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A Mother's Load

Sharon Lerner
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas

Elisabeth Badinter is picking a fight with her book The Conflict, in which she demonizes pretty much every form of maternal bonding. And I was pleased to see Sarah Blustain give it to her in “Mère Knows Best”, rightly mocking Badinter’s attacks on social science, breast-feeding, and ecology. No writer should get away with defending the cancer-causing chemical BPA in the name of feminism, and Blustain doesn’t let her.

More importantly, Blustain calls out the extreme—and extremely annoying—tenor of the discussion of women’s rights, in which we swing from “Caitlin Flanagan’s prim serve-your-husband claptrap” (a description that made me laugh out loud) to the likes of Badinter, who seems to think that true women’s liberation must involve child neglect. Such Mommy War provocation sells, of course, which is why a breast-feeding three-year-old and his defiant-looking mom recently graced the cover of Time magazine, why consummate go-getter Anne-Marie Slaughter recently announced inThe Atlantic that women can’t have it all, and probably why Badinter writes with what she admits is “a certain lack of subtlety.” People enjoy a smackdown.

The frustration is that as we focus on the mean-spirited fight we lose sight not just of the facts, which Blustain points out, but also of the arena in which the fight takes place, which Blustain overlooks. It is not culture or something else but major policy differences that shape the divergent French and American takes on motherhood. But Blustain only briefly alludes to this structural element, mentioning in her final paragraph “the litany of public policies that could help” with American women’s empowerment, and then dismissing her own point as moot because of the difficult economic times.

Yet public policy is not only not moot, it must be central to any discussion of American women’s empowerment—and certainly to any discussion that involves comparing ourselves with the French. The conversation that’s sprung up around the publication of both Badinter’s book and Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé might be boiled down to a puzzled admiration for the French style of motherhood. How ever do they manage to look so good, eat so well, and steer clear of the morass of maternal anxiety in which so many American mothers get mired?

Somehow, in the wonderment over feeding toddlers foie gras, we’ve missed the obvious role of family policy: If American mothers are more uptight than French mothers, our relative lack of structural supports has everything to do with that difference. I don’t mean the kind of norms that Slaughter in her Atlantic piece recommends that employers voluntarily adopt—things like expecting less face time and recognizing the demands of parenting. I’m talking about bread-and-butter laws that our country still lacks. American policy around child care, paid leave, and flexible work options is so far inferior to the French, the question should not be why our experiences of motherhood are as divergent as they are but rather: How can they have anything in common at all?

Let’s start at the very beginning: birth. Had you just delivered or adopted a baby in France, you would now have 16 weeks off from your job, all paid in full (unless you already have at least two children, in which case you’ll have 26 weeks off, all paid). No worries about how to pay the rent should disturb you as you change tiny diapers and nap while the baby naps. You—along with virtually every other working parent—have income and, when you’re done, a job to return to. Oh, and a government-paid nurse will stop by to check on you and the baby, make sure everyone’s well-rested and healthy, and review your subsidized child care options. Though your husband, or perhaps significant other, is welcome to split the paid time off with you, he’ll also get an additional 11 days paid that only he can take. La vie est belle, non?

If you want more time, you can have it in France. Though you wouldn’t get paid, you could take an additional 296 weeks off to spend with your child and still be able to return to your job when you’re done. That’s about five-and-a-half years of job-protected leave. Yes, you read that right: Together with the paid time off, that amounts to 27 times the amount of job-protected time off Americans get—and that’s only compared to the lucky half who get anything at all.

In the United States, of course, you could—or perhaps did—have no paid leave at all. If you’re fortunate, you might be among the 11 percent of private-sector workers and 17 percent of public-sector workers who get some paid family leave through their employer. But most likely you’d be left to cobble together sick days and vacation to get even a little time with your newborn. You might be covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which grants 12 (unpaid) weeks off after a birth or adoption. But since it contains many exemptions based on things like the number of hours you work and the size of the company that employs you, chances are about 50-50 that you’re excluded. And because it’s unpaid, even if you are technically entitled to the time, you might not be able to afford to forego the pay. So if you’re like most working mothers in this country, you’ll be back at work before 12 weeks are up. (Hopefully, you won’t be among the 10 percent of new mothers who are back at work in four weeks or less.)