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Are French mothers-in-law really that bad?

Intrusive and domineering French mothers-in-law are responsible for an "epidemic" of divorces between French people and their British spouses, a report in the British media has claimed. Are they really a source of splits?

Are French mothers-in-law really that bad?
Photo: Jose Antonio Morcillo Valencianio
The word in French for mother-in-law is belle-mère – or “beautiful mother”. Similarly, the French word for daughter-in-law translates to “beautiful daughter”.
 
With such a sweet start to the relationship, you have to wonder why a Google search of “French mother-in-law” immediately brings up “from hell” and “problems”. 
 
In fact, it appears that something of an intrusive personality on the part of the French belle-mère is causing serious rifts in cross-Channel relationships.
 
At least that's according to the UK newspaper the Sunday Times, which claimed there was “an epidemic” of divorces between British women and French men right now. Although the paper based this statement wholly on “anecdotal evidence”.
 
So is there really a problem with the French mother-in-law?
 
One European woman in France told The Local that she has had her fair share of hoops to jump through with her French mother-in-law – especially at the dinner table. 
 
“She even told me once that I filled my glass up too much. A mistake I never made again. I was mortified.”
 
The woman added that she felt pressured to be present at all the “sacred” family gatherings, even if there were more than a couple each month.
 
“You have to have a really good excuse to not turn up, meaning you spend a lot of time at your parents-in-law,” she says, adding that the frequency of the visits left her own family back home jealous. 
 
Photo: Dominique Chappard/Flickr
 
Another Anglo reader with solid experience of la belle-mère told The Local that his French wife's mother was “sweet and generous… but it always felt like there was an undertone”.
 
“I've found that French mothers can be more interfering and more protective. My friends say the same thing. Plus she always judges my cooking,” he added.

 
A reader in a similar situation said: “I wouldn't even risk cooking for my French mother-in-law. My nerves couldn't take it.
 
“She often has this look of disappointment and regret on her face which says: 'You're fine, I like you, but I wish you were French'.
 
An American in Paris was far more positive of his experience with his mother-in-law.

“Although she tends to view the US as “the evil empire”, or at least thinks US leaders are untrustworthy, she does not transfer that view towards me,” he told The Local.

“She is very supportive of my speaking to my children in English, and happily entertains US foods, sports and trends that inevitably creep into our household.

“If I offer her a beer for apéro she is happy to accept. She won’t reach for the bottle of Bourgogne instead.”

So while there may be issues, is there really an epidemic of failing relationships brought down by French mums?

Jill Bourdais, a psychotherapist specializing in couples who has lived in France for almost 40 years, says the extent of the issue is “exaggerated”, but that it does crop up “every now and then”.  
 
 
“It's definitely is a phenomenon, but I don't know if you can target the French for it. If you were to walk down a street in the UK you'd find some people who dislike their mother-in-laws – and others who say theirs are great,” she tells The Local. 
 
But she believes that there are some cultural differences between French families and others that can prove trying for bi-national families – especially when money is involved.
 
“In my time, in the US, our parents paid for our university education and then expected their adult children to fend for themselves. In France, higher education is largely funded by the state, meaning that parents have more disposable income later down the line because they haven't shot their wad on their children's education.”
 
“This makes French children a bit more indebted to their parent, and means French parents can be more involved in their adult children's lives. Because the parents are more involved financially, they therefore feel like they have the right to put in their two cents. Some parents are very involved, taking children regularly on holidays, and other things that may be seen as interfering.”
 
 
Photo: Kevin Dooley/Flickr
 
So what's her advice for someone struggling with her French mother-in-law?
 
“A woman has the choice – she can either defend herself and risk creating conflict, or let it go. The husband is often reluctant to intervene because of a loyalty bond to his mother, so asking him to do so when the problem is the wife's won't necessarily help.
 
“You have to be prepared for cultural clashes. A French mother-in-law won't have the same take on how to raise children, she might complain about they dress, how they talk, how much they read.”
 
“If you do have a problem, invite her out to lunch, say that you need to talk about what's going on between the two of you. Start by giving her all the positives, then say that there are a few things that really bother you and wait for her reaction. Then take it from there.”
 
The ultimate taboo?
 
Of course, the matter is somewhat clouded by the fact that many people don't dare to speak out about it. Even to therapists, perhaps. 
 
Bourdais says that when raising the topic with a colleague, they admitted they'd never heard a complaint about mother-in-laws from a client. Bourdais also recalled that when the topic of French mother-in-laws was brought up in a monthly magazine for around 500 American wives of European men, most women were actually very admiring of their French belle-mère
 
“Those who wrote in were almost all laudatory. But then, I figured that any women who actually disliked their mothers-in-laws probably wouldn't put it in print. 500 women can't all be happy.” 
 
