Pregnancy à la Française
From judgment-free bottle-feeding to physiotherapy for your pelvic floor, our Paris correspondent proves that being pregnant in France is something else entirely.
Bonjour, ladies of the United States of America! I write to you from Paris, which was kind enough to take me back after eight years of intensive New York-ization. I am a Parisian in New York no more, but incredibly, a kind of New Yorker in Paris. And with that brings a whole new understanding of the multitude of differences between our two cultures. There is, in addition to varying philosophies on parenting, food and fashion, a distinct difference in the way we French do pregnancy.
During the first half of my pregnancy with George, my fourth (and hopefully my last!) child, I was living in Brooklyn: land of the strollers, birthing classes and maternity clothing stores. Everyone I came across was so excited for me – sometimes more excited than I was. By the third trimester, I was settled in Paris experiencing pregnancy in true French fashion: without celebration or fanfare. Pregnancy is much less of a production here. It is not considered an appropriate occasion for excessive celebration – neither during nor on D-Day. Too much joy is just not our thing. It’s life as usual in good old France.
The Geriatric Pregnancy
I was pregnant in France at the ages of 25, 28, and 33, which is really nothing special over here. But with George, I did it N.Y.-style, a "geriatric pregnancy" as they call it, at age 41. Now I must explain to you why this seems odd to me. “Geriatric" is the word used in French to describe the special ward in the hospital where very old, very sick people are taken to die – something similar to the elephant cemetery in "The Lion King."
In France, if you are pregnant and over 40 it is called a “grossesse tardive,” which is the same term you would use if you were a bit late to a party, i.e., something cool and normal.
Most of my friends would choose isolation over being caught wearing maternity clothing. Because staying at home for nine months is not realistic, French women do everything to ensure they keep their weight at a manageable level. This means that nothing really changes wardrobe-wise except we sacrifice a centimeter or two from our heels. At six months, we simply borrow a few good things from our boyfriends' or husbands' wardrobes, like a cool sweatshirt or a nice jacket to pair with our black jeans. And finally, when there’s no more time for fooling around, we hide in our rooms.
No, of course we don’t. We reluctantly go to Uniqlo and get two pairs of jeans and two pairs of leggings, and we absolutely avoid any loud patterns or colors for the rest of the adventure. In case you were wondering, the answer is yes, a lot of French people do have children before marriage. I personally had three kids before I got married. This is considered normal in France and the birth of my children out of wedlock was not a problem at all, except for my very old conservative father who said it was monstrueux that I was living in sin. Other than grand-pere, nobody seems to care anymore.
French women are not very into working out, and pregnancy is certainly no reason to start. We walk. Some of us swim. And that’s it.
The Baby Shower
The French may be the biggest party poopers in the world. No Halloween, no Thanksgiving and certainly no made-up holiday like Valentine’s Day. If a woman were invited to a baby shower in France, she would expect water and a bathtub. Giving gifts before a baby is born is considered bad luck, and we stick firmly to that rule. After the birth of baby, your very (very) close friends will come one by one to the hospital to meet the wonderful fruit of your womb, and then the rest of your friends will come to your home, bearing a gift for the baby and sometimes something for the mother. That’s it.
While living in Brooklyn, I was asked to co-host a baby shower for my French friend (who was, as you can guess, on a slippery slope culturally). Thank goodness for the “co-host" as I had no idea what I was doing. She helped me pull together a guest list (half French, half American), cute pastel-colored décor and some pretty-looking cakes. One hour into the party, all the French ladies were in the kitchen drinking Champagne, while all the American ladies were sitting around the mother-to-be, opening presents, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the beauty of a onesie, a teddy bear, a pair of tiny socks. A chorus of, “This is SOOOO cute,” and “Awww,” and “OMG!” could be heard through the halls. Happy tears were shed. While we, the terrible French mums, half of whom were by now a little drunk in the middle of the afternoon, looked upon this tradition with utter confusion.
This conversation depends a lot on your doctor, but one thing is for sure: We don’t stop eating cheese – even the super stinky ones. Cheese is our cultural identity, what can we do? I didn’t even give up foie gras, which is supposed to be completely out of the question, and according to my 9-year-old-raised-in-Brooklyn-vegetarian daughter, it should never be eaten at all because it is cruel towards animals. The only thing we definitely do not eat is raw fish or raw meat, and we are extra careful with our fruit and vegetables, which we wash three times because of a disease called Toxoplasmosis. You get tested for every single month of your pregnancy in France. Ironically, it is the only disease that they do not test pregnant women for in the U.S. Go figure.
