Pregnant in Paris: Maternity Leave, Pre-Baby

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French Morning English Edition has an announcement: we’re pregnant in Paris! Well, this writer is, anyway. Month by month, you can follow my trek through the quirks, surprises, and reliefs of having a baby in the land of all things unpasteurized. This month, I discover how some names just don’t work in French, and more. Chime in with stories of your own!

Trente-cinq semaines – Maternity leave, pre-baby

You’ve heard the stories: your neighbor, whose water broke when she was in the middle of a meeting. Your sister-in-law, who went into early labor while she was giving a speech at a conference. Your best friend, who worked from home for the last two weeks of her pregnancy because of complications.

What do all of these tales have in common? Work, work, pregnancy, work. In the United States, your baby basically has to be showing its head to justify a day off work. Of course, there are those situations when going to work poses a medical risk. Then, staying home is tolerated. Otherwise, everyone assumes that you’re feeling fine despite your swollen ankles, acid reflux, and sleepless nights. (“That’s Mother Nature, getting you ready for the baby!”. Ha.) Running a ten-miler at thirty weeks? Piece of cake. Prenatal yoga every morning at five? You got it. #pregnancyglow, #neverbeenbetter.

All right. Enough of this half glass full, seize the day nonsense. Cross over to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, where being pregnant is a decidedly more dramatic affair. Every morning, when I walked through the sliding glass doors of the office, our receptionist showered me with compliments about my quick stride: “You walk like you’re not even pregnant!” Note to self: if in need of compassion, walk with your hand behind your back, back arched, in stereotypical ‘achy pregnant woman’ pose.

At the water cooler, as the weeks went by, my colleagues would ask questions about my general state of tiredness more frequently. “You holding up OK there?” they would say. “Not too tired?” I would shake it off, ever the tough cookie, as my father used to call me. That was mistake number two. In France, a country where complaining is an art form, always find a way to complain eloquently. Don’t say that yes, you are indeed tired: explain just how much you will absolutely relish being on maternity leave to enjoy afternoon naps.

Ah, the magic words: maternity leave. Stateside, many women will never get to experience it, or they will at the expense of their salary, or even worse, their job. For those women who are entitled to maternity leave, it starts at the very moment that small thing called a child pops out of their body. In France, they understand the myriad of things you need to get done before having said baby. Nesting, for one (see our previous installment of Pregnant in Paris for more on that). Beyond that, there is something to be said for sitting on the couch and eating cookies between a schedule of naps and leisurely walks. Clocking in at a full sixteen weeks, six weeks before the official due date and ten weeks following it, the French maternity leave gives women the opportunity to get ready for the baby’s arrival.
There’s a good side to it when it comes to your job, too. My HR department sent me the official dates for my leave early on in my pregnancy, meaning that everyone – and especially my boss – knew when I was set to leave. This gives employers time to find a temporary replacement or any other solution, and allows employees to prepare their leave and tie up any loose ends. I’ll admit it: I checked my work e-mails a couple times here and there at the beginning of my leave, but cookies, soap operas, and daytime shopping ended up making it a little complicated. Something had to go, and it wasn’t going to be my snacks.

donut woman

Let’s recap: six whole weeks before my due date, and here I am, free as a bird. Let’s be honest: if your pregnancy is going well, chances are you feel pretty great six weeks before D Day. Here in France, though, you end up feeling like you have to say something negative. Come on, you’ve got to be feeling a little tired, right? I have to find something to justify eating all day long. That’s the other thing: Paris, plus ample free time and a big appetite means trouble. Before going on leave, I had a plan: one different patisserie every day. Yes, you read correctly: every single day. I decided to throw caution and the French obsession with staying thin during pregnancy to the wind and live it up. Flan, lemon tart, chocolate cake, you name it, I’m eating it. They say what you eat during pregnancy pre-determines what types of food your child will enjoy. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s born clutching a macaron in her tiny hand.

I did forget one major activity here in France that can take up a lot of time during the pre-baby part of your maternity leave: massages. Not the pricey prenatal massages you get at the Plaza Athénée, although if I could I would definitely have one every day – I’m talking physical therapy. If your doctor is quick to whip out his or her prescription pad, you might walk out of their office with a free pass for some prenatal therapy. Back aches, foot aches, leg aches, you name it: everyone I know has taken advantage of it during pregnancy. That is, everyone except me: blame it on a midwife who knows not to deepen the health care system’s deficit. I tried mentioning that yes, maybe, I have somewhat of a back ache. Her answer? Yoga.

“I’ll try to squeeze a session or two in between my pastry marathon,” I replied. I don’t know why, but she asked me to step onto the scale right after that. A little harsh, if you ask me.

So, here I am, decorating the baby’s room, one hand trying to place her future stuffed animals just so on the window ledge, the other holding an éclair. But you know, I’m really tired. I can’t sleep, I have acid reflux, my right thumb hurts a little too: I think I need a nap. Sure, the French system has its faults, but when I think of all my fellow future mothers in the United States, I know they too would enjoy an afternoon of slumber in front of reality TV. For now, there’s not much I can do besides dedicating this next episode of the Bachelor to them, and having another slice of cake on their behalf.

Next time: the big day is finally here!


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