Victoria Jelinek


The Baby Diaries 6

It’s the friends you can call up at 4am that matter. Marlene Dietrich

water trough FRMy close friend of 20 years has come over from London to help me with the baby while my husband is off to work as an accompagnateur en montagne for the first time this summer season. E was a highly paid nanny for many years, working for an illustrious broadcaster and a journalist, respectively, before moving to another profession. Shortly after arriving at my door via transfer from Geneva, she exclaimed that she’d expected me to look like the crazy cat woman from The Simpsons, but was relieved to discover me showered, dressed, and composed. She told me that as she’d been traveling from the airport, gazing out the window of the van, she’d kept noting it was ‘gorgeous, gorgeous scenery, yet completely not Victoria’s natural habitat.’ C’est vrai, mais je dois etre ici pour maintenant.

E happily cooed and exclaimed over my ‘beautiful, beautiful’ boy, and he immediately took to her with her large bosom and animated face. We went out for lunch and a walk, which is a mission with an infant in tow because one must bring every conceivable item one might need for an excursion. Lunch was a good catch up. E made me laugh by not even attempting to speak French with the waiters, instead, she irreverently mimed her needs, such as putting her hands to her lips and making the noise ‘num, num, num, num’ to indicate she wanted to eat. I work so hard to be polite to the French, aware of their disdain for the outsider, and am often met with blank or disdainful looks for my efforts. When I began breastfeeding the boy at the table, E quickly raised my scarf to shield the world from my breast, which she declared is like a woman in National Geographic: “Jesus H Victoria! The size of that nipple! It’s the size of my little finger! Good grief woman, cover that up, you’ll cause a traffic accident!’ That said, she stopped nursing her own boy when he started giving her (what she thinks were) lascivious looks. After lunch and during our walk, my boy pooped three times. I worried we’d run out of nappies and wipes and have to wipe his bottom on the grass, or dip it in one of the basins provided in the countryside for the animals to drink from.

Over the course of her stay, E has been most useful as a sounding board for my thoughts and worries. I can completely be myself with her at a time when I’m not sure who I am anymore. She advocates a mother maintaining her sense of self and her own interests, even as she puts her child, or children, first, which I’m receptive to. E encouraged me to have fun with the boy, and to do things the way I want to, and when I want to, in order to ‘create the child you want.’ To this end, she’s encouraged me to let him cry and not to jump at his every cry, in order to retain my sanity and to allow him to soothe himself. She’s been teaching me to get him to sleep alone. Thus far, I have had to hold him, or sit touching him while he falls asleep, and its almost as though he has a sensor because he realises when I move away and then wakes up. E has shown me to sit with him for a moment or two, coo and talk softly to him about sleep, and then slowly move away. The first couple of times I’ve tried this he cried, but E encouraged me to stay away for five minutes, go in, assure him, then leave, and repeat in ten minute intervals. It’s really difficult to hear your baby cry for you and not to go to him, but it’s well worth the liberty of being able to go and do things while he sleeps. That said, I still check on him every two minutes, despite a baby monitor at hand, causing E to laugh at my expense and telling me ‘You won’t be like that for long! You’ll let sleeping dogs lie soon enough!’ Further encouraging some semblance of autonomy for us both, E has also taken to feeding the boy with formula once in the night so that I can sleep. This is very helpful, I feel revived, and my boy doesn’t seem to mind. During a trip to Italy, she taught me to simply let him cry when we’re driving, particularly as stopping just makes a journey tedious. Knowing I’d need some logic to back up my doing this, she would remind me to note the checklist: ‘Is he hungry? Is he sullied? Is he ill? Is he cold or hot? If none of these apply, he just wants you and there’s nothing to be done for it while you’re driving…’ I do see the sense that an attentive mother is not the same as a hovering mother. And that a happy mother contributes to a happy baby.

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The Baby Diaries 5

Courage conquers all things: it even gives strength to the body.” Ovid

humming birdI’m really enjoying my brother and sister-in-law’s (belle-sœur) visit, even as I must admit, it makes both my husband and me a bit nervous to watch my sister-in-law bounce our baby because his neck jostles so much we’re afraid she’ll break it, but trusted assistance at this time is so appreciated.

Thank the fates that they were here, too, when my left breast dried up. From one day to the next it was suddenly not producing milk. I cried my eyes out, afraid that I would not be able to feed my baby, that I would have to use formula and my son wouldn’t get the best possible start to his life…that I had failed as a mother (self denigrating ideas courtesy of La Leche League?). My brother and sister-in-law were invaluable. They told me to keep nursing him on that breast. That he could ‘call’ the milk to it in a way nothing else would. That my hormones would be alerted by his sucking and would tell my body to produce the milk, get the ‘milk factory’ going again. Most importantly, they told me not to despair. My worried look each day prompted my brother and sister-and-law to download a hilarious TV series for us to watch en famille and laugh together. They also introduced me to a baby ‘boppie’, which looks like a big neck rest that one gets in order to sleep on a plane. It goes on your lap and your baby lies on it, meaning you don’t have to hold them up to your breast, but are, basically, hands free. Their quiet confidence and encouragement helped me relax and lo-and-behold: the milk returned after a few days! The body is truly miraculous. Then I went to the doctor’s again to check my son’s weight and he had gained the shocking amount of 200g in ten days! He obviously had heard the doctor’s saying he wasn’t performing as expected, and had decided to get busy showing her what a victor looks like.  My GP also told me more good news, that there’s a nurse who’d visit the home and who would be paid entirely by the province*.

