This is a guest post by Hellobee community member chastenet.
Originally from Wisconsin, I came to France as a Rotary exchange student at the tender age of 16 and was hooked! I returned to the US to complete high school and then promptly came back to Paris for college. I met my French husband in 2002, during my sophomore year of college, and we married in 2010. After a year of married life we decided to start our family together and our little girl Alice was born on August 8th, 2012. Currently we are preparing to uproot our little family and move to Chicago in January, so that Alice can experience life in both her countries and I can be a bit closer to my family for a while. Our long-term plan is to return to France in about 10 years.
How does maternity leave differ in France compared to the United States?
Maternity leave in France is generally 16 weeks, 6 weeks pre-natal and 10 weeks post-partum. If you are in good health and your doctor allows it, up to 3 of the pre-natal weeks can be postponed and taken post-partum. There are some cases where more leave is given. If it is your third child for example, you get a total of 26 weeks, 8 before the birth and 18 after the birth. Likewise if you have twins the leave is longer; in that case you get 34 weeks, 12 before the birth and 22 after. These various leave lengths are part of employment law here and a woman’s right.
When you find out you are pregnant, your doctor gives you a form at your first pre-natal appointment that is the official “declaration of pregnancy.” This form includes the estimated due date and must be sent in to French Social Security (the state health service) before the 14th week of pregnancy. Maternity leave begins 6 weeks before the estimated due date indicated on the form.
Is maternity leave paid at full salary?
In order to qualify for paid maternity leave from Social Security, there are some conditions that the mother must meet: You must be registered with social security (have a number) for at least 10 months before you give birth. You must have worked at least 200 hours over the 3 months preceding your ante-natal leave or if you do seasonal or discontinued work, you must have worked at least 800 hours over the 12 months preceding the beginning of the pregnancy or pre-natal leave.
In order to be paid during your maternity leave, there is another form that must be sent in by your employer at the start of your leave. This form provides information on the start and end date of your leave and your current salary so that Social Security knows how much to pay you. You can choose to be paid directly by Social Security or for Social Security to make payments to your employer so that your company can continue to pay your salary. Social Security calculates your daily salary based on your last three pay checks and pays you the same amount, with a cap at 80.04€ per day. Your employer can choose to top up your maternity leave pay so you receive your full salary.
Note that the above situation applies to employees whether salaried or hourly; the system is different for self-employed women.
Do most moms take the full maternity leave? Does anyone choose to go back to work early?
Yes, I would say that 99% of moms take the full maternity leave. You must take a minimum of 10 weeks; if you don’t, then Social Security will not pay you for any of your leave. If anything, mothers tend to prolong their leave by either tacking on vacation days (in France everyone gets 5 weeks' paid vacation per year minimum) or by taking a parental leave. If you have been with your company for a minimum of 1 year at the time your child is born, you can request a parental leave of a couple of months up to 3 years. Your employer cannot decline the request and while they don’t have to keep your position open during the leave, they are required to provide a similar position at equal pay upon your return. Parental leave pay is calculated based on how long of a leave you take and how much you earn. Generally you won’t be paid more than 700€ a month for a parental leave, and you could very well be paid nothing at all.
Does France offer subsidized childcare after maternity leave?
Yes, in France there are government run “crèches” (day-cares). However, it can be difficult to secure a spot as the offer is not really on par with demand. It’s easier to get a spot if you already have a child in the crèche or if your situation is particularly difficult. The cost of crèche is calculated based on your earnings, so you could pay nothing, but you could also pay 200€ a month; it all depends on your situation. Since not everyone is able to get a spot in a crèche, there are other options that are also subsidized based on earnings: private crèche (not government run and thus more expensive in principle), nanny share, or an in-home day-care with a certified “maternal assistant” authorized to care for a set number of children.
Why do you think France offers so much maternity leave compared to the United States?
France has a history of social policies that they call “social rights” -- things like health care, unemployment benefits, maternity leave, paid vacation, limits on length of the work day, free education, retirement benefits, etc. --that the people have fought hard to acquire and are not ready to give up! Often when you hear of a strike in France, it is because the government is considering changing or removing one of these “social rights.” The French don’t take too kindly to this and their reaction is to take to the streets, which more often than not makes the government back down. They are quite proud of these policies even if they do enjoy complaining about their cost and the way some people abuse the system.
The French motto is “liberty, equality, fraternity.” That third word evokes the importance of the collective good of the people. Taking care of the people and particularly those in need through these social policies is an important part of French culture and society. Everyone pays into the system and everyone benefits from it in one way or another. This is quite different from the mentality in the Unites States where it is very much “every man for himself.” I think American society is more individualistic and thus less inclined to accept social policies that redistribute wealth to help those who are in need. The American take on things seems to be “if you want X, then you need to work hard and pay for it yourself.”
What do you love about raising a child in France?
My little girl is only 4 months old so I don’t have a lot of experience to base this on yet. But, I will say that I love the health-care system and maternity leave. The 14 weeks leave I had with my daughter was invaluable to me. I have absolutely loved taking care of her and not having to worry about my pay taking a huge cut, or my job going to someone else during my leave. I definitely wouldn’t mind if maternity leave was even longer!
