I’ve been arguing recently with Dman about the definitions of work and equality. Like many expat women who are or have become mothers in France, I gave up my dual careers as a musician and a magazine journalist in order to take on the emotional labor of raising children and running a household in a foreign place. It was exacerbated in my case because Dman’s career required he travel three to four weeks, every six weeks, for six years.
As a part-time single mom, I attachment-parented two babies, negotiated the brute identity shift of new motherhood as an expat (back when there weren’t any blogs addressing the topic), learned a new culture, sort of mastered its language, made a handful of good friends and started accepting Paris as home.
I continued to write for a few outlets, launched this site and made some music for French television, but my careers essentially came to a standstill. Like Liam Neeson in Taken, I have a very particular set of skills. Ones that don’t always translate to French. Ones that take a lot of self-centered time. Making a record, writing a story, going on tour don’t exactly fit into a 9-5, child-rearing framework. Artistry and motherhood make conflicted bedfellows. So I uneasily, unhappily accepted the title of housewife (femme au foyer), though this was never an aspiration of mine.
I know I’m not alone with this story. I also know I’m luckier than most because Dman’s work allows us a comfortable life where I’m not required to bring home a paycheck. I have some help at home so I don’t spend my hours doing laundry and dishes.
This is where the fighting starts…
For several years now, Dman has been nagging me about getting a job, which I am not opposed to at all. Back to those particular skills: Publishing as an industry has tanked. In the halycon days of magazine journalism, I made five grand on a 2500-word article or $500/day for an in-office appearance at a weekly publication. Remembering this makes me kick myself for not appreciating the gold mine I was sitting on… and for not investing $1000 in Bitcoin in 2010. Thanks to blogs like this one (LES LOLOS isn’t a blog, it’s a digital magazine!), nobody pays writers that kind of money anymore. And I would rather post an article here than at a more “prestigious” publication for $100. Call me a princess.
Because my husband does. As do his friends and family.
You see, when Dman is actually around and not on one of his many, many business trips, I insist he spends time with the kids, do things like change their diapers* when they wore them and brush their teeth (which may be the most tedious parental chore ever). He occasionally cooks and cleans up the kitchen, which then entails mighty applause from me or he feels slighted. If he goes to the supermarket, he must be praised for buying the cow milk and Greek yogurt he prefers.
When his circle witnesses this, it definitively means, “Maggie does nothing.” She not only doesn’t have a job, she has “maids” to help her. Poor Dman slaves at the office and is so tired from it, why should he ever have to do any childcare or go grocery shopping or, god forbid, cook and clean? Why on earth would Maggie be tired when she doesn’t work? After all, being a full-time mom while running a digital magazine (Best Expat Blog in Paris—twice), writing a novel and freelancing isn’t real work. I receive unsolicited advice about how I should learn to be an independent woman and make my own money… as if until Dman married me when I was thirty-five, I was living off the kindness of strangers in New York City. For fourteen years.
Here’s a question: What about his dependence on me? Why am I considered dependent on his salary yet he’s not dependent on the familial world I carry on my shoulders? I read all the articles and books on childrearing and sleep training. I breastfed and double-pumped for both babies until each was a year-and-a-half old. He never has to remember his own parents’ birthdays because I remind him. I research and buy the birthday gifts and Christmas presents. I bake the cakes and organize the parties from invitations to menus to gift bags. I don’t believe he’s ever made a doctor’s appointment for the kids. I’m the one who has the school on speed dial and a relationship with the kids’ teachers. I’m a class mom, FFS. I order the books and clothes and vitamins. When the sitter’s sick, I have to stop whatever I’m doing…. and it goes on and on…
This is even more tiresome to live than it is to read. It also highlights how emotional labor may be the most undervalued, under-appreciated, unpaid labor there is.
I have to wonder if it’s worse in France. Motherhood isn’t prioritized here the same way it is in the States. Attachment parenting—longterm breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby-wearing—is met with disbelief or downright horror by French mothers and doctors alike. Many Frenchwomen go back to work when their babies are three months old and there’s an emphasis on maintaining “le couple” that’s missing from American culture (the famous example of the French government paying for my lube, post-birth).
My views on this have evolved. A woman should have her own time and space, especially when she’s a mother. Parents should remember who they were pre-baby and make sex a priority. In all honesty, I wouldn’t wish my first six months with my first baby on anyone. I barely knew anyone in Paris, Dman was away all the time, I was exhausted from exclusively breastfeeding and co-sleeping, I refused any outside help and the only person I spoke to most days was my baby, in the 3rd person: “Mama is wiping your butt.” “Mama is washing the dishes.” “Mama is going insane.”
Because motherhood is almost a condition in France—as opposed to a vocation—its attendant duties, what we call “women’s work,” aren’t respected at all. The 1000% body-and-soul mothering I did was both frowned upon and inconceivable to the average French person. If your idea of motherhood is the Rachida Dati model, where you’re back at Elysée Palace, high heeled and perfectly coiffed just five days after giving birth, how can you possibly admire an unshowered, unkempt, sexless, sweats-wearing beast with leaky tits? Whose work is priceless yet has no measurable market value. (Actually, that’s untrue. A few American companies put out a SAHM’s “salary” as part of a Mother’s Day gimmick.) Here’s what Mom was worth in 2016:
Despite the six-figure salary a SAHM deserves, most of the reluctant femmes au foyer I know feel “bad” about spending their “husband’s money.” They express the need to find some kind of low-paying part-time job so they don’t have to feel guilty about shopping for new clothes or going out for the occasional lunch. One of my friends, who had a very successful marketing career pre-expat marriage and motherhood, makes it a point to buy groceries with money she earns from a consulting job—while raising a son by herself as her husband is stationed outside of France and only comes to town one weekend a month. I’m incredulous when I hear stories like this. I want her to go directly to Chanel and treat herself with “their” money, not her husband’s and not hers. Theirs. Still, I sometimes question whether I have permission to buy something particularly frivolous or expensive. I, too, have paid for groceries or school clothes with “my” money because of this niggling sensation of guilt. Dman, meanwhile, strolls in with the latest iPad or a designer leather jacket with nary a thought about the price or my opinion. Lately, I find myself caring less about price tags or permission. If he doesn’t have to, why should I? Especially because everything I earn, though it’s considerably less than him, goes back to this family. Especially because of everything I don’t earn for all I do.
Being a full-time parent to small children is physically, emotionally and mentally arduous. We call it the most important job in the world, yet we treat mothers like they’re lazy for being at home all day and imply they’re negligent when they go to the office. Still, in this country (in the US, too), if you work outside the home and make actual money, you’re given more respect than when you’re pureeing your baby’s organic veggies for the third time that day. Money, not mothering, carries far more weight in this world.
Here are some more questions: If no one with aspirations beyond parenthood wants to do the emotional labor of raising a family, shouldn’t we reward the person who’s actually doing it? If it’s so taxing and demeaning for Dman to do any household chores, why the fuck wouldn’t it be equally burdensome for me? Only women are pressured to “have it all,” “do it all,” “be a Superwoman.” When was the last time we asked our husbands to be Supermen?
Equality doesn’t mean what Dman and his band of sexists think it means. It’s 2018 and I’m tired of trying to explain.
* Studies have shown that dads who change diapers have a much closer bond with their babies
What Do You Think?
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