A few months ago, Corinne Maier had one of those days. It was a pedestrian moment of domestic torture, a slice of unvarnished tedium and banality, the sort that all parents experience on a daily basis. The difference being that when Corinne Maier has a bad day, it has a way of transforming a nation.
"We went to a family dinner in the suburbs of Paris. It took us a lot of time to go there with the children, and we went because the children wanted to go. We didn't want to go, my partner and I, and it was a bit boring, but we took them anyway," she says with a Gallic nonchalance, strolling across an empty floor in the enormous, art-filled house in one of the better corners of Brussels where she lives in a kind of exile from France with her partner, Yves, 45, their daughter Laure, 13, and son, Cecil, 10.
"And on the way back, the two of us thought that it would be nice to see an exhibition on Belgian surrealists. Once inside the museum, the children began to be awful." Laure said that the exhibition was "bullshit." Cecil began to scream, so Yves took him outside. "And I started yelling at him for this: 'Why aren't you more strong with him?' And we began to argue. We didn't see anything. And at that point, I thought, 'I really regret it, I regret having children.' "
She regrets having children. And, more so, she has decided that other women ought not to have them, if they know what is good for themselves and for the world. After 13 years of maternal humiliations, she wrote a quick, funny, angry book.
Everywhere you look in France these days, you seem to see its cover: The words NO KID in English, followed by "40 Reasons for Not Having Children" in French. It is a huge bestseller. Her 40 reasons are often funny and personal ("Don't become a travelling feeding bottle," "don't adopt the idiot-language of children") sometimes bitter ("you will inevitably be disappointed with your child") and often designed to puncture the idealized notion of motherhood that poisons Western societies.
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").
Such notions, in France today, are almost unthinkable. It is a country overtaken with what Ms. Maier calls "baby mania."
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.
To 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.