No wonder that what Druckerman sees in Paris — chic mothers with good posture who calmly watch their children play while sipping a latte from a nearby bench — looks so good in comparison. She writes: “They don’t radiate that famous combination of fatigue, worry and on-the-vergeness that’s bursting out of most American moms I know (myself included).”
But if French parents are calmer and more confident, it’s not just because their parenting standards aren’t as intense. Another reason is on the corner: In France, that’s where you find the crèche, a government-subsidized child-care center where virtually everyone, after a four- to five-month, state-subsidized, paid parental leave, sends their children — working and at-home mothers alike.
In contrast, the United States is one of only threecountries in the world, along with Swaziland and Papua New Guinea, that have no federal paid parental leave policy. After President Richard Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Childcare Act of 1971, which promised to ensure quality, affordable child care, American parents were left to fend for themselves. In a country that pays its child-care workers less than its janitors, that is a time-consuming, expensive and often fraught search. Child-care costs, which consumed 2 percent of the average family budget in the 1960s, now take up 17 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, second only to a mortgage or rent.
At the crèche, Druckerman, with typical American fears about “institutionalized day care,” worried that she’d be consigning her child to the DMV. Instead, she found the Canyon Ranch spa. After that, her children went on, like all French children, to the state-subsidized ecole maternelle. The 34-country Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks France No. 1 for 100 percent preschool attendance, even though it’s not mandatory, while the United States ranks toward the bottom, with 46 percent.
The absence in America of the crèche on the corner symbolizes most profoundly how Americans are still fighting the exhausting Mommy Wars: whether it’s better to sacrifice career and education and stay home with Baby, or cobble together expensive child care and schlep into work in a guilt-induced haze.