Sunday, December 30, 2007

Slide

Ice skating is all the rage in Paris this year. When a number of years ago the city of Paris and many of its suburbs started putting up temporary ice rinks for the holidays, Parisians seemed skeptical. A sport for which you had to rent funny shoes and risk looking ridiculous isn't a sure win in Paris, as the few bowling alleys can attest. Perhaps it started catching on when a splendidly festive ice rink was built a few years back on the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, a short walk away from the heart of the hip Marais neighborhood. However it happened, skating is now almost as much a part of the Parisian holiday experience as a stroll down the Champs-Elysées.

Our city hall, which spares no expense to avoid being upstaged by other municipalities and especially the Socialist mayor of Paris, put up the most elaborate ice rink I've seen yet. With a giant snow globe in the middle, it was the centerpiece of a holiday fair that included train rides and bungee jumping for the kids, cabins with spiced wine and sweets, and all manner of kitsch surrounded by swathes of cottony artificial snow, groves of Christmas trees and wooden cutout reindeer. A bleak, 1960s concrete square, abandoned most of the year by all but surly, loitering teenagers, was transformed into a sort of life-sized gingerbread house of holiday activity.

Oh, if only they'd spent this money on the municipal daycare centers, I thought to myself. Nothing to do but enjoy it anyway.

My mother-in-law, who is always game for this sort of thing, agreed to go skating with me. It's actually somewhat of a tradition. Save last year, when I was three months pregnant and terrified of falling, we've gone almost every year since the rink has been open.

As we stumbled toward the rink entrance in our rented skates, I started to wonder if this had been such a good idea after all. The distance across the rink to where my husband, le Petit, and my father-in-law were waiting and watching us seemed rather far, and I wasn't sure that after a two-year hiatus my feet still knew what to do. But we'd already paid our three euros so there was no way out but forward.

I hesitatingly launched myself on the bumpy ice and tried keep my balance. I advanced slowly as swarms of kids darted around me. I looked back to where my mother-in-law was holding onto the rink wall for dear life.

When we finally reached the other side, my father-in-law declared us both ridiculous. "You should stop now, you're embarrassing us!" I suddenly understood the difference between thirteen, when I'd learned to skate, and thirty-one: back then, I was afraid of making a fool of myself, now I was just afraid of breaking my neck.

Looking around, I also realized that we were the only two people over twenty who weren't accompanied by small children, and my mother-in-law was easily the oldest skater by twenty years. As we continued to stumble around the rink, gradually graduating to gliding without picking up much speed, I started noticing, too, that Paris ice rink etiquette has improved over the years. The first year they built the rink, it was anarchy. As many people skated clockwise as counterclockwise, there was much giggling, but also more than a few pile-up collisions. This year the majority of skaters were headed in more or less the same direction, and there were even uniformed personnel to maintain order. Yet it still looked a bit like Place de l'Etoile at rush hour.

After forty-five minutes of having some fun despite the constant butterflies in my stomach (perhaps a sign I'm getting Too Old For This After All) we decided to throw in the towel before either of us fractured something.

At the skate rental desk, the woman looked disappointed to have lost her most respectable customers, including the only one with grandmotherly silver hair, so soon. "But you only just got here!" she protested.

Yeah. No, that was definitely enough for this year. But I made a mental note to take myself to the rink more often next year, just to warm myself up for the year when I have to teach le Petit to skate. He's yet to figure out crawling, so thank goodness, I have some time.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Cutting in Line

Want to know how to get red carpet treatment at at least one of Paris' museums? Show up with a baby. My mom is visiting, and we decided to go to the new Quai Branly Museum, which houses art and artifacts from traditional cultures from all over the world. Since it opened recently, it is hugely popular, and since it was both a Saturday and the vacation week between Christmas and the New Year, the line at the entrance easily promised an hour wait.

We were ready to give up and make other plans for the afternoon when my husband noticed the priority line for disabled persons, pregnant women, and -- lucky us! -- young children.

Five minutes later le Petit was flirting with a docent and we were next in line to buy our tickets.

I'm going to have to try this out at other museums, but if it works elsewhere, it may just be the best-kept secret of Paris tourism.

Le Petit was more than happy to be carried around the museum in the Bjorn. He slept most of the time, and when he woke up, we were able to find a discreet corner to nurse.

Next stop: Musée d'Orsay.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Night Before Christmas

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even... wait a second, this is our house, Christmas 2007, and we've got a five-month-old baby. So if Santa did land on the roof, there was no way we could have heard a reindeer hoof for anything.

We arrived at the family house in Troyes on the 23rd and sequestered ourselves and our pile of luggage and baby junk in a tiny attic bedroom. The good news? Where we built our nest, you couldn't hear any of the ruckus from the dining room. Even the noise from an invading army would be filtered to a murmur, so there was some chance le Petit would sleep through Christmas Eve dinner as all ten of my in-laws tried to out express one another at the top of their lungs.

The bad news? Le Petit had no intention of sleeping in his folding crib in a strange room. At home, when I place him on his back in his crib he promptly flips to his side and curls up in his favorite corner. A half an hour later, I'll invariably find him on his tummy, often with one arm over the crib bumper and his hand grasping the bar. He's now so comfortable in his Very Own Bed that I can often put him down only half asleep and he'll find his thumb and his favorite position and fall asleep all by himself.

The folding crib is a different story. First, he seems to have some trouble flipping to his tummy from his back with the new mattress, and I don't dare place him on his tummy myself. Second, he doesn't have his beloved crib bumper to snuggle up against. I hear him scratching his fingernails against the nylon mesh looking for something familiar to hold onto, finding nothing, and it makes me feel terrible for the little guy.

Dinner on the 23rd was punctuated by crying made all the more strident by the tinny speaker of a baby monitor. As my husband and I took turns pacing the attic floor with le Petit in our arms, his relatives sped through four courses of soup, pot au feu, salad and dessert. When we managed to get le Petit down, he'd stay asleep for a mere thirty minutes before waking up again hysterical. This lasted well beyond dinner, into the wee hours of the morning. It felt like August, when we visited Troyes in the worst of the oh-my-god-I-have-a-newborn shell-shocked phase. We were sleepwalking once again.

It was heartbreaking, because the second I picked up le Petit he stopped crying and buried his head in my shoulder, already asleep. I considered tucking him in with us, but the two ancient twin beds we'd pushed together were really not safe for him. I'd already nearly fallen through the gap onto the floor myself. So we both slept for an hour or so with him in my arms, my back propped against the headboard, until I finally managed to transfer him to his crib at four in the morning. We all woke up at eight, exhausted.

My husband and I were both irritable, and he was frantic, convinced that This Was It, le Petit's sleep had been irreparably disturbed and we wouldn't get any sleep at all in the new year. He was also upset that I was the only one who'd been able to calm him: as my husband paced the attic with le Petit to give me a chance to eat, he was treated to ungrateful I WANT MOMMY howling.

We did what most calm, rational parents do on such occasions, and started yelling at each other. I eventually decided that the best thing for me would be a shower and a walk in town, so I left the boys to fend for themselves. I came back to find le Petit fast asleep in my husband's arms.

My mother- and father-in-law arrived that afternoon. When we described our painful night, my mother-in-law exclaimed, "Oh, the poor thing!" with grandmotherly concern. "Poor thing him? Poor thing his poor parents!" responded my husband.

It was with much apprehension that I put le Petit to bed at eight o'clock on Christmas Eve. I'd made my mother-in-law promise to keep the meal on schedule even if I didn't appear. To add to our chagrin, le Petit's cousin, a baby girl born a couple weeks before him this summer, spent dinner dozing in her bassinet and sucking on her pacifier.

The same circus ensued as the night before, but this time I had the moral support of both my husband and my mother-in-law. We tromped up to the attic one after the other to comfort le Petit when he woke up and to discuss strategy amongst ourselves. By the third wake up, we were all at a loss. Le Petit was in my arms, eyes open, wide awake and looking at us as if to say, "You're all here. Where's the party?"

Minutes before, my husband and I sat at the dinner table and endured everyone's advice as my mother-in-law sat upstairs with a screaming le Petit.

"Let him cry, he needs to learn," came from my childless brother-in-law (he'll learn for himself soon enough, bless him!)

"Bring him down here, he must be scared upstairs by himself," came from the mother of the pacifier-chomping cousin.

"Calm down, it's your stress he's reacting to," added my husband's aunt.

Everyone kept adding their helpful advice and observations all at once until my husband simply exploded.

"Shut up, everyone," he screamed, in an outburst impressive even by the cacophonous standards of his family. "Don't you see, he's not like that one?" He motioned to the baby in the bassinet. "His sleep is disturbed, and that's it, if we screw it up it'll be back to the way it was back at the beginning, so we do NOT want to experiment now! Understood?"

Everyone stopped talking for a second, shocked. I felt I needed to explain, so I gently added, "The one thing that we can't really hear right now is advice, no matter how well-intentioned."

