Having spent most of my life trying not to get pregnant, I finally have the chance to share my Birth Story. Don’t expect beautiful descriptions of first skin to skin, or loving hand pressing moments. This is a story about how I almost lost my mind in a French hospital.
à tout à l’heure – see you in a bit
à demain – see you tomorrow
chambre privée – private room
d’accord – OK
Doliprane – paracetamol
fiston – son
livres – books
magasin bio – organic shop
prénom – first name
prise en charge – free
se renseigner – inquire
tout de suite – straight away
midwife’s cut – an episiotomy which is typically smaller and neater than a doctor’s
Doctors surgeries always make me sweat, especially this one, especially today. I’m sat holding the results of a blood test I’d taken a few days earlier. Congratulations, says my doctor, quickly changing her tone to a question. I assume this is what you want? – Oh, yes. I answer a bit too quickly. It feels strange sharing the greatest news of my life with an almost stranger. Thankfully this was about as personal as things got, it was also the only time we would see each other. She scribbles a script for iron tablets and an ultrasound, then looks at her watch. Do you have any questions? She cuts me off, politely explaining that from now on my gynaecologist would be dealing with anything pregnancy related. Which gynaecologist? I’d never visited one in my life, the word looked and sounded complicated. If you don’t have one then you’ll need to find one, there are plenty.
I’m soon aware of my first mistake: to have gotten pregnant at what is decidedly the worst time in the French school calendar. August. Everyone you knew, including your gynaecologist, was on vacances. Heart attack? That’s unfortunate. Pregnant? What a shame. No-one would see me before September. I was dying to see a first image of my child, and nothing seemed real without picture evidence. Eventually I find a clinic who agrees to take me. It costs far too much (the only real difference between a public and a private-sector ultrasound) but I’m happy to learn it’s a boy and that all his bits are in order. The next few months of pregnancy are fairly straightforward, perhaps too straightforward seeing as they do little to prepare me for the “hard labour” looming ahead.
The day my waters break, I decide to make an “important” trip into Paris with my husband, Thibault. He’s on a mission to sell a carload of his Mamie’s old books at Gilbert in the 6émé. I’m alert to the sights, smells and sounds of the day, struck by the notion that my life will never be quite the same. Thibault haggles for a price inside while I wait in the car. Two middle aged ladies park up in a black Mercedes, pull out a trolley packed with books and enter the shop. Shrewd, leather skinned men wait expectantly on the sidewalk, jiggling to keep warm. Beside them is a small stack of rescued books they will try and sell someplace else. The ladies return with an empty trolley and drive away.
Thibault returns with three full suitcases. Gilbert does not want the books. I’ve not eaten since this morning and am beginning to feel weak.
Around 7, we decide to try one last bookshop. They take the lot for a fiver. It’s getting dark and Thibault suggests treating ourselves to dinner. Feeling increasingly damp and crampy, I suggest we go home and perhaps give the hospital a call.
My French pregnancy vocabulary is limited but the operator is quick to interpret. “You need to come to the hospital tout de suite”, she says. “No rush”, I tell Thibault. “It’s just for insurance purposes”. Once home, I loo, shower, pack. The cramps have increased but I ignore them, saying à tout à l’heure to my belle mere as I pass her in the driveway. I ward off the labour demons with bad-ass lines like “you’re a gangster” all the way to the hospital.
We arrive at Urgences around 8. A queue of bloated women and patient husbands are waiting to be seen. I pick the most comfortable chair in the room and stretch out on my extra-long nursing cushion. It’s 9pm when no-laughs midwife number 1 (there were so many I had to number them) calls me in for blood and urine tests. I return to the waiting room, still clutching my cushion when the clock strikes 10. Finally, midwife number 2 arrives – she does not look pleased to see me. She silently escorts us to an air-conditioned room equipped with a single bed, fauteuil and a sea of machinery. Welcome to Labour. This would be my home for the next 24 hours. The midwife asks me to remove my clothes, then disappears.
At 11pm there’s still no sign of number 2. The light trickle in my undies has become a steady flow. I’m cold, I say to Thibault, reaching for my clothes. Number 2 returns, studies my regions and looks stern when I tell her my waters “might” have broken around 10 that morning. I must have said the right thing, as I’m awarded with a private room, 100% prise en charge. Things are off to a good start. I still haven’t started active labour so I suggest Thibault goes home to rest.
