Today in the New York Times, I read an article written by Katrin Bennold, which began with this startling opening line:
“Weeks after giving birth, French women are offered a state-paid, extended course of vaginal gymnastics, complete with personal trainer, electric stimulation devices and computer games that reward particularly nimble squeezing.”
A personal trainer to cheer on my Kegels? Wow! Electric stimulation devices? The mind reels. Viva La France! Or, as the kids would say, not. How and when and whether my perineal wall recovers its former elasticity is my business. Thinking back, my sex life was low on my ladder of priorities as a new mom. Sleep. Now there was a craving I yearned to satisfy! Although if I am being completely honest with myself, maybe more of those Kegels, and less of those bagels, would not have been such a bad thing.
In the land of 21st century France, women are apparently expected to “make love again soon and mak[e] more babies.” To that end, France offers “free nursery schools, generous family allowances, tax deductions for each child, discounts for large families on high-speed trains, and the expectation that after a paid, four-month maternity leave mothers are back in shape — and back at work.”
Here is the good part. France spends more per capita on child care and family benefits than any other European nation. The impediments that face women in the United States when they want to return to work do not exist in France. Most toddlers are in a full-time state child care program by the age of two, often until 6:30 at night. Child care workers are paid well, and the health care system delivers when it comes to pediatric care. Moreover, the working woman is respected in France; she is not made to feel like less of a mother by re-entering the adult world full-time.
Accompanying the Times article was a picture showing what purported to be a typical example of the young, French working mother. Stick thin in a pencil skirt with stiletto heels, the mom cradles a three-month old in one arm, holds the hand of a toddler in the other, while her elder two children walk ahead to the metro, i.e., subway. She also happens to be a doctor. And she wouldn’t think of letting her husband do the shopping or cooking; that’s what Saturdays are for.
So what’s wrong with this picture of the accomplished woman who manages both a career and family? For one thing, that mother is not smiling. Would you be? Despite all the family benefits to encourage baby-making, France ranks 46th in the World Economic Forum’s 2010 gender equality report, trailing the United States, most of Europe, Kazakhstan and Jamaica. As Ms. Bennold states, “Eighty-two percent of French women aged 25-49 work, many of them full-time, …[but] French women earn 26 percent less than men [and] spend twice as much time on domestic tasks. They have the most babies in Europe, but are also the biggest consumers of anti-depressants.“(emph. supp.)
Let me get this straight. In France, women are expected to do it all while looking gorgeous. Yet they get paid less than men for the same efforts and suffer depression on a greater scale than other Europeans. Why am I not surprised? Does this scenario sound as depressingly familiar to you to as it does to me?
One of my mottoes in life is “You can have it all, but not at the same time.” I wanted it all- a rewarding career, a husband, children, involvement in my community and time to play with friends. But I never expected to have time to play with my friends while I was preparing for trial. I never expected to look stunning while pushing my toddler in a stroller at the park. And if anyone had dared look askance at my stained sweatpants and torn socks when I opened my front door, I would have been happy to show him or her the way out.
We women have to go easy on ourselves. Of course we must demand equal pay for equal work. Do any of us doubt that men would make the same demand if the situation were reversed? We must demand better childcare benefits because they are so obviously needed by men, women and children. But when we eventually attain those goals, and we will, we need to remember that we are not superwomen. We do not need to measure up to anyone’s expectations but our own. If we are lucky, the sands of time will last long enough for each one of us to have time with those we love, a fulfilling career, and the sense of having helped our community. We can probably even squeeze in a few kegels while we are at it- but only when we are ready.
This is now printed in Fairfield County Women Publication. Written October 13, 2010
Lisa Wexler is a talk radio host, an attorney, a co-author of Secrets of A Jewish Mother (Penguin/Dutton) and the co-founder of Women In Power , a non-profit association whose credo is Knowledge ~ Confidence ~ Power. To hear Lisa’s shows or contact her, go to www.lisawexler.com. Hear Lisa every weekday at AM 1400 WSTC/1350 WNLK from 4:00- 6:00 P.M.