I’m pleased to announce Working Moms Break has its first foreign correspondent! Also known as my friend, former coworker, and fellow working mom, Lucie Moses.
Years ago, while I was quietly descending into full-time job madness, Lucie seemed to have arranged the perfect life as a part-time freelance designer. Now I have that part-time freelance life, she’s one-upped me by moving to FRANCE.
I was thrilled when she offered to write about what it’s like being a working mom in France. Some of her descriptions were surprising, (What’s up with the French and breastfeeding?). As you’ll see, even Lucie has mixed feelings about some of the “benefits” of being a mom in France. But most of it had me drooling with envy.
Guest post by Lucie Moses
Here is me in a nutshell: I was born and raised in France. I moved to America when I was 21 years old. I’m a freelance web designer. After 16 years living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m spending a year in Paris with my American husband and our two children, age 9 and 6. Below are some of my observations about the differences between being a working mother in France versus in California.
Warning: I have only been here a few months and my experiences are mostly anecdotal. Still, I hope you will find it interesting.
1. The 35-hour work week + 5 weeks of vacation
The French work fewer hours than Americans. The official work week in France is 35 hours. In practice, a lot of companies have stayed on a 39 hours/week schedule. Instead, the 4 hours/week that they owe you are bundled into extra days off that you can take whenever, or a Friday off every other week.
The French also work fewer days. Workers get 5 weeks of paid vacation. Plus sick days, which are not counted as vacation days. Bonus: France is a Catholic country, so that means holidays every time Jesus goes up, down or sideways.
Almost all French people take several weeks off in the summer. A working mother’s dream!
2. Motherhood-friendly labor laws
Women get paid maternity leave during the last month of pregnancy + the first two months of motherhood. You get an extra month off if you breastfeed. By paid leave, I mean 100% of your salary. Working until you due date is simply not done in France.
A friend of mine is a teacher in Paris. She has young children and works part time. Her school is required by law to allow her to work part time until her youngest child is 3 years old. After that, she gets her old full-time job back. I believe all government employees can choose this path.
3. Work-friendly kid schedule
When I called the dentist to schedule visits for my sons, I was surprised that the time slot the receptionist suggested was 6:00 pm. I’m used to skipping work to take my kids to the doctor or the dentist. I consider myself lucky if I can get an appointment outside of school hours.
Same thing at school: The bi-yearly parent-teacher conferences happen in the evening, between 6:30 and 8:30 pm.
My kids’ karate class? From 6:30 to 7:30 pm on Wednesdays; all the other classes were just as late.
To tell the truth, I find the karate class to be too late for my kids. They should be home eating dinner at that time, not practicing kicks. I guess I’m holding on to the American early supper. Still, I appreciate the effort to make such activities compatible with being a working parent.
4. Good health coverage
Remember that visit to the dentist I just mentioned? Free, as part of a program that provides a free dental care to all children, once every three years. I’m not sure how much a dental visit usually costs, but I bet it’s a fraction of what we would pay in the U.S.
My youngest son broke his arm soon after we moved to France. All in all, the visit to the ER and the follow up visits and X-rays set us back about $200. That’s without insurance.
The previous year, our oldest son broke his arm while we lived in America. All in all, the visit to the ER and the follow up visits and X-rays set us back about $2,000. That’s with insurance. We had a supposedly high-end PPO, but there were all sort of co-pays and deductibles. Being a parent in America is a pricey endeavor.
5. Free school from age 3, cheap before that
In France, free public school starts at age 3 (or 2.9 if you have a January baby). Childcare for younger children is also heavily subsidized. If you don’t make a lot of money, it’s very cheap.
When my niece was a baby, my sister was between jobs. Part of her unemployment benefit was nearly-free childcare three mornings a week to allow her the time and energy to find a new job.
6. School within a few blocks from your house
I don’t know about you, but picking a preschool for my kid in the U.S. was an agonizing process. I researched, I visited, I weighted the pros and cons. Three years later, I went through it all over again to pick an elementary school. When I got to France, there was no choice to be made. I got assigned a school. End of story.