Other therapists The Local spoke with suggested that bi-cultural families usually suffer from a whole range of cultural differences and very few would pin it down on just one family member.
 
Cynthia Davis said that she even had a client who complained that their “expressive French husband's” face seemed far too “contemptuous”. 
 
So it appears that drinking, cuisine, raising children, money and indeed language are all some of the cultural pressure points, that if pressed can easily cause friction between Gallic in-laws and expats.
 
But then again any kind of relationship can be affected by these differences and perhaps a little more effort on the part of foreigners would go a long way to smoothing over problems.
 
And while the French mother-in-law be difficult so too can a mother-in-law from anywhere. 
 
As they say, you only need to mix around the letters of “mother-in-law” to get “Woman Hitler”.
 
Good luck with yours.  

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LIVING IN FRANCE

Crèche to cafés: How to make friends with other parents in France

Moving to a new country is complicated for so many reasons, while raising small children can sometimes feel like an assault course. If you happen to be combining the two, you’ll definitely need a support network - here journalist and mum-of-two Helen Massy-Beresford shares some tips for making friends in France.

Crèche to cafés: How to make friends with other parents in France

I have often read descriptions of new arrivals in France struggling to break down the reserve of chilly French neighbours and colleagues or finding the parents at their children’s schools snobbish and even hostile. Perhaps I have just been very lucky, but this hasn’t been my experience at all.

There are plenty of opportunities to connect and make friends – both for you and for your children – but when you’re newly arrived it can be hard to know where to start.

The Baby Days

The early weeks and months of a new baby can be brutal, and having good friends around can make all the difference. Maternity leave tends to be short in France and many mums are back at work after three months.

While employees can request a congé parental d’éducation to prolong that leave, and more and more employers are wising up to the fact that dads can look after babies too and allowing for leave to be split, a short congé followed by crèche (the holy grail) or assistante maternelle for the baby remains the norm.

Pregnancy to maternity leave: What you need to know if you’re having a baby in France

Possibly for this reason, parent-and-baby activities can seem rather lacking here. When I had my first child in London we were spoiled for choice: baby cinema, baby music, baby sensory, baby gym plus regular meet-ups with fellow new mums and their babies to drink coffee and stare into space.

In Paris, with my second daughter, I found much less in the way of entertainment for parents with new babies in tow (because let’s face it, the whole point is to occupy the parents) but these activities do exist, you just have to seek them out.

Look out for posters for baby yoga, baby music and the like. The babies might only be interested in chewing the flyers but the classes can be great ways to meet parents of similar-aged children.

Facebook still has its uses – check out local parents’ groups for your area. These can be a hive of useful information, with everything from paediatrician recommendations to offers to sell and swap baby clothes and equipment.

I’ve also made good friends by replying to meet-up requests from fellow English-speaking mums. When you’re sleep- deprived, sometimes it’s nice to be able to chat easily in your mother tongue.

The childcare setup you choose might be one way to forge new connections in France: while you’re unlikely to cross paths much with fellow parents dropping off or picking up at the crèche, for a garde partagée – one nanny shared between two families – you’ll need to find a co-family you get on with and with any luck your children will become friends.

One alternative to the standard crèche municipale (where spaces are rarer than unicorns anyway) is the crèche parentale, run by an association of parents – here you would have no choice but to get involved alongside the other parents.

READ ALSO How does the cost of childcare compare in France?

Looking beyond formal weekday childcare, lieux d’accueil are, as the name suggests, welcoming spaces with toys and room to play, where staff (often volunteers) are there to lend an ear if needed.

My daughter met her best friend at our local one when they were just 18 months old, six years later the friendship – extended to the whole families – is still going strong.

In the same vein, ludothèques are public spaces where kids can play with or sometimes borrow toys. In the summer months ludothèques and libraries sometimes set up outdoor reading or play spaces in parks. Some crèches and school playgrounds open at weekends for play sessions with children and their parents or carers.

Look out too for posters by associations (charities) in your local area advertising events for families: these can be themed around certain activities or just casual meet-ups sometimes known as a café des parents – all good places to meet local families, exchange local tips and maybe strike up a friendship.

But if you’re struggling to the point that a cheer-up-coffee-and-cake won’t help, there are plenty of organisations that can provide more targeted support, whether that’s with practicalities such as breastfeeding or just for company and advice.

You may be familiar with your local Protection Maternelle et Infantile (PMI) from taking your baby to be weighed, but these organisations offer much more besides, with a team made up of childcare experts, doctors and nurses that can help with health checks, monitoring your baby’s development and providing advice and support, both practical and moral. They also put on support groups for future and new parents as well as baby massage classes.