We both fled upstairs. Le Petit calmed down in my arms, to suddenly become a content, alert baby with no intention of falling asleep.

"I'll put him in the Moby," I suggested weakly. "It's the only way to make it through the evening." We hadn't even started the salad yet. There were three more courses, then we'd open presents; it would be impossible to finish it all in thirty-minute chunks.

Le Petit grinned at everyone once we came down the stairs as if to say, "You see? I got the better of them once again!" No one could resist grinning back, no matter how much my husband and my mother-in-law begged everyone to ignore him so that he could sleep. Sleep? Le Petit was too busy craning his neck to take in all the action. Quickly judging our cause lost, I took him out of the Moby and let him sit on my lap and le Petit became the life of the party.

He smiled at Dad and Grandpa from across the table. He showed off his two teeth and drooled into my napkin. He didn't complain a second, and was calmer and happier than I'd ever seen him past nine o'clock in his entire life. Sometime between the cheese course and dessert someone shouted out a Merry Christmas. When we at last got around to opening presents, it was well past midnight.

Le Petit cared not at all that it was way beyond his bedtime: the first present offered was for him, and he tore into the wrapping paper with gusto. He needed a little direction to open it, and I'm not sure he understood that the present was inside and wasn't the wrapping paper itself. No matter. Once we pried the bits of crumpled paper from his fists and showed him the prize, a luminescent rubber ducky with colored LEDs, it went into his mouth as well.

"It would have been a shame for him to miss this," admitted my mother-in-law, and my husband and I agreed.

At one o'clock we stumbled back up to our bedroom, still apprehensive about getting le Petit to sleep. Lucky for us, all the excitement had thoroughly tired him out, and he fell asleep almost immediately and stayed asleep for the rest of the night.

We all woke up the next day jolly and well rested.

And a most merry Christmas was had by all, indeed.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Get ready

I really should be in bed, but I needed a few moments of "me" time after a day made crazy with holiday preparations. Plus, we're off to my husband's family's house in Troyes tomorrow as early as we can get organized and packed. Once we leave, I'll be five days without a computer. No blogging, no e-mail for five whole days. This will be tough.

So if you're curious to know just where I'll be in those long days of radio silence, imagine this: eleven adults, two five-month-old babies, and one small house built circa 1920 with three principal rooms, if you generously count the bedroom and attic. No couch, just a giant dining room table, the dignified centerpiece of any French household but slightly less comfortable for lazing around after a huge meal.

And huge meals there will be. We'll arrive with half of the family on the 23rd, and my husband's aunt will have prepared something "light" for lunch and dinner, maybe a pot au feu or a choucroute. Naturally, this will be followed by salad and she'll do her best to push a cheese course on us, as well.

On the 24th, the rest of the family will arrive. We'll eat an equally big meal at lunch because, well, everyone's finally reunited. But we all know enough to save room for what's next: Christmas Eve dinner consists of homemade mini-quiches, foie gras, turkey, potatoes, chestnuts, salad, the cheese platter of your dreams or nightmares, and a frozen chocolate bûche de noël dessert. (I'm always a bit disappointed by the bûche, which comes from a chain store, but my mother-in-law's foie gras is a tough act to follow.) All this is heavily irrigated by a thoughtful selection of wine, which I'll be avoiding this year since I'm still nursing.

We'll go to bed late, sleep as much as we can but for the indigestion, and then eat a very light breakfast. For shortly after noon is Christmas lunch: oysters or boudin blanc (or for the gourmands who are sneaky enough, both), a pièce de résistance that could be lamb, roast beef or duck, salad, the same deadly cheese platter, an architecturally stunning chocolate patisserie, and a plate of candied fruit.

We'll then spend the rest of the afternoon somnambulating about the house or, for the more motivated among us, around town. Troyes' half-timbered facades will be decked with Christmas lights twinkling in the frozen air, and no matter how cold it is, there will be other folks out walking off the calories with good cheer.

We'll go back home for dinner, but no one will pay much attention to what's on the table.

Oh, how happy I am to think that le Petit will be helping me burn off my overindulgence this year. Hooray for the holidays, hooray for le Petit's first Christmas!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Splurge?

I think I've found what I really want for Christmas. I haven't tried it yet, but it looks like it may just be the perfect jacket for me and le Petit: the Mamajacket. It's cute and, unlike other babywearing coats and ponchos, it might not actually make me look like a walking lampshade. And it looks pretty classy from the pictures: charcoal grey heather lambswool and cashmere, I could even stroll down the Faubourg St Honoré without feeling too silly. It can even be used as a normal coat when le Petit outgrows being carried around.

Yet it's as expensive as any wool winter jacket and my husband will think I've lost my mind if I mention I want to buy it.

So... what do I do, do I try and sneak out to the one boutique in Paris that sells it this weekend and decide for myself?

Naptime = my time?

I've already spent months waiting for le Petit to become more independent, and then when he does, I almost regret the little itty bitty baby he was before he took the leap. Almost.

It used to be he'd only sleep during the day in my arms or, more rarely, in the stroller and it drove me absolutely bonkers. Well, today for the first time at naptime he fell asleep in his crib all by himself. Grandma was babysitting and, having exhausted all the tricks she knew to get him to stop crying, placed him in bed and he fell asleep almost immediately.

So I'm at home now with a sleeping baby in the other room and this odd sense of guilty freedom.

Nothing else to do but blog, I guess. (I'm telling myself housework would be too noisy and might wake him up. Yeah, that's it.)

I'm feeling guilty because I've been in a rotten mood all day. I really don't do well with lack of sleep, yet I've been staying up way past my bedtime to wring the most "me" time out of the hours after le Petit has gone to bed. I went to bed at half-past midnight last night but laid awake worrying about Christmas presents I haven't yet found, of all things, until one fifteen. Just when I'd almost lost consciousness, le Petit woke up hungry, so I didn't get to sleep until two.

I need to promise myself -- not to mention le Petit and my husband, who suffer from my lack of sleep almost as much as I do -- not to do this anymore.

Monday, December 17, 2007

All I want for Christmas

Parisienne's my-eyes-are-bigger-than-my-budget fantasy Christmas list:

- Chocolate from La Maison du Chocolate, my favorite Parisienne chocolaterie (though there's some tough competition)

- A cashmere sweater from Eric Bompard

- A sexy nursing nightgown (yes, they do exist!) from mamanana.com (I've got it in burgundy, but I'd like it in black)

- A weekend for two in the medieval garden inn at the Prieuré d'Orsan

- A New Year's feast at the three-star Les Près d'Eugénie

Parisienne's fantasy Christmas list for le Petit:

- Some sort of babywearing poncho like this one, but in a better color.

- A German-made wooden farm. Okay, he's a bit little for it still, but we'll play with it in the meantime.

- Kites. We've got to take this kid out to fly a kite. So he doesn't have the coordination and his attention span may still a bit short, and at just over six kilograms, he couldn't hold onto the string in a strong gale. But I know he'd be utterly fascinated with the bright colors.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Happy Birthday to me

Thirty-one is fairly anticlimactic, but no matter. My husband and I celebrated last night, and I opened up a mountain of presents. Chocolate, a lemon and honey gift box from l'Occitane, and a big ol' pile of books from him. What more could a girl want? So I may actually be able to update my "currently reading" list soon.

This afternoon we're going to my in-laws for a Sunday lunch birthday celebration. My mother-in-law is making her homemade foie gras, doused with Cognac and slowly cooked to a velvety mi-cuit. Yeah, I know, you're jealous -- especially since it may soon be illegal where you live.

And my dad gave me a fancy-dancy umbrella to replace the one he gave me in college that I managed to hold onto for an unprecedented seven years before losing, probably in the Paris Métro. I was heartbroken, so I'm going to look after this new one better. Thanks, Dad.

I think of all that thirty-one years of life has given me: a husband who understands me better than anyone else, a beautiful son who gives me so much joy, a home in a country I love. I feel pretty darn lucky. Even without the chocolate.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Why nursing is surprisingly difficult

I just love breastfeeding. I know it is THE best way of beginning le Petit's gastronomic education -- only the very best for this kid! -- but it also one of my very favorite parts of the mother-baby bond we share right now. It's also darn practical: I barely have to open both eyes when he wakes up for a late-night feeding, and a bottle is one less thing I have to worry about forgetting when we leave the house.

In other words, I couldn't imagine feeding him otherwise. It seems so simple and natural, I find myself sometimes wondering why more moms don't do it, and why some give up after mere weeks.

And then I remember the beginning. I had a relatively easy start: neither of us was too tired out from labor, and le Petit understood right away how to latch on. I had the full, enthusiastic support of my husband and my mother-in-law. I was at a hospital that had decent lactation support, and was committed to helping moms breastfeed. And yet.