As for the health care, France’s doctors are very good and between the state Social Security and our private insurance though my husband’s employer, we have pretty much zero out of pocket costs. My daughter got sick just as I was supposed to return to work, she was hospitalized for 4 days with bronchiolitis. It was a very stressful time for me. It was extremely difficult to see my little baby sick and in a hospital bed. I was also stressed out about returning to work the next week. I am so thankful that this happened while we were in France and I did not have the added stress of worrying about how to pay for the hospital bills. We left the hospital without paying anything; it was all covered by French social security and our private insurance.
I also love that although French women aren’t big on breastfeeding, no one bats an eye when I breastfeed in public. I have never had a bad experience here with that. And lastly, I love the baby clothes here, which are super cute!
What do you dislike, or what would you change about raising a child in France?
I think this is more related to Paris than France as a whole, but it isn’t always easy to get around with a baby here. Elevators are few and far between so you have to get used to carrying your stroller up and down stairs pretty quickly. There is also a complete absence of changing tables in public bathrooms, so whenever I go out I dread having to change my daughter as there is no where to do it! Usually my best option is to lay her changing pad in the stroller and change her there, or on a bench in a café if I can find one. Once she is old enough for a high chair, we will have to bring our own since no Parisian restaurant would ever provide one.
Also, the dominant parenting style here doesn’t always mesh well with mine. I breastfeed on demand and have done absolutely nothing to impose a schedule on my daughter. She eats when she’s hungry and sleeps when she’s tired. So far, it has worked quite well for us, but I am constantly getting questions from French people about what time her next bottle is and when her next nap will begin. These comments aren’t meant to be critical; it’s just that most people bottle feed and put their babies on schedules very early and that is reflected in people’s questions when they show interest in your baby.
Describe a typical day in your life.
Hmmm, this is hard for me since I don’t really follow a schedule with Alice so things can vary quite a lot. I’m not sure if other mothers feel this way, but I often feel like my day is a whirlwind of different “to do” items. When I look back on how I’ve spent my time it seems like I haven’t don’t anything and yet I am constantly going from morning till night. Here’s a stab at describing my day:
I typically wake up around 9am, I feed, change and dress my daughter and then bring her into the living room to sit in her rocking chair while I make breakfast for myself. I have breakfast and play with her a bit. Then generally I will watch an episode of whatever series I follow that aired the night before (due to the time difference we get episodes the next morning). Then I’ll shower and get ready while Alice plays with toys and hangs out in bathroom doorway so we can see each other. Usually she falls asleep for a quick morning nap while I’m getting ready. After that I feed Alice again and change her before heading out. I often see friends for lunch or get together with a group of mommy friends who have babies around the same age. So Alice and I take the bus wherever we need to go and spend a few hours out and about. If I don’t have plans with friends there is always some sort of errand to run that gets us out of the house. I also take Alice for walks in the park pretty often; there are two great parks within 10 minutes of our house, which makes for a nice outing. When we get home in the mid-afternoon, Alice generally needs to be fed and changed again. She may nap for a bit, while I take care of various things around the house like laundry, cleaning, or preparing for our upcoming move. Then I bring Alice into the kitchen with me to play with toys in her rocking chair while I prepare dinner. I eat with my husband when he gets home from work. Once he’s home he usually plays with Alice for awhile and I have a bit of computer time for e-mailing and general internet surfing. We usually watch a series together, and we give Alice her bath if it’s bath day. Then we get ready for bed and I change Alice and put her in her pajamas. I feed her one last time and put her down for the night.
What’s a parenting rule you always break?
I don’t know that I really have any parenting rules… maybe swearing if front of the baby. I really need to get my potty-mouth in check before she can talk!
What’s the hardest part of being a mom?
Once you’re a mother you can’t really ever just live for yourself anymore. Gone are the carefree days when you can do whatever you like and the only person you have to answer to is yourself. Every decision you make, you consider your kids and how it will affect them. A friend asked me recently why I don’t just formula feed my daughter when I want to go out “and get smashed” with friends. I had a hard time explaining to her that my priority is her and I would rather continue to breastfeed her and consume alcohol in moderation, even if it means having to pump ahead and monitor how much I have so it is out of my system by the time of her next feeding. I don’t care enough about going out and drinking to formula feed my daughter one night so I can do so. That just isn’t my priority. My priority now is Alice and I take her well-being into consideration with just about every decision I make. My own needs and desires definitely get put on the back burner to hers.
I also think one of the hardest moments of motherhood is seeing your child sick. It really pained me to watch my daughter be poked and prodded by the doctors when she was hospitalized. Seeing them draw blood and aspirate her nose was absolute torture for me. I think, actually I know, I cried more than she did! All I wanted was for her to be better, and I would have given my own health for her to be well again.
What’s the best part of being a mom?
The best part of being a mom is my daughter! Before I had her I wasn’t necessarily that into babies. I found them kind of boring and they all seemed pretty much the same. Now that I have my own baby, I realize how much each baby is an individual person with her own unique personality from birth. I have really gotten to know my daughter over the past few months and I just love the little person she is! I can’t wait for her to be able to express her personality even more as her limited modes of communication continue to develop.
Thanks so much for sharing your story with us chastenet! If you live outside of the United States and are interested in sharing your country's maternity leave policies with us, please drop us a line at email@example.com.
Maternity Leave Around the World part 3 of 31. The Juggle Around the World: Maternity Leave in Sweden by Parenting Around the World
2. The Juggle Around the World: Maternity Leave in Mexico by Parenting Around the World
3. Maternity Leave in France by Parenting Around the World