Monday, October 23, 2006

On Motherhood, French Style

I found this article via BitchPhD but for some reason I can't link directly to the post on her blog:

When the municipal day-care center ran out of space because of a local baby boom, the town government gave Maylis Staub and her husband $200 a month to defray the cost of a "maternal assistant" to care for their two children.

When Staub delivered twins last December -- her third and fourth children -- the nation not only increased their tax deductions and child allowances, the government-owned French train system offered 40 percent discounts off tickets for the parents and the children until they reach their 18th birthdays.

"The government favors families a lot," said Staub, 35, a project manager for a French cellphone company. "They understand that families are the future. It's great for us."


France heavily subsidizes children and families from pregnancy to young adulthood with liberal maternity leaves and part-time work laws for women. The government also covers some child-care costs of toddlers up to 3 years old and offers free child-care centers from age 3 to kindergarten, in addition to tax breaks and discounts on transportation, cultural events and shopping.

This summer, the government -- concerned that French women still were not producing enough children to guarantee a full replacement generation -- very publicly urged French women to have even more babies. A new law provides greater maternity leave benefits, tax credits and other incentives for families who have a third child. During a year-long leave after the birth of the third child, mothers will receive $960 a month from the government, twice the allowance for the second child.

The French government has been supporting childbearing in similar ways for quite a long time, long enough for the cultural ideas of motherhood to have changed:

"I don't know if the French system encourages women to have more children," said Barbeyrac, whose husband is a documentary filmmaker. "But people don't stop having children because of money concerns."

Maylis Staub agrees. Staub, who is married to a lawyer, returned to work in August. Instead of using the government-supported day-care centers, she hired a nanny -- subsidized by tax breaks on part of the nanny's salary -- to care for her 10-month-old twins, Quitterie and Hermine.

When both women's twins reach 3 years of age, they will qualify for the free government preschool programs that most French children attend until kindergarten.

"The child-care system in France is very well thought out," said Staub, sitting on a sofa on a recent Saturday afternoon with feverish 8-year-old Margaux on one side, fidgety 6-year-old Jules on the other, and one of the twins on her lap. "Everything is organized to make mothers' lives easier."

The French system also fosters different attitudes about working mothers. French working moms say they feel far less guilt than friends in the United States or Europe because French society recognizes children are well cared-for while mothers are at work.

I would add that the lower levels of maternal guilt apply to some other European countries, too, though not to Britain, and the rationale is very similar. Though I'm not sure if other countries could state that "everything is organized to make mothers' lives easier."

That certainly is not a priority in the United States.