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.
"France," Ms. Maier says, "the infantophile state par excellence."
It was partly this pressure that caused her to leave for the softer and less fertile shores of Brussels, only a 90-minute drive from Paris. She and her partner, who have a psychiatric practice, prefer to have their kids in school here.
"In France, we are supposed to love children more than anything, and it's a bit ridiculous, because it brings a lot of deceptions. It's an idea that is growing in popularity now, and it's very heavy on me. It's become a matter of national identity and it was unfortunately one of the themes of the last election."
Indeed, this year's presidential campaigns were almost obsessively aimed at the merdeuf brigades, with both candidates hinting in their speeches that a fertile nation could keep the brown-skinned hordes at bay. But, as it happens, this year's presidential elections also happened to be dominated by another obsessive theme, one that many people believe was partly put on the agenda by Corinne Maier herself.
In 2004, she wrote another funny little book, this one called Hello Laziness: The Art and the Importance of Doing the Least Possible in the Workplace. It wasn't her first: The same year, she published three very serious titles devoted to French psychiatric theorist Jacques Lacan. But it was the one that set France aflame, becoming a huge bestseller.
At the time, Ms. Maier was working for the national public electrical utility, and found herself ossified by the corporate culture of hypocrisy, euphemism and false devotion. Her book was an insider's examination and defence of the culture of non-work that many felt had overtaken France. The 35-hour workweek had turned French workers, according to their public image, into the world's leading slackers.
Nicolas Sarkozy seized upon her book's phrases and images in his election campaign this year, calling for a "France that gets up in the morning." In his speeches, he would mock her book by shouting, "Goodbye laziness!" Those lines received enormous ovations and you couldn't help but feel that Ms. Maier had catapulted the little man into the Élysée Palace.
If so, it was quite by accident: A stalwart member of the left, she can't stand Mr. Sarkozy.
But if that book raised questions about her political intentions, this one has raised far more personal questions, about her own motherhood. After all, this is a stern polemic against having children, and a direct attack on the notion of children, by a woman who has two (who are, by all accounts, very well adjusted, despite the episode in the gallery).
It contains lines that are far from flattering to kids. "The child is a kind of vicious dwarf, of an innate cruelty," she quotes novelist Michel Houellebecq in one of her chapter headings, and then describes children as base and amoral creatures.
"Children are born to disappoint you," she says. "Because we dream about wonderful children, but there are no wonderful children. They are people like me and you, and they fail, they do things you don't expect, they dream of things you don't even imagine, things that are pointless for you but not for them. So of course they have to disappoint you. Most children are difficult."
For the record, she has given copies of her book to both her children. Neither has picked it up, or paid it any attention. "All they want to do is read Harry Potter," she sighs.
She is painfully honest, as perhaps only a psychiatrist can be, about her own delusions of motherhood. She had been an only child and had hoped that having children would end her feelings of loneliness. She realized too late, she says, that it simply created new forms of loneliness.
"I thought it would be easier. I didn't realize how tough it would be - the organization required, the time you have to spend with them for maybe 20 years. It was the idea of feeling trapped, trapped in something that you are unable to end, it will last you 15 or 20 years and you cannot escape. It is not like a job, which you can change. Or a country."
The change of country had a lot to do with the pressure that French mothers face. "I think a lot of us are tired of France," she says. "Everything is difficult, people look down at you all the time, when you want to do something you need a lot of red tape and you always miss the good opportunities - after some years, it becomes something like a nightmare."
But her book isn't addressed to mothers; it is addressed to those childless women living in the nightmare of French maternalism, a plea for them to avoid her mistakes, to keep using contraceptives.
"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.
"Generally speaking, people who have children have them for the wrong reasons," she says. "They have them because they're afraid of being alone, and they want to grasp a tiny bit of immortality. And anyway, we never get that immortality. You are doing something that is very foolish for society just because you have believed something that is not true."
There is an awkward question that looms over this, though: If she feels so strongly that motherhood is a mistake, is she willing to tell her children that they themselves were mistakes?
It seems obvious that a psychiatrist, who seems to be a successful mother, would instantly deny that. Instead, she thinks about this question for a long time, as if it had never occurred to her before.
"Well, I don't know, in fact," she says. And then brightens: "I think maybe in the future, if at some point, my daughter tells me that she will vote for Sarkozy, I will think very deep inside me that yes, I made a big mistake with her."
40 reasons not to spawn
These are the arguments author Corinne Maier uses in her book to persuade readers to just say no to having children. Each reason gets a chapter.
- The desire for children: A false aspiration.
- Childbirth is torture.
- Don't become a travelling feeding bottle.
- Continue to amuse yourself.
- Subway-job-kids: No thank you!
- Hold onto your friends.
- Do not adopt the idiot language we use to address children.
- To open the nursery is to close the bedroom.
- Child, the killer of desire.
- They are the death knell of the couple.
- To be or to make: You shouldn't have to choose.
- The child is a kind of vicious dwarf, of an innate cruelty.
- It is conformist.
- Children are too expensive.
- You become an ally of capitalism.
- They will destroy your time and your freedom.
- The worst drudgery for the parents.
- Do not be deceived by the notion of the ideal child.
- You will inevitably be disappointed by your child.
- To become a merdeuf (soccer mom) - what horror!
- Parenting above all else - no thanks.
- Block your professional path with children.
- Families: They are horror and cruelty.
- Don't fall into an overgrown childhood.
- To persist in saying "me first" is a badge of courage.
- A child will kill the fond memories of your childhood.
- You will not be able to prevent yourself from wanting your child to be happy.
- Child care is a set of impossible dilemmas.
- School: a prison camp with which you'll have to make a pact.
- To raise a child, but toward what kind of future?
- Flee from the benevolent blandness.
- Parenting will make you soft.
- Motherhood is a trap for women.
- To be a mother, or to succeed: You must choose.
- When the child appears, the father disappears.
- The child of today must be a perfect child: a brave new world.
- Your child will be in constant danger from pedophiles and pornographers.
- Why contribute to a future of unemployment and social exclusion?
- There are too many children in the world.
- Turn your back on the ridiculous rules of the "good" parent.
Doug Saunders is a member of The Globe and Mail's European Bureau. This story originally appeared in the Globe and Mail in Sept. 2007