No one warned me that newborns often want to feed twenty-four seven in their first few weeks of life. Or if anyone did tell me before le Petit arrived, I didn't hear them. For the first six weeks I was sleep deprived and miserable, shell-shocked and a bit resentful of this little being who wouldn't sleep anywhere but in my arms, couldn't be left alone in his crib for more than twenty minutes, and wanted to nurse ALL DAY LONG.

And I was lucky. I didn't have milk supply issues or sore nipples. Le Petit wasn't colicky and didn't have any gastrointestinal problems. I didn't have to go back to work right away, and my husband, mother-in-law, or my husband's aunt were able to stay with me every day during the first month.

Still, being a mother those first weeks was the hardest thing I've ever tried to do in my life. If someone had told me that giving le Petit formula would have made him sleep through the night, I would have caved right then and there. I might not have even felt guilty.

Sometimes I secretly wondered if giving him formula would turn him into the mythical "easy" baby, the one everyone seems to have except you. The one who stays in his baby chair and only cries to eat every three or four hours. The one who sleeps through the night at the maternity ward. The one who doesn't transform his parents into quivering basket cases with dark circles like shiners.

When your instincts start breaking through the static of extreme sleep deprivation and you start getting that most babies are just not what our industrialized world tells us they should be, well-meaning friends and relatives give you all sorts of bad advice to throw you back off course. The key is to find the people who give you good advice and call them as often as they're willing to talk to you. Luckily, I had a good friend who talked me through those first weeks and who encouraged me to follow le Petit's lead, to hang in there and things would get easier faster than I feared.

When this friend told me a month or so before le Petit's birth that if I had any problems with breastfeeding, I shouldn't hesitate to call her day or night, I thought it was sweet but unnecessary. What was so hard that I'd have to bother her at some ungodly hour of the morning? My breasts would make milk, the baby would nurse at my breast, simple as that.

Suffice it to say that her number is now the only one I have on speed-dial. She talked me through tears and guilt when, faced with slow weight-gain at his ten day weigh-in, I had to decide whether or not to follow advice to supplement with formula. She stopped me from panicking when le Petit cried hysterically during a feeding because (I thought at least) my breasts were empty and I had no idea how to get him to sleep. She's given me advice on pumping, on how and when to introduce solids, and has helped me become a confident breastfeeding mom.

Without her, and without the moral support of my mother-in-law (who breastfed her children herself, but thirty years later doesn't remember enough details to give practical advice), I don't know where I'd be. Probably in the kitchen at four in the morning mixing up bottles of formula.

This woman-to-woman support is crucial for breastfeeding moms. La Leche League and other mothers' groups aim to provide this and the work they do is wonderful, but somehow, nothing replaces having some good friend on the other end of the phone talking you through the hard stuff like a sister.

So I've made it my goal to try and support all the moms I know who want to breastfeed through those first difficult weeks. I'm no expert, but I've discovered how to find information when I need to, and I can at the very least lend a sympathetic ear. I understand well why some moms decide not to breastfeed, since it isn't always easy today and few of us know what to expect. I've heard of so many moms who wanted breastfeeding to work, but lacking support and punctual advice, couldn't continue. It is now so wonderful for me and for le Petit that I'd like every mom and baby to find their way through the tough part to the payoff.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Five month visit

Le Petit had his five month visit to the pediatrician today. He arrived in style in his new Ergo baby carrier. (I'm such a geek. Five months ago I could barely imagine needing one carrier, much less owning four. But the Ergo really is pretty neat: easy to snap on, and it keeps le Petit in a seated position with his legs high enough for me to sit down myself. Plus, it will work in a front carry, hip carry and a back carry.)

My mother-in-law came with us, and I was grateful for her help, since juggling le Petit, a diaper bag, my purse, and two winter jackets while listening attentively to the doctor would have been impossible on my own. Our appointment was early enough in the afternoon for le Petit to still be in a pretty good mood. He was calm and relaxed on the examination table while the doctor carefully checked his heartbeat and breathing.

I gently held back his arms when he started to grab at the hand holding the stethoscope, but the doctor told me, "Let him express himself! He's not in my way." I was once more reassured that we've found a pediatrician who knows how to speak Baby.

He was unconcerned that his weight gain, which has never been huge, had slowed a bit further over the last month. Just fine for a breastfed baby, he told me, after reminding me again how my milk was the very best thing for him. (Le Petit, who lives up to his name, has only had an above average weight at one point in his life. Inconveniently for me, it was when he weighed 8 lbs 7 oz at birth.) He didn't blink when I confessed that le Petit still nursed five or six times a day instead of the "normal" four for his age. And when my mother-in-law started fretting that le Petit often won't nap, the doctor just shrugged and explained that if he sleeps well at night, perhaps he simply doesn't need too much sleep during the day.

Three happy people left the doctor's office. My mother-in-law, as inveterate a worrier as myself, was reassured. I was once again in awe at this beautiful little guy who's changed so much and has so changed my life over the past five months. And le Petit was just happy to once again be outside in the big world, where there are so many interesting things to look at.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Leap

It looks like I'll be going back to work at the beginning of April. It's still months away, but I'm already dreading it. I will be a wreck at first, I know it. I'm so used to being with le Petit all the time, I can't imagine being separated from him on weekdays, and I honestly don't know how I'll make the adjustment.

And of course, I still don't know who will be taking care of him during the day.

As I've bemoaned in previous posts, we did not get a spot in municipal day care, and here in France, there are pretty much no other day care center options around. The only private center nearby is a corporate center, and my employer would have to agree to sponsor le Petit by paying the equivalent of a fourth (!) of my salary. There is, ahem, no chance of that. We looked into a private bilingual center in Paris proper, but it is both inconveniently far from home and prohibitively expensive.

So, we're looking into the tried and true Parisian child care solution: the garde partagée, or shared nanny. My mother-in-law found out that a neighbor of hers was looking for someone to share a nanny with her two-month-old son. It would be convenient: just five minutes away by foot, on my husband's route to work, and just upstairs from Grandma. Yet it was with a huge knot in my stomach that I arrived to meet with the other mom this afternoon. Would we get along? Were we looking for the same things in a nanny, and did we share more or less the same parenting philosophy? And would my natural timidity and deference keep me from asking the right questions?

We spent an hour together chatting, and I think it could work. We both want a nanny who can create a reassuring and stimulating environment for our kids, and we both realize how hard this can be to find. We are both nursing moms and want to introduce healthy, fresh foods when we start solids. And we're both equally paranoid about security, especially about babyproofing windows.

So. I feel a lot lighter. I may be able to sleep a bit better tonight. But the hard part is far from over. The other mom has already interviewed three candidate nannies and found one she likes; the final decision, of course, will only be made after we've met with her as well. That is, of course, if both families agree that we're right for one another. We'll all meet up, both couples and our babies, in a week from Saturday. So stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I am more and more certain that when I do go back to work, I'll only go back four days a week. France's generous parental leave law allows me to choose this unilaterally, even if my employer is less than enthusiastic. I feel it may be the only way for me to find the balance I need between work and motherhood. The more time I spend with le Petit, the more I want to keep at least one special day together. Wednesday will be Mommy day, it will be English day, it will be cuddles and long walks and reading books together day. It will be the day that helps me get through the rest of the week.

Sometimes I wonder if going back to work at all is the really the right choice. Yet my job has been part of my identity for ten years now, and I can't see giving it up entirely. At least not yet, not without having tried to integrate it into my new life as mother first.

Am I at the edge of a precipice, ready to throw myself off into the abyss with an untested parachute? It feels that way. Of course, it also felt that way when, a little over a year ago, I stood in my bathroom staring in disbelief at a second pink dot on a home pregnancy test. I doubt I'll ever really be prepared for any of these huge, important things in life, but sometimes you've just got to close your eyes and jump anyway.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

McDo

I almost let an important anniversary pass by without acknowledgement this month: my McDonald's free birthday. On Thanksgiving weekend ten years ago I went to McDonald's for the very last time. I wasn't yet a full-fledged food snob, and I hadn't even met my French husband, much less adopted his disdain of all things fast food. I'd just hit the drive-in with a bunch of friends on our way back from a trip to Nantucket and suddenly had the revelation that what I was eating was essentially disgusting.

So I decided I wouldn't eat it any more. And after a few years of systematically avoiding McDonald's, it became a point of pride. Of course, now that I'm a yanquis in Paris, I just love bragging to my French friends that I won't set foot in a McDo, as McDonald's is affectionately known here.

Ten years! Not bad, huh? I thought of this today after a television commercial had me mesmerized for a good thirty seconds trying to figure out just what they were selling. Cowboys galloped across the American West with canyons and buttes as a backdrop, and aerial shots of silver mountain streams. Thirty years ago, it could only have been an advertisement for Marlboro cigarettes, but today? I was clued in that it was a food product by the mangerbouger.com government health message discreetly displayed at the bottom of the screen, but I had to wait until the last five seconds to get the pitch. McDonald's was using the American dream to sell their latest burger. What else?

