How giving birth to my first child proved to be my most terrifying – and rewarding – French exam.
When I checked into the sea-side Santa Maria Clinic in Nice, France in January, pregnant with my first baby and having sprung a leak, I was a little afraid of the long, French-speaking night I had ahead of me.
I was, however, well prepared: My bags had been packed meticulously, I’d memorized all of the French hospital words I could find on the internet (epidural = la péridurale), and I’d even tried to work on some of the psychological aspects of childbirth. (I’d spent our drive to the clinic pointing out people on the street, reminding myself and my husband that everyone had once been inside someone else, and had come out: The stylishly ageing woman crossing the Promenade des Anglais with a walker, the three Moroccan guys smoking outside the Tabac shop — even the little teacup poodle peeing on the grassy median across the street from the hospital steps.)
Giving birth is normal and instinctual, I told myself, just as I’m sure most new mothers do once the contractions start — even the ones who give birth in their native tongues.
When I first said the words, “I’m pregnant,” in any language, I’d been living along the Côte d’Azur for a year and a half with a French professor I met in Ottawa, where I grew up. Fittingly, that first announcement was made to the French visa office: With embarrassed excitement, I’d sputtered, “Je suis enceinte,” to the man who works the office’s X-ray machine, expecting some sort of congratulatory response and possibly some info about whether the X-ray machine was going to hurt me.
Without surprise — or with French indifference, they’re similar expressions — he’d simply nodded from behind his thick glasses, handed me a lead skirt and motioned toward my lungs. “I’m just looking for tuberculosis,” he’d said matter-of-factly, in his thick southern French. “Please, take your shirt off and lie your arms across your chest.”
Motherhood, like exposed breasts, I quickly learned, might be a big deal to me but, was considered nothing unusual in France.
At first glance, the French Riviera, in the off-season, seems to be entirely populated by palm trees, retirees and chic, tanned mamans pushing chic European strollers. Small children are everywhere: Picnicking with their families under olive trees, being pushed through the fruit and antique markets, and even eating quietly beside their parents in restaurants during multi-course meals.
Babies and toddlers are pervasive in France, where the birth rate is one of the highest in Europe, but somehow, the country remains without a whiff of the thick family-sized kid culture I grew up with in North America.
These children aren’t surrounded by helicopter parents, competitively chauffeured around in SUVs or served special, separate kids meals. They eat with the adults, politely say “Bonjour,” to strangers like everyone else in this country and are encouraged to integrate themselves into adult culture rather than being relegated to — or promoted to — the children’s table.
The roots of this education, I learned during my roundest-bellied research phase, are firmly planted in the same place that they are in most cultures: With the mother.
French fathers, according the Livre Bleu of instructions the government sent me, have been taking on more of a role with children, “but the change is happening slowly.” They apparently now “sing to babies in bassinets, change diapers, give baths and offer bottles,” but “it’s too early to say what effect that will have on the development of the children.”
“Fathers can also make good mothers,” the book reveals, quoting a British psychoanalyst from 1944, “but for limited periods.”
My hope was, of course, that the modern French father would prove to be a little more helpful, at least in terms of offering some of his own childhood info.
Having grown up in a house where we ate pizza pops in the car on the way to our respective sports, sibling bonding was conducted in front of the TV, and “the kids” even had our own picnic table, the proper French family — the kind that talks for hours over the dinner table — had, for me, an exotic, possibly nostalgic appeal; but curiosity didn’t mean I’d be able to raise a Frenchman on my own.
“The bed is for the couple, Maman. The baby never goes in the parents’ bed,” is how the sage-femme (midwife) who led my prenatal class introduced her section on bringing the baby home from the hospital. “The relationship between the parents is very important to maintain. The baby shouldn’t come between you.”
Children are to be listened to and respected, but they should not be kings of the household, she warned a room of pregnant French women (and me) who were all propped up by cushions on the floor.
When I asked how the French feel about breastfeeding in public (even before I’d figured out how I felt about it), the sage-femme had opened her eyes wide, leaned forward in her chair, and lowered her voice: “Among midwives, breastfeeding is very important, but in French culture, it’s true, many consider that the breasts are for the husband, not for the baby.”
Maternity leave lasts only about three months in France and that appears to be as long as most women breastfeed — at home, away from the eyes of the public. (My own mother, in contrast, breastfed her four babies collectively for nearly a decade.) At three months — the time when many French babies are first enrolled in daycare (la crèche) — breast milk turns to formula and then eventually to solid food.
“Women can go topless on France’s beaches,” my sage-femme had explained, “but no one wants to see that breasts are useful.”
In the weeks leading up to my trip to the hospital, I’d thought a lot about how I’d been raised — what I would and wouldn’t do — and about whether raising our son the French way was important, given that France would be his home.
I didn’t, however, lose sight of my fear of l’accouchement (childbirth, in French).
After my check-in at the hospital — just to make matters scarier — my husband was quickly informed that he’d have to go back home to wait for a call to say that I was in full-blown labour. Visiting hours were over, we were told, and until my contractions were serious enough to move me down a floor, I’d have to go it alone.
To get to that floor below, after several painful hours, I made three Canadian attempts: “Excuse me, am I in enough labour right now? Do you mind if we call my husband?” And one French one: “I’m getting in the elevator and going downstairs — RIGHT NOW. I’ll call my husband on the way.”
The epidural went in at around 1 a.m., just as my French professor, with more blankets and snacks from home, was turning back on to a dark and empty Promenade des Anglais to follow the sea back to the hospital.
“C’est magnifique,” I was telling the on-call anaesthesiologist, as my husband was finally allowed into the labour room. “Vous êtes très gentil.” (This was on the advice of my prenatal sage-femme, who said anaesthesiologists work better when they know you admire them.)
The man then smiled and asked if this was my first baby. “I’ll come back to check on you,” he said, unknowingly giving me a passing grade on the first part of my French exam.
By the time my doctor (the first one I’d found who didn’t treat me like an idiot if I didn’t understand a French medical word) arrived at around 5 a.m., my husband and I had already been working for hours with a sage-femme, watching the monitors, and checking on the baby’s progress.
We’d also been chatting about how we imagined ourselves becoming a family — what was important to us, both culturally and personally, and what we didn’t care about.
Not long after, following a fearless 45 minutes of “Allez! Allez! Allez,” as the sun rose over the Mediterranean, casting a red-orange light across the Cap d’Antibes and the Baie des Anges, our little baby boy was born.
“Vous voulez le peau-à-peau, oui?” asked the sage-femme who had assisted, nodding her head, encouraging me to make skin-to-skin contact. (Apparently, some French women choose to reach down and pull the babies out themselves — it was on the hospital’s birth plan check list — but guessing that French-immersion childbirth would already be overwhelming enough for me, I’d opted out.)
“Oui, oui,” I said, my French still mostly intact, as she wiped down a squirmy, little baby and placed him on my chest. He was still breathing quickly, still catching his breath.
I’d expected to feel a swell of relief, once all of the pushing and the person-exiting-another-person part was done, during this moment of instant motherhood. But when our son looked up at me from my tired arms, with his trembling, confused mouth and his father’s smiling eyes (with only two little eyelashes each), I felt as though I’d simply moved on to the next test.
“What am I going to do with you?” I asked the baby in French (meaning it in both languages).
Without blinking, my wee Frenchman just stared back.
Author and Photos: Kerry MacGregor