My chambre privée is warm, larger than expected, has a bathroom and a view of the hospital carpark. Number 3 hurries off, leaving number 4 to explain the rules of the ward. “Sorry, what was your name” I ask, trying to remember if this was same woman I’d met earlier that evening. Assuming this to be my main companion for the evening, I say her name aloud in order to remember it. She looks far too young to be wearing a wig but this I could get used to. She finds me an exercise ball (albeit a little flat and on the small side) and a fold up chair, and gives me instructions to “press the button” as often as required.
Once I’m alone, I get into bed and text some friends. Baby’s coming! I try to make it sound exciting and imminent. Within the hour I’m balled up on the bed, begging for an epidural. The button serves as a comfort device which I press often, hoping to ease the pain. I manage to access a minimum of fresh air through hair sized window gap. The first floor isn’t much of a jump to the ground, but obviously some have been desperate enough to test this. Number 4 arrives bearing sympathy and a Doliprane. I need a doctor! I wish I could voice my real thoughts aloud and in English. She has a quick look to find that I’m still less than three centimetres dilated. She says she’ll come back in an hour.
My notion of time is fuzzy and I’m alert to nothing but the pain. I press the button and hurry back to the toilet. I feel safe here. I hadn’t vomited in twenty years, the sensation is strange yet I recognise it immediately. “I think I’m going to vomit”, I say to the midwife waiting in the doorway. As the words leave my mouth, the gates of heavens open, accompanied by the roar of my inner beast emptying itself at midwife number 4’s feet. She coaxes me onto the bed and inspects my cervix. It’s official. My new friend Epidural and I are finally ready to meet. My next challenge is getting to Labour, there’s an entire floor and several corridors to conquer. I crouch, slide and hobble my way to the lift. Number 4 strides ahead, clipboard under one arm and my cushion under the other. Where was the stretcher – couldn’t they see I was suffering?! Clearly this performance had played out a million times before.
Number 4 gets us safely to Labour, then u-turns back to Maternity. She’s replaced by number 2, her predecessor who I recognise from earlier that evening. She isn’t in the best of moods but it’s good to see a familiar face. “Your bum’s showing”, she says casually. I’d just crossed the entire the hospital boasting a wedgie in an open back gown. The new room is freezing, over lit and sans toilet. I cannot stay here, I have to find a toilet. The room next door has one, which I fold over like a scared animal. I take a moment to compose myself before returning to my designated room. Number 2 returns, accompanied by a lady who I assume is the anaesthetist. They are chuckling over a private joke and ignore me for the most part, my name and details are all in the dossier.
By the time the needle is prepped for pricking, I’m a muscle spasming mess. I hear something about an extra strong dose and, sure enough, the effects are immediate. Once again I’m given instructions to push the button. This was a different kind of button, one which bi-passed the sympathy and went straight to the drug. Don’t worry, it caps so you can never have too much, says the anaesthetist. I wonder how much is too much and according to whom. Then, sure I enough, I fall asleep.
Thibault arrives at the hospital around 5am. He obediently massages my back and calves whilst I wait, cry, reposition, push the button. I’m fed and watered via a drip which someone comes to change every few hours. By late afternoon my contractions have stopped. I’m hungry and impatient. The liquid in my plastic cup is tepid and tasteless. I dream of chilled water and forbidden foods like Camembert, sushi and saucisson. My principal care team consists of midwife number 5 (a dead ringer for Sean Penn) and a student nurse. Number 5 is kind and efficient – her current challenge is the baby’s position. His head is facing upwards, also known as posterior or sunny-side up. If he doesn’t turn on his own, she or someone from the team will need to help him. As far I was concerned, the baby’s head was facing south and there is nothing more to it. Thibault tries to explain it better by miming the baby’s position. I’m even more confused but agree to try the exercises. I spend painful hours crouched on all fours or bent over an exercise ball on the bed. Bébé ne bouge pas (baby won’t budge). Number 5 invites the intern doctor to manually twist baby. Assuming intern to mean work experience, I tense up and prepare for the worst.
