International Women's Issues

A Womb in Paris

When it comes to most “differences” between France and the United States, I generally roll my eyes. No, not all French women are skinny. No, the French don’t have a secret compilation of sex tricks. No matter what enterprising authors and Cosmo would have you believe, the day-to-day existence of a French woman and an American woman is startlingly similar.

There is, however, once incredible divide that I’ve recently had the privilege of learning about, and that is pregnancy. In the past year I watched as one of my best friends in America, Anna, gave birth to a bouncing baby girl. Now I turn my attention to Paris, where another good friend of mine, Delphine, is gestating like a champion. In the first instance, I listened as my American pal bemoaned all the foods she was going to miss, in the second I shared a glass of wine with my French friend as she indicated on a coffee spoon how large the fetus had developed.

“So what can’t you eat?” I asked Delphine when I first broached this idea for an article with her.
“Raw fish,” she replied.
“Anything else?” I asked again, as Delphine distractedly followed the signs for the RER-D.
“Mmm, there are things that are more risky, but that’s basically it. I’m still smoking a little” she said, quietly, pulling a Paul Maul out of her purse. “I want to stop, but it is so stressful. The doctor said since I smoke less than 10 a day, it’s not that big of a deal. I think once I really start showing, I won’t be able to smoke anymore, I think it will be a psychological thing. I went to the doctor today, he knows everything, he knows I had a glass of wine yesterday, he told me everything was fine.”

I went home that night and typed into Google “Pregnant women should avoid.” A list full of terrifying article popped up. “The 10 Things That Put Your Baby in Danger!” sat right above, “What You Can Never Do While Pregnant.” Even with my IUD firmly in place, I found myself getting anxiety. The United States government’s list at was even more surprising.

  • Soft Cheeses:Brie, Feta, Camembert, and Roquefort
  • Salads made in store
  • Cake batter
  • Unpasteurized milk
  • Raw or undercooked sprouts
  • Ice cream
  • Egg and pasteurized egg products
  • Meat spread or pate
  • Poultry and stuffing
  • Hot dogs or deli-style meats
  • Meat in general
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol

I went back over the day and I realized that half of these products had been consumed that evening. We had eaten not just Brie and Roquefort before a dessert of ice cream, we had consumed a coffee right afterwards. I decided to show her the list and ask her about it. I walked into her house the next day to find a spread of deli meats and pate out on the kitchen table.

“Would you like a nespresso?” she asked, sipping her own cup of rich dark coffee.

We sat down and I pulled out the list and showed it to her. Her eyes widened as it jumped from item to item. “Is there anything pregnant women in America are allowed to eat?” she laughed. “Can they drink tea? Oh no wait, not green tea, because of all that caffeine.” She got up and opened the refrigerator and counted all the things on the list she had eaten within the past week. “Pretty much everything except for the smoked seafood. I’m not eating raw fish or smoked fish.”

“What would you say to people who said you simply didn’t care about your baby? Or that you put your needs ahead of it?” I asked, knowing that the pearl-clutching response would be just that.

“I would tell them to mind their own business. Of course I care about my baby. I’ve had miscarriages before and I am aware of what to try to do to avoid them. But here we’re allowed to keep on living despite being pregnant. Of course I put my needs first. I’m the primary caretaker, it only makes sense. It’s not a situation where I am drinking half a bottle of wine each night. I occasionally have a glass with dinner. In fact, my doctor told me that quitting smoking completely during this point, after smoking for fifteen years, might be too stressful to my body and could actually cause more trouble. So I don’t know, ask my doctors if I care about my baby. They tell me I’m doing fine.”

“What would you say to the idea that French doctors are behind the times?”

“I would say that I’m the one with advanced medical care. I get help no matter what. All my medications are comped, my choice of birth plan is already paid and even after I give birth I’ll have follow up care for at least two months to help me get back on track. Are American women of any class afforded such things?”

“No,” I responded. “Giving birth can put families into debt, as it can run as high as six thousand dollars, and that’s if everything goes right.”

“Maybe that’s why they need so many restrictions then,” she laughed, “they need to make sure they’re in perfect form just to keep costs down. Then again, isn’t America generally overly concerned with women’s bodies? Even if they have abortions politicians breathe down their throats, right?”