Family-centred society: What it’s really like raising kids in France

Park Life

Once your children are a little older, and especially if you live in a city, you’ll certainly spend more time in the playground than you ever thought possible.

French parents are usually pretty hands-off with their charges, letting them get on with eating sand or climbing the wrong way up the slide while they watch from afar.

Don’t be afraid to get chatting to your bench neighbour – we’ve made several good friends this way over the years, with the parents getting on as well as the kids.

For rainy days, see if there are any kids’ cafés near you – indoor space where children can run wild and parents can access caffeine.

Extracurricular Activities

Whether your child chooses football, scouts, fencing or dance, extracurricular activities are often run by associations so there will often be chances for parents to get involved in the organisation, a great way to meet other parents and volunteers.

If you’re on the lookout for English-speaking activities, you’ll find plenty (particularly in and around Paris) from musical theatre to Brownies. Don’t forget activities for yourself as well – once you have a babysitting option in place (see below) you’ll be free to meet people who share your love of archery or woodwork.

If you’re in search of ideas, in early September (la rentrée) be sure to attend your local Forum des Associations, where sports, arts and anything-you-can-think-of clubs and societies gather to set out what they offer.

Birthday Parties

Once your child or children are a bit older, birthdays are a good way to get to expand your local social circle.

Forget the organised fun of British kids’ parties, French parties are Lord of the Flies with Haribo.

No need for a lovingly prepared, balanced birthday tea, the menu is bonbons, bonbons, more bonbons and cake. And they probably won’t eat the cake.

In my experience French children do enjoy classic British party games such as pass the parcel and pin the tail on the donkey but they don’t really expect this kind of organised activity or entertainment, they just want to crash around with their friends.

Above the age of about three, most parents are delighted to leave their little darlings in the care of the birthday child’s parents, so the social part for the adults comes at the end, when they will most likely be happy to stay for a drink at pick-up time. The host parents will certainly need one.

School Gates

If you already have children when you move to France, slotting into the school system might seem an intimidating prospect. But your children will make friends quickly (even if they also have to learn French at the same time) and their friendships might also help you widen your social circle, although it will probably take time.

Depending on how many children you have and whether their school does everything from maternelle to lycée or not, you might be crossing paths with other parents at your child’s school for 15 years or more – so you may as well be on friendly terms.

As anywhere, the morning school run is usually a fraught experience, and since Covid, many schools have kept their staggered drop-off times for different classes, making it more of a drop-and-run than a chance for a relaxed chat. In the afternoon, some kids will be picked up by babysitters and others will stay at afterschool club, again, making it unlikely you’ll see the same parents day in day out.

But a friendly bonjour goes a long way and you’ll gradually get chatting to the parents of your child’s classmates at school fairs, parents’ meetings and birthday parties.

If your schedule allows, volunteering to accompany school trips can be a good way to get to know your child’s friends, teacher and the other parent volunteers. You can bond over the stress of trying to prevent 20-odd tiny terrors from launching themselves into the traffic or getting lost on the Metro.

You could also try volunteering for your school’s Association de parents d’élèves – chipping in to help organise the summer fair or Christmas market will be a great way to make friends with other parents.

Babysitters

Even when you’re in the thick of it, maintaining your links with the wide world beyond child-rearing is vital, so getting set up with a babysitter you trust is a good move.

You can go with one of many nanny/babysitting agencies such as www.kinougarde.com or www.babychou.com or if you want a personal recommendation ask around other parents at the crèche or school or check out requests on your local online parents’ group (see above).

Our school parents’ association helpfully provides a list of older children looking for babysitting jobs. Yours might too.

Once you have a trusted babysitter in place the world’s your oyster – join a local club or activity or take up a new sport and you’re bound to make like-minded friends.

Expat Associations

Sticking entirely to an expat bubble won’t help you integrate with your new French neighbours in the long-run, but groups aimed at English speakers can be a godsend, especially when you’re newly arrived or when your children are small and the navigating the unfamiliar in a foreign language is just too much.

In Paris, Message (www.messageparis.org) offers everything from antenatal classes to trick-or-treating events for older kids alongside plenty of practical support and tips on how to navigate life and parenting in France for new mums and dads as well as parents of older kids. Members are organised into local groups by arrondissement or suburb, meaning it’s easy to forge links close to home – I met one of my closest friends here that way.

Facebook can play a role here too, there are groups for English-speaking parents linked to specific areas and one in particular, Mums Space France, covers the whole country, offering advice, meet-ups and virtual camaraderie.

Helen Massy-Beresford is a journalist, editor and copywriter who has lived in France since 2016.

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