Monday, May 11, 2009

My first baby in Provence (a while back now)

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I became pregnant with Leo almost immediately after our August wedding. I stopped taking the pill and poof, within the week my body was changing. Mom’s discussion about the birds and bees, and the ease of getting pregnant in the family had held true. To confirm the pregnancy, and begin my official doctors’ visits I went to Erick’s doctor, the one I’d mistakenly tutoyed the year before, and with whom I’d never really felt at ease. But, when you’re new in town, who else do you go to? He had a very patronizing air, and when I said I’d come to get a pregnancy confirmation, he’d hurumphingly corrected me and stated he would test to see if I was pregnant. Bubbly and enthusiastic as ever, I declaimed that with my bigger and ever more sensitive breasts and my appetite going through the roof, I just knew I was pregnant. He simply looked at me condescendingly and went about his business, directing me to the examining table, and checking my uterus. And yes of course, I was pregnant.

I was still working in Paris at this time, but was in Arles regularly on the weekends. So I scheduled all my appointments with the hospital ob-gyn (all paid for by the French State) as well as the three sonograms on Saturdays. In the meantime, I stocked up on pregnancy books written for English and American audiences, and one in French to cover the bases. I took videos out of the local library on giving birth, birthing rooms, various options, new-born tests, etc., I dreamed of changing my profession to that of a mid-wife. I lived my pregnancy intensely, lovingly rubbing cream on my expanding stomach and breasts to limit the stretch marks, eating as healthfully as possible, walking, biking and doing expecting mothers’ yoga.

The scheduled visits at the hospital were frustrating. The doctor was monosyllabic, and not very informative. At the first scheduled sonogram I wanted to know everything, and couldn’t resist asking questions, pointing, interrogating… He maintained his reserved demeanor and answered sparingly – driving me completely crazy. Quickly, I realized I wouldn’t be putting together a list of ideal conditions for a personal birthing experience with this doctor. But, there was no alternative, and so gradually I came to terms with the fact that a hot tub/water birth wasn't going to happen. Nor would the option of a mid-wife at the house be possible either. I knew none, and it was clearly frowned upon in the milieu I'd so recently integrated.

At work, my co-workers smoked like chimneys. This had bothered me before, but hadn’t sent me fleeing. But now, I was so sensitive to the fumes, I began to hassle them and tease them, anything to limit the quantity of cigarettes being lit up around me. And my appetite! If lunch were late, I simply fainted. It was rather scary. A simple meal of salads and a sandwich was no longer enough. I needed a full bowl of soup with noodles alongside to fill my ravenous insides.

But there was no weepiness, no morning sickness, and my energy level was up. Beyond larger breasts, I wasn’t showing particularly, and was able to go about things in a relatively normal fashion.

When I hit my seventh month, I quit my job in Paris and moved full time to the South to be with Erick. Up to that time I’d maintained the weekly commute. Walking all over Paris had been great, but working alongside three non-stop smokers had been more than a little difficult. Finally, I settled in to live full time in Arles.

Shortly after Easter arrived, and with it a visit to Erick's family. Noisy and opinionated all, excepting his father, Pappie, who sat discreetly in a corner with his book. Rather out of my depth in this small over-furnished house filled by yelling Mediterranean folk, I sought refuge in the gentle presence of my father in law, and spent most of the day with him.

The next week, Pappie called and asked Erick to come and get him. I’d like to come live with you for a time if I may, he said. I willingly agreed. I’d had a very close relationship to my own grandfather, and found Pappie so dear, that I was more than willing to have him under our roof.

From that point on Pappie and I were often together as I nested to the utmost. I refinished furniture--having always loved working with wood--and there were a couple of pieces in Erick’s kitchen that could use a bit of brightening. So Pappie and I brought the table outside, sanded off the white paint and painted multiple layers of varnish to make it indestructible in its role as the kitchen/everything table. Then we began on the bottom of the hutch, and then on another hutch brought over by a friend.

