However, I’ve been meaning to write something about Mrs. Maier for a while now. In September the Globe and Mail ran a column on her in their focus section. Maier is a french writer–who lives in a self-imposed exile in Belgium.
The phrase of choice from her article is: “I really regret it, I really regret having children.”
It is a combination of tart sisterly advice (“What hope is there of having a fulfilling sex life when a woman is forced to turn into a fat, deformed animal decked out in sack-like dresses?”) with shock-tactic social analysis (“More murders and child abuse happen within families than outside them. Every family is a nest of vipers – all the reason not to add to your own”).
Maier’s sentiments are shockingly progressive for a French society consumed with what she calls “baby mania.” However, Maier’s antagonism is that of the overburdened French woman who carries the weight of the nation on her back–a vestige of imperialism if ever there was one. In France, the maintenance of the idea of ‘nation’ and certainly, then, the ideals which sustain that Nation depend entirely on a high birth rate in order to maintain the ‘purity’ of French blood. If motherhood didn’t already include enough burdens of care for the woman, in the French formulation it carries the weight of not only childcare, but of National identity itself. Maier has certainly made her burden audible.
There’s a loud and expensive national crusade to have as many children as possible and valorize motherhood. It is a nation where the winner of the President’s motherhood medal (what other country has those?) makes the cover of Paris-Match, a place where people follow the fertility rate the way Americans follow the Dow Jones Industrial Average and where a national celebration with distinctly racist overtones erupted last year when that fertility rate reached the stable-population point of 2.1 children per mother, making France the continental European leader in fecundity. Upon the loins of the Frenchwoman, the weight of a nation.
o counter this, Ms. Maier has used her little book to place a new word in the French vocabulary, a word that has entered the popular lingo in much the same way that “soccer mom” entered North American English in 1993 – and for the same reason, because it defines a new category of person who is instantly identifiable.
The word is merdeuf. French speakers recognize it instantly as a contraction of mère de famille, the traditional phrase for a full-time mother, a housewife, a woman who makes mothering her career. But the contraction turns it into something that sounds like a combination of merde and oeuf, carrying the implication that these patriotic mega-moms are “egg-shitters.”
She explains: “It means, ‘a woman who has children, so she no longer cares about anything else.’ ” With this word, the French image of the full-busted Baby-Bjorn soldier is transformed from Marianne, the patriotic ideal, into something more tragicomic, a victim of that patriotism.
The merdeuf has become a symbol for what Maier calls a France of “infantophilism.” And the women in France carry the weight of a nation obsessed by its own maternalism. Maier’s point is that women are not, and should not be, defined by their ability to have children. To contextualize this one needn’t look any farther than French political rhetoric. Examining the last french election campaigns retrospectively, French politics did not seem to have any other understanding of women except as the crudely apt “egg-shitters” for a nation.
“I just say that when you are a woman, the fact of having children doesn’t provide the meaning of your existence,” she says. “So you can have a meaningful existence not having children. And of course you can have a meaningful existence having children.”
It is, she says, a means of shattering a national delusion, one that is damaging the lives of women, preventing them from progressing in their careers, keeping them from being creative and intelligent. It is a feminist argument, though one also aimed at the “essentialist” feminists who believe that femininity and motherhood are the essential distinguishing characteristics of women.
Ms. Maier tends to agree with those French feminists who see the country’s generous maternity-leave provisions (16 weeks at full-time pay) and its healthy cash payments for additional children (1,000 euros a month for each child after No. 2) as tools of oppression: By rewarding motherhood, the state is preventing the success of women, keeping them out of the work force, trapping them in a prison of domesticity. And allowing women to believe that children are the answer.
While I don’t agree that maternity leave is a tool of oppression or that children destroy the liberty of the woman, I do agree that the ability to have children does not define a woman. As a woman whose father speaks of her legacy to him as if she were a womb alone, I think I understand Corinne’s frustration. What Corinne misses is that it is a nation consumed by a patriarchy that supports capitalist notions of progress and feminine identity, which gives her her woes. I’m sure were she able to balance her desires with the needs of her children, she might paint a different picture– though perhaps not. But, until the French nation is no longer a vestige of patriarchal notions of progress, and women cease to be the economic trump cards of a nation consumed by racism and sexism, I will not discredit her. Who wants to be an egg-shitter, or even the English equivalent a soccer mom? Blech. Not me.
I leave you with Mrs. Maier’s verdict on children, which is eerily similar to one pronounced by one of my professors: “The child is a kind of vicious dwarf, of an innate cruelty.”
Hmmm I don’t like the future of reproduction–do you?