+ and – of my French Maternity Ward Experience

Obviously my maternity ward experience was already 8 months ago (omg what?) but I was thinking about it recently, and with the passing of time, my feelings about it have gained a little in perspective.

Here are the things I really appreciated about it, which are of course more or less specific to France and further to my clinic, where I will return if we have another baby (the other option would have been the public teaching hospital):

  1. The three-day stay: Standard stays in France are 72 hours from the time the baby is born. As far as I can tell, this is to make sure the baby is doing okay, to allow the mother to rest, and to help with breastfeeding. At least in my case it seemed that way. I was unhappy (=I cried) when they kept us a fourth night for no good reason (at least, no reason they could not have given us as soon as Littlest was born at a small 2.67 kg, which he regained by his fourth day). However, the morning we left, one of the puéricultrices asked me, concernedly, if breastfeeding was going okay. The tone in her voice suggested that if I’d said I was worried, I could have stayed yet another night for help. (But I wanted to gth outta there. See below.)
  2. The staff really seemed ready to show me everything. The first day I didn’t have to change a single diaper, which was nice because I couldn’t stand up and walk very easily (see, #1, reasons for the 3-day stay). By the second day, standing up straight was easier and a puéricultrice happily showed me how to change a diaper, how to clean his umbilical cord (cleaned regularly with éosine in France), how to clean his face, and eventually, how to bathe him.
  3. The night staff were wonderful, honestly—they were so reassuring and understanding of the fact that I needed support and help, especially with breastfeeding.
  4. Breastfeeding mothers were well taken care of in terms of food. It wasn’t the best food but I ate anything that was put in front of me (still do, pretty much) so I didn’t care. I gobbled up all those 2500 calories. Liter-sized bottles of vitamin-fortified water were also supplied on demand.

Things I was less crazy about:

  1. Littlest was only left on my chest a few minutes in the delivery room. I was a really easy-going mother and let things just sort of happen, but next time (if there is one) I think I will ask and perhaps insist on more time to help baby try to breastfeed.
  2. The staff in general asked that we leave Littlest under his heated blanket as much as possible during our stay, which meant not only fewer cuddles but less skin-to-skin, which I didn’t even try because none of the staff mentioned it. Obviously, if there’s a next time, I will do as much as I can get away with.
  3. We were left pretty well alone during the daytime once the first day was past. That first day the staff came in a lot to check on Littlest’s blood sugar and temperature and to change his diapers. But the maternity ward seemed to empty out in the afternoons and Sunday afternoon was ridiculous.
  4. I missed my husband, whose three days off for the birth were rapidly being used up in spite of Littlest being born on a Friday, and didn’t enjoy spending the nights alone without his help (though the night staff were, as I said, lovely). Meals for non-patients were expensive too, so he kept having to leave to get lunch or dinner for himself.
  5. The nursing staff gave us bottles of formula to give to Littlest his first day since he wasn’t latching. When I told this to my neighborhood midwife who used to work there, she was not pleased. Again, I was just going with the flow (and I know some moms feel they’ve been saved by supplementing at the beginning), but if there’s a next time, I’ll ask to get around that problem some other, formula-less way.
  6. That dang epidural that served no purpose and gave me back pain for months. Of course there was no way to know in advance I would have a rapid labor, but if there’s a next time, I hope to avoid it.

In general I was very happy with all my care, as always in France, but on the baby front there are some tweaks I would make if I hadn’t been a first-time mom going with the flow.

Breastfeeding Experiences, Part 3: “Tu allaites encore?”

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Sweetest of Pies, view from above, at 5 months

Littlest is 7 months old now—how time flies! And breastfeeding has become such a joy. Now that he’s eating solids, what I pump at work is more than he needs, so we haven’t even bought a tin of formula for 6+ months (though we’ll have to this weekend as I’m worried I might not have enough frozen milk for his night at Mamie’s).

