Victoria Jelinek


The Baby Diaries – 11

Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died. Erma Bombeck

071030 DVD SAGES FEMMES.inddThe sage-femmes (mid-wives) at the hospital were great. Through them, I learned to nurse and to bathe my child, as well as to take his temperature. They were also the ones who would come and relieve me, or check on us during the night, making me feel that my baby boy and I were tended to.

But the sage-femme assigned to me by the obstetrician for pre-and-post-birth care was useless. Before my boy was born my husband and I went into her office, and sitting before her little desk, waited for several moments to see what she would do because we had no idea what we were to do. She didn’t say a word. Finally, we asked some tentative questions about the care in the hospital that we should expect, which had already been answered by my good doctor, but we wanted to be polite. She would answer them as an adolescent might, with as few words as possible and giving no opportunity for elaboration. It was a struggle and that 15-minute appointment seemed to last an hour.

Post birth, however, one is meant to go to the sage-femme for ten visits in order to properly recuperate. It’s actually prescribed by the paediatrician at the hospital before you leave, and the l’Assurance Medicale, the health bureau, reimburses you for the visits 100%. This is a very good and holistic approach to the birthing process that I highly commend about the French system in theory, but I’ve gone to this sage femme a few times now, and I still find it useless. On one such visit she put a long towel, sheet type-of-thing around my lower back and near my pelvis, and pulled it tightly around the area. I asked what this was for and she told me it would help ‘reshape’ my womb. On another visit, she pulled out an appliance that looked like a combination between an electric razor and a vibrator and proceeded to put it into my vagina. I asked her what this was for and she told me that it sent out electrical currents that would help ‘reshape’ my vagina and womb. On another visit she had me practice getting down and up off of the floor and doing sit ups. I’d ask her questions that I thought she might know that were relevant to me, such as about the blood blisters on the breasts, and the left breast’s drying up, and the lack of sleep, and doctor’s visits, and she was not able to provide any answers. She doesn’t have children. I could be her mother. Oh! I did find the visit in which she took out the stitches from my caesarean very useful.

Perhaps finding a good sage femme is akin to finding a good psychologist? This is very American of me, the land of people who seek to discuss their problems (and why not? I think the world would be a better place if one could unload all their worries and problems on a person they paid to listen to them and to keep quiet about it all, and who then eliminated the need to unload on your friends and family). Anyway. Perhaps it’s like a psychologist in the sense that if you get a bad one, an incompetent one, then it will turn you off of ever going again to one. I would have stopped going to this sage femme, but at the end of every visit I had with her I felt bullied into making the next appointment, so I would make one in order to get out of the room. After several visits, I decided I didn’t want to go anymore and tried to tell her that it just wasn’t ‘my cup of tea’ and it ‘doesn’t seem to be working for me,’ and I don’t want her to ‘waste’ her time on me anymore. She gave me an angry lecture on how irresponsible I am being to my body by giving up the visits before they’re over! I listened to her quietly, and then suggested we call it ten visits, as prescribed, submit it to the relevant authorities for her to be reimbursed, and I’ll give her the co-pay in cash. To her credit, she immediately agreed.

As much as I’ve appreciated other medical care in France, I’ve found my sage femme visits the least helpful. I will presume that she is an anomaly.

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The Baby Diaries 3

“I learn by going where I have to go.” Theodore Roethke

Plant in the sunshineI ran into a woman at the hospital whom I’d met in a café last summer. It turns out her husband is a friend of my husband’s. She suffered pre-eclampsia with her baby, who is, consequently, down the hall in urgent care. I went to look at her new daughter through the window – she’s tiny, and my new friend says that she’s not been able to hold her yet, as she is so vulnerable and must stay inside the oxygen tent. Apparently, however, the little girl is developing and will eventually be fine. I told her that’s great, as we’ll be able to have play dates with our new babies. Makes me realise that having a little jaundice is not a big problem.

After vacillating the last few days, the doctors told me that we’d be able to go home from the hospital. I actually involuntarily clapped my hands and cried with joy at this news. I am, however, to seat Sebastian naked in the window every day for a ½ hour as you might a plant, and the rest of the jaundice will consequently go away in a few weeks. I packed my bags and nervously my husband and I walked down to the check out area with our new, precious, little cargo. It’s amazing how easy it is to walk out of the hospital with a baby. We literally took the child out of the paediatric ward unchallenged, went down the lift, noticed the check out desk of our own volition, put the wee man on the floor there, got his birth certificate and paid (only 220e for ten days in the hospital, the c section, the paediatric care, the phototherapy, all the sage femmes and nurses…it’s cheaper per night than a hotel in New Delhi) then walked out to the parking lot with no one noticing. Mark and I also feel like frauds because we aren’t quite sure about what to do with the baby once we get home.

We put S in our trusty old VW van, and carefully drove home. Upon our arrival, we put the sleeping tot on the floor for our beloved cat to get used to. He walked around the seat, and then began tentatively sniffing and batting it. It’s a good job my husband had regularly brought things S had worn from the hospital so that the cat could get used to his smell, because Oscar took to him pretty quickly after the first few moments. Breathing deeply of my home, I went upstairs to take a nap in my bed while my husband looked after our new charge. I marvelled at the fact that it felt as though a part of me was physically missing…as if I now have a phantom limb. The distance from our bedroom to the living room is the farthest I’d been from S for nine months. It was anxious, lonely, and poignant. Even so, I fell asleep pretty immediately.

What is anxiety provoking now is that no one at the hospital, or our good doctor, had told us what we do now. I’ve been given ordinances (prescriptions) for several sessions with a sage femme and a physiotherapist, respectively. This is very civilised in terms of postnatal care and adopting alternative therapies into recovery, but I trust conventional medicine. I know the sage femme is the one who will remove my stitches in the days to come, but no one has mentioned what to do for any health issue S may have – even a check-up on the jaundice he’s had to make sure it goes away. Do we go to our regular doctor? Is a different doctor assigned to S by mail or something? Do we go back to the hospital? When are we meant to go for a check up on the wee tot? Maybe the sage femme, or even the physio, will know the answer to these questions…



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.