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Pregnant Women’s Third Shift. The Management of Pregnancy in France, between Women’s Rights and Mothers’ Duties

Elsa Boulet

Research framework: In France, the management of pregnancies rests upon a set of legal measures (health, social insurance, and labour rights) and stabilized medical practices (standard prenatal care). This paper questions the time management of pregnancies and tackles the contradiction between several temporalities. Pregnant women are entrusted with specific tasks and responsibilities for the fetus’ sake, this third shift adds up to domestic labour and in many cases to paid labour.

Objectives: This paper analyzes how the legal frame and the medical control have ambiguous and unequal effects for pregnant women.

Methodology: It draws on interviews and ethnographic observation conducted in the Paris’ region from 2014 to 2017. Thirty women were interviewed during their pregnancy, amongst whom 11 were interviewed twice or three times. Hospital care was observed from different places and times: registration, appointments with a midwife or obstetrician, antenatal classes.

Results: The management of pregnancy assigns an individualized responsibility to women for guaranteeing the fetus’s health. Health care for women can be intensive and rests upon their permanent availability for it. This is made possible by subordinating their professional timetable to health care requirements. Employees seek to minimize the impact of their pregnancy in their workplace by separating medical time and professional time.

Conclusions: Access to health care is largely effective and the legislation ensures that all pregnant women get prenatal care, which makes it at the same time an obligation for women. This obligation is more or less constraining depending on women’s resources. Measures concerning pregnant workers are not so beneficial as employers often do not abide by them, and employees only partially use them. Middle- or upper-class workers and those on the upper levels of the occupational hierarchy benefit more from these measures than others.

Contribution: This paper contributes to the sociology of work-life balance, to the sociology of health and to the sociology of inequalities.