The benefits of breastfeeding seem to just keep piling up as I read more:

  1. It creates the “microbiome” (the assortment of good bacteria) in the gut that baby needs.
  2. It helped him learn to suck harder in order to be readier to eat solids.
  3. It introduced him to lots of different tastes, also better preparing him to eat solids.
  4. It gives him my antibodies to keep him from getting sick.
  5. Also because of my antibodies, when I get sick, it keeps him from getting what I have (or at least, he gets it in extremely mild form) and allows me to not wear a mask around him—and continue giving him all the kisses I want.
  6. It has saved us so much money.
  7. It calms him when he’s upset for other reasons, like this weekend when he had some trouble falling asleep at the wedding.
  8. It’s so freaking practical (this past weekend we nursed on the side of the road and in the church during the wedding).
  9. It gives him my melatonin in the middle of the night to help him fall back asleep, though he seems to be sleeping through the night again (when he’s at home).

And though it’s not a scientific benefit, the bond we have while nursing is super sweet. Littlest is pretty wiggly but has started looking up at me with his big blue eyes (yes, they’re still blue!) while nursing and it melts my heart.

Unfortunately, breastfeeding a baby at this age in France seems to already make us abnormal. From as early as six months I started getting the question, “T’allaites encore?” at that point without any inherent criticism. But it shocked me that anyone would bother to ask that question for such a little baby, and the questions have only increased over the past few days when we saw so many new people with Littlest at a wedding.

I can tell it’s going to be tiring responding and educating people. I snapped at a colleague today, though I then explained.

Here’s my question though: WHY? WHY would I stop now? It was so hard at the beginning, and it’s such a joy now.

So if any has any quick and ready answers I can whip out without having to think about it, that would helpful!

Welcome to French Bureaucracy, Little Boy

Back in January we went down to an off-site embassy day in Bordeaux and successfully applied for Littlest’s American passport, despite not having exactly the documents they wanted. We were able to e-mail them directly to the embassy that night.

The day before I had also applied for his French ID card, which went even more smoothly.

We did all this with pictures taken at home using smartphone apps, and printed off on photo quality paper at our home printer.

Today J finally ran into a classic hiccup of French bureaucracy: the guichet blocker.

All in all it was a super fun experience for him. He packed up Littlest at 10, drove into down, parked at the parking garage, and ran into two elevators that were out of service. So first he wasted a few minutes crossing the parking garage with the stroller to find the one working elevator.

Then he got to their appointment and learned that the CERFA forms we had printed off and filled in online were of no use, because Poitiers doesn’t use that technology yet (what’s that about nationalized administration in France?). So he got to fill out the form again.

Once he’d finished filling out the form, the woman looked at the picture of Littlest and said it wouldn’t work because it was “digital” and we had taken it ourselves.

No amount of explaining would convince the woman that it would be accepted by the passport software (most notably because it had worked for the ID software two months before). She even asked her coworker who definitely gave the impression he would have been fine with it.

She told J he had to go to a professional photographer or a photo booth (LOL our baby can’t sit up) and if he could do that within his 30-minute appointment slot, she would accept it today.

Except of course she had already used up 10 minutes of his appointment making him fill out the form again, he was pushing a baby around in a stroller in a building that’s barely accessible on wheels, and oh yes, most business are closed on Monday mornings.

I’m not sure what world this woman lives in but I qualified her as a moron when J told me the whole story.

So we get to make another passport appointment, find a photographer, take a picture and pay for it, and drag Littlest back to the centre ville to do it all over again.

Which is really fine. It’s just the principle of the thing—how can someone with so little connection to reality get a job that requires a minimum of lucidity? I mean did she really think that professional photographers go to the trouble of “developing” ID photos?

Welcome to French red tape, baby boy.

Breastfeeding Issues I’ve Encountered in France

When I got pregnant with Littlest I knew I wanted to try breastfeeding, and my initial thought was that I wouldn’t put any pressure on myself to make it work if it really was too complicated. My boobs changed a lot during pregnancy and were the very first sign I was pregnant. I went up two cup sizes by the time my milk came in, though I seem to have settled back down almost a cup size since then. Everyone’s choice about this is personal, but to me it just made sense to put all these changes to the test and ask my boobs to do what they were physically preparing for.

There are a few things that have surprised me with this experience, and they may or may not be cultural, but I think they are somewhat specific to France.

