Beyond Bébé, Going Back to Work

In our previous Beyond Bébé post, the French mamans taught us not to lose ourselves behind all those diapers and PTA meetings. The American moms encouraged us to let a few things go for the sake of sanity.

It’s important for moms everywhere to let go of the idea of perfection. After all, there’s a much more important decision–one that requires a few good nights’ sleep–looming on the horizon:  to go back to work… or not?

According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2014, just over 70% of American mothers work outside the home. In France, the equivalent statistic was 78% in 2010. Pretty equal, right?


From a personal, societal, and political point of view, the realities of balancing a career and motherhood in France and the US look very different.

#1: First off, did you even get paid maternity leave?

If you live in the US and received paid maternity leave, you are lucky, and probably feel grateful to your employer. We’ve all witnessed the horror stories first hand of friends taking an unpaid two months off, or putting all their vacation days into something that is no picnic at the beach.

To American mothers, the French system is a luxurious dream–even though it’s paid for by taxes. French mothers-to-be get 16 weeks of paid maternity leave. That’s the law, not a company “putting its employees first.” In theory, six of those weeks are taken before the due date and 10 afterwards. Many mothers add on vacation days if they can or want to, extending their leave as necessary. This goes for first children: for a third child, leave is bumped up to 26 weeks, 34 weeks for twins and–wait for it–a whopping 46 weeks for triplets. Not sure anyone wanted triplets before reading this, but I see quite a show of hands now.

For women with pregnancy-related health risks, doctors can demand an extra two weeks of pathological leave before the due date. Some doctors have been known to prescribe an extra two weeks for the “health risk” of a stressful work commute…but that’s another issue.

With subsidized maternity leave comes what the French call a non-dit, meaning something implied: companies understand it is their duty to make things work while you’re away raising new French citizens. In the US, however, many women are uncomfortable with a very different unspoken implication. It is not the employer’s duty to new mothers that counts, but their duty towards their employer to return to work ASAP…or else.

#2: In that case, what are your childcare options?

The struggle to find perfect childcare is international. Would you rather your child have a nanny or attend daycare? Financials often dictate the decision, as does gut intuition. Pamela Druckerman, best-selling author of Bringing Up Bébé, observes that nannies are more popular in the US, whereas in France, collective childcare is the preferred option. Perhaps this is a reflection of French vs. American relationship towards government?

In France, daycares are state-subsidized (again?!), making it a vastly cheaper option compared with hiring a private nanny. But here’s where it gets tricky: in France, the words “state-subsidized” are often followed by the word “bureaucracy.” In France’s larger cities, parents must sign up at City Hall for a preliminary meeting with the person in charge of assigning spots in daycare. You petition to meet with the mayor (or someone else, who might as well be the mayor), plead your case again, hold your breath until the committee meets, and pray for a spot. If you don’t get a spot, the circus start all over again in six months. It is a fact that parents frequently cry at these meetings. They come bearing gifts, or offer sad tales of their children suffering in apartments without enough natural light! In some neighborhoods in France, winning a spot at an assigned crèche is like winning an Olympic gold medal.

In the United States, many mothers choose to stay at home because it’s that much cheaper to live on a single income than to pay for childcare. Going back to work just isn’t worth it. And, of course, other mothers simply want to spend more time with their children. Who’s to judge? Well, now you ask…

#3 What are the people around you saying you should do?

In France, subsidized childcare means that most mothers see no reason to give up their careers. The system makes it comfortable for mothers to return to work. Consequently, however, the French often don’t understand when women choose to give up their careers, or to work from home to spend more time with their children. According to Druckerman, the French believe that balance is key, and they don’t let parenting overwhelm other aspects of adult life. A successful career is a key component for the French in maintaining that delicate balance.

Druckerman illustrates this idea with the following scenario: Picture yourself at a party, meeting someone new. In the US, small talk amongst mothers might start with “Are you working?”. In France, the conversation is more likely to begin with the question: “what do you do?” which sheds negative light on a mother who is out of the workforce. It’s subtle, and it’s non-dit, but staying at home is viewed, by many French women, as a step back for all women.

Going back to work is a way of reclaiming the social status one may have put aside when a new baby was born. How do you manage, then, when you know that most office jobs in Paris require employees to stick around until 7:00pm? The result, for many moms, is a lot of stress and less time with their children than they’d like. L’équilibre is a hard thing to come by.

Stateside, we asked our “mom correspondent” Sandy–a Frenchwoman living in Los Angeles–how she dealt with the situation. Sandy decided to work from home after her daughter was born and take care of her full time. She was relieved that those around her fully supported her choice:

“From the American point of view, everyone completely understands and respects my decision to stay home with my baby and work from home. Most congratulate me for working from home while taking care of my child full time without any help!”

She’s not alone: according to the 2014 Pew Research Center, 60% of Americans say children are better off when a parent stays home to focus on the family.

But Sandy’s French network didn’t see it in quite the same light. To them it was an easy way out, a privilege of sorts. Working from home on a daily schedule that diverges from 9-5 is still a faraway Instagram dream. (Mathilde Lacombe, founder of the French version of Birchbox, is a prime example.) It carries the stigma of not being considered a real job (which is absurd when considering the viable, lucrative profession of childcare). Having kids is stressful, and adding societal pressure clearly doesn’t help.

#4: Well, what about you? What do you want to do?

Admittedly, French mothers have more support and peace of mind, thanks to France’s paid maternity leave and childcare. But judgement prevails. I quit my job after having a baby to go back to school and work from home, and was faced with surprisingly strong-minded judgement from employers. That would never be the case in the US.

It all comes down to doing what works best for your family, and for you. If that means going the French way of going back to work and getting a nanny, great. If you’re happy to wear that dirty sweatshirt and balance a laptop on your left knee and a baby on your right, that’s just fine too. Chacun son truc, n’est pas?

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