So I called the number my doctor gave me and the nurse came for a visit after my family left. She was kind and spoke French slowly so that we could understand all she said. She showed me several positions to nurse the baby in, but the ones I remember (keep in mind my dazed state of sleeplessness and fatigue) are the classical manner of holding him cradled in your arms (or on your ‘boppie’ as I do) and an American football hold in which you put the baby’s body to your side and behind you, with their face to your breast, coming from behind. Strange. Apparently, it’s so that one can walk around easily while nursing. My son seems to prefer my right breast, which is resulting in my breasts becoming lopsided. I pointed this out to my doctor and she laughed, admitting they are different sizes but that it’s not “so noticeable.” What is noticeable is that I have developed little red blood blisters on both of my nipples. First the drying up, the lopsided-ness, and now this. At the moment, I dread my son’s nursing because it’s so painful. My doctor is amazed I keep going with it. She tells me most women would have given up nursing by now if they’d encountered these problems. It is curious regarding nursing patters. In the lower hemisphere, an average 80% of women nurse their babies for up to 2 years, which is what UNICEF recommends. Meanwhile, in the US and the UK, while the numbers of women nursing are growing, less than 25% of women nurse their babies past the first 2 months of its life.

I tell her I am determined to make it to 3 months, with my ‘outside’ goal being 6 months. She quietly shook her head and told me to get pure lanolin cream to help ease the pain and to wash the nipples with iodine to keep them from becoming infected. Good grief, I had no idea the myriad of ways that babies challenge you… is it easy for others or are they pretending it’s easy for them?

*The nurse’s office is located inside the local Pole Emploi. It is here that she has regular office hours for anyone to drop in. I assume that because my husband and me are self-employed but pay French taxes, this is a general service that is not necessary to register for because we filled out no paperwork, nor made any special arrangements other than requesting her to visit.

 



The Baby Diaries 4

‘So live that you wouldn’t be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.’

Will Rogers

American pieI had been a bit confused when I was only prescribed the mid wife (sage femme) and the physiotherapy at the hospital after my son’s birth, but now I’ve discovered my regular GP will be my baby’s doctor. I figured I would get a paediatrician assigned, but it turns out there aren’t many to spare in France.

Adhering to the old wives’ tale that one should not take a newborn out of the cloister of its home till it has been alive for two weeks, I took my son to my GP when he was 15 days old.  The doctor told me that my son’s jaundice is gone, which is good (the time spent in the window like a plant worked!). She also told me that he was not gaining weight at the rate that he should be, necessitating that we monitor this closely. I left the doctor’s office completely freaked out and cried. I don’t want anything to be wrong with my baby and I’m scared because he’s such a defenseless little thing.

Luckily, my brother and my sister-in-law (belle-sœur) arrived from Seattle to help us out. They have two children of their own, now ‘tweens.’ I figure the fact that their kids have survived thus far makes them ‘old hands’. Moreover, it’s wonderful to have my family nearby. It’s hard to be so far from them. It takes 14 hours flying, through 9 time zones, to get to where they live, which prompts my feeling rather isolated on holidays and in vulnerable moments (for any of us). My husband and I drove to Geneva to collect my brother and sister-in-law  – our boy’s first ‘big’ outing – and dined at an outdoor café on the lake. I had been a little nervous about nursing my son in front of my brother, but then realized it’d be stupid to go and secret myself away each time the boy ate, which is every hour. Besides, scarves are immeasurably helpful for discretion (and luckily I carry one always, stuffed into my purse or in a pocket, even before I began nursing!).

I live in an almost perpetual state of embarrassment for being an American in Europe given the antics of American politics, the regular shootings, and the disparate tax rates. But every once in awhile, I am reminded how wonderful we Americans can be. My brother and his wife are full of optimism and earthy pragmatism. They’re open and encourage others to be so. They’re warm and gracious. When I told them that the French doctor had said that my son was not gaining weight as he should be, they assured me the rates of growth are different, particularly in this early stage, and the important thing is that he is not losing weight. When I told them that I didn’t know how to pass the time with the baby, who doesn’t seem to be able to do anything, they didn’t pretend to have all the answers. Instead, they assured me that no one really knows what they’re doing when they have their first child and you simply follow your new-born’s cues: eat when he eats. Sleep when he sleeps. Go outside and take a walk when you’re bored and stir crazy. They advised me to enjoy this initial period of my baby’s new life as though we’re both convalescing (we are!). I admitted that I’m sleeping with the baby on my chest, which ‘everyone’ tells me not to do, but which seems right – I can’t move with the caesarean anyway- and they didn’t judge me. Instead, they went to a local baby store and found a soft, little, slightly slanting bed so the baby’s head is a bit higher than its lower torso, with two detachable soft sides to it to keep the baby from rolling, which the baby can sleep on and which fits right between the pillows that my husband and I sleep on.

I never imagined I’d be so grateful for assistance – even the opportunity to give the boy to another pair of trusted hands in order to de-gas him is appreciated. I don’t think I have needed help as I do now. Perhaps it’s that in the past I was too proud to ask for and accept it, and now that there’s another person involved, I don’t have that same sense of ego?



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!