When Our French Doctor Told Us, 'Not Every Pregnant Woman Has to Look Like a Cow'

Why is Frances birthrate the second highest in Europe, can a man be a midwife, and what does any of this have to do with Barbara Tuchman?

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Pregnant women exercising (illustrative).
Pregnant women exercising (illustrative). Credit: lev dolgachov / Ingimage
Dov Alfon
Dov Alfon

PARIS - 1. The American historian Barbara Tuchman (ne Wertheim) was married on June 18, 1940. She wanted to have children at once, but her husband, Lester Tuchman, who was a physician, was skeptical about the wisdom of that plan, because the world was too unpromising to bring children into. But, as Tuchman wrote, in the preface to her 1981 book of essays, Practicing History, she did not intend to coordinate her plans with current events. Our first daughter was born nine months later, she notes. According to Tuchman, as one can conclude from reading any of her books, no point in time seems appropriate for bringing children into the world, and therefore every point in time is equally appropriate.


Were expecting a baby daughter in the spring. In the absence of mazal tov or sheyiyeh bemazal, the conventional response in France to the good news is Flicitations, whose meaning is closer to abundant compliments than it is to the standard translation, abundant blessings. Thats also the greeting we receive from the doctor were meeting with today, a world-class expert in endocrinology at Salptrire Hospital in the Latin Quarter, in the building in which the young Sigmund Freud watched Prof. Jean-Martin Charcot give a class in hypnotism.

Historian Barbara Tuchman. Credit: BOB CHILD / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Our professor is smiling and blatantly unthreatening, other than when she talks about the nutrition of the future mother. Im worried, because Ive gained very little weight and Im already in my seventh month, Lital says, and draws a surprised look from the expert. Not every pregnant woman has to look like a cow, she finally replies, and sends us for a series of tests. Two days later the results – reassuring – arrive, along with the bill, which has to be paid online within 10 days. The payment for five tests and a consultation with an expert physician at the hospitals outpatient clinic is 3.90 euros (about $4.70).


The World Health Organization ranks France first in the world in healthcare systems, far ahead of Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries. France spends 11.6 percent of its GDP on health, much more than its neighbors (or Israel, with 7.6 percent), in order to ensure that all its residents have open and fair access to a high level of medicine. Even the conservative magazine Economist, which for the past 50 years has warned that France will not be able to sustain all that generosity, gave in and named France country of the year for 2017, not least because of its phenomenal success in the health realm.

The result is clear: Frances birthrate is the second highest in Europe, after Ireland. And, as in Ireland, the rise in the birthrate in France pertains mainly to middle- and upper-middle-class mothers in saliently Catholic regions. Studies around the world are trying to crack the code – no fewer than eight research delegations from Japan alone came to France in the past decade to interview pregnant women.


We, in the meantime, are being interviewed by doctors and midwives. In our last checkup at the maternity hospital we selected in the Twelfth Arrondissement, we were greeted by a young man named Bertrand, who proudly bears the title sage-femme (nurse midwife). On the wall in the reception area is a Health Ministry warning in four languages, under a title in red, Reminder: A public hospital in France is a neutral place on all questions of religion, sex, nationality and belief. The goal of the medical staff, which consists of men and women, is to provide medical services at a high level to everyone. The hospital has neither an interest nor the ability to provide gynecological treatment by women only. Every attempt to demand treatment from a particular sex will be met with refusal; and every argument pursuant to that refusal will result in the police being summoned.


We dont argue. And Bertrand, who is of course himself thin, sees no problem with the absence of a belly in the seventh month. The ultrasound results are excellent, and in this situation his role is mainly to ascertain that the patient isnt overeating, so that it will be easier for her to lose weight as quickly as possible after giving birth. Overall, if theres one clear difference between treatment of pregnancy in France and Israel, its that here the treatment focuses more on the well-being of the mother than on the well-being of the infant-to-come.

But thats nothing, compared to the differences between the countries after birth. In France, 84 percent of the women aged 24 to 54 are employed full-time, and the state therefore underwrites multiple ways to ensure their return to full work. More than half of the children in France under the age of 3 are in day-care centers, and the other half are looked after by caregivers, au pair girls or just plain babysitters, all of whom are also paid for by social security, in a system that a New York University study called a daily Santa Claus that American mothers can only dream about, even at Christmas.


The method, then, is to have children but not to talk about it too much, and certainly not to take care of them too much. A comparative study of 11 wealthy countries found that, on average, parents spend far more time with their children today than in the past. Mothers spend 104 minutes a day with their children, compared to 54 minutes in 1965, and fathers spend 59 minutes with their offspring, contrasted to 16 minutes back then. You already know what the only Western country is where these statistics are reversed. True, the contemporary French father does devote four minutes more to his children than he did in 1965, but the average French mother devotes 30 minutes less per day to her children than in the past.

But were Israelis and we are expecting a baby soon – an appropriate time, then, for this column to stop appearing in these pages. Abundant compliments to the readers from your man in Paris.

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