Motherhood: Maman knows best

Judith Warner raised her kids on both sides of the Atlantic, and now she's written an explosive book that reveals why British mothers should start taking lessons from the French. Lucy Bulmer reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Elegant tends not to be part of the average British mother's every- day vocabulary. And as for chic, forget it. Bedraggled is a more accurate description. And she's far more likely to resemble a crazed juggler escaping from a circus; or to be wearing last night's ketchup-stained T-shirt under her coat while on the school run. Then there's the guilt.

But skip over the Channel and a different picture of motherhood emerges. French mothers are thin and stylish with great haircuts and immaculate make-up. Four out of five work, yet they still have time to knock up a poulet au pot from scratch and have sex with their husbands. What's more, they're having more children than we are. (Their birthrate is 1.94 per woman, ours is 1.77).

What are we doing wrong? According to Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, to be published in Britain next month, being a mother is simply made easier in France. A raft of government initiatives - cash bonuses, significant tax breaks, long maternity leave and generous, subsidised childcare - have encouraged French women to have more children.

But it's more than a matter of mere finance. Mothers work, but their hours are shorter. Women - and men - see their happiness emanating from a civilised balance between family, home and a fulfilling social life. French culture doesn't foster the guilt-stricken dilemmas faced by the stressed-out British heroine of Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It.

Ms Warner, who spent her first three years of motherhood living in France, says it's embedded in the culture. Women are encouraged to have time for themselves. There was "a set of deeply held attitudes towards motherhood ... that had the effect of allowing me to have two children, work in an office, work out in a gym, and go out for dinner at night and away for a short vacation with my husband without ever hearing, or thinking of, the word guilt."

Then she returned to America and found herself whipped up into a world of obsessive, soccer-mom perfectionism and competitive play dates. Children always came first. Every mother she knew - working or not - bought into it, and all felt dissatisfied. This "choking cocktail of guilt and anxiety and resentment and regret" is "poisoning motherhood for American women today", writes Ms Warner, who defines it as "this mess".

That mess, thank God, is not the norm in Britain, but it's perhaps closer than we like to think. In true 1980s feminist style, I always assumed "juggling" motherhood with a high-powered career would be a piece of cake. Then I had the kids.

I chose to put the career on a backburner, but I still work part-time. I have the usual nightmares over good-quality, affordable childcare, and I feel torn with guilt. I am obsessed with the latest headlines about pre-school childcare stunting development, or working mothers being responsible for the rise in the crime rate. When I'm not working, I worry whether I'm doing enough creative play with them, or they're watching too much TV. What mother doesn't?

French ones, apparently. A friend who moved to Paris 15 years ago and has a seven-year-old noticed the difference on a visit back to Britain. "I was struck by how child-focused it all was," she said. "Toddler groups were organised by parents instead of by the state. In France, the pressures are different. Mothers are not supposed to be at home baking cakes. They're meant to be professional. They don't live in this strange, separate world."

But it's not just about work. At the school where my friend teaches, working mothers are allowed Wednesdays off. Most leave their children in daycare and meet friends, go shopping, or visit the salon. They don't feel guilty; they feel happy. They feel like grown-up, sexy women. Perhaps that makes them feel like better mothers too.



Lisa Murphy, 39, is a primary school teacher and mother of Fionn, five, and Roisin, two. She and husband Sean, 41, a teacher, live in Hackney, London:

Being a mother in Britain can be stressful at times. There's a lack of quality information about childcare, which is expensive. And there are no grandparents around to help so you have to leave a child with strangers and that's very stressful - I felt terribly guilty the first time. There are also financial pressures to return to work because of the mortgage and cost of living. Then there's the pressure to keep the job you had before. You're trying to juggle two jobs. I stopped being a deputy head because I was often finishing after 6pm. In the morning I leave home at 8.15am. My boy goes to school and my daughter goes to nursery. I'm back at 5.30pm, then it's teatime, bath-time, story-time and bedtime. After that the tasks are endless. I get about an hour to myself. You can't imagine the sleep deprivation. But I am supported by my husband - we works in partnership. I might go out twice a week and he will look after the children. I value my time for me and try to prioritise myself.



Ellie Schneir, 48, is a deputy public defender and mother of Florin, 17, and Matthew, nine. She lives in Santa Monica, California, and is married to Peter, 57, a social housing worker:

My job is extremely stressful and requires a great deal of emotional commitment. It's hard to balance the needs of my family with the needs of my clients. I get into the office at 7.30am and work until 5.30pm. For me the stress and trauma is about trying to make it work during the day because sometimes your child wants you at school. Last year the little one had a recorder recital and I couldn't go. He cried for a day. My husband helps a lot at home, but when I think about it I feel tired most of the time. Most of our social life revolves around the youngest one. Very little about my life is about me. Does it sometimes make me frustrated, angry, guilty, feel deprived and neglected? Absolutely. But these are choices I made.



Gwenaelle de Saint-Aubin, 39, is an artist and mother of Mathilde, 12, Nolwenn, 10, and Godefroy, eight. She lives in Paris and is married to Benoît, 40, an executive for Orange:

I work two and a half days a week. Twice a week I bring the children back home from school to give them lunch. My son does judo and the girls do English and piano. When they're happy, I'm happy. I never feel tired. I don't like to sleep. I see my friends in my free time, and every Friday and Saturday evening we go to dinner at a friend's house or have friends round. The children have a babysitter if we go out. They never come with us. We try to do a lot with the family, but we also try to do a lot with friends. We also go to the theatre once a month and I play tennis on Mondays. I have an easy life; I know that. My husband never helps in the house, though. He's not a modern husband. He works a lot, and is very often abroad.