struggling and isolated, left to feel as if each decision is ours to make anew, in a vacuum.