‘Motherhood is a trap. Marriage is a bad deal’: Feminist Corinne Maier on learning to be selfish

Corinne Maier
Corinne Maier: 'If we want equality, then women are going to have to start living more for themselves' - Celine Nieszawer/Leextra/opale.photo/eyevine
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“It’s never too late to learn how to be selfish,” says Corinne Maier, grave-faced behind her heavy-rimmed spectacles.

“Sadly, women aren’t born that way, so it does have to be learnt. But if we can forget about the ‘superwoman’ we’ve been bullied into thinking we have to be – at home, with the husband, the kids – and release our inner ‘slackerwoman’…”

We would be happier?  “Exactly. Happiness cannot be achieved without selfishness. But that is achievable for every woman. You too can be selfish,” says Maier.

I hope so. I got up at a selfless 4.30am in order to meet the bestselling author of the most provocative new book in France for breakfast in Paris – and be given a crash course in self-centeredness.

#MeFirst! A Manifesto For Female Selfishness has managed to work up even the famously laissez-faire French, with critics branding it “indecent” and “a mockery of devoted mothers”, and commenders heralding it “liberating” and “jubilatory”.

Known as a provocateur in France after a scathing 2004 critique of corporate culture, Hello Laziness, became a bestseller, Maier has also gained notoriety in the US, where The New York Times described her as “a countercultural heroine”.

Part feminist thesis, part self-help manual, the book denounces marriage and coupledom as “a bad deal”, motherhood as “a trap” and “traditional female qualities” such as empathy as a construct devised to enslave us.

Luckily, salvation is at hand in the form of self-worship. All a woman has to do is follow the “ego-therapy” tutorials laid out in the book.

#MeFirst! really does seem to have shocked people,” the 60-year-old writer and psychoanalyst says gaily, sitting across the table from me in a clattering neighbourhood brasserie on the left bank.

“Some people are hating what I’m saying – loathing it!” She is not upset by this partly, I’m assuming, because she has form, after having published Hello Laziness and, subsequently, in 2009, No Kid: 40 Reasons Not To Have Kids, and won plaudits alongside the criticism.

Indeed, back in 2016, Maier was awarded a spot on the coveted BBC 100 Women list. But also because, as she concedes, “the reaction wasn’t altogether surprising.”

Bonjour Laziness
Corinne Maier: 'What I'm saying is extremely shocking to some people'

After all, Maier is telling women to be “negligent, casual and lazy”, to “minimise the time you devote to others” – including “elderly family members” – to give up “trying to maximise your child’s potential” and “escape the role your mothers were trapped into playing”.

And these are just a few of the glitteringly selfish gems. At one point the Geneva-born writer (herself a mother of two) even suggests that moving out of the family home and living an entirely separate life would be best. Little wonder that when Maier recently went on a national television show to spread her message “things got pretty lively”. She pulls a face, shakes her head. “Wow.”

Why does she think people have reacted so strongly to what are, ultimately, only her personal views? “Because they’re scared.” She nods, sighs. “I do understand that what I’m saying is extremely shocking to some people. Some women will cling to all this stuff because it’s part of their identity and they might feel that what I’m saying destroys their ideals. But listen, I have ideals too, and I’m allowed to air them.”

For what it’s worth, I tell Maier – a curly-haired and demurely-dressed brunette with a reassuringly humorous glint in her eye – I found #MeFirst! compelling and can’t wait to see what British women make of it, once a translation is available (she’s currently in talks with a UK publisher).

Stop people-pleasing

There are moments when her ideas are so outlandish that you question whether she’s being tongue-in-cheek, but the basic point – stop being people-pleasers and please ourselves – is serious and the book is packed full of glorious historical and literary references.

A former economist who studied international relations and economics at France’s elite National Foundation of Political Sciences, Maier is now a full-time writer. But that background has proved helpful today. Even when she is at her most provocative in #MeFirst!, she manages to support many of her theories with facts and figures.

Research does indeed confirm that women have less time for themselves and are more tired in 2024 than ever before, with statistics showing that the pandemic effectively stymied progress.

Today an average 79 per cent of European women (with or without children) undertake household chores and cook on a daily basis, compared to just 34 per cent of men.

Meanwhile, according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey, 63 per cent of British women take care of what’s known as “the extra shift”, compared to just 22 per cent of men.

