The Swiss-French motherhood conundrum


Like many women I’m curious how parenting works in other cultures, and even more so now that I live on the border of Switzerland and France. I’m not a mother myself, but I’m already taking notes on how the mères I see around Geneva interact with their children.

There is a lot to admire about Swiss-French mothers–they always seem to be well-groomed and yoga pants-free (which is not something I can claim to be). The kids are adorable too. I haven’t seen a temper tantrum or even an overweight child and I know these kids eat chocolate on a daily basis.

Perhaps all the secrets of French parenting can be found in this book, which claims:

“The French children [the author] knows sleep through the night at two or three months old while those of her American friends take a year or more. French kids eat well-rounded meals that are more likely to include braised leeks than chicken nuggets. And while her American friends spend their visits resolving spats between their kids, her French friends sip coffee while the kids play. ”

I want to raise sweet, leek-eating enfants and have a social life, too! Where do I sign up for that program?


As most things are, the system is not as perfect as it appears to be. Raising lovely Swiss-French children takes work and the bulk of it generally falls to the mothers. It does not have to be that way, but it is according my Swiss-French parent friends.

Maternity leave in Switzerland is something to applaud: A minimum of 14 paid weeks for all mothers. There is no paternity leave though many businesses allow two weeks for new fathers. As is true in most parts of the world, this sets up a precedent for women to stay home with their children until they begin school….except the school system is not structured in a way that relieves mothers of these duties then either.

In many schools children have a nearly two-hour lunch break Monday through Friday with Wednesday afternoons off. Parents are expected to pick up children for lunch and Wednesday afternoons. I’d overheard some expat mothers lament that every time they drop their kids off at school they barely get anything done before they must pick them up again. Now, I get it.

Most schools do offer an on-campus lunch in their cantine (cafeteria), but places in the cantine are limited to children of families who need it the most–those who can prove they cannot afford childcare and those where both parents are employed full-time. This is as it should be, in my opinion.

But what would happen if I tried to enroll my child in a cantine program?

We are middle-class, I think. I’m the wife of a freelance journalist and I make a little money here and there writing. I want a full-time job…then again, if we’re both gainfully employed, does that mean we fall into the “can afford childcare” category? It matters completely on the makeup of families in the school. The luck of the draw.


“The school system is not supportive of women getting back into the workplace, but the biggest deterrent are cultural pressures,” one of my parent friends told me. He and his French wife have teenagers whom she still cooks a warm lunch for every day when they come home from high school. When I asked him why she couldn’t leave some sandwiches in the fridge, he said that that would be frowned upon. Not something good French mothers do. (Sheesh!) This is simply how it has always been, he added. Très français.

I hope you are having a guilt-free week! Here are a few links for your Monday:

Images via here


2 thoughts on “The Swiss-French motherhood conundrum

  1. Great article, Paige!

    These motherhood issues you raise are the same over here on the Swiss-German side of the country, and I believe it’s a cultural norm across all of Switzerland. While Zurich does have a higher ratio of women in the workforce than most Swiss cities, there is a common assumption that women should stop working once they begin having children. This assumption is reinforced by the school schedule and childcare system. They make it very difficult for both parents to work, unless you have the means to pay thousands more for addition childcare.

    On one hand, I like the traditional values of family that cut across Swiss culture. It’s great that families have lots of time together and that society reinforces the importance of family time. However, there is so much pressure and frustrating stigmas that come with such a narrow construct, and I don’t think the “shaming culture” found in Swiss society is very healthy. Yet, as we’d find under any nation’s flag, there are many pros and cons to being a mother in Switzerland.

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful comment Hailey! I also secretly love the traditional values the Swiss adhere to when it comes to family and I’ll likely adopt them myself. I do wonder if the cultural pressures on women are enough to stifle the next Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg of Switzerland. Probably not (!!), but it’s worth exploring while living here. One of those things you can do as an expat!

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