She had a point. A quick look at infant mortality rates by country shows that by 2009 estimates France rated #8 in the world with just 3.3 deaths per 1,000 live births, whereas the United States ranked at #46 with nearly twice the number of deaths per year. I spoke with a doctor about the alarming difference between two well-developed nations and he had this to say: “France has comprehensive health care for every resident. Even undocumented persons are treated to free prenatal and neonatal care. In regards to society, we tend to have fewer addictions to drugs thanks to our dependency programs and the women are not as stressed out. We have paid maternity and paternity leave. We have programs for women that will take care of them if they need to stop working. This leads to more relaxed birthing process.”

“But what about the smoking and the drinking?” I asked him. He waved his hand, as if to brush off a fly.

“These things are not good for a baby, of course. We do not encourage drinking or smoking in new mothers. We do not encourage smoking or excessive drinking for anybody. But in moderation, the likelihood that they will impede a healthy birth is low.”

I went back and looked over the myriad of articles on things pregnant women should avoid. “You should avoid herpes,” one helpful tip proclaimed. “You should avoid drinking tap water,” another warned. “Stress is bad for baby,” lauded yet another helpful piece of advice. Of course I couldn’t imagine anything more stressful than trying to grow a life while everyone with an Internet connection chides you on everything you’re doing wrong, and why, exactly, you will fail at a mother.

“I think,” said Delphine, “people should trust their doctors. Who is the author of this article?” she asked, holding up some random flier I’d printed out to show her. I shrugged my shoulders. I honestly had no idea. “Exactly,” she said. “I don’t know who this is, I don’t know if their advice is right or not. But I do know my doctor went to actual medical school and obtained a real degree. So I’m going to assume he has my best interests in mind.” She nodded, patted her stomach, and bit into a piece of soft cheese. “I’m not shackled, I’m pregnant and I can trust my own judgment.”


By Olivia Marudan

Cad. Boondoggler. Swindler. Ass. Plagiarist. Hutcher. A movable feast in the subtle culinary art of shit talking.

12 replies on “A Womb in Paris”

I think women in the U.S. should be wary of what they eat. A majority of the corporate-owned farms inject meats with hormones and spray vegetables and fruits with chemicals that alters the genetic makeup of these foods and with those who ingest them. Not to mention many of the foods available in supermarkets are processed foods that include ingredients that probably should not be in there. I remember reading somewhere that the FDA has a guideline in which harmful foods and ingredients are only excluding food with the highest percentage of doubt, whereas nations like the U.K. include ingredients if they have a high percentage of being safe. The U.S. is government is aware of what goes on in the production of foods, which is most likely why they created such lists. It may be fear-mongering, but I personally would be more cautious of where my food came from, not just for the baby, but for myself as well.

The risk of a baby being seriously harmed by listeria is perhaps small but indisputably real. I guess it is a matter of attitude. Maybe a French woman would shrug it off as bad luck if this happened to her, but I myself would not feel significantly less liberated by laying off the queso fresco for a few months to minimize the chances of it happening to my baby.

I think it’s because here in the U.S. we fetishize martyrdom, basically. And no where is that more clear than in mothering. We have to carry all pregnancies to term to matter what our emotional, physical, financial, etc. circumstances, because doing what’s best for us and what makes us happy is selfish and therefore wrong; while pregnant we have to avoid all sorts of things at all costs or we’ll harm the fetus, even if those changes of habits causes unnecessary stress; and let’s not even get started on the natural childbirth and attachment parenting movements, and all the debate about spanking and such, which is so full of sanctimonious “I’m a bigger martyr than you” language that it makes my teeth itch.

Pasteurised egg products? Seriously? The entire point of the pasteurisation process is to kill off nasty bacteria! Also: since when does feta qualify as a ‘soft cheese’?