  1. In France your employer legally has to give you an hour to pump every day at work. This is such a joke when you’re a teacher, and I’m sure it’s worse if you’re an elementary school teacher. I scoured the internet for personal experiences from other teachers on forums since the Education Nationale has apparently nothing to say about it. The two other teachers I opened up to and talked to about it had either not breastfed at all or had just quit when they went back to work (at 3 months). So I felt pretty alone in my quest to pump at work until I went to see the school nurse (a former midwife) back in September to talk to her about where I could pump. She was so supportive that I stopped feeling like such a freak for wanting to teach and give my baby breast milk. Maybe I’ll continue to feel like a freak when I’m pumping in the nurse’s room during both récrés and my lunch break… but I hope not.
  2. Out of the five women in my birth classes, only two of us tried to breastfeed. One of the other women is pumping and mixing with formula, which sounds exhausting to me. So even with these ladies (the other one who tried stopped after two weeks), I feel a little bit on my own. My colleague who had a baby last year didn’t breastfeed either.
  3. I chatted a little with some of my colleagues and acquaintances, or they opened up about it on their own, before Littlest was born. At least two women said they either got stressed about the baby not eating enough or didn’t have enough milk for the baby. I took them at their word until I realized people love suggesting to breastfeeding moms that they don’t have enough milk. Okay, maybe that is an exaggeration—but here’s a tip for everyone out there: Never ever say to a breastfeeding mom that she might not have enough milk for her baby, unless you are a certified lactation consultant! I mean wtf? Two of J’s family members suggested to me at completely different times that I didn’t have enough milk based on absolutely nothing. (For the record, I’ve always had enough milk and I’ve never been worried about it.) It’s infuriating and heartless and irresponsible. So many women get stressed out about this and so few of them really don’t have enough milk for their babies.

I get that breastfeeding is a big constraint that some women don’t want to put up with, and there are obviously other personal and health reasons why women wouldn’t be able to or wouldn’t wish to breastfeed. I did actually almost give up at two months because Littlest’s evening feedings were becoming a real PITA, and was surprised at how sad I was to think we were stopping, so so much for that chill attitude I’d hoped to have when I was pregnant. But here are the advantages I’ve found, and I try to remind myself of them when I get the impression that all the bottle-fed babies in the world are already sleeping through the night.

  1. One of my colleagues said she stopped because she stressed about not knowing how much the baby was eating. I LOVE not knowing how much the baby is eating. We give him one bottle every evening (occasionally he takes another one in the morning if I’m too tired) and we never worry too much about him eating a specific amount because we know he got what he needs the rest of the day out of the breast. FREEDOM.
  2. Along those same lines, it’s much easier to pack my nipple shield and washcloth with me when we go out than the formula, bottle and bottled water. (Though I would also love if it he would learn to regularly latch and give up the freaking nipple shield.) Also in the middle of the night there’s no mixing to be done.
  3. Antibodies: babies are protected by their mom’s immune system for the first three months after the birth anyway, but breastfeeding gives extra help, such as last week when Littlest barely got the stomach flu I was dealing with, because my new antibodies were streaming through the breast milk. (My understanding of this is fairly limited, but I think it works something like that.)
  4. I’ve already lost more weight than I gained during the pregnancy (though I think this counts way less than reasons 1-3) and I haven’t gotten my period yet.
  5. Also, Littlest is really cute when he’s breastfeeding. I mean it is a really sweet moment for just the two of us, especially at night.

Anyway, the takeaway for me from all this is that I actually feel pretty alone in breastfeeding among women of my generation, which is weird, because when we looked up the official numbers, the rates are no lower in France than in the States. I do think it picked up later on here than in the States (J and his sister weren’t breastfed, for example), but most women of that generation have since learned about the benefits so other than the careless remarks about milk supply, everyone’s been supportive. So I try to remind myself of the advantages to help feel less lonely about it.

Anyone have any other experiences (your own, other people’s…) to add to this list?

Daily Routine

Inspired by the a Day in the Life series on expatpartnersurvival.com (discovered thanks to a tweet from CRose), I decided to try to write a post about my daily routine in Poitiers.