"In France, after each delivery, your obstetrician gives you a prescription for 12 appointments with a physiotherapist specializing in the perineal area."
I had never heard about scheduling your delivery or choosing a C-section rather than a natural birth until I moved to New York. In France, the mother is not involved in this decision. You’re expected to wait until the baby is ready, and whether your doctor is at the hospital or on the golf course when your baby decides to arrive is beside the point. C-section becomes an option only when natural delivery is deemed to be dangerous for mother and child. As a result, we don’t have to think about these details at all. And in a way, that is a relief. I have noticed, interestingly, that my French friends are always hoping for a natural delivery, whereas many of my American friends are hoping to schedule a C-section. Is it the American commitment to creating one’s own destiny? Or the New York obsession with efficiency? Who knows. But full disclosure: I ended up having to schedule George’s birth, so maybe I am a true New Yorker after all.
The Pelvic Floor
Let’s be honest. The most interesting difference between American and French pregnancy is the type of postnatal care you receive. In France, after each delivery, your obstetrician gives you a prescription for 12 appointments with a physiotherapist specializing in the perineal area. You get a free workout for your vagina until it is as good as new. How you ask? I will spare you the details, but in general, the therapy involves a stranger poking around in your nether-regions and asking you to contract the muscles in front, at the back, to the right, to the left, separately and altogether. SO MUCH FUN!
You also get to carry a kind of sex toy around in your purse, which you use to measure how good you are at contracting your vaginal muscles in order to rebuild your pelvic floor. French people are big on preventing bladder leakages – and French doctors in particular seem committed to restoring a healthy sex life as soon as possible post-delivery. When your vagina is back to normal or as close as can be, you’re then expected to work on your abdominals … and that is when I seriously consider moving back to New York.
Breastfeeding … or Not
The second biggest difference — and yes, technically it is not a pregnancy issue — is on the subject of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is one of two great options in France. I have just as many friends who choose to breast-fed as those who choose to bottle-fed. There is no national debate over this issue and no pressure at all to choose one over the other.
My experience in the U.S. was very different. If you are not breast-feeding, you are considered a bad mother. “You know breastfeeding is best for the baby, right?” the not-so-subtle woman will say. I can’t count the number of times I was judged on the small detail that I never breast-fed any of my children. Forgive the French attitude, but here, I side with my compatriots, who are cool with whatever choice a mother makes when it comes to breast or bottle.
In France, the government mandates that mothers take at least eight and up to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave. The more children you have, the more leave you get. By your third child, your leave extends to 26 weeks. And if you have twins? It’s 34 weeks paid leave. Nobody jokes around with maternity leave in France. It is an institution.
In N.Y., I met a few ladies who were in the office until the day their water broke and some who went back to work a few weeks after giving birth. Impressive, for sure. But I do wish my American friends had the same opportunity to choose to stay at home a little longer with their baby if they wished to.
Smoking, Drinking and Sex
French ladies don’t smoke while expecting, but the rest of the time, it’s a different matter. Either the French haven’t heard that smoking kills, or more likely, they really just don’t care. As we say, “Il faut bien mourir de quelque chose.” Just Google Translate that, my friend.
You may be disappointed, but we don’t drink as much as we used to. I was told while pregnant with babies numbers one, two and three that one glass of wine a day was no big deal. This summer I came back to France during a major national ad campaign: “zero risk, zero alcohol” for mothers-to-be. I guess it was simply too hard to keep to the one drink policy — I’m sure you’ve heard how impossible it is to manage French people — and the government decided to just change the philosophy altogether. C’est la vie. No more Champagne at the aperitif.
And finally, there is the issue of sex. Well, this is a difficult one to make a statement about for two reasons: First of all, at some point, Americans decided that all French women are wild animals and that sex is our form of exercise. It is mostly wrong, but I like the idea so I won’t correct you. Secondly, there are two types of pregnancy: the kind that makes you sleep, vomit and compulsively clean up the house, and the kind that makes you super relaxed and surprisingly in the mood for love. Believe me, the same woman can experience both. And I am pretty sure that’s the case in Paris AND in N.Y.
Follow Florence on Instagram @florence_mars.