Friday, October 28, 2011

Celebrating the Season of Harvest

It's late October. We've gotten used to adding extra layers when we go outside, and have come to expect frigid temperatures in our apartment at night. We love the golden days that come our way. Autumn has broken in nicely and is comfortable and friendly, like Donnie's sherling slippers.

I didn't feel this way a couple of weeks ago, when, having just emerged from my hospital room, I found that our Indian summer had ended. The gray skies and early sunsets gave me a sense of foreboding that I hadn't felt in years. Hormones surely contributed to my dismay--and the six days spent inside, cut off from the movement of nature. But part of it was cultural. Where were the gourds and cornstalks? Where were the tasteless (and premature) Halloween decorations? The season arrived without the trappings (at least trappings I could recognize), and so I was caught off guard. In the States, we battle the waning of the light with apple picking excursions and pumkin-flavored chai lattes. Without these seasonal rituals, I felt a bit defenseless.

"What do the French do in the Fall?" I asked a British mum at the Anglophone mom's group I attend. "I don't know." she answered, "I'm sure there's something to do with wine."

The funny thing, is that the French are known for being more closely tied to the seasons, at least in terms of cuisine. While the American symbols for the harvest are absent--no jack-o-lanterns, sacrificial turkeys, or gourd-filled cornucopia--the reality of the harvest season is more immediate. Maria and I collected baskets of walnuts and hazelnuts in our backyard. My mother brought us apples from her yard in Barron Marlotte, and last week brought chestnuts as well.

I still hope to join in an autumn ritual with actual Frenchmen. I know that must exist and they must be lovely. It's just one aspect of life in France that we have yet to discover. Meanwhile, I'll show you the nuts we've collected:

Friday, October 14, 2011

Louisa Est Nee!

Looking at my outline for this blog entry, I see there's a risk that this will be a novel-length birth story---not that Louisa's birth was long or complicated ---quite the opposite. I'm not a concise writer, and when it comes to something as important as the birth of a child, every detail seems significant.

Here's the short version, without the gory details.

On Sunday, September 25, I woke to discover that my water had broken. In the afternoon, we walked to the hospital. After about two hours at the hospital, heavy contractions started and Louisa was born about two hours later, at 7:51 PM.

Our hospital stay was prolonged to six days because a blood test indicated that Louisa had a bacterial infection. The pediatrician decided to treat it aggressively with antibiotics administered via IV. We were treated with great care and friendliness by the staff at the Orsay hospital, and though it was difficult to be apart from family, it was nice to have the extra rest and one on one time with Louisa. We came home the following Saturday and have been doing well these past three weeks.

My recommendation is that that those who don't have an interest in the details of the birth stop here. I think it's generally good to share birth stories with with people who are likely to become parents, since it can be helpful to hear about other people's experiences--but understand that they're not everyone's cup of tea.

Here goes:

That Sunday began like so many mornings of late pregnancy. Maria woke at 7:30 and I grumpily pried myself out of bed to warm milk for her bottle. I sat on the couch and stared groggily into space while she frolicked around me. I hadn't slept well--there was the usual three or four trips to the bathroom and the struggle to find a comfortable position. We'd had a lateish night---had gone out for pizza with Mushi and Pashi the night before, and I had a kind of achy feeling that made me regret the hours of walking we'd done at the brocant on the preceding day. I was also nursing a bit of cold.

My mood darkened a shade more when I visited the bathroom and discovered that I needed a change of underpants. I thought this was just a moment of late-pregnancy incontinence--it's not rare in late pregnancy to loose control for a moment, especially when you're coughing or sneezing--there's an awful lot of pressure on the bladder! So, I changed and didn't think much of it. I made some tea and read Maria a few stories.

But soon it was necessary to change again. I still didn't think "this is it." My thoughts were more along the line of "what rotten luck to get a cold at this stage of pregnancy" and "however will I be able to keep up with laundry for the the next two weeks." It wasn't until I needed to change a third time that I began to think that my water had broken.

Now it was after nine and Donnie was up--just as groggy and cranky as I was. We had missed our chance to go to Mass at St. Martin and Lawrence in Orsay, which meant we had to find a Mass at a different Church. (In France, it's typical for there to be only one Sunday Mass, usually at 9:30 or 9:45, allowing time to prepare a Sunday afternoon feast.) We would have to take the train somewhere, and possibly do a long stretch on foot. We were both regretting our morning tardiness.