In the book, Maier reminds us that 17 per cent of unemployed women have quit their jobs in order to look after a loved one compared to 1  per cent of men, that being “nice” at work corresponds to a 21 per cent lower salary, and that only 18 per cent of companies currently have a female head.

“But if we want equality,” she tells me, sipping her freshly squeezed orange juice, “then women are going to have to start living more for themselves. #MeFirst! is the natural progression to #MeToo, and we should all start embracing the idea.”

My mother’s generation would most likely be horrified by Maier’s perception of motherhood. In #MeFirst! she writes about what she calls “babywashing”, which is “the lie constructed around being a mum. The idea that children make women blossom, and that suddenly our lives are more rich, rewarding and beautiful because of them.”

The trouble with motherhood

When publicising No Kid, the writer admitted that there were times when “I regret having children”, and today she refuses to soften this, insisting: “I really did find raising children appalling. The accumulation of all the tasks and responsibilities – it was just appalling. So for me, it was a progressive realisation that there was a big problem here for women, and that things had to change.”

Older generations may also believe that women today couldn’t get any more selfish, having already reached peak me, me, me – and that they should be devoting more time, not less, to their poor husbands.

But Maier shakes her head sadly when I tell her this. “As I say, I do see where they’re coming from, because they’ve seen a lot of change over the past few years, but there’s so much more progress to be made! And by the way, if they think the younger generations are egotistical, they should just wait for the next, because they’ll be still more so.”

In #MeFirst!, she questions why, despite having worked through so many waves of feminism that no one knows where we are anymore, little girls still aren’t being taught “to get their claws out” in verbal terms: “How to have your say in a hostile environment, how to speak at length without being interrupted, how to take the lead in a group.”

“Remember that empathy,” Maier stresses today, “is just one of the supposed ‘caring’ qualities we’ve had projected onto us. Qualities that happen to be very convenient for men.”

Maier’s son and daughter – aged 27 and 30 – are all grown up now. And although reluctant to share too much about her family, she will say that she finds her “own daughter very selfish, for example, which is wonderful. Fantastic.”

She tells me how she’s moved around the world for work, with her boyfriends following her rather than the other way around. “When back in my day, it was always the woman who followed the man. Always the woman making the sacrifices.”

How did they react to what she said about motherhood? “Well, actually they never read any of my books.” Which is probably a good thing? “It could be a bit tricky if they really went through them in detail,” she agrees with a chuckle. “But luckily for me they are completely indifferent.”

How to have a ‘selfish’ marriage

Then there are the chapters on husbands in #MeFirst!, the ones that point out how beneficial marriage is for men, and how detrimental it is for women on every level – right down to life expectancy.

“Statistically,” she writes, “married women will die younger than unmarried women.” Which is true. Yet Maier herself has been married for 32 years, so she must believe in love? “Oh, I do.” And enjoy being married, to some extent? Actually, her husband not only lives separately, she explains, but 1,000 kilometres away.

“I’m in Brussels and he’s in the south of France. We’re only together half the time, so I have the perfect selfish life.” Whilst it worked out that way for professional reasons, “I have to be honest and say that it really is a very pleasant arrangement,” she adds.

Both in the book and in person, however, Maier is keen to stress that men are not the enemy. “It’s society as a whole that is preventing us from looking after ourselves and putting our needs above other peoples.”

Surely, it’s often other women who pressurise us most now, by pushing the “superwoman” narrative and insisting that everything can be juggled perfectly if a woman is just organised enough – with a perfect manicure and blow-dry to boot?

“Absolutely,” agrees Maier, who incidentally believes that physical primping and pampering “isn’t true selfishness, because we’re still trying to live up to society’s expectations there. Those things are still more of a chore than a pleasure for many women. So true selfishness is not to give a damn about surface appearance.”

The “competitive mothering” or “helicopter mum” bunch, who will “breastfeed for years”, and spend hours on their childrens’ homework with them “want us all to be in the same boat,” says Maier, “because it’s reassuring for them. Those women don’t like it if you don’t conform.”

Ironically, what she writes in the book about “leaving your children to get on with it” is exactly what today’s parenting experts are advising. We’ve seen what too much attention has done to a whole generation of children, so there’s the added bonus of knowing that being selfish might actually work in their favour.

