Victoria Jelinek


The Baby Diaries 2

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” Mark Twain

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Since having my baby boy I’ve been in the hospital for 3 days. My C-section wound is healing, and I’m shuffling around. They do NOT let patients be lazy here in France, that’s for sure. They had me up and about a couple of days after I gave birth, forcing me to use the toilet and take walks up and down the hall.

Each day in the hospital is regimented activity, with the morning being the busiest. Seemingly all at once, there are people coming in to take the garbage, swipe down the counters and tidy the bathroom. Doctors come in to take my pulse, my blood pressure, and put some kind of measurement/radar on Sebastian. Sage Femmes (midwives) ask how the night went. Then a woman comes ‘round and asks what I’d like for lunch. Another brings my breakfast. After breakfast, my little family goes to the bathing room to wash Sebastian under supervision. Thank the fates for this, too, because we didn’t know what to do with him after he was born.  Thank the fates for their fastidious conscientiousness in France, which ensures that new mothers know how to breast feed, burp, de-gas, bathe, and change their babies before they step foot out of the hospital. There are other people with their newborns in the bathing area, which is a room full of sinks and workstations.  Other than a greeting, no one speaks or makes jokes. Perhaps we’re too tired? It’s amusing, too, because each of us eyes the other babies and mothers to compare with our own baby and our own post-baby bodies.

Oh! And the Maire (mayor) has been calling my room three times a day to find out what my boy’s name is and all of his birth details. Finally, today, we gave out his name officially – Sebastian Leo. Also today, the paediatrician told us that our boy has jaundice. I thought jaundice was akin to scurvy or small pox in the sense that it had passed out of western society. The doctor assured us that it was very common and a few days of phototherapy would sort it out. The phototherapy was started immediately. Unfortunately for this first time, my husband had gone home to make sure our beloved cat Oscar was okay and to do some work.

The phototherapy device is a small canister with a door that looks like a miniature sunbed with a little tarp suspended in the middle. The nurses took my baby, took off his ‘onesies’ and his diaper, taped some gauze over his eyes, then stuck him naked in the middle of the tarp in the machine and turned it on. Sebastian freaked. I tried to calm him, but I was scared, too, and upset that there was anything wrong with him in the first place. The nurses thought he was hungry. I fed him and he was quiet for a bit. Then he started crying again. The nurse went and got formula for him, saying it would ‘last longer’ and ‘be stronger’ for ‘our purposes.’ She shoved the milk into his mouth and he drank deeply and quietly. Once he’d finished a bit, she thrust him back in the sunbed, shut the door, and started the engine. Shortly thereafter, he threw up. The nurses were disgusted and complained that my baby was a problem. For the first time in my life I understood the feeling of a mother bear for her cub. I wanted to scream that they were rough and unfeeling. I wanted to scream that it would be scary for ME to get blindfolded and shoved naked, suspended, into a loud machine and he’s just come out of the safety of my womb. Sounds, sensations, eating, are all so new and overwhelming to him. But I held my tongue. I know I was hormonal, that he’s my child so I’m extra sensitive, and that they were just doing their job, albeit grumpily.

The need for phototherapy means I’m in the hospital for a few days longer, which distresses me somewhat, even as I realise it’s a good place to be in these first moments. I can’t really sleep comfortably on my bed because, as in all hospitals, there are many noises in the night: walking, crying, talking, jangling, scraping, jostling, rattling of carts and beds, people coming and going from your room. I’m alert to the noises my son makes, which disturbs my rest, as he makes frequent noises. I think he sounds a little bit like a pug dog. The lights in the hospital could be used to interrogate prisoners. I’m also worried that I’ll have to go pee and have to call a sage femme to help. They don’t generally respond quickly to the bell ringing, and when they do come they act as though they’re being majorly inconvenienced. I think that it’s more of a lazy thing than a malicious thing though. One nurse did take Sebastian away from me for four hours in the night last night to give me time to get sleep. I could hear him crying as they walked down the hall and away from my hospital room. I thought I’d never be able to relax because I’d worry that Sebastian was unhappy, but the next thing I knew she was back in my room, putting him in his basket, and I’d been deeply asleep for four hours.

