I’m an American expat in Paris who breastfed both my kids until they were over a year old. Why don’t Frenchwomen breastfeed?
Oh my god, this is a very non-fashionable and non-politically correct question, so I LOVE IT!
French women do breastfeed. They do! Maybe not as long, maybe not as passionately, and definitely not as publicly, but they do breastfeed.
Most French people don’t advocate as strongly or loudly as Americans for causes like breastfeeding, gay mariage, gender equality or positive discrimination in hiring. They are fought more discreetly—and that’s maybe why they’re not always won.
Anyway, if some of my friends did breastfeed, lots of french women don’t. I think it has more to do with the way our mothers raised us than our need for alcohol, vanity about our bodies or desire for our men.
Our mothers are the 1968 generation, the ones taught by their mothers that women have a right to vote, who fought for gender equality by burning their bras in public, denouncing the societal oppression and obligations put on women.
When I told my own dear mum, whom I adore and respect dearly, that I was breastfeeding, she said, “What?! Like a cow?” But when she saw me breastfeed my baby, she was very moved and said it was a beautiful act. Like many feminists, she marched for abortion rights and believes women can and should have absolute autonomy of their bodies. She saw breastfeeding as a degradation of my feminity.
I respect my mum one-hundred percent for that cow-ment because I thought it too. Especially when I had to pump, I felt like a milk factory and I hated it! I also resented all the svelte breastfeeding mums I knew because I put on so much weight while breastfeeding. Every time I nursed, I needed to eat so I turned into a fat milking cow.
What pisses me off about the Anglo-Saxon attitude is all the pressure to breastfeed. This myth of bonding with your baby—as if a bottle-fed baby doesn’t bond with her mum? The problem with the breastfeeding gurus is they push too much and guilt too much. A majority of my friends chose not to breastfeed and I have always seen this terrible guilt. You might be the most wonderful, compassionate, hardworking person in the world, but if you don’t breastfeed, you will always feel guilty because so many people—midwives, journalists, doctors, even celebrities—push for it.
When I had my first kid, it was through the French hospital system, and not once did anyone talk to me about breastfeeding. They talked about epidurals, drugs before/during/after delivery, possible complications, weight gain, but not once did they mention breastfeeding. Then I arrived in Hong Kong and had a British midwife and a British Ob-Gyn for my second baby and there it was: The Speech.
So… The baby will pop out your vagina and then you can take him right to your breast to feed. It was all about breastfeeding, the Lansinoh cream for nipples, the food that stimulates lactation (papaya soup with steamed fish), herbal teas. I drowned under the information about the benefits of breastfeeding for me, the baby, the bond. Ahhhh, just stop! Would I not be granted mother status if I didn’t breastfeed the baby?!
My midwife Sarah explained to husband and me how the delivery would go on, demonstrating with a baby doll with a bloody head (just so we understood there would be blood—thank you, Sarah). Then she explained how I would need to hold the baby on my breast with one hand while holding my beer bottle (because beer is supposed to stimulate milk production) with the other. This definitely wouldn’t happen in France!
I am neither pro- nor anti-breastfeeding because it is such a personal choice. I didn’t enjoy breastfeeding and I didn’t find it easy, but I nursed my kids because it was allegedly better for them. I stopped quickly because I was just not good at it. Not because of wanting wine, not to have my body back (btw, if you’re hearing this, body, I want you back!), but because in France, they advise a minimum of four months, ideal eight, and one year tops. After that, you’re just weird because, well, your baby has teeth!