I'm a little bit chagrined that in the country of haute cuisine, McDonald's is so successful. But I try to look on the bright side. Sure, it can only contribute to an epidemic of obesity and a loss of traditional culinary values. But if it gives this country a much needed network of free and relatively clean public restrooms, there is one heck of a silver lining.

Bobo babe

Le Petit has decided he loves his Moby wrap carrier. Or maybe I've just finally figured out how to wrap it properly. Either way, he spent a good part of the day snuggled in it, first craning his neck to watch me clean the kitchen, then hiking across town with me to the big supermarket.

I love it because it's easier on my back than the Bjorn. I also like that it can be adjusted so that le Petit's little hands are tucked in and I don't have to squeeze him into mittens. But then, of course, there's the bobo effect. Bobo = bourgeois bohemian, kind of a cross between a yuppie and a hippie and a common species in Paris, especially in the eastern arrondissements. They're much more likely to be cruising around Paris on a Vélib' than driving a fancy car, or wearing a fair trade organic baby wrap than pushing a stroller. (Although, to be fair, the latest fancy-dancy, all-terrain, get-back-to-nature strollers do have some serious bobo appeal.)

So I make fun of them, of course. But now that le Petit has decided he wants to be carried all the time, I'm getting into the whole granola earth mother thing. I "wear" him proudly. I'm way in touch with my kid, I keep thinking smugly, just see how happy he looks. And then when he starts fussing anyway because he's tired and having trouble falling asleep, I feel just a teensy bit silly.

I ran into another mom at the supermarket today. She was just in front of me in the checkout line with a full shopping cart and an unhappy baby in a car seat on the floor. "He's four months old," she answered when I asked, "and would much rather be in my arms right now."

I sympathized, and I later helped her as she struggled to open a door with the full cart in one hand, the baby in the other. We chatted a bit, exchanging the usual baby stats that new mothers love, and then she mentioned my baby carrier.

"It makes things so much easier," I told her. "I can even do a bit of housework!" realizing I never thought I'd say that with such enthusiasm.

"I've got one myself," she said, "but I haven't used it yet," so I explained how le Petit took some time to warm up to his.

"I've got a Bjorn, though. Saves your life!" I heartily agreed. Beyond the aesthetic and the trendy, there's the practical. I've gotta admit, all those bobo mamas are on to something.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Cultural differences I cannot explain

1) Why do the French love pink toilet paper? It's everywhere. Even people you wouldn't expect to have pink toilet paper have it, like my down-to-earth mother-in-law.

2) Why do all French babies seem to have little toy giraffes? Most are cheap plastic, but some are plush toys. I think giraffes are more common than teddy bears. My husband doesn't remember any popular television show or cartoon character that could account for this.

Meanwhile, I was reminded on a trip to IKEA today just how creepy it is that IKEA stores are identical the world over. And how do they invent those cheerful Swedish names for all their products? Do they sound stupid yet not improbably ridiculous in all languages, or just in English and in French?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Spoiled

I knew absolutely nothing about babies before le Petit came along. I was more than naive, I was staggeringly ignorant. Although that ignorance is now largely remedied, it still deserves a confession.

I figured that small babies spent much of their time sitting quietly by themselves. I'd seen plenty of them in portable car seats, peacefully sleeping in all sorts of situations. I'd started to think of a car seat as some sort of handy infant carrying case; an accessory, perhaps, like a handbag, complete with a useful adjustable handle. I expected le Petit to spend most of his day in his car seat, and imagined going to restaurants, to friends' houses, and just about everywhere with him.

I thought the sleep deprivation new parents complain about was simply because most aren't as adept as I am at falling back asleep quickly. I imagined le Petit might wake up as often as every two or three hours, but it didn't concern me. I would feed him, then put him back in his crib, and voilà. His crib was set up in the room next to ours, and I had a straight-backed, armrestless chair temporarily placed beside it for middle-of-the-night nursing.

Le Petit arrived, and he didn't want to have anything to do with his car seat most of the time. He didn't want to sleep in his crib at first, or anywhere other than in our arms. He wouldn't stay quietly in his corner. He cried, and remarkably loudly, when he was upset about something, like being out of our line of sight for more than thirty seconds. Restaurants were definitely off the menu for the foreseeable future, even if we had had the energy to go out.

We found a comfortable chair for le Petit's room, then finally moved his crib into our bedroom. We reluctantly slept with him next to me in our bed for weeks before we coaxed him to sleep by himself. I invested in a couple of different baby carriers. Meanwhile, I looked through every book I could find for an explanation of his behaviour. When I found he corresponded most closely to the "high need baby" described in the Sear's Baby Book, I wondered how we would survive.

Then, over the weeks that followed, the strangest thing happened. Le Petit was demanding, that was certain, but I stopped seeing him as difficult. Instead, I appreciated and enjoyed him more as I accepted him. True, it became a lot easier once he started sleeping well and in his own bed at night. Yet I realized belatedly that by asking so much of me, he was forcing me to ask a lot of myself, and it was making me a better mother.

Now when I see zoned out babies being carried around in car seats, I am proud of my child for having such personality. I'm learning to temporarily structure my life around his needs. I've learned to clean the kitchen with him in a baby carrier, to distract him from another room by singing stupid songs, and to take a shower in just the amount of time he'll be happy playing by himself.

I've been warned by many that I'm spoiling him, and that he'll get too accustomed to being in my arms all the time. Others tell me that on the contrary, with all this reassurance, he'll become more independent. I used to worry who was right, but now I no longer care. He's happier, I'm happier, and that's all that matters to me at the moment. I've learned how wonderful it is to do nothing more than cuddle him and walk quietly around the house.

At the last prenatal class I attended, a children's nurse asked the room what babies needed. What a stupid question, I thought to myself. "Milk," was the first answer shouted out, followed by "sleep." Then, someone added "lots of cuddles." Cute, I thought, but I would have said "diapers" -- to me, cuddles were something parents and babies enjoyed, but they didn't make the list of bare necessities. Little did I know that cuddles, too, were a biological need and far higher on the list than clean diapers, according to most babies.

There's still a lot I don't know, much I'm utterly unprepared for as a parent. I knew nothing about babies; I probably still know nothing about toddlers. But one thing I'm sure of now: spoiling does not come from too much attention, but rather from trying to replace affection with toys and gadgets. We've bought tons of presents for le Petit this Christmas because we frankly couldn't resist, but I keep reminding myself that the thing he most wants right now is us. And that is the best gift he could give us, too.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Firsts

With his first teeth -- now he's got two! -- le Petit has a few more firsts to check off the list.

This week I took him on his first bus ride. He loved it. He stared out the window, utterly absorbed by the passing scenery, before drifting off to sleep. It turns out that being snuggled against Mom and in a moving vehicle is just about perfect for getting him to nap. (Oh, how I wish I could explain to him the necessity of car seats! Or convince him that holding onto Mom's hand while sitting next to her is just as good as being in the Bjorn! Though car trips have been going better recently, I will admit.)

During the entire ride he was perfectly relaxed, while I was a nervous wreck. In my primitive new mom brain, public transportation = germs everywhere, and I wrapped him up in my coat as best I could to shield him from imagined biological weaponry. Someone at the back of the bus coughed and I jumped.

This is Paris, so naturally his first bus ride couldn't go off without a hitch. Sure enough, the driver stopped early and announced that he could go no further, as protesters (striking students?) were blocking the route. Luckily I'd brought my local map, and it turned out we were only ten minutes away by foot from our destination. I wondered if le Petit would have his first brush with the CRS, or French riot police, as well as his first bus trip, but we didn't see any protesters and I figured the bus driver was just anxious for a coffee break.

We were on our way to our first La Leche League meeting, in the posh neighborhood near the Madeleine. We were a dozen new and expecting mothers welcomed by the leader in her spacious, Haussmanian apartment, which was a happy mess of nursing literature, books and CDs, and toys. Le Petit wore his "Je bois mon lait à la source" (I drink my milk at the source) t-shirt for the occasion. The meeting was wonderful for both of us, and I think le Petit enjoyed seeing other breastfeeding moms and babies almost as much as I did.

The meeting lasted into the late afternoon, and it was dark when we left. Minor problem: I had no idea where to catch the bus on the way back, or even if the buses were running or if service was blocked because of imaginary protesters. I decided to hike it on foot. We hadn't gotten our walk in that day, after all. We passed in front of a Starbucks, and I decided that some sinful, calorie-filled coffee drink was just the fuel I needed.

I'm from Seattle, so for me, Starbucks coffee is practically comfort food. I decided it was high time le Petit was introduced to this part of his patrimoine. So I barely blinked when I handed over 5 euros for a crème brulée latté, perfect, the sign assured me, for celebrating the holidays. The French Touch.

The barista flirted with me and called me mademoiselle despite the baby I was wearing. I was flattered, and le Petit was either asleep or pretended not to notice.