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The Baby Diaries 1

“A very small degree of hope is sufficient to cause the birth of love.” Stendhal

newborn-feetI had my baby. His name is Sebastian Leo and he weighed 4 kilos. He’s healthy (passed some post birth test with flying colours which measures and grades signs of health, such as number of fingers, toes, lungs, breathing, organ functions, on a scale of 1-10).

For my caesarean, they wheeled me on a gurney through a maze of hospital halls and left me outside the operating theatre for a bit. Then I went in, and nurses spoke to me from above as I lay on my back, like a David Lee Roth video, which was disorienting, especially as everyone spoke French and I was having trouble concentrating. They gave me an epidural then laid me back down and pinned my arms to my sides like Jesus on the cross. That freaked me out. I could feel the surgeon performing the c section, which was bizarre: a sponge across my belly, cutting slowly and surely, pulling the baby out of my uterus and through the small incision as though pulling a sleeping bag from its storage sack. But it didn’t hurt. When Sebastian was born, one of the nurses held him to my face (I was still pinned) and he was mewling. I didn’t feel that love at first sight thing that many have said they feel. Instead, I kind of distractedly looked at the little baby and spoke softly to him, telling him it was okay and not to be afraid. I remember being charmed that he immediately responded to my voice by quieting. Then they took him away to my husband and wheeled me into a recovery area. The French strongly believe in skin-on-skin after birth, so when the mother has had surgery they give the baby to the father (or grandmother, or sister, or brother, or whomever is there to support the mother), have him take off his shirt, and instruct him to hold the baby close to his chest, speaking softly and caressing him. It’s really quite a beautiful and sane idea. That said, when my husband took Sebastian into his arms, the little one immediately tried to suckle him (“Not gonna find anything there mate!” my husband quipped). Meanwhile, I was lying prostrate in an area in which I was separated by other patients by a provisional curtain, and slowly feeling my body come back to a sensation other than complete numbness. My good doctor told me I wouldn’t be hungry for about 24 hours after I had the surgery, but I was starving! After an hour or two in the recovery area, I started asking if it was possible to have some food. The nurses got exasperated with me and I could hear one of them place a call and I heard her saying to the person on the other end “The American is hungry! I know…should we move her up to her room?”

Being given Sebastian once I was ensconced in my private room (maybe 25 euro per night, the rest is covered by the Carte Vitale – so civilised) was marvellous and scary. I didn’t think he was mine ‘cause his eyes were slits and he looked Chinese. I actually entertained the idea that I’d been given the wrong baby. Luckily, after a day or two his eyes opened and then he was the spitting image of my husband. Apparently, newborns look like their fathers so that the father will have empathy towards them, own them and protect them, rather than leave them in the woods or discard them as they might have in ages of old. I think that newborn babies are akin to vampires in the sense that they are designed to attract: they look adorable and they smell good, for example. It was very strange to nurse him. Particularly as I had 3 sage-femmes (midwives) instructing me at the same time on how to do it, standing very close to my breasts, and intermittently squeezing my nipple or massaging my breast rather abruptly and roughly! I thought it was strange how this little creature cannot move, yet to get to my breast he’ll wiggle and move like a wee worm to get there.

OMG, the C-section hurts! I can’t believe that I actually wanted one and said I’d opt for it electively if my doctor didn’t already order it (as 25% of women in the UK and USA do). I can’t move. I have to have a bedpan and it hurts to get on and off the pot. There’s a bandage and goo on the cut and they come and clean and change the dressing. I take 2 pills every few hours for pain and infection. I have to raise my bed all the way up and the back rest straight up in order to get to the top of the baby’s hospital crib (which rolls and is like a plastic bubble square), then sort of reach into him and roll him/move him onto me and then up to my chest. I have no stomach muscles. Never quite realised how much I used them now that I don’t have them to use. I dread going to the toilet or walking, but apparently that’s in the cards for me tomorrow!



