The world has long been plagued by the myth of French women. We can’t seem to get enough of what makes them so effortlessly beautiful, impossibly fashionable, and perfect in every way.
Reverence for la femme française is on high, now that France has elected a pro-female president who wants to engage the world, not insult it, to tackle climate change, not question its existence, and who sees women for who they are, not what they look like.
Add best baby makers to the list of France’s accolades: French women are the most prolific baby producers in Western Europe, recent data show. While Danes have to try and lure couples to hotels with special deals to spark procreation, French women are producing nearly two kids—1.96 to be exact—per mother, which is just shy of the magical number needed (2.1) to keep its population steady. That compares to 1.35 in Italy and 1.7 in Denmark.
The more children French women have, the better they seem to do. They are sanguine, slim, and well-rested mothers. Their kids eat haute cuisine iPad-free in restaurants, they don’t snack, and they don’t throw temper tantrums.
Explanations for all this typically boil down to cultural differences—which implies that any woman could achieve the same if only she glommed onto France’s elusive cultural codes.
But the reality is, simply revamping our kids’ diets and our sense of joie de vivre wouldn’t make up for all the institutional support French women enjoy. So before latching onto the next do-it-like-the-French checklist, we should acknowledge the following:
- French women get paid to have babies. Unlike in the US, new mothers don’t have to take unpaid disability leave to have their kids. They get 16 full weeks of paid leave for the first and second child, and 26 for the third. They also get a government allowance for having kids based on their income, including supplements if they want to go part-time or hire a nanny.
- French women get affordable and available childcare. Women can take their babies to a crèche, or high-quality day care center, from about six weeks of age (granted, there are often waiting lists), which helps mothers to go back to work. Families pay on a sliding scale based on income and the centers are highly regulated with national standards. And, perhaps most importantly, the staff are well-paid and have very low turnover, unlike in the US, where child care is treated like the wild wild west.
- French women have access to full-time baby chefs. The food in the crèche and school systems is notoriously excellent, which takes the pressure off parents to get it all just right at home. Rather than indulge in rubbery chicken nuggets, kids eat three course meals. They are even introduced to foods in a scientifically proven way to make them less picky. A typical Tuesday? Fresh bread, cucumber salad with cream fraiche, veal sautéed in olives and broccoli, goat cheese, gâteau de semoule fait maison au caramel.
- French women send their kids to school at age 3. When the crèche ends, school begins, and it doesn’t have to end at 3pm! Kids in France can start school by age 3. There are three years of preschool and a year of kindergarten, all of which are free. When kids start real school, they can go early to a garderie and stay late, from 4:30pm usually until 6:30pm, according to Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing Up Bebe. (At one school in Normandy, the cost for that is €17 ($18.62) a month.)
Meanwhile in the US, families struggle to choose between unaffordable nannies, suboptimal daycares, and the charitable child-minding of close relatives and friends. Women who work long hours are left to choose between squeezing in a home-cooked meal or going to the gym. Parents trade off time with their kids for high-pressure jobs that offer employee-based healthcare, higher earnings to save for college, and little to no vacation time.
We resign ourselves to these big pressures, and focus on the small stuff we feel we can control: the most effective Lego organizers, the best baby food makers, the toddler soccer teams. But it’s the ability to go to work and know your child is safe, and that you can afford that care and even look forward to a real vacation, that’s mind-bendingly life-changing.
To be clear, the French school system is hardly perfect. Andreas Schleicher, head of the education and skills directorate at the OECD, said that there is no research to support the fact that early schooling, rather than free play like in Finland, is what kids need (the OECD is trying to conduct that research). France, he notes, performs poorly on PISA, the test given to 15-year-olds around the world, which is considered a useful measure of critical thinking skills, and has one of the most rigid education systems in the world.
But having an affordable option is worth a lot to parents. And it matters to governments, too. The more women work, the more babies are born. A higher birth rate keeps up the needed balance of people who work and pay taxes to support older people on social security. It’s a “paradoxical situation,” demographer Richard Jackson told Science of Us: “The more traditionalist a culture is about gender roles, the fewer babies people have.”
Rather than idolizing French women for all they do, we should start idolizing French policies that allow for exercise, work, and the personal grooming that make the myth seem like reality.