A chubby homme (late twenties, early thirties) wanders into the room, sans intro. He’s not exactly exuding with confidence. He slides on latex gloves and mutters something, followed by d’accord? I’m silent but my body screams GET AWAY FROM MY VAGINA! His attempts are, of course, unsuccessful. I don’t think we’ll be needing your services any longer, says my husband. He was part way through Do Birth (a midwife’s guide to birth and labour), and was up to the chapter on assuming your father rights. “Fine”, says the doctor sounding peeved. “You do realise that if the baby remains in this position, your wife will require a c-section”. The word c-section transmits loud clear. Wait! I almost leap from the bed. The intern is already at the door. Not only had we questioned his ability, we were now wasting his time. He reluctantly pulls on new gloves for a second attempt, but, as expected, baby isn’t having any of it.
The rest of the day drags, staff are packing up for the weekend, even my epidural seems to be losing interest. I hope number 5 will stick it out. She returns sounding almost matter of fact when she says, “we’re going to try get the baby out”. Truth was there was nothing matter of fact about it. Everything was programmed.
A baby is born
I saddle up into horse-riding position, find my reins and stirrups and prepare to gallop. The midwife’s instructions are simple: breathe in, hold and push for ten breaths. She wants me to do this for every contraction but I struggle to recognise when one begins or ends. I decide to push whenever my energy levels peak. I focus on the wall or the window occasionally glancing at Thibault, patiently counting breathes. Six breathes in and I’m almost hyperventilating. “Come on Madame Renard, keep going, you’re doing a great job”. Coach midwife tries her best but I can’t help but thinking I’m being lied to. If I’m doing such a good job then why I am still here? How long did it take to push a baby out? Minutes, hours? A baby must be at least 30 centimetres long, and the head had yet to make an appearance. “What’s your wife’s name?” I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. We’d spent the last fifteen hours together, midwife number 5 and I. Her introductory “this is what I do” speech had included her name (Candice) but at no point had she asked for mine. “Come on ABI, let’s go Abi!” It was too late, Candice had lost my respect. If I could find the energy to keep pushing, I certainly wouldn’t be doing it for her.
The student nurse opens a window and sprays my face with Evian. Candice is somewhere between the floor and my vagina when she says “there’s a lot of hair, would you like to touch it?” If she was referring to my bikini line then that was none of her business.
The hair is wet, matted, and straight. It takes a second to realise it’s not mine. After the next push, I hear “Stop!” I’m already a couple of breaths in and am reluctant to break my concentration. Was my pushing no good? There’s a long pause, no-one speaks. All attention is on the little person with the straight hair. We’re still hesitating over a prénom but when the baby cries, Thibault and I instantly say “Chester, Chester”, in order to soothe him. He’s a bit battered from the journey but his new name fits.
They take him away to help get his breath and this gives me a moment to get mine. “What will he be wearing?” someone asks. Candice has finished her shift and two new staff have arrived to replace her. The student nurse lingers to say goodbye, she tells me it’s her last day which suddenly makes me teary. Candice pops back to finalise my dossier, proudly bringing my attention to her Midwife’s cut, whilst patching me up. Aside from the small fire between my legs, I had a lot to be thankful for. It had been a long day and this superwoman had safely delivered at least a dozen tiny Pisces.
The baby dressing ladies are nice. They call themselves puéricultrices. They are like beauticians for babies because they clean, clothe and make Chester presentable. I too could benefit from a little pampering, along with a hot bath and a change of scenery. I longed for the incessant beeping of the heart monitors to stop. Thibault quickly gets the knack of nursing Chester but he’s not allowed to nurse and walk at the same time, hospital rules. One of the beauticians places the baby on my chest and wheels us up to Maternity. I’m glad to be moving somewhere, even if it’s just to another part of the hospital. Thibault trails behind with my cushion and a bag of clothes. I’d temporarily erased all memory of the airless room, and the vomit. This would be my home for the next 6 nights.
Welcome to Maternity
-How are you feeling today? Are you eating?
Not much. I haven’t really had time…
-I can give you something for that. Have you been to the toilet?
No. I haven’t eaten…
-I can give you something for that. Are you in pain?
I just gave birth…
-I can give you something for that. How’s the breast feeding? Do you need help?
