Judgment days: Why Frenchwomen don’t get fat, even when they’re pregnant

When Hannah Keys’ first baby was born in France, she encountered a whole new set of social expectations around pregnancy and motherhood.
First time mother, gave birth in France where social expectations of newborn mothers are quite different.

At her seven-month pregnancy check, Hannah Keys’ obstetrician looked at the scales and tut-tutted disapprovingly. She’d put on 10kg.

“The French frown heartily on weight gain,” says the 27-year-old New Zealander, who’d indulged in gelato during a “babymoon” to Barcelona and was advised to take a close look at her diet. “You’re expected not to hold onto the weight, either, but be back in your mini-skirt almost straight after the birth.”

Keys worked in marketing for an internet company in London before moving to France with her fiancé, who is a professional rugby player. Their son, Nico, was born in Clermont-Ferrand on May 26.

France is one of the few countries in the world to mandate pregnancy health warnings on alcohol, but having a glass of wine with dinner is still considered socially acceptable, says Keys, who also found people smoked freely around babies and pregnant women.

At the hospital, she was asked to indicate on the booking form whether she wanted an epidural. “The opinions of the women around me were at odds,” says Keys. “The New Zealanders were all for the natural route, while the French wouldn’t dream of giving birth without one.

“In the end, I did what felt right at the time, with the anaesthetist discussing his time at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand while he kneaded my spine for the sweet spot. I still feel the need to justify myself when it comes up over wine and birthing war stories, but having a natural birth here isn’t a badge of honour the way it is in other countries.”

In the days after Nico was born, the French nurses burst into her room “in waves of old cigarette smoke and perfume”, prodding at her breasts for some sign of milk.

When she did manage to establish a feeding routine and was still nursing three months later, people eyed her with suspicion. France has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe and Keys, who used a discreet nursing scarf, says she never saw any other mother breastfeeding in public.

“My impression is French women expect a baby to fit into their lifestyle. They’re not afraid to rely on dummies, or to bottle feed from birth. Swaddling is almost unheard of. They let the babies sort themselves out. It’s quite hands-off in that respect.”

A key measure of maternal success is whether your baby sleeps through the night (“Il dort toute la nuit?”). Childcare is subsidised and mothers are expected to return to work as soon as possible. Keys’ midwife told her one of the doctors at the local hospital gave birth and was back on the ward later that night. “She was the breadwinner in her family and taking time off wasn’t an option.”

Words by: Hannah Keys

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