The Pregnancy Diaries 26

“Don’t tell your kids you had an easy birth or they won’t respect you. For years I used to wake up my daughter and say, “Melissa, you ripped me to shreds. Now go back to sleep.” Joan Rivers

Bon AnniversaireI’m actually in the hospital room in Sallanches waiting for them to take me to the operating theatre for my C-section. My husband and I got to the hospital at 6am with the operation scheduled for 8:30. I had an iodine shower, necessary in France before my procedure, and not one of my finer moments. I felt like a prisoner being scrubbed. My husband did the iodine as I’m too huge to bend and can’t see my nether regions, so it was a very practical wash. While he was doing it in this little bathroom to the side of my hospital room, there were nurses, sage femmes, and the cleaning woman, who came to the door of the bathroom to enquire about this-or-that, inform us of something, or simply to take the rubbish bin.

My good doctor with the great ham hands who has overseen two of my three pregnancies, came in from Chamonix to do the procedure. While I’m sceptical about the size of the incision he’ll leave with his huge hands, I am touched that he bothered to do this because he’s so busy. It’s weird to see him outside his office and particularly in scrubs. He tells me that I’ll go into the operating theatre. I’ll be given an epidural. The incision line will be so tiny and low that I’ll be able to wear a bikini again “if you lose your baby weight,” he notes. The baby will be pulled out and he’ll sew me back up. I will not be given the baby after the operation. Instead, it will be given to my husband while I go into a recovery area for two or three hours. The French believe in the importance of skin-on-skin after birth, so my husband will be asked to hold and keep the baby against his bare chest while I am in the recovery area. Knowing my incompetence regarding babies, he assures me the sage femmes will instruct me how to do everything from nursing to changing his diapers. I let him know that I’m prepared – I brought an eye mask, earplugs, and sleeping pills.

It’s 9:30am now. There is apparently some kind of emergency that takes precedence over me (imagine!). As a result, my good doctor is arguing with the staff and trying to arrange a new time. He’s just informed me that he will have to return to his office and begin his workday. He’ll leave me his mobile number. “You’re going to leave me with all these Frenchies? I don’t know anyone here!” I start to panic. His manner is calm, competent and jovial. “I’m going to have a baby by the end of the day for god’s sake!” I remind him. “Peut-etre…” he jokingly replies. Grumpily I say, “Forget your office hours. This has been two years in the making.” He smiles and reminds me that he’s French and they’ll take care of me or else have him to answer to or worse yet, a lawsuit waged by an American woman. A man with a thick gold chain around his neck and a lot of dark chest hair unfurling upwards from his white coat walks in. My good doctor introduces this man and tells me that he will be doing the procedure and he’s a very fine doctor. I’m too stunned to even catch the gold-chained-doctor’s name and too scared to ask him to repeat it. He doesn’t speak any English. He’s wearing a gold chain for god’s sake! And that chest hair doesn’t seem hygienic! I have to do an iodine scrub and this man has a bale of black hair emerging from his whites? I’ll also have to concentrate on French at the same time a baby is being pulled out of my womb like a sleeping bag from its case. Rather rudely, I smile up at him, tell him I have no questions other than to be informed of when it will happen, and continue typing on my laptop. I hope he views this as typically French behaviour and doesn’t go light on the pain relievers in retribution.

It’s 12:30. I’m starving but they won’t allow me to eat before my procedure. Dangerous to leave a hugely pregnant woman hungry like this. I’ve been here for six hours and I haven’t eaten since yesterday’s dinner. I might bite someone’s hand or sneak (not too stealthily mind you) down to the candy machine to get a Snickers. The doctor with the gold chain has just come in. They’re going to give me a C-section at 1pm. He indicates a gurney in the hallway and asks me to get on top of it. It’s time. I hope to whatever fates and gods there are that the baby is fine and that all goes well. I’m scared. It hits me that I’m about to deliver a baby. So much can go wrong. And now I don’t have my good doctor there and my husband is not allowed into the operating theatre. Tears have started rolling down my face. “Be strong, Victoria. Try to have faith that things will turn out well,” my husband tells me (easy for him to say). I’ll close my laptop and say “good bye” for now.