This week I’m unfortunately sick, and stayed home today, and yesterday I exceptionally got the afternoon off to go to a birth class (though I’m supposed to make up the hour I missed), so I’m not going to take a day from this week but just rather any old day from the beginning of this school year.

6:45 Get out of bed. This is on days that I have class at 8:15—sometimes it’s later and oh is it wonderful when it is. Shower, eat breakfast (toasted brioche with nutella or granola-like cereal with yogurt depending on how hungry I am and how long my morning will be). In non-pregnant times I have a cup of Italian espresso from our espresso machine (I haven’t been drinking much coffee during my pregnancy and before you get the idea that I’m making inhuman sacrifices, it’s so I can continue drinking diet coke).

J gets up around 7 and never, ever opens the shutters (I don’t get it, he must like to sit in the dark), so I always open them when I get up, even if it’s pitch dark out. It takes me about fifty minutes to be ready to leave. When baby comes I’m sure it’ll all be up in the air and take me ten times longer.

7:30 Get in the car for work. I have about a ten-minute drive, maybe a little longer. I’m spoiled. Come mid-October this drive happens in the dark, until February.

7:45 Arrive in the teachers’ lounge. Check my box, maybe my e-mail, give my lesson plans a quick look because chances are I wrote it all into my teacher’s planner at least three days ago. Make sure I have all my photocopies made and in my bag.

8:15 Classes start. On Thursdays this year I don’t start till 10:15 so this all gets pushed back. I try to arrive at work around 9:15 on those days. The morning is some combination of classes + break periods where I try to get work done in the teachers’ work room.

11:55 Break for lunch. Some days I have class till 12:45. The cafeteria food at my school is copious but gross (also 6€ a pop which definitely adds up) so I try to take my own lunch as often as possible. That’s either leftovers if I’m lucky, or a sandwich on a baguette viennoise (I can’t stand the French”American”-style sandwich bread). I eat with my colleagues in the cafeteria unless I finish at 12:45, in which case I eat in the teachers lounge. Classes pick up again at 1:35 though this year I always have two periods to eat (which will come in handy come breast pumping time). Our classrooms are in a different building from our work room and cafeteria so, though I don’t need two full periods to eat, it definitely cuts down on the feeling that I’m running around like a chicken with my head cut off.

4 or 5 pm Classes end for the day and I head home. There are traffic jams at around 5:45 leaving school so if I can I try to book it out of there earlier than that, or give up and stay later. If I have the energy I’ll stop to buy bread (the best bakery is the one inside the tiny, sad supermarket building—honestly we think it’s the only thing keeping that supermarket in business) but usually I don’t. During certain weeks of the year we have meetings till 6:30 or 7 (or later) so I get home quite a bit later (but again, I don’t always start at 8).

On a non-training day, J may be home when I get home and we watch TV/read the internet on the couch, or go grocery shopping, or have appointments for other things.

Sometime between 7 and 9 J gets home from rock-climbing on the days he trains. When he gets back at 9 I’ve usually at least started making my own dinner if not eaten already. Otherwise he makes dinner and we eat anywhere between 7 and 8:30. I also make my lunch for the next day.

10 Bedtime for me, on the days before class at 8. I turn off the light at 10:30. On other days I go to bed later. I pick out my clothes for the next day and leave them in the bathroom. I have clothes I reserve exclusively for work, though what with being pregnant I’ve had to give up on that.

Week-ends consist of errands (grocery shopping), cleaning and laundry, maintaining the yard, visiting family, or various rock-climbing engagements (competitions, volunteering…). Sometimes I have a gig or a rehearsal with the band. Sometimes we go out for dinner or manage to meet up with friends. Sometimes we leave town together.

Rereading this it doesn’t seem particularly French at all. And it’ll probably be funny/sad to read back through it once the baby is here and I’ve gone back to work in February. Tomorrow is my last day before maternity leave, and I’m ready, but I think I’m probably leaving this routine behind and that’s a little bittersweet.

What about you? Does your routine seem particularly “French” or “American” to you or does it all just seem normal by this point?