Donnie was at the computer looking for neighboring parishes when I told him that I suspected my water had broken. He was skeptical, but did google "urine vs. amniotic fluid," and found a bunch of posts on the topic. He asked if the liquid smelled like urine or bleach and I told him I couldn't smell it at all-- my nose was stuffy. I wasn't having contractions, but I did feel like the baby may have dropped down. After another trip to the bathroom and another change of underwear, I was beginning to be convinced that Louisa would be born that day. Donnie, still skeptical, warned that I had to be prepared to remain pregnant for a while longer.

We both feared that if we went to the hospital prematurely, they wouldn't let us leave. A midwife appointment a week and a half before showed that I was already 4.5 cm dilated. Usually, a woman is in active labor by the time she's that far dilated, and some o.b's might want to induce labor at that point. But with Maria, I was 5 cm dilated two weeks before my due date, and still gave birth a full ten days after the due date. I managed to reach 7 cm dilation before experiencing hard contractions. We wanted Louisa to have all the time she needed, and frankly, I wanted the opportunity to dilate as much as possible before going into active labor.

In the midst of this brew of thoughts, the doorbell rang. Who appeared but Muschi! It was providential. "Dad gave me permission to go to the second day of the brocant. I'm only here because I need to use the bathroom." she said as she walked in. I told her my suspicions, all the while thanking God for sending Muschi to us when he did. We wouldn't have to deposit Maria with our neighbors while my mom drove in from Fountainbleau--our babysitter was already on site.

Time passed and it seemed more and more likely that my water had broken. We began gathering things for the hospital. We did our best to remain calm and positive. We had a lunch of bread cheese, and cold cuts with tea. I went to put Maria down for her nap.

It was difficult to leave Maria. I teared up as I sang her usual lullabies and explained that I wouldn't be home that night, and that I'd bring Baby Loulou when I returned. We were on the cusp of a great change, and Maria didn't--really couldn't--know what was about to hit her. I was also a little scared--childbirth is a relatively dangerous thing, and I felt a touch of ancestral fear. Even if everything went perfectly smoothly, it would be the first time that I spent as much as a night away from Maria.

Donnie and I began our walk to the hospital. Here's a picture of me taken before we left:

I still wasn't having contractions and we thought the twenty minute walk might help move things along. Muschi planned to deliver our bags to the hospital after Maria woke up. It was a bright, clear day. As we walked along, Donnie and I talked about how odd it was that we were on our way to have a baby.

Being Sunday, the hospital was virtually deserted. The admission office was closed, and it wasn't until we found the nurse's break room that we saw anyone at all. Donnie explained the situation. The nurses asked how far along we were, and after hearing that we were already at 39 weeks, they smiled, said "good luck," and showed us to the delivery wing.

After a short wait, we were met by Sandrine, the midwife. Sandrine had a calm manner and air of competence that reminded me of the Magee midwives. She was pretty--in her early thirties, with dark hair and light blue eyes. She spoke very good English. The swab test showed that it was indeed amniotic fluid that I'd been leaking all morning. Sandrine also did an internal check--I was at 6 cm. She gave me a hospital gown and indicated the way to the toilette. "You want to go pipi now. After this you must make pipi into a --um," and she mimed a receptacle. At this juncture, my heart began to quail. It's one thing to use a bed pan when you are in pain and unable to move, but to be feeling perfectly fit and be told you won't allowed to walk to a toilette is another.

You see, we hadn't asked the midwives any of the questions you're supposed to ask when you're choosing a hospital. We hadn't asked whether I'd be allowed to move around during labor, or if they had birthing balls, or about the hospital's episiotomy and caesarian rates. Not having a car, we didn't think we'd realistically be able to get to any hospital but Orsay. Beggars can't be choosy--so why ask? Plus, we had plenty to do during our prenatal appointments just getting though the formalities and communicating basic medical information. As I donned the gown and put paper booties over my shoes, I wished that we had gotten around to those questions. "Now, " I though bleakly, "I'm in the jaws of the system!"

I rallied when I saw the delivery room, with its large windows overlooking a wooded hill and a birthing ball sitting in the corner. I got onto the bed and Sandrine and her assistant put the monitors in place and got me hooked up to the iv drip. The monitor showed that I was having regular contractions even though I was only feeling them as vague discomfort. Sandrine told us she had to go deliver a baby and left us to ourselves.

And there we sat. We read on our smart phones. I was getting to the tail end of Ivanhoe. Donnie was plowing through the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Now and then, Donnie looked at the monitor and told me the progress of the contractions. They were getting bigger and were about eight minutes apart. I could discern them now, and was grateful for the progress. It looked like the baby might come in her own time.

