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Should we give ‘la jeune maman’ a break?

…Or not, as the case may be, given French justice minister Rachida Dati’s recent decision to take an incredibly short maternity leave.

A debate is currently raging across the British media concerning this news story, and the wider issue of new mums of all ages and social statuses who for whatever reason decide to return to work rather more quickly than is ‘normal’. Most new mums are entitled to at least 3 months’ leave following the birth of their child (except freelancers, of course – how long we choose to take it entirely at our own discretion, or rather, how long we can survive on the state Maternity Allowance).

The Guardian encouraged a debate on the issue, with numerous writers (all women, I might add) being very forthcoming with their views on Dati’s decision regarding her newborn. I began reading the comments with a fairly neutral attitude. But, as I read on, I found myself  forming a much stronger opinion…but not the one I expected.

Contrast this view of one writer:

Dati is someone who has a serious job to do and it really doesn’t matter whether she’s postnatally flabby or annoyingly thin when she does it. It’s not unsisterly to be slim and it doesn’t make you unfit for public service. As for the health consequences of going back to work so soon, it’s not as if she is a hod carrier, or a firefighter, or a teacher – she’s a government minister and if she feels up to sitting down at a desk and attending meetings shortly after giving birth, bonne chance to her

With this one:

Then there was the businesswoman who spent her labour on her Blackberry because she didn’t want to look like “a slacker”.  I’ve also spoken to despairing midwives who see women missing out on the vital, once-in-a lifetime experience of bonding with their newborn.

Machismo of this sort by women in prominent positions makes others feel guilty about exercising their rights. It also deters women from striving to reach the top. There are precious few women in leading business roles and many of them are single or childless. It is easy to understand why that is if they are expected to start working almost immediately after birth.[…]  As a society, we should encourage our leaders to show that it is possible to take proper maternity leave and hold down a high-profile job.

To my surprise, my major reaction was disappointment at some of the criticism levied at mothers. Although many of the responses made some very salient points, these points risked being lost amongst the emotionally charged tone of the writing. Why does this, as women, upset us  quite so much? Why are we still hounding each other for the decisions we take in motherhood? Why do we feel that motherhood is an issue where we are all entitled to pass judgement on each other?

Sure, there are things about the way some women choose to begin motherhood that would not work for everyone, but is it really fair to haul them over hot coals for deviating from what we perceive to be ‘normal’? This particular observation really stood out:

[…] you have to wonder where feminism has taken us when women are judged because they don’t conform to the current view of what a “good mother” looks like

France has excellent maternity provision, much more generous than the UK. But in France reactions have been even stronger, especially among women’s rights organisations. A spokeswoman for one of the major women’s rights organisations in France said ‘c’est un scandale‘. This is a somewhat  misplaced agenda for a women’s rights organisation, surely.

This is such a contentious issue and feelings clearly run very deep; there aren’t many things that offend humans more than when others take issue with their parenting style.  What saddens me is that people, especially women, are so very quick to pass judgement on how other women choose to return to work after having a baby. After all, I don’t think child neglect is an issue here – we can probably quite safely assume that Ms. Dati has employed a suitable-qualified nanny.

One of the most surprising things for me in this story was that I found myself agreeing with a columnist in The Times (!). Melanie McDonagh on Friday really hit the nail on the head for me when she said: ‘[…] real women are infinitely various, their circumstances even more so.’ The debate continued in The Sunday Times today, again with some pretty reasonable and pragmatic arguments put across. I still don’t have a very strong view for or against Ms. Dati’s decision. All I hope is that soon the day will come when the image of the ‘perfect mummy’ is no longer idealised and women do not vilify each other for not conforming to it.

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3 Responses and Counting...

  1. Isabelle Jones

    January 11, 2009

    Thank you for this blog post. As a mother of two, this issue is close to my heart. Ms Dati, like most of us is in a no win situation. If she takes her entitlement, she is letting the country down and if she does not, she is a bad mother. Maybe if it is time to give all young mothers a break…

  2. Luke Spear

    January 11, 2009

    It’s as much a personal decision as anything else concerning one’s children, but as a man I would like to see mothers and fathers offered a fixed period of childcare leave to share between them as they see fit.

    Thanks for the read.

  3. philippa

    January 11, 2009

    @Luke Spear

    I agree – I think that new legislation on this may have been introduced last year actually, where the mother and father can theoretically share the parental leave between them…not sure how this works in practice though!

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