After a number of years in France there are a few odd things that you end up only knowing how to do only in French. For example, I can change the embrayage of my car with my eyes shut, but I cringe at the idea of touching the clutch. As a publisher, I know the ins and outs of brochage, but bookbinding totally befuddles me. I can poser une moquette or handle carrelage, but I’m lost when it comes to laying carpet or dealing with bathroom tiles. In fact, on the whole I’m not too bad as bricoleurs go, but if it’s one thing I’m not it’s handy!
This brings me to our subject of the month, one that concerns the act of coming into being: les accouchements, an area I feel as qualified to discuss as any non-medical male on earth. I have gone through a couple of Parisian accouchements with, I don’t mind saying, total agility. The trouble is that I am positively incompetent when it comes to birthing. I’ve never done it in English, and it doesn’t seem like the same act on this side of the Atlantic. In Paris, I can watch an échographie on any écran as painlessly as I would a “Colombo” rerun on the télé, but when it comes to spectating a sonogram I don’t know up from down.
Those of you who have had babies in France are probably shaking your heads (or hips) right about now. Grossesse and accouchement in France constitute a culturally edifying experience – and for a bunch of great reasons. First, there are the sages-femmes, who – as opposed to medical doctors – deliver almost all babies in this country. The point is that birth in most cases need not be considered a medical procedure, but is a natural one. I’ve grown very comfortable in the presence of sages-femmes, whereas I get a little edgy when I hear the term “midwife.” Sages-femmes sound like they know what they’re doing; midwives remind me of minor female characters in Chaucer or “Beowolf” who carry unwashed knives and keep nasty secrets. In English, I need a doctor around to deliver my kids. Not in France.
The vocabulary you learn when you become a parent in Paris can never be acquired at even the best language schools. I’m a veritable expert in the dilations of a woman’s col, (especially when it’s bien mou), but I’d never be caught dead speaking about my wife’s cervix in public. I don’t even know what a cervix is or does. Good or bad, contractions are contractions in every language, and so are placenta and uterus, although the pronunciation of the latter in French makes me think of a far-off planet.
The epidural method of anaesthesia, that spinal miracle for many women, was in fact invented at Paris’ Hôpital de la Pitié (Salpêtrière) in the 13th arrondissement, a fact I’ve always found rather impressive since Americans generally like to assume that every great invention, including the paper napkin, originated at Stanford or Yale or Johns Hopkins. Rushing your gut-clenching wife to a hospital called Pity, though, is a little less reassuring – and even worse when you think that this place was originally a home for aged and mentally afflicted women.
The congé maternité is another major area where our cultures part. Sixteen glorious weeks of maternity leave with full pay in France is highly civil, particularly when you tack on the five weeks of paid vacation. If you manage to arrange for your accouchement in the early summer and you gain all those non-working days of May, en plus, pregnancy becomes a real employment racket. Some women in France know how to work the system to the hilt and have calculated that with the third child and the higher allocations familiales they can then afford low-cost train travel on the TGV as a “famille nombreuse.” Being pregnant in the US isn’t quite so peachy on the job front: many working women tend to put in the 9 to 5 routine all the way to the first contractions, risking giving birth right at the photocopy machine or between floors in the company elevator, a hazard not at all covered by Blue Shield.
What I’ve always found marvelous about France is the way women talk about where they’re going to accoucher. Hospital or clinic? is the first division among les enceintes en France, just as some women are gung-ho on the crèche system and others swear by nourrices. (Again, nourrices sound adorable, but wet-nurses sit in rocking chairs with swollen mammaries.) Practically all American women opt for the hospital as their preferred place of accouchement, although à l’américaine it’s a slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am kind of deal. In and out in two days.
Compared with American Holiday Inn-style hospital rooms, those in Paris tend to be kind of sparse, more like convent rooms or reform school dorms, (not that I know a lot about either of these forms of accommodation). Rooms at La Pitié are more like Fimotel or Ibis singles with thicker walls. The furniture is shabby, but the food is not bad, and Parisian women care a lot about what they get served after delivery. One of the motivating arguments for the clinic over the hospital is that you eat better and the flower vases are prettier. American women want to know that there are emergency facilities on the spot if the kid is born without a kidney, and that pediatric heart specialists are on call, and thus they tend to overlook whether the “langue de bœuf” comes with mashed potatoes or sliced carrots.
For the expecting fathers out there who have yet to do this part of the expat experience, don’t count on grabbing a slice of pepperoni pizza in the cafeteria or a reuben sandwich in the hospital snack bar while you’re waiting for junior to make his entry. At best, you’ll find a cup of powdered soup in a machine that also delivers instant coffee and lemony tea. Hospitals in France are for the sick, remember. So forget it if you were set on browsing in the gift shop, buying flowers in the lobby or picking up the latest Sports Illustrated at the newspaper stand. Get yourself positioned in the salle d’accouchement and thank the lord that you’re in a place that respects life and cherishes the natural part of nature. Here he comes. Measured in metrics and you don’t even know if 28 centimeters means he’s big. The father in France may not only assist but can also cut the umbilical cord, a messy day-glo cable that I’ve come to call the ambiguous cord.
Your baby is born, but that does not automatically make him or her French. Only hours old in France and the eternal rush for papers begins.