There was one funny moment, after about forty five minutes in, when the labor nurse stuck her head in and asked if I was ready to push. We looked up from our reading, surprised she would ask such a question given how very relaxed we both were. I guess they had expected things to go a bit more quickly!

Next door, a baby was being born. We had heard someone--probably Sandrine--shouting "Allez, allez, allez!" ("go, go, go!") coaching the mom through the pushing contractions. Eventually, there was a croaky wail--the baby had arrived! I felt privileged to be eavesdropping on the moment.

Sandrine returned. I'd been on the monitor about an hour and a half. She did an internal check. I was at 7 cm. We asked if I might go to the bathroom. Sandrine aswered in the affirmative, and I went gratefully, pulling my iv bag on a wrack beside me. So much for the jaws of the system! When I returned, I sat and sent a few emails. Sandrine came in and saw me seated and looking rather comfortable. "Maybe you will walk around." She pulled out a birthing ball and sat on it. "You can sit on this--it helps." She demonstrated, bouncing and wiggling her hips.

Clearly, it was time to get serious. I began traipsing around the room, my iv wrack in tow. The contractions were getting stronger, but still weren't oppressive. Donnie began reading "The Man with the Twisted Lip" aloud. Outside, the trees on the hillside blazed gold as evening settled on Orsay.

It was the dancing that got things started in earnest. A few shimmies, a few umis and suddenly the pain was there. Hard contractions--so different from the gentle squeezing of just a few minutes prior. Donnie hadn't seen the change. I was still trying to process it--it seemed too early for the pain to be so fierce. "Donnie, I need you to stop reading!"

And so began the frenzy to do something--anything!--to ease the discomfort of contractions. With each one, I'd try a new position, as though changing position would allow me to dodge the pain. At least it was a distraction. I sat on the birth ball. "Activate your core*," Donnie said. "Now try to get both feet off the ground." "Not funny!" I retorted. After a few contractions, I remembered my own best advice for labor: make noise. I groaned. I sang. I hollered. The nurses heard and returned to the room.

I think natural childbirth is a wonderful thing, and an estimable goal (though it there are certainly all kinds of situations where it is great to have recourse to an epidural). I've found it to be a rather humbling experience. It only takes a few strong contractions to teach me the fragility of my resolve and pain tolerance. With both babies, I remember thinking, "My goodness, I understand why women get the epidural--I will never fault them!" With both births, I had the comfort of knowing my labor would be short, and the encouragement of a wonderful husband and medical staff. I am full of admiration for womankind--since many women go into labor without those comforts!

With both births, I found that the pain of labor came just short of being annihilating. The rests between contractions and the calm, concentrated looks on Donnie's face and the faces of the nurses were just enough to let me know that everything was okay. In the pain of labor, you see the rocky coast--Grace is what keeps you from being dashed to pieces on it!

So it continued for a while. Eventually, in my search for new positions, I decided it was a good idea to get back onto the bed. The nurses decided it was time to reattach the monitors and do another internal check. Meanwhile, one of the nurses offered me an oxygen mask. I accepted, gratefully, and after a few inhalations thought, "Oh, this is why people could get into oxygen bars". It was like getting a breath of air from a cool forest glade---albeit, one the smelled of plastic.

"Okay, you will stay here now," Sandrine announced after the check. "Am I fully dilated? Can I push?". Sandrine answered in the affirmative. Thank Heavens! It was almost over! Sandrine and the nurses began pulling on levers, transforming the bed for the delivery. As they were working, I realized I needed to pee again--this time I had no intention of walking to the toilette. "J'ai envie de faire pipi," I said. "I have the urge to make a pipi"--a phrase taken directly from Maria's French potty book. All that reading aloud had come to some good!

The pushing phase was blessedly short. My Lamaze teacher described the urge to push as irresistible--almost pleasurable--like the urge to sneeze. I have not found it to be so. It's more of a "push now or be in a world of pain" sensation. But the contractions were remarkably productive. After three or four, Louisa's head was visible. After three more, she was born.

It is a wonderful alchemy that turns nine months of waiting into a slimy, wriggling newborn. One moment naturally gives way to the next, but the break between imagining and wondering about your child and suddenly having the child plopped on your chest...well, it's one of life's great reveals.

Louisa was stone gray at birth--but moving and making enough noise to keep us from worrying. Sandrine messaged her and she pinked up, still scoring 10 on her Apgar. She had a round little face, a solemn rose-bud mouth, and heavy lidded, gray eyes--like the eyes of an icon. She was weightier than Maria (by about half a pound), and had that newborn, squeezed look, with bloodshot eyes and a touch of jaundice.