First teeth, first coffee, first bus, first la Leche League meeting. This week we also tried out the Big Kid Stroller and broke out the size three diapers. What's next, and are we ready?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Sleepwalking, part II

Le Petit slept badly on Sunday night. He woke up at half past midnight, just as I was getting ready to go to sleep myself, and it took and hour and a half of nursing, pacing about the bedroom, then nursing again to get him to fall back asleep. I felt like an idiot, for it was likely my fault: I’d just pumped both breasts before getting ready for bed, so he was probably hungry, but since he’s not keen on bottles, I didn’t want to try feeding him from one in the middle of the night. I finally fell asleep with him in my arms at two o’clock, and woke up, my back still propped against the headboard of my bed, at two-thirty. I put him down in his crib where he stayed asleep until six, when he repeated the same two hour circus before falling asleep for another half an hour at eight.

He hadn’t sleep poorly for months, and I was angry. I was grumpy and depressed like I hadn’t been for some time, and I had little patience for le Petit most of the day. The infant distraction merry-go-round of shuffling him from crib to chair to activity mat to sling wore me down like it rarely does. At the end of the day, I almost regretted not being back at work.

I felt stupid, for if I hadn’t been up until half past midnight, I wouldn’t have been so severely sleep deprived. I was ashamed that severe sleep deprivation turned me into such a beast. I felt like a rotten mom.

My husband and I griped at each other on Monday night for no particular reason other than he’d slept as badly as I had. Le Petit was fussy and ill-humored as well, probably for the same reason. But he fell asleep early, and slept very well, and the next day all was well with us again.

I am embarrassed that I have such little patience, and that one night of bad sleep for whatever valid reason – teething, hunger, nightmares – left me angry and selfish instead of loving and concerned about le Petit’s welfare. I’m doing my best, but sometimes that best seems startlingly pathetic.

Thanksgiving

Le Petit got his first tooth last week. I noticed it on Thanksgiving. It was an otherwise unremarkable Thursday for us here in Paris, but I was looking for a reason for it to be special, and there it was, the tiny white end of a tooth poking out of le Petit’s bottom gum. No wonder he’s been drooling so much lately, and chomping on everything that he can grab. At not yet four and a half months, I can’t help but be proud of his precociousness.

First tooth, first Thanksgiving. I say it was an ordinary day for us, and I suppose it was, for we didn’t do anything particularly festive. I had an acorn squash hanging around which we roasted for dinner along with onions, potatoes, and a couple of chicken legs; it wasn’t turkey, but it was as close as I could find on a quick trip to the neighborhood supermarket. Yet it felt like a special day for me anyway, and I was tuned into the home country all day as I thought of my friends and family getting up, watching the Macy’s parade on television, stuffing up the turkey and enjoying the anticipation all afternoon as the delicious smells from the oven filled the house.

In my family, we eat our Thanksgiving turkey with sauerkraut, a tradition started by my German grandmother. It sounds crazy, but it works surprisingly well. I explained this to le Petit as we went on our daily walk.

“Today is Thanksgiving,” I told him. “In America – and you are American, so you’d better learn this – this is a day we eat way too much food, but not just any food. Turkey, stuffing (bread stuffing, because any other kind is for losers), pumpkin pie (you’re going to love pumpkin pie, I promise you), and, in our family, sauerkraut.”

I went on to tell him that not only do Americans eat too much on Thanksgiving, but they give thanks for all of the things they’re grateful for. I then told him all the big things I am grateful for, starting with him and his dad. It took me the entire length of the island in the Seine, half of our favorite four kilometer walk, for me to get to the end of my list, and I only covered major items. Family. My mother-in-law’s constant help and support since le Petit’s birth. My dad’s visits to Paris this year. The time le Petit and I have had to spend together, just mother and son, before I go back to work in the spring. There was just so much to say, I didn’t know how to share all this joy I felt with him.

He was eventually lulled to sleep by my one-sided conversation sometime after I reached the end of the island and segued into an explanation of Christmas and Santa Claus. When he woke up back at home, I apologized that, alas, one tooth would not be enough to sample any turkey this year, or even any pumpkin pie. He just grinned at me his one-toothed, drooly smile, and didn’t seem at all disappointed.

I'm back

It's a long, boring story of how, but I've finally got my internet connection back. As a bonus, I got a new modem with wireless, so I can hopefully do something about the spaghetti wire that has invaded my living room. It needs to be taken care of before le Petit starts crawling, anyway.

The internet withdrawal was painful, but recovery has been swift.

I've got a couple of posts to add that I wrote in Word during my forced blog exile. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Débranché

I have so much to say right now and my stupid internet connection is broken.

I'm trying to get a very quick post in from my mother-in-law's computer while she looks after le Petit. Thankfully he's not yet a grumpy, end-of-day mess.

So here goes, Parisienne's cultural pet peeve number one: why is it that it nearly always costs money to call French customer service numbers? As if it weren't enough that the person on the other line is rarely helpful, you have to pay something like 34 cents a minute for the privilege of getting no useful information.

Thus it was with my internet provider yesterday. Although they admitted to doing some maintenance work in the area, so that might be the problem, but they aren't sure. We have another number we can call if we want to complain and get a refund.

Hopefully I'll be back online by the end of the week. In the meantime, I'm storing up a bunch of posts with good ol' Microsoft Word.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nounou

It looks more and more as if we're going to have to find a nanny, after all. We still have no news from the crèche, and I'm starting to admit to myself that I will have to go back to work eventually. In order to continue nursing le Petit exclusively without the headache of pumping my milk at work and dragging it home in the train, I will stay at home until at least the end of March. At that point, he will likely be eating enough solids to only need a single bottle of my milk during the day, or so I'm hoping.

Finding a nanny, or nounou, will be at the very least a serious administrative headache. In France, most nannies are employed directly by parents, and since everything here that has to do with employment is complicated, I'm expecting to be soon trapped under a mountain of paperwork. There are agencies than can help, but they charge a lot for the service.

We'll have to carefully calculate our financial options. I would prefer to hire a nanny just for le Petit, so he can stay at our apartment during the day and get plenty of quality one-on-one attention. That's expensive, however, and naturally the more experienced the nanny, the higher the cost. Part of me wants to spare no expense for the little guy, but part of me wonders at what point the whole cost-benefit analysis breaks down. At some point, my salary and the nounou's just wouldn't be different enough to justify my working outside the home.

I think (I hope) I'm exaggerating. Here in France, we can deduct a nice chunk of the cost of child care from our taxes. I probably should look more closely into a garde partagée, a nounou shared between two families, the classic Parisian child care solution. The drawback is, not only do you have to find a person to take care of your child that you trust, but you have to find another family that you trust and get along with, as well. There are other annoying details, such as since the children will be ferried from one family's house to the other on alternate weeks, you have to buy all of the baby equipment, high chairs, cribs, and the rest, in double. And everyone has to agree to go on vacation at the same time. The headaches accumulate.

The last option is home day care. Assistantes maternelles look after one to three children at their homes, and you drop them off and pick them up just as you would at the crèche. I don't know why, but this is the hardest for me to imagine being comfortable with, although if I found someone who was highly recommended, I could change my mind.

I've started to wonder if a good nounou or assistante maternelle wouldn't be better, after all, than the crèche. Le Petit would have someone devoted to looking after just him, or him and a couple other little ones, in a calm apartment. He'd be taken outside for walks every day. Perhaps he'd be better off than in a noisy day care center, with dozens of children running around, big ones and little ones all vying for the overworked staff's attention.

I'm already grateful that there wasn't any room in the crèche for January, for otherwise I would have had to go back to work before I was ready. My current plan, pending a dreaded discussion with human resources next week, is to negotiate a return to work in September 2008 at the latest, and at the end of March at the earliest. This will give me some time to continue nursing le Petit, to hopefully find someone I truly trust to take care of him, and to watch him grow up a little bit more. But will I ever really be ready?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

To belong

I was planning to go to bed early tonight, but I found myself glued to the television in front of Envoyé Special, a French news magazine that I turned on by chance. The topic? How one becomes a naturalized French citizen.

The reporting almost gave me goosebumps, I remembered so clearly my own experience back in 2002 when my husband and I defended my citizenship application at the French consulate in Boston. At the time, a citizenship demand for the spouse of a French citizen required only one year of marriage, plus basic proficiency in the French language. Since then, the requirement has been upped to five years of marriage, and applications are scrutinized much more closely than they were only a few years ago.

The consul was kind and the interview passed smoothly, despite my anxiety. I already knew my response to the key question of why I wanted to become French. We were making plans to move to France, a move we hoped definitive, and I couldn't see myself living long-term in a country where I couldn't participate in all aspects of public life. How would I feel if I couldn't vote? If I hadn't the same nationality as my children?