Many a day I was out in the small street, sanding away with the hand-held power sander, in large men’s shorts over my huge belly, my hair in a pony tail, a dust mask over my nose and mouth. The neighbors, who’d barely ever seen me before, didn’t quite know what to make of me. The street was tiny, narrow, and the buzzing of the sander reverberated strongly. Truly we all lived on top of each other. I’d quickly realized that early in my first month with Erick; when romping in bed, no crying out, particularly if you have the windows open for a fresh night breeze. Later on I learned about the various whispers they’d exchanged about me. Was I German, Dutch, English? I am tall, fair-haired, huge in my pregnancy, anything but elegant, and sanding furniture noisily (though being careful of nap and meal times!).

Having grown up in a large suburb of New York City, I had a rather care-free attitude about what other people thought of me. I did my thing, stayed positive, said hello to passers-by. There I was, as foreign as could be, plopped into a Southern French city. Later I would come to know the twists and turns of the neighborhood cabals and grow more sensitive to them, but at this moment, I was living for my baby, my home, my family, happy in my new Provençal life.

At last one neighbor came up to me, a gift for my baby in her hands. It was Marie, who ran the Laundromat across the street. She hesitatingly offered her hand-made sweater and booties to me. My first baby-gift. I was truly touched. A first gesture towards me in my new life. Up to this point, I’d only met Erick's friends. No one had yet approached me for myself.

Leo was born early summer. I'd been able to go swimming pregnant and topless once before the birth (late May had been particularly mild that year). There was an hilarious moment of wishing to lie tummy down in the sand, and I'd needed to punch two large holes for my breasts, and dig out a ditch for my belly. And then the day arrived when the contractions began, growing stronger and stronger. Off to the hospital we went, where, for once, I was told that I wasn’t fat enough (being a large girl with strong thighs, I’d always felt large in this world of tiny Mediterranean women). Was I flattered? “Vous n’etes pas grosse” all seven syllables in the local accent – they pronounce the ‘e’s here. The nurse who received me gave me a suppository, a remarkably popular way of packaging medicines in France, and sent me home. I was back by evening and a couple of hours later, Leo arrived.

The birth went smoothly. Though not in a magical way. It had been medicalized down to the tiniest detail; monitors on my arm, my tummy, an IV in my wrist, flat on my back, legs in stirrups, with not particularly friendly people in white bustling about and measuring me, poking me, telling me not to be so loud. (Hey, isn't this the one time you're allowed to be loud as a woman? if not when giving birth, then when?!) But then Leo was there, placed on my breast, a nurse helping him grasp my nipple in his mouth for the very first time. Shortly after, I was wheeled to my own room, and left alone with my baby. Hard to believe they’d leave me alone with him like that… I’d rarely ever baby-sat newborns. Were they sure I knew what to do with this new little bundle?

As the week went by (yes, in France you still have a week in the maternity ward after giving birth) the rare nurse stopped by. The first two mornings brought the nurse who handled the baby’s first bath, and showed me how to then do so myself. When I dared take a shower (and leave Leo alone for 5 minutes, whereby he proceeded to cry), a nurse came running to see what was up. There were of course the conflicting recommendations of nursing on demand, or insisting on three-hour spans between feedings. But in general, I had the sense that my foreignness kept the nurses at bay. I spent the week peacefully, Leo on my chest, right by my heart at most times, reveling in my first born.

Pappie was in the hospital too. He’d been in for yearly exams for his diabetes, and came down to my room to hold his new grandson on his first day on this earth. My mother arrived shortly after. Friends came by to ogle and praise. I lived it all in a happy blur.

Once home, I lay upon my new mattress, the old foam mattress I’d shared with Erick till that point (which apparently had come from a back room at the photo festival offices) in the dustbin. I slept when Leo slept, nursed lying down as often as not. The heat outdoors was heavy and sleep-inducing. I let myself fall into the rhythms of my baby. For the moment, earning a living, jobs, etc., were the last things on my mind. I simply was, and this little baby was the center of my universe, precious, fragile, and completely dependent on me. Thank goodness I had a husband who could cook.

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