In short, she was the beautiful, funny-looking, mysterious child of our dreams.

"I can't believe you're here," I said. "I can't believe you're here."

* "Activate your core" was a catch phrase from a ball pilates video I once had. For a while, we kept a pilates ball in the living room of our Pittsburgh apartment. People sat on it or used it as an ottoman. It happened more than once that someone attempted to balance on it, with both feet lifted off the ground. In most cases, the person was sent careening across the living room with hilarious effect.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Getting Ready

During the days leading up to Louisa's birth, I had a number of overdue blog entries rattling around in my head. There was one about cheese (perhaps the best culinary aspect of life in France) and one about the brocants (neighborhood yard sales), but heading the list was a post about getting ready for Louisa. I wanted to talk about the incredibly small footed sleepers that my mom and I had collected, about our due date confusions (the French put the due date at 41 weeks while the American due date is at 40 weeks) and the formidable packing list that the hospital gave us (would she really need a wool sweater?). But most of all, I wanted to head off premature excitement by saying that we really weren't expecting Louisa to arrive until well after my American due date of September 28.

What were my reasons for thinking that Louisa would take her time? Well, the most logical of the bunch was that Maria was born ten days after her due date, and she came only after some work on the part of the midwives. Surely, Louisa would be late too. Then there was the fact that I didn't have swollen feet and could still push the stroller up hill to our local grocery store--surely the inertia of late pregnancy was yet to come. But my real reason for thinking that Louisa would be late was denial pure and simple. I just didn't feel ready.

Thank goodness these things have a way of happening in their own time, despite our notions of preparedness! Louisa was born on Sunday, September 25th at 19:51. She weighed 3.52 kg (8 lbs 2 oz) and measured 51 cm (20 in) long. She's a lovely little pip; Our cup of joy runneth over...

I'm going to save Louisa's birth story for my next entry. Right now, I want to share a few pictures from the days leading up to Louisa's arrival.

I began this drawing many weeks back. It's now framed and sitting on a shelf in the nursery. It will probably also be the first drawing in Louisa's baby album. Do you see that it's Maria reading a book to her soon-to-be born baby sister? Maria's favorite toys are listening in. I hope to do a second drawing to pair with this one. Maria has requested that it include a train.

One of the chores of the week before Louisa came was washing all of Maria's 0-3 month clothing, along with all of our new acquisitions for Louisa's layette. In the interest of saving electricity (we don't pay for it, but we don't want to ire our kind landlords), I hung most of it up to dry. Our apartment looked like a gypsy encampment for for a couple of days. There's a special pleasure that comes with hanging such tiny garments, even if it does take up a lot of space.

Vive le brocant!

Our landlord, Roland, (a wonderful character whom I hope to intoduce to you at length) gave us heads up on two brocants happening in our area. Brocants are communal yard sales. They're big events, complete with musical entertainment and fair food. Brocants are especially wonderful because they happen here, in this old country. When people clean out their closets in France, they find the usual modern clutter (novelty mugs and broken toys) but they often also find beautiful, old things: mismatched tea cups, hundred-year old prints, saint medallions left over from a pious aunt. They sell these thing at a brocant table for a couple Euros a piece. After all, space is precious. Turns out that the flea market eclectic look that you find with a hefty price tag at Anthropologie and in the pages of decorating magazines is quite affordable at the brocants.

As are baby clothing. Which is great because we've found that in France, baby clothing is quite expensive. The Carrfour (we think of it as the French Walmart) sells baby sleepers for 10 Euros a piece--pretty hefty when you consider that it will only be worn for a month.

Maria was a summer baby and spent most of her first months in Gerber onesies so we didn't have much in the way of cold-weather clothing for the 0-3M sizes. Furthermore, the hospital gave us a detailed list of what to bring for the baby (it is standard in French hospitals to bring clothing for your baby), and it included 6 sleepers, a wool sweater, a cotton sweater, a hat, bunting, wool socks, and more. The two brocants we visited went a long way in filling the gaps in the hospital list.

But more importantly, the Paliseau brocant, or rather, my intense desire to visit every table at the Paliseau brocant, kept me on my feet for about six hours on Saturday, the 24th. We theorize that it was this unusual exertion that broke my water and brought Louisa into the world the following day.

One last picture:

There are my two loves on the evening before Louisa's birth. Donnie is reading a book on his smart phone---probably the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the same book he would read to me during the early phase of labor. It's wonderful to see how these ordinary moments string together, and bring us to the watershed events of life!