France has long been known as a country where working parents are supported, with good family benefits and leave entitlements. But how good is the mental health of women who had full-time careers while bringing up a family in France? In this blog, Constance Beaufils of the National Institute for Demographic Studies in Paris describes new research which looks at how French women feel later in life and which finds these policies seem to favour a sense of wellbeing.
Research in many countries has shown single mothers and those whose careers are interrupted by child-rearing can suffer from poor wellbeing later in life. So what is the situation in France, where female employment rates have long been high and where government policies have generally been thought to be generous in their support of families? Have those policies helped protect the mental health of French women in later life?
We set out to examine whether French women who worked while bringing up their children fared better than others – and we found that indeed, most groups of full-time working mothers did have a better sense of wellbeing than those whose working lives were interrupted by children. There was one exception – women who had their children around the age of 24, the average age of entry to motherhood for those generations, reported heightened anxiety and a lack of support.
Like most Western countries, France has experienced massive changes in recent decades, with divorce, separations and lone parenthood increasingly common. At the same time the labour market has favoured flexibility and therefore employment security has declined.
But France stood out throughout those decades as a country where family benefits were generous. In 2009 the country had the highest spending in the OECD on family benefits, cash payments, and services and tax breaks for families. While the OECD average stood at 2.9 per cent, in France the level was 3.8 per cent. In 2014 it was reported that France spent 1.1% of GDP on early education services while the OECD average stood at 0.7% of GDP.
Key policies included the right to parental leave for employees who have been in their job at least a year, lasting until their child is three. As this is an is an individual entitlement it enables both mother and father to take leave if they wish. A childcare allowance, Complément de libre choix d’activité (CLCA), was available to all families who met the eligibility conditions regardless of whether they took parental leave. This was a flat-rate payment of 572.81 euros per month, reduced for those who worked part time. Additionally, family allowances formed a cornerstone of family policy, with parents automatically receiving additional cash benefits from the birth of their second dependent child until that child reached the age of 20.
We used data from the Health and Occupational Trajectories (Santé et Itinéraire Professionnel,
SIP) survey of people aged 20-74 in 2006 to look more closely at the health and wellbeing of older women. Our sample consisted of women aged between 50 and 78 in 2010 – almost 3000 in total with an average age of 62, and representative of the wider French population in that age group.
For each year of the women’s lives from 18 to 50 we placed them in one of five employment statuses: full-time employed, part-time employed, unemployed, non-employed, or still studying. We also logged whether at each stage they had no children, at least one child under three or at least one child under 16, and whether they were single or in a partnership.
We found half the women in our study mostly worked full-time without a break between the ages of 18 and 50. A quarter worked part time or had long breaks in their working lives, while one in five left work and remained largely outside the labour market throughout their adult lives.
The average age for the birth of a first child was 24 and one in five had a first child around this age, while a further fifth had their first child later. One third had a first child before the age of 24, and most were in couples – just one in eight mothers were mostly single between the ages of 18 and 50.
We looked at three different types of wellbeing by which to judge the effects of being a working mother: physical health and disability; mental health and wellbeing; and social wellbeing including whether they felt supported at home and career satisfaction.
We took into account past health problems and variations in age among our sample.
Working and thriving
Overall, we found women who had children later and who remained in full-time work had the highest levels of wellbeing across all three categories, along with those who remained childless. Those who left work, had long breaks or went back part time had lower wellbeing scores.
There was one group which appeared to buck the trend: women who remained in full-time work but had a first child around the average age reported more anxiety symptoms, bad perceived health and lack of social support than the other full-time groups. Notably, these women spent more time with children who had care needs. One explanation for their lower wellbeing is that they experienced work-family tensions for longer than other employed mothers. Moreover, those tensions may have happened at a critical point in their career.
Another interesting finding was that in this mid-range age group, those who worked part time did not report worse mental health, though they did report worse social support, lower career satisfaction and more physical disabilities. None of the women seemed to benefit particularly from working fewer hours.
Even lone mothers who were in full-time work did not have worse wellbeing than others in their age group, once their risk of having to manage on less money was accounted for.
We concluded that France’s family-friendly policies did indeed protect female workers from the strain of juggling work and child-rearing, when compared to other countries – though we were not able to show this conclusively by comparing them with women in other systems. French women seemed to embrace the opportunities this offered them to enhance their careers by working full time.
However, those policies did not completely ease the strain for those who had long periods of childcare, and we could see that lone mothers suffered social and economic issues which led to poorer wellbeing. Some room remained for improving policy to protect mothers, particularly those who faced financial issues and other stresses.
And while both fertility and women’s employment remained high in France, tensions still existed – the careers of fathers were still much more stable than those of mothers, with women who had three or more children tending to have longer periods out of employment despite the country’s egalitarian policies.
Women’s Employment–Family Trajectories and Well-Being in Later Life: Evidence From France, by Constance Beaufils, Anna Barbuscia and Emmanuelle Cambois, is published in the Journal of Aging and Health,