The interview was conducted in French, and although I was shy and unsure of myself, my language skills passed muster. I remember that the consul smiled at the end and said kindly, "Vous vous débrouillez bien en français, comme même," meaning that I managed well in the language. Since my husband had instructed me better in French slang than in proper French vocabulary, I didn't immediately recognize the word débrouiller. Then it clicked, and I just barely stopped myself from exclaiming, "Oh, you mean démerder!", the rather informal equivalent.

My application was accepted by the Boston consulate, and forwarded for final approval to the national processing center in Nantes. I had a long wait, but it happened easily none the less, comme une lettre à la poste.

Tonight, the reporters followed several people in very different situations as they applied for French citizenship, and none of them had as easy an experience as I. I was especially touched by the story of a woman born in Algeria who had lived in France since she was four. She'd grown up and been educated in France, spoke French perfectly, and, to me at least, was more completely French in some ways than I could ever hope to be. Her application was almost rejected, however, because her three-year-old son was born to an illegal immigrant father. When she learned that despite this she would be granted citizenship, she was in tears.

I wonder, how would I have felt if my application hadn't been accepted? France now feels more like home than Boston ever did, and I sometimes feel my country of adoption has a deeper hold on me than my country of birth. Sometimes I'm overcome by a strange sense of vertigo, when I almost forget that all my roots rightly tie me to somewhere else, very far away. This doesn't mean that I ever want to give up being an American, and I suppose I can't rule out moving back some day. I love the United States, but it just feels quite far from who I am right now.

I'm not always sure I juggle my two identities well. Now it's become all the more important, because I want le Petit to understand and love the two halves of himself, as well. When I talk to him, I speak English. I sing him This Land Is Your Land and Yankee Doodle Dandy. I tell him about the places we'll take him to visit back home when he's old enough: Yellowstone, Maine, the Pacific rain forests, New York, the Grand Canyon.

In a sense, le Petit's birth has made me feel both more French and more American. I realize that his birth here has tied me more closely to this country than any event since my marriage. My son was born in France; he may have an American passport, but it is a Paris place of birth and three very French given names that are printed over the American eagle on the first page. But born an American he is nonetheless, and that part of his identity is something that only I can give him, his motherland, his mother tongue, in the truest of senses.

Sometimes I wonder how I would feel if he grows up and moves to another very different part of the world. Might he meet a Japanese woman and move to Kyoto? Or run off to become a gaucho on the Argentinian pampas? Wouldn't that be my parents' just revenge for losing their only child to another continent?

I end up hoping simply that wherever he ends up, he has the same sense of belonging that I've found here in Paris. And, of course, that he calls his old mom to say hello every once in a while.

I want Mommy

After four months of life outside the womb with me, le Petit has decided that there really is no substitute for maman. Several times over the last few days, he's calmed down almost immediately when I've taken him in my arms after crying inconsolably with my husband or my mother-in-law. This is new. He knows his father and his grandmother well, of course. Up until now, I thought I was only indispensable when he was hungry. Mere weeks ago my husband, with his broad chest and soft cashmere sweater that doesn't smell distractingly of milk, was often more effective at calming him than I.

It's kind of flattering, really. There's nothing like holding him against me and knowing that it is exactly what he needed to feel right with the world. But it doesn't give me any hope of escaping to a restaurant or to the movies any time soon, since my mother-in-law, who is honestly wonderful with le Petit, is now even more terrified of looking after him on her own.

In the meantime, I'll take it as a positive evaluation, proof that I'm doing this mothering job pretty well, after all.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Faking it

I'm starting to suspect that parenthood is just one big improvisation, and I feel a bit like I did in high school drama class. I try my best, I imitate the others, and it falls flat. What am I doing wrong? Why aren't I convincing anyone, least of all myself?

Some of the time -- okay, most of the time, lately -- I feel like I get it, but not tonight.

We have this weekend tradition of getting out and going for a walk somewhere that isn't in the immediate neighborhood, somewhere you can only get to by car and thus out of range for me and le Petit during the week.

Le Petit is ambivalent about the car. He'll put up with it during the day, but there's no guarantee it will lull him to sleep, even when he badly needs a nap. Past a certain hour of the evening, he HATES it. He can scream in the car for at least forty-five minutes straight, and probably longer, but that's mercifully the longest it has taken us to get home so far. I sit right next to him in the back seat, but there is nothing I can do to calm him. I've tried talking to him gently, singing to him, patting his belly, sliding one hand behind his back with the other on his tummy, leaning my head in to his to try and fool him into thinking he was being held in my arms instead of strapped into the car seat. He's not duped. He doesn't understand why I can't pick him up, and he's panicked about it.

Every time it happens I tell myself I won't subject him to it again, that I'll plan better next time and we'll get home before dark. Yet every weekend we manage to screw up and find ourselves in a car with a screaming infant. It happened again tonight on our way back from a walk in the forest, and once again, I felt like a complete ass. A failure as a mom.

His nursing schedule, such as it is, is also throwing me off. He's hungry far less often, so when I tried to nurse him before we drove back, he wasn't interested. When we got back home he was hungry, but it was an hour and a half before his usual bedtime. We had to decide if we wanted to feed him right away and keep him awake with us until bedtime and then find something other than nursing to get him to sleep, or try to nurse him down forty-five minutes ahead of schedule. We went for the second option, and when after nursing for twenty minutes he looked up at me wide awake and smiled, I knew we'd screwed up. Again.

I put him in his crib anyway, with a kiss and an optimistic "Good night, little guy!" and then let him fuss for a while. When the fussing turned to crying, I gave up and brought him into the living room to sit on the couch and watch television with me. So much for the sacred bedtime ritual, which tonight ended with him in a bright room, hypnotized by moving images. Great, I thought, I'm already using the television to distract my kid. I definitely get mommy points for that one.

At nine o'clock, his usual bedtime, he started rubbing his eyes and squirming, so we decided to try again. Rewind and replay the bedtime ritual: diaper change and cuddles with dad, nursing and a quiet goodnight monologue and lullaby with mom. Predictably, he wasn't hungry, and he wouldn't stay at my (probably empty) breast. I started pacing the room with him, but his eyes stayed stubbornly open.

Lacking the patience to keep pacing and with no other tricks to try, I placed him back in his crib with another kiss goodnight. He squirmed and rolled himself onto his side, pushing his head up again the crib bumper. He started sucking his thumb and fussing intermittently; I laid down on our bed beside him to see what happened. After a few minutes of fussing, he had fallen asleep.

I was proud of him, and not so proud of us. Where was my planning? Where was my patience? Why do I feel so un-parental, so amateurish?

It occurs to me that our parents were probably just as inept at the beginning. We looked up to them as oracles, as the experts that held the sky in place and helped the earth keep turning in the right direction, when they were just overwhelmed, perplexed thirty-somethings, a lot like us.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Hippie Baby Sling Part II

If a few months of experience qualifies me to say anything, I'll say this:

I'm beginning to suspect that the keys to parenting a small child are Patience, Persistence, and Distraction.

File this under "Persistence:" le Petit has decided to accept the famous hippie baby sling that he was so reluctant to commit to earlier. He's now so businesslike about nursing that being curled up his head next to my breast no longer distracts him. He'll just peer up at me trustingly, perhaps fuss a tiny bit, then fall asleep after fifteen minutes or so of my pacing the apartment.

Of course, the catch is that I have to keep pacing for some time to be sure he's really asleep, then sit down very carefully and be prepared to jump back up and start pacing again if he starts stirring.

I'm not sure it's really any easier on my back than the Bjorn, but he's so darn cute curled up against my tummy, it's worth it.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Snuggle

I remember the first weeks, when I couldn't get le Petit to sleep at night without holding him in my arms. I dreaded bedtime. I thought I was going crazy with lack of sleep, and I sleepwalked through my days, not entirely believing it would ever get any better.

I remember sitting up in bed listening to le Petit's soft breathing and my husband's snoring, wondering why I was the only one awake at four a.m.

I remember getting so annoyed that it took up to two hours to put le Petit to bed that I'd read by flashlight while holding him, just to keep from dwelling on my irritation.

Everyone told me it would change, and I didn't believe it. I read of and talked to mothers who claimed they missed the hours spent nursing and comforting their babies to sleep, or cuddling them during the night. I thought they were completely nuts.

Now, it takes an hour to put le Petit to bed, and it's an hour I cherish. It's an hour I get to spend in the velvet near-darkness of our bedroom, my back propped up against the headboard with a pile of pillows, le Petit a delicious weight in my lap. I still try to put him down awake, but as that rarely works, I usually end up walking him, singing to him, and eventually nursing him to sleep.

One day this week I found myself at the other end of town rushing to a supermarket before it closed to buy diapers. I called my husband, who was looking after le Petit while I was out, and learned the two of them were having a blast together without me. It was already dark, and I thought, it will soon be le Petit's bedtime. I realized, surprised, that I couldn't wait to get home and coax him to sleep in my arms.