Practical life advice

My favourite part of #MeFirst! is when Maier starts offering practical solutions to the female quagmire: how to choose your partner carefully, without being so blinded by love that you end up subservient; how to be miserly with your time when it comes to helping others; how to get out of extended family responsibilities.

Some of it made me laugh out loud. Some of it made me wince. And some of it made me want to punch the air and shout: “Yes!”

Could I have my crash “ego-therapy” course now? “Well, I’d have to know a bit more about your life and marriage first,” she demurs. So right there in that bustling Parisian brasserie, I extend myself on the virtual couch, giving her as much detail as I can and taking care to emphasise where I am most doormat-like (arranging my social schedule around his; allowing myself to be drowned out in conversation).

When I’m done Maier sits back in her chair, mulling over her prescription. First off, she says, every woman needs “an ego box” – her version of Virginia Woolf’s argument that every woman needs a room of her own.

Before she had her own home, Maier rented a tiny “maid’s room” where she could go and write in peace. “But, of course, not everyone has the means to do that,” she accepts, “so any room with a lock will do.”

Next, I need to start interrupting my husband when he speaks over me. “All women should be doing this frequently and with complete assurance,” she says firmly. “And it’s important to do it in a loud voice, but without getting shrill: low and loud is best. And remember that it doesn’t matter how little you know about whatever the subject is. That it interests you is a legitimate enough excuse for you to be pontificating.”

I can’t help but laugh here, recognising the infamous male “mansplaining” trait, and I’m relieved when Maier joins in. For all the ferocity of her views, she is warm and witty in person. “Men do have a tendency to talk about things they know nothing about,” she goes on, serious once again.

“And because they are able to do it with utter confidence, they will get a project financed or convince whoever needs to be convinced, despite not having the necessary knowledge or experience. Women, however, tend to only talk with confidence about things they do actually know – and that’s where we need to change.” Got it.

This brings us to “hypocrisy” – something I should “be inserting into my life as much as possible”. Because…? “Think about it. Selfish people are always very hypocritical. Why? Because it’s extremely useful in order to camouflage what is, in fact, total selfishness, so I’d advocate a lot of that.”

Embrace incompetence, reject perfectionism

One of the key points in her book is the embracing of strategic incompetence. Long ago accepted as a useful professional tool – do menial tasks badly and people will start handing them over to others – this is not used enough by women in a domestic setting, Maier says.

“Yet the scope is huge!” she marvels. “Cleaning, organisation, shopping, cooking: you can do it all poorly. So if, for example, you want to get out of doing the weekly shop, buy a load of stuff nobody wants to eat and after it has just sat there going mouldy in the fridge, nobody will want you to do it again.” Genius! Stuffed anchovies and sauerkraut it is.

Maier accepts that there will be “a tricky period in the interim where the house is in chaos and the food is awful, but too many women are perfectionists in that regard, and we need to quash that perfectionism, because ultimately it gets in the way of our own happiness”. She emphasises that it’s crucial not to focus on whether a task is done well: “What’s important is that it’s done by someone else.”

I can feel myself becoming more selfish by the second. But what about all the extras: the picking up and dropping off of kids, the buying of birthday presents, the attending of family events? “There are loads of ways to get out of those things,” Maier says with a Gallic shrug.

“You tell everyone you’ve got too much work, that you’ve taken on an extra course that’s taking up a lot of your time, that you have to check in on a friend who needs you. But you keep it vague…” Is she saying to lie? “White lies,” she protests. “Because lying can be necessary in order to preserve one’s own life, and what better reason is there?”

Our time is up, but before I leave I’d like Maier to describe a day in the life of one of her selfish converts. She does this with relish. “She has chosen – wisely – to look after the kids in the morning, and not do the evening shift, which is a few hours longer. So she gets them up, makes them breakfast, and from the age of 8 or 9 sends them off to school alone.

“Then, she goes to work, takes care of her own professional needs, and after work, since she has left all the slave labour for her husband to take care of, she can go to the gym, see her friends, relax, maybe catch a film. She has the whole evening ahead, just for her.”

It’s an appealing vision, I tell her. “Isn’t it?” Maier gives a rapturous smile. “Welcome to Egoland.”

#MeFirst!: A Manifesto For Female Selfishness by Corinne Maier (Les Editions de L’Observatoire, £14.60) is out now

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