Global Mamas: France

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


We’re profiling one mother from every country on the planet. (Current tally: 8 down, 184 countries to go!)


Meet Irene Nam. She’s a 34-year-old photographer and writer born and raised in Paris, France, where she currently lives with her husband and twin sons, Sean and Will, 10. She speaks three languages: French, Korean — fluently — and English. “I learned English in junior and high school,” she says, “so I speak it with a French accent.” Can it get more international (or cuter!) than that?

Irene’s images have appeared in various print and online publications, and on exhibit at the Fotofest Gallery in Houston and the Impossible Project Space in New York City. You may view some of her work on her site Irene Nam Photography.

A social change enthusiast, Irene works with non-profit organizations to help improve the quality of life, education and the future of children around the world.

Here’s her story …

Photo by Irene Nam

Life before baby …
I had just graduated from film school, was an intern at a production company and was adjusting myself to married life.

My ideas about motherhood …
I didn’t really think about it, but I did have many preconceived ideas and notions about motherhood. I grew up in a dysfunctional family and my parents divorced when I was 12, but for some reason I thought that being a mother was something that I would be really, really good at. I know … what was I thinking?

And while I was pregnant, I stuck with that idea. I would get tons of advice from other mothers, but mostly on what car seat or stroller to purchase rather than how to prepare myself for the biggest change of my life. I guess before you have your first child it is impossible to anticipate things like sleep deprivation or the transformation of body and mind that accompanies becoming a mother.

Then came the babies …
When I found out we were having twins, I giggled. Just laughed compulsively. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the news. It was just surreal. And then the doctor started to explain to me what carrying twins implies: that it was a high-risk pregnancy and that losing one of the twins could be a possibility. That was my first scared thought.

Everything changed the day my sons were born. The first few months were really, really intense. But my husband and I learned, we made mistakes, we tried harder, every day. (And next month our sons will be 10!)

I think the biggest change was the profound sense of meaning that I got imbued with the moment they appeared, and understanding that my whole world would now revolve around them.

The most challenging part of motherhood …
Preadolescence! So far, the most challenging part of motherhood has been giving my sons opportunities to make their own decisions all while fully loving and accepting them as they are, no matter what choices they make for themselves.

On balancing work and life …
When my sons were 2, I started a part-time job as an assistant to the editor-in-chief for a fashion magazine. My boss was very understanding and office hours were flexible, but work was stressful and my husband was often traveling for business. So after a little more than a year, I decided to quit. I started a personal blog a few months after that and was offered a job opportunity as a contributing writer for ParentDish (formerly Blogging Baby). That was seven years ago, and I have been working from home ever since.

It’s not always easy, and some days are definitely harder than others. I know the guilt. I know the frustration. But I’m very grateful to be able to do work that I love and be there for my sons when they come home from school.

The best part about raising a child in France …
The health care system and the education that my sons have access to, as well as the variety of arts and nationalities that they are regularly exposed to.

France provides a good environment for raising children in terms of  childcare, too. In France, mothers can take up to a three-year parental leave from their job, but most don’t and instead go back to work after a couple of months. Given the opportunity and more financial benefits, I think a lot of mothers would choose to stay home longer .

As a young stay-at-home mom, one of the things that kept me sane during the first few years was the PMI (Protection Maternelle et Infantile), a health center for new mothers and children under 6. Every city has one. And it wasn’t just the fact that I could see a pediatrician, gynecologist and even a therapist for free, it was about having a safe place where I could ask all the questions I wanted and express my frustration, anxiety and sense of inadequacy without being afraid to be judged or criticized. Being able to spend a few hours there every week has been a tremendous help.

The parts I wish were different …

  • Only a few mothers make the decision to quit their job and stay home full-time to take care of their child. And it’s not an easy decision. Stay-at-home mothers are still stereotyped here as women with no ambition, little or no education, and/or married to a man with a large income. And stay-at-home fathers are a rarity.
  • The most challenging part is being Korean (my parents were first-generation immigrants while my husband was born and raised in South Korea) and facing the many expectations and preconceived ideas that both the French society and the Korean community have.
  • I wish sports and the arts were more valued at school and children given more opportunities to do what they love and are most passionate about. French kids go to school on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 8.30am to 4.30pm. I believe it’s the world’s longest school day. They have Wednesday off for activities such as music, dance and sport. This is a very exhausting, unbalanced schedule for children as young as 4.
  • I also wish there were more programs for children to do some volunteer work at school, in their communities, etc.

Best piece of advice I ever heard …
You can have it all, just not at the same time.

If we could jump into a DeLorean and race back in time …
I would tell myself: “You’re not perfect, life is not perfect, you’ll screw up at times and you know what? It’s okay! Also, enjoy now. Because what they say is true, they do grow up too fast.”


If you’d like to nominate a first-time mother living outside of the United States to be featured here, please send an e-mail to: get[dot]msmack [at] gmail [dot] com.


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