I still get frustrated when comforting le Petit means pacing our apartment endlessly, or when he wakes up immediately when I try and place him in his crib. But now I know that, even when it takes forever in the moment, this time I'm spending with him will be over all too soon. I'll take my snuggle time while I can, and appreciate it as yet another gift le Petit is giving me.

T-O B-E-D

I heard these five letters recited above my head many, many times in my childhood. I think my parents quickly realized that spelling it out didn't fool me for a second, but it was a tradition. A tradition started by my father's pediatrician, when his mother received a directive to send her own sick child off to bed.

T-O B-E-D.

I remember being disappointed to leave the World of Adults, where all the cool things happened far beyond my bedtime, or so I believed: the fun television shows, the interesting conversations. Now, of course, I'm more than happy to crawl into bed at the end of the day, but first there are dishes to do, laundry to fold, mail to sort. Now that we have a few hours of time without baby to ourselves every evening, I realize that some day le Petit will be convinced that everything worthwhile happens after he's asleep.

Okay, so my husband and I did watch a rented film together last night for the first time since I came home from the hospital. And I do use the time that le Petit sleeps in the evening to get in blog entries, now that he's doing a twenty-minute power-nap routine during the day. But would he really find any of this worth staying up for?

I sneak into his room and see him curled up in a corner of his crib, his hands pulled close to his head, and the first thing I think is how I want to curl up in my own bed, in the same calm, dimly lit room, and join him.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Emmerdé

We had a spectacular baby poop accident this morning. This may be something that only a new mother can find hilarious and endearing instead of simply disgusting. You've been warned. Although I told the whole story to my mother-in-law on the telephone this morning and she could hardly stop laughing, but then again, she's as in love with le Petit as my husband and I are. Le Petit needn't do more than drool and smile at the same time and the three of us are all cheering.

This morning le Petit woke up at nine o'clock with a series of short cries. My baby sleep intuition told me to leave him be so he could either wake up fully or fall back asleep, since I've discovered that if I don't let him wake up by himself he'll often spend the entire morning in a bad mood. My mommy guilt reflex made me pick him up after a minute of fussing. I realized I'd made a mistake when he didn't even open his eyes in my arms.

I nursed him half-asleep, then got up to change him. He gave me a huge smile on the changing table. Not a very wet diaper this morning, I thought to myself, as I lifted his bottom half up by his feet. Then suddenly, just as he was perfectly aimed to do the most damage, there it was: a stream of very liquid orange baby poop. All over me, my pyjamas, the cute-but-useless terry cloth changing pad cover, a couple of towels, and the white area rug.

"Help!" I yelled to my husband in the other room, who luckily hadn't yet left for work. He rushed in to hold le Petit on the changing table, legs in the air, while I ran off to the bathroom to wash my hands.

I could hear my husband swearing in French.

"Mais merde, get something! I have to leave for work..."

"What?"

"I don't know, whatever. Paper towers. Quick, quick!"

I ran to the kitchen and grabbed the roll of paper towels.

"Oh no, c'est pas vrai... he just peed all over himself! On his face!" I ran back into the bedroom and found my husband trying to pull a soaked onesie over le Petit's head. "I have a conference call in five minutes!" And I think, what would I do if he didn't work five minutes away?

Le Petit, finding himself dumped unceremoniously into his crib in nothing but a hastily placed diaper by two screaming parents, started to howl. "Oh, little guy," I told him in my best cheerful mommy voice, "It isn't your fault! We were just surprised, and we're trying to get everything cleaned up." He stopped crying and looked up at me, relieved. I found him some new clothes, and my husband quickly dressed him. Five minutes later my husband was out the door, and I picked up le Petit for some reassuring cuddles before heading off to start a load of laundry.

The washing machine has more than paid for itself in the last four months, and I wonder once again what I'd do if we didn't have a clothes dryer.

Home from work this evening, my husband admitted that while sitting at his desk this morning he discovered a merde stain on his forearm. "Luckily no one was there to see it. That's the beauty of conference calls..."

And the beauty of parenthood, indeed.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

I love Versailles

It was a little over nine years ago that I discovered Versailles.

I was on my first trip to France, and I was visiting Paris on what felt like a whim. I spoke no French, had known my future husband for only a few months, most of them transatlantic, and it took all of my courage to book a ticket from Boston to Paris.

My future husband took me all the places a dashing Frenchman would take a young American he wished to impress: Montmartre, the Champs-Elysées, the Pont des Arts, the Eiffel Tower ("I want to take you to kiss on the top of the tower," he declared one morning), Versailles. Stereotypical? Trite? Sure, but at an impressionable twenty-one years old, I fell for it. And I probably still would.

I knew nothing about Versailles, save a photo of the chateau's facade I vaguely remember next to a discussion of the Versailles Treaty in some history textbook in high school. Yet off we went, one gray November morning in my future mother-in-law's old Peugeot 205. Coming from Paris, we crossed all of town before we actually saw the chateau, so my first impression was of wide, tree-lined streets and prim apartment buildings, not Grand Siècle monuments.

"This is a nice suburb," my husband explained to me, and then tried to explain exactly what he meant. The town of Versailles is a demographic apart, with no analogy in America. Very Catholic, very understated wealth, with a sort of left-leaning propriety. Large families. Long, illustrious last names. Thus is the image, at least, and there is substantial truth behind it. When you wander around Versailles, you are likely to see mothers with three or four children in tow, the girls with bowl-cut hair, wool coats, plaid skirts, and neatly-pressed blouses with half-moon collars, the boys with tiny crew neck sweaters and dark trousers. Children are named Enguerrand and Anne-Sophie; they go to scout meetings on the weekends, and are more likely than the average French child to say "please" and "thank you."

Versailles is a suburb, as it lies clearly in Paris' sphere of influence. Indeed, the major neighborhoods of Versailles are Rive Droite (Right Bank) and Rive Gauche (Left Bank), although the Seine is miles away from town. They're named after the train lines that lead to the capital. Nevertheless, it feels like a city in its own right, with a cathedral, a major food market, plenty of shops and good restaurants, and a mentality of self-sufficiency, perhaps self-importance. It has never forgotten that it, too, was once the capital of France.

If you ask a Parisian about Versailles, you will not get an indifferent answer. Most see it as a bizarre, old-fashioned, ultra-Catholic enclave. Boring. Conservative. When I told people how much I liked it, they shrugged, and blamed it on my being an American.

For some reason, on that day back in 1998, I tried to project myself in the future and briefly imagined living in Versailles with the man I was rapidly suspecting I would marry.

Fast-forward to 2003, when my imagined life in France became real. After we moved to Paris, I fell in love with Versailles slowly. When we started looking for an apartment to buy back in January 2005, I was still on an I-must-live-in-Paris-proper-or-I'm-a-loser kick, and Versailles was the other end of the world. My husband convinced me to consider it, and we started to look seriously. We visited dozens of apartments, including a seventh-floor walk-up with an unobstructed view of the chateau and its park, as seductive as it was impractical. I was just barely talked out of jumping (headlong) for that one, and I'm grateful now when I imagine dragging a stroller up six flights of steps.

We eventually decided that we couldn't yet afford what we wanted in Versailles. Every place we saw within our budget had a significant drawback: too far away from public transportation, too small, too funky, too close (in one case, five feet away) to the train tracks. At the same time, the apartment we'd been renting in a respectable, up-and-coming suburb just next to Paris came on the market at a very interesting price, so we bought where we knew and put our Versailles plans off for a few years. I don't regret it at all -- my husband's office has since been moved to the same suburb where we live, and my in-laws, whom I love and who have helped us immeasurably since le Petit arrived, are two blocks away.

But I still imagine that some day we'll move. Versailles has its gravitational pull on me, I know it. A promenade in the gardens during the Grandes Eaux Musicales was one of le Petit's first outings after his birth, and we've been back to the park countless times since. He's been nursed beside the Grand Canal at least three times, and he visited the Galerie des Glaces in utero. Each time we've been we've discovered something new, some corner of the park or the chateau or the town itself that we didn't know existed, and I can't wait to show it all to le Petit when he's old enough to understand.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Belly


Le Petit and my husband on our last walk around le Parc de Versailles: who says a man can never know what it's like to be pregnant?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Somewhere around here

Ca y est, I've crossed some sort of threshold of belonging, and look more like a vraie parisienne than ever before. I've apparently shed my American skin and now look at home enough that people, everywhere, wherever I go, are asking me for directions.

Am I finally chic enough to fit in? Is it the haircut? My new Prada glasses? Have I finally figured how to knot a scarf à la française? I'd like to flatter myself, but it is probably just because my new status as mother is making me leave the house more often during the day, and almost always with le Petit in tow. Everyone knows that a young mother with a baby is usually not too far from home, and likely knows the neighborhood.

