The awful tyranny of “the French woman” myth

“Very lovely she looked, very gracefully she danced, very joyously she smiled. Such scenes were her triumphs—she was the child of pleasure.”

That’s how Charlotte Brontë described the French girl antagonist in Villette, her 1853 novel about an English girl’s romantic musings while teaching in a French school. And 164 years later lafemme française remains a powerful and intimidating myth—with her understated style, her brooding sensuality, her decadent tastes and slender figure. It’s a stereotype loose enough to encompass Brigitte Bardot, Simone de Beauvoir, Marie Antoinette, and Joan of Arc. It’s potent enough to sell body scrubs and bath salts across the globe, and inspire endless magazine articles and blog posts promising new “secrets” of the French girl that claim to go beyond the cliché.

And in this age of “parenting”—as a verb and a worldwide obsession—this mythologized French girl holds a new and tyrannical sway. Now she is the French mother, a subcategory of the archetype, who Pamela Druckerman describes compellingly in her parenting memoir, Bringing Up Bébé, as “calm, discreet, a bit remote, and extremely decisive.”

When I moved from the United States to France with my husband and our two toddlers, I came armed with a healthy dose of skepticism. As a well-read, self-possessed woman, I knew rationally that the “easy, calm authority” Druckerman observed in French mothers has less to do with culture than with infrastructure. The French government’s humane approach to public services gives working French parents access to low-cost, high-quality, comprehensive childcare, making it a lot easier to prepare a home-cooked meal on a weeknight (or to go to the gym, get a chic haircut, and assemble a tastefully minimalist wardrobe).

I would learn from the culture, I decided, not cower to it. I would observe the French woman in her natural habitat, not fawn over her. I saw through the myth, so how could it terrorize me? And yet, like countless expats before me, I still fell captive to it.

At first, the promise of French female bliss felt surprisingly attainable. Childcare was nearly free and exceedingly professional. My 1-year-old’s caretakers at the public crèche were lulling my little American screamer into naps peacefully within days of his arrival. My precocious 4-year-old, meanwhile, took easily to the equanimous instruction at his French-speaking maternelle, where routine activities included tartelette-baking and face-painting. I went back to work feeling lighter, happier, and more motivated—like a French woman!

But soon my failures to live up to the standards of this myth started to become clear. Our upstairs neighbor, a young, single man, began penning scathing letters to me complaining about my kids’ crying and lack of politesse. (A string of ear infections and stomach troubles had my younger son up constantly in the night.) In one dispatch addressed to “Madame,” he reminded me of the “responsibilities” I had to society to keep my children in line. In another, he threatened to file a police complaint if I failed to persuade my husband to stop glaring at him in public. (Apparently French mothers are skilled at muzzling both their children and their husbands.)

My husband’s work, meanwhile, didn’t make life easier. Contrary to the lax reputation of French work culture, his mostly male Parisian colleagues worked longer, less predictable hours than their American counterparts, which ratcheted up the pressure on their working spouses. Unlike in the US, French wives were rarely invited to team dinners and on pleasure trips, which were tailored to the whims of single men.

In a haze of sleeplessness and loneliness, I lost the will to dress the part at school drop-off, where skinny scarves, lace-up flats, and unbattered handbags were the norm. Reverting to sneakers and yoga pants did not further my efforts to befriend French mothers, who regarded me with aloof disdain.

After six months of greeting each other mostly through our children (“Bonjour Jasper,” mothers would trill to my son, and then dutifully nod at me), one mother finally invited us to her child’s birthday party. The fête, a laid-back affair where stylish couples mingled among charmingly boisterous children, was my first glimpse of Paris unvarnished—and of the toll the myth was taking on French women themselves.

One mother described the exhaustion of working full-time for her husband’s law firm, while solely caring for her two daughters before and after work. “I do it all on my own,” she told me in between bites of cake, “but I don’t want to stay at home, so it’s the only way.” The host, an actress whose husband ran a chain of Paris movie theaters, spent the party lounging barefooted with friends and doting on her 4-year-old son. The next week, I passed the two of them in a full-fledged screaming match on the street.

That French mothers had weak or overwrought moments wasn’t all that surprising. What shocked me was how religiously they kept up the ruse. Over time, I saw more and more of these moments. I saw women looking regal, and well-behaved children, yes, but I also saw women relegated to supporting roles, putting up with constant sexual innuendo, crying in quiet corners of cafés and parks. While I was chasing my version of the mythical French woman, French women were themselves suffering under the weight of the toxic myth.

Myths have a valuable role to play in making sense of our lives, Joseph Campbell wrote: “Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that’s what it is. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you.”

For me, idealizing French women was an escape from the myth of the modern American woman, who “leans in” despite the toll it takes on her serenity, health, and family. But the French woman myth is equally punishing: It expects us to have it all and do it all, while making it look effortless.

If myths are meant to be mirrors, both of these are warped and old. To do right by the woman we actually see in our reflection, we’ll need to come up with new myths that do more to inspire and less to overwhelm.