Even in the UK there’s rather more nasty judgement than in France. One of my closet friends here in the UK had a baby a few weeks ago. She’s a doctor, and very much of the ‘stop whining and get on with things’ persuasion. She doesn’t really drink coffee anyway, and she did avoid raw eggs, sushi and unpasteurised soft cheeses (though she would happily eat anything made with pastuerised milk, or soft cheeses that had been cooked for a certain length of time – baked camembert was still on the table). She had a glass of wine a few times a week because, as she pointed out, you would have to have quite a serious drinking problem to give a baby Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

As it happens, she came to visit me in Paris when she was about 7 months pregnant and very much showing (she was HUGE!) and no one batted an eye at her no matter what she ate or drank. She had to ask waiters to stop pouring her extra glasses of wine. She found it very refreshing after getting a few nasty looks while drinking her wee little glass of after-dinner port at a restaurant here in Britain. She said she just wanted to stare back at the haters and retort, ‘I’m a doctor, calm the fuck down!’

I find this scarily “Handmaid’s Tale”-esque, the idea of a woman no longer being in charge once she’s pregnant. The sheer hypocrisy of not giving women adequate prenatal and neonatal care whilst putting untold pressure on them not to “mess up” must be mind-bogglingly stressful.

Having been through three pregnancies in the US, (in which my babies amazingly survived inspite of all my humanity), I am not surprised at all to read your comparison between France and America. Fear-Mongering and Pregnancy go hand in hand in America. A large part of the problem is the idea (in America) that once you become pregnant you are no longer a person, you are a carrier of your baby; your life is not your own, you are the source of life for another human; the things you do are not for you, everything is for your baby. Therefore, anything a pregnant woman does comes under public scrutiny, and harsh scrutiny it is. The other large part of the problem is that patient consumers in America fail to fully educate themselves regarding issues. Like you mentioned in your article, you didn’t know who had written the cation filled flyer you showed your French friend. So many pregnant women in America take those flyers, pregnancy web-sites and parenting magazines (evil, filthy things) at face value and never question who is saying it, why they are saying it, or what their source is. Because, if BabyCenter said it, it must be true, right?!? Take, for instance, caffeine. Anyone who has been pregnant in America will tell you its pure poison. But will any of those women be able to tell you that the studies conducted to show caffeine might be dangerous in pregnancy were conducted on animals or were extrapolated from anecdotal evidence after miscarriage, and that those miscarriages could not be absolutely determined to be from chromosomal abnormalities (because the study was done after the miscarriage), and were probably inconclusive? But, because there is that ‘might be’ thrown in there, and because an American woman’s body is not her own during pregnancy, the fear-mongering takes over. Because it cannot be Written in Stone, 100% Concrete Fact that caffeine in any amount is totally, absolutely and unquestionably as safe as distilled deionized water during pregnancy, it must be evil. And woe betide the woman who does have a complication, or (God forbid) a miscarriage, because it MUST have been her fault, something she did wrong. Oh! She drank too much coffee! There is so much dramatic, political, and societal bullshit mixed up with pregnancy in America, it makes me sick sometimes.

Sorry for ranting, this is just something I feel very strongly about.

Thank you so much for this comment! I think it sums up perfectly how many of my pregnant friends in America feel on the whole “your body is not your own, therefore subject to public scrutiny” mess.
Also thanks for the information on those studies. I’ll have to do some more research and send that on.

I once read that the reason America appears to have such a high rate of infant mortality is that 1) we count deaths that happen up to a year after birth, and 2) we expend heroic measures to attempt to save preemies and revive stillbirths that other countries wouldn’t.

I’ve heard that, too, in an article talking about how it’s hard to make comparisons with our children because they’re raised in different systems. Like how it’s silly to compare our high school results to many European ones, because all of our kids go through high school whereas many European students test into/out of certain tracks, and only the college-bound students are compared to all of our high school students. Both were areas that we come off poorly, but that might not be the whole picture. I’m not saying there isn’t more we should be doing for prenatal care, etc, because there is.

I think that’s part of it (there are also the differences in classification between perinatal/neonatal/infant mortality), but doesn’t explain the differences enough (can’t find a reference quickly, I’m at work).

The maternal mortality rate in the US is also higher than it should be (24/10,000 compared to 8/10k in France and 3/10k in Ireland – those are all 2008 stats from UNICEF), and that’s despite the fact that it doesn’t collect data on maternal deaths very well.

C-section rates are lower in Europe, though not ideal (Ireland’s is about 10% lower than the US, if I remember right…) and I’d say the other, major thing is most European countries have public healthcare in which prenatal, birth and some form of postnatal care is covered.

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