-Are you sure? I can give you something for that. Here, let me check (uninvited nipple squeeze). Ooh la-la, I see, no problem – iz good, iz good.
It’s late by the time we get settled. Our brand new fiston crashes inside a transparent crib. He’s knackered, we all are. Thibault is too big for the single bed, so we decide to meet up when the hospital reopens the next day. The subject of visiting hours would not remain this simple.
It’s my third day in Maternity. Thibault nips home to cook our dinner. When he returns to the ward he is stopped by security. Sunday visiting hours are different. After a brief discussion, Thibault storms down the corridor with the guard tailing behind barking instructions. Thibault’s lip is quivering, I’ve never seen him this angry. I’m stood between the two of them, with a howling Chester in my arms. My French mediation skills do little to help the situation. The guard is big and definitely brainless. I worry he’ll do something stupid. Sweat drips down my arms as Chester’s cries get louder and I’m overwhelmed by our combined emotions. The food is hot and nutritious but when Thibault leaves so does my appetite.
Stay or Die
My blood pressure had gone up following the birth, but no-one makes a thing of it until after “the incident”. A nurse would come by every morning between midnight and dawn, and attach me to a loud beeping device. Every beep is a souvenir of labour, a nightmare I would sooner put behind me.
One morning, following my usual flurry of visitors (the cleaner, the midwife, the puéricultrice, the physio, the Maire rep and the student survey ladies), the head midwife and her assistant pay me a visit. I seem to have caused a stir in Maternity and she’s here to se renseigner. She calls me Madame Renard and speaks franglais as she tries to express her concerns for my health. I really want to cooperate but her general presence (and proximity to my bed) only increases the stress. She also shares a striking Sean Penn resemblance. Her English is difficult to keep up with and she keeps apologising, saying she doesn’t speak English well. I don’t want her to speak English, it hurts my ears, I wish she would speak French. She tells me my blood pressure is too high and that the only way to get it down is to hook me up to a monitor, permanently, and give me drugs. I don’t have the energy to ask questions, besides, I don’t want to talk about my health. With anyone.
It’s not until the resident doctor arrives that I realise things are serious. He’s suited in a black knee-length tailcoat. He speaks in euphemistic French which even my husband struggles to understand. I ask if he has an English speaking colleague I can communicate with. If Thibault can’t understand, then I wouldn’t even attempt to. Non, non, non. There is no doctor in the hospital who speaks English, apparently. Dracula would have to do. He breaks it down for us into the simplest of terms. He tells me I cannot go home because I may have a seizure, and probably wouldn’t get back to the hospital in time to be revived. If I stay in hospital, my chances are better but still slim. “Is that what you want for your wife?” He’s quite a bit shorter than Thibault but still manages to pose this life or death question whilst looking down at him. By this point I’m laughing. I’m somewhere between horrified and hysterical.
When Thibault and I are alone, I climb into bed and wail. Be calm, you need to be calm. Fortunately, I need not look further than music and comedy. I find the lyrics to The Sound of Music and urge Thibault to sing the harmony. This works immediately. I ask him to tell me something funny and he recounts his last run in with Claude, our 80-something bourgeois neighbour. Someone knocks on the door, it’s Yolande, one of the puéricultrices who’s been doing Chester’s baths. He’s feeding but she stays for a chat. All of sudden Yolande has déjà vu. She’s seen me somewhere before, at our local physio cabinet in Argenteuil. We’d had an argument, the physio and I, I had stormed out slamming the door. It was a while ago but for some reason she remembered. We had a good laugh about how French physios would sooner use a machine than lay their hands on a patient. The story wouldn’t usually have been this funny outside a moment of crisis. I’d been in hospital for so long, memories of my previous life had become dim and needed reviving. When Yolande leaves, I phone an old friend in London and am at once myself again.
Leila, Yolande’s colleague, offers to take care of Chester during her lunchbreak so that I can sleep. She knows I’m petrified of the hospital nursery and seems to understand my need for familiarity, not nameless faces and complementary drug remedies. I later discover that with Leila’s help, the head of Maternity had staged an intervention to get me better.
By day 6, my blood pressure drops from 17 to 14. I feel myself again. Thibault gets a box of Celebrations and I write a note for the staff. We bundle Chester in a giant fleece and head home.