As far as I can tell, the vast majority of French kids simply go to the school closest to them. That’s where you get assigned. It’s very hard to get a transfer to another school so most parents don’t even consider the other schools. What you lose in choice, you gain in reduced stress and improved daily commute. The vast majority of kids go to a school within walking distance of their house. Our school is three blocks away.
Bonus: all my kids’ friends live within a 8 block radius of our house. I certainly don’t miss driving them to playdates.
7. No lunchbox to pack
I am still giddy every morning: no lunchboxes to pack! Oh, how I used to hate making lunches every morning for my picky eaters. Will they eat it? Is it nutritious? Why did I forget to buy grapes again? This used to be a major stress in my mornings.
In their French public school, my kids get hot sit-down nutritious meals. Eating well is a big deal in France. School cafeterias reflect that; the menus are varied and appetizing. My oldest son has become more adventurous with food. He eats all sort of new things at school, including rabbit meat.
My little one is still as much of a picky eater as he ever was but I don’t worry about it because there is nothing I can do about it. He doesn’t nag me about me getting a packed lunch instead because packed lunch simply aren’t allowed (except for kids with severe food allergies). He always eats at least a piece of a fruit, a yogurt and some bread. The bread is hand-delivered every morning from a real bakery. Good stuff.
8. No volunteering at school
Perhaps the biggest culture shock for me this year is my relationship with my kids’ school. I am used to spending a lot of my time volunteering in the classroom, chaperoning field trips, attending school plays, taking photos for the yearbook, socializing with other parents during pick-up and drop-off, discussing my children’s progress with the teachers, baking cookies for birthdays and generally being involved in myriad little ways.
This year, none of that is happening. I’m not allowed on school grounds. I don’t know the names or faces of my children’s classmates. I have barely met the teachers. There was no school show during the holidays.
Honestly, I miss volunteering in the schools terribly and so do my kids. My children’s school life used to be a big part of my social life. But in other ways, it’s liberating. I never have to juggle rescheduling a work meeting to attend my son’s recital for the simple reason that there is no recital to attend. I didn’t feel any pressure to bring a cake to school for his birthday. No other mom does it. Working parents in France don’t have to think too much about school. Less is expected of them.
9. Le Breast is not Le Best
Yes, breast milk is best for baby and it’s a wonderful bonding experience for mother and child. Still, you’ve got to admit it can be very demanding, especially when the mother is working.
French women have the worst breastfeeding record of any civilized country. The majority of French babies are weaned by 3 months of age. Pumping milk while at work? Unheard of. Breastfeeding past the infant months is considered almost selfish because it prevents other members (dad, siblings, grandparents, nannies) from taking a full role.
I have mixed feeling about this one. I am definitely pro-breastfeeding. When my son was a baby, I felt self-conscious breastfeeding in France. Family and friends were incredulous.
“Is he really still nursing, at this age?” they would ask. “Is it even possible to have milk a year after birth?”
But at the same time, breastfeeding is often a source of stress for American mothers. There is a huge social pressure to nurse at all costs and for as long as possible. Perhaps there is a happy middle between those two?
10. Distance between kids and parents is considered healthy
When my oldest son was born, attachment parenting was all the rage in San Francisco. Following the advices of Dr Sears, we gave an earnest try to the family bed (didn’t work out for us), I “wore” my baby often (we liked that), and we acted as human pacifiers to put him to sleep.
My sister eyed me with suspicion, like I’d been brainwashed by a cult. Her baby was bottle-fed, pushed around in a stroller and relied on a stuffed rabbit and her thumb to soothe herself to sleep. During a vacation in France, my mom handed me an article about how allowing your children into your bed would scar them later in life (something about mixed messages confusing their sexuality).
Beyond the baby years, I get the message that it’s considered bad for parents to interfere too much in their childrens’ lives. On French school yards, kids handle their own conflicts. My soft-skinned California kids are still adjusting. When I’m with French parents, I don’t feel the need to constantly interact with their children. In fact, that’s considered counter-productive. Sure, you are here to provide some structure (and good nutrition!) but the rest unfolds by itself. The French are careful not to smother their children and not to let their children take over their lives.