I've always dreaded that part in a language course when you learn to give and understand directions. I'm bad enough at giving directions in English; I forget street names, I mix up my left and my right, so my troubles start before I even tackle vocabulary. Trying to keep track of words for landmarks, of when and where to turn gauche or droite, all quickly escapes me and I feel trapped in a linguistic labyrinth as well. It doesn't help that I still don't know how to say block in French, so I can't translate my only accurate measure of distance.

So, when someone comes up to me with a friendly, "Excusez-moi, madame, mais savez-vous où se trouve..." I'm flattered that I look knowledgeable, but I also cringe. I try to pay close attention what, exactly, they're looking for. I repeat it back to them, partly to gain a bit of time. Then I slowly start explaining the route as best I can.

"Uhmmm, the Marroniers retirement home? Okay, well, you start going in that direction," I indicate one of the gates to the park. "Then, it's right away on your left." Whew, that one was easy.

Once I'm thanked and the person is on their way, I panic and wonder if I didn't screw up and send them in exactly the wrong direction. I repeat my explanation to myself while tracing the route in the air, which may make the person think twice about trusting me if they happen to glance back.

A couple of times I've judged the request too complicated and my knowledge of local geography too shaky for me to even attempt to respond.

"The cemetery? I know that it's that way, somewhere," I say, vaguely indicating a direction. "Against the train tracks," I add, hoping the only piece of information I was certain of might prove helpful. "I'm sorry, I can't tell you anything else."

Once my lack of confidence was so patent that, despite a perfectly good response (with a street name for once, to boot!), a woman turned and headed off in the opposite direction. She left me wondering, was she really looking for the post office, or was it just a test?

"That's it, I've unmasked another one!" I imagined her muttering as she walked away, "An American tourist, disguised in fausse parisienne!"

So I'll keep practicing my gauches and droites and studying the municipal map until I can pull it off flawlessly.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The House of Brownie

A long line at the bakery yesterday left me staring for some time at the hand-lettered signs in the pastry case. It was no surprise to me that the American dessert fad that has hit France has not spared our local boulangerie. I wasn't expecting, however, to find a uniquely American touch: the brownies and muffins nestled amongst the croissants and brioches were decorated with superfluous apostrophes.

Although we all learn in school that apostrophes are used to indicate possession (Kathy's house) or build a contraction (it's = it + is), there's a large segment of the American population that throws them in, willy-nilly, wherever there's a word that ends in S. It's almost as if we wish them to be not just useful but ornamental.

Alas, the French seem to have recently picked up on this American mistake, and I've started seeing decorative apostrophes cropping up everywhere. Perhaps it's because the possessive apostrophe doesn't exist in French, and French schoolchildren have to bend their brains around possessive phrases in English to avoid saying "the dog of Jenny is bigger than the cat of Sam." Those that grasp the concept soon get carried away.

Our local boulangerie proudly sells brownie's maison, muffin's maison, and something labelled drop's, which looks like a flattened croissant sprinkled with chocolate chips. The maison designation indicates that all these delicacies are homemade, although at 2 euros apiece, I'm still not tempted.

So, I ask myself, is brownie's house bigger than muffin's house? And why don't the poor chocolate chip cookies maison earn their own apostrophe, do they look tasty enough on their own?

Today when I saw a Sécurité System's truck parked in the neighborhood I wondered, why is it that our worst habits are the easiest to export?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

La reprise

I love to run. I've been a distance runner since middle school, when I realized that despite my natural lack of coordination, I could learn to like at least one sport, after all. I was soon hooked, and I've missed it ever since I temporarily gave it up over nine months ago, on my doctors' advice, at the end of my first trimester of pregnancy. I kept using the stationary bike at the gym for a while, and kept hiking and walking, albeit slowly, up until le Petit was born. Five days after his birth, I was out walking again as much to stay sane as to get back in shape, since la promenade was and still is one of the most effective ways of getting him to sleep. But I hadn't started running again, and was waiting prudently to have finished (almost) all of the pelvic floor reeducation sessions that are routinely prescribed postpartum in France.

As le Petit started sleeping well and my life started getting back into a routine that I could recognize, I began to miss my daily runs. I was jealous each time a runner passed me and le Petit in the stroller, especially since fall is the most beautiful season to be a distance runner. Especially on clear, cool days, when the sun gives more golden light than heat and you get to chase dry, rustling leaves down the sidewalk. So, last week, with all but four of the ten reeducation sessions finished, I decided to kick the dust from my running shoes and try a short, five kilometer loop around the island near our apartment.

I left le Petit with my mother-in-law, who conveniently lives in the neighborhood, and headed out, promising myself to be back in a half an hour lest something happen that required the immediate intervention of Mom. I know the route by heart and could probably run it, push a stroller, or Bjorn it with my eyes shut, but it seemed longer than usual. My breathing was difficult. I felt every one of those nine months of time off, but enjoyed myself anyway. I can back feeling high, thrilled to have reclaimed a part of my old self. And le Petit wasn't even too difficult with Grandma while I was gone (he'd eaten just before I left, so I was more concerned about her nerves than I was about him).

"Didn't even hurt!" I bragged on my return. And it didn't, at least not that night, but I ached the day after, and even worse the day after that. But the day after that I threw caution to the wind and headed out for another loop. After all, the first one went so well...

After a couple kilometers, I felt like I did at the 38th kilometer of the Paris Marathon. I was still running, but other runners were passing me as if I were on a walk with the stroller. I suddenly, self-consciously realized how unsexy I must look with my post-pregnancy thighs in my running tights. I stopped caring how I looked at around three kilometers, when I stopped gratefully at a red light, leaned on a lamppost and moaned quietly to myself in pain. My breathing was no worse than the first time and most of my body was okay, but my legs felt like they'd been off playing rugby without my knowledge.

I was too proud and too tough to stop and walk back, but I decided that for a few weeks at least, I'd limit myself to running once on the weekend.

Funny to think that just over a year ago I ran the 20 kilomètres de Paris, accompanied by my husband and -- although we didn't know it at the time -- a very tiny le Petit. When I think about that, I realize I have every reason to be patient with my body. It's done quite a lot this year.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

La grève

Today is my first serious transit strike à la française. The kind of strike that paralyzes the country, that can bring out the French equivalent of the national guard, that can bring down a presidency. Seven Métro lines are shut down completely, eight more are running with extremely restricted service, and only the fully automatic Line 14 is operating normally. Regional trains are stopped as is Paris' commuter rail, and even the high-speed TGV is seriously affected. If you want to know whether or not you can make it to your destination, good luck finding out on the web: both the website of the RATP, the Parisian transit authority, and the website of the SNCF, the national rail service, are overwhelmed with traffic.

This time around, I'm more fascinated than upset. Since I'm still on maternity leave, I can enjoy the drama without any stress, as I have nowhere to go but for my usual short walks around the neighborhood. Since my suburb has as many offices as apartments and most office workers took the day off, it is strangely calm today, not unlike a typical day in the middle of August. Luckily, my husband's office was transferred to our neighborhood over the summer, so he is now only a five minute walk away and had no trouble going to work this morning.

This strike may decide Sarkozy's fate, as it is the direct result of public sector reforms that he is trying to push through early in his presidency. Rail and transit workers have special retirement benefits that in some cases have existed since the days of coal-burning locomotives, benefits which allow them to retire years before the average French worker. They're striking to maintain these privileges, and for what I think is one of the first times in French history, they're striking without the sympathy of the majority of the French people.

Ironically, the 35-hour work week which was created by the left has taken the teeth out of periodic transit strikes. Instead of working a simple 35-hour week, most salaried employees receive extra days off, called RTT days, as compensation for working normally up to forty hours. These extra days can often be taken off with little notice, so many people in Paris simply didn't go to work today, and those who did work showed up late and left early. If the strike drags on for a week or more -- and most unions have already voted to continue it tomorrow -- it will be an entirely different story. Things could degrade further if the students take to the streets as many have threatened to in protest of proposed university reforms.

I think that this time around most French want change, and a backlash of public opinion will stop the strikes before a week passes. I can't say, however, and with nowhere to go at the moment, I can't help but watch with curiosity.

In honor of the strikes, le Petit decided he'd try out a new mode of transportation today, the Moby wrap. For the very first time he agreed to let me take him for a quick tour of the neighborhood in it, holding his head up for the first half of the trip, then letting it fall against my chest as he slept for the second. It'll be years before he has to worry if the Métro is running and for the moment, Mom is more than happy to work without pay, every day of the year.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Naissance

Last week, quite by chance, I walked down a street I almost never take. I was pushing le Petit in the stroller and he'd just nodded off to sleep when I realized where I was: rue Danton, about five blocks from the hospital where I gave birth. I trembled when I realized that the last time I'd taken that street was the day le Petit was born.

I've been meaning for some time to put virtual pen to paper and write about that day, but finding time for writing and reflection is difficult with a newborn in the house. The day seemed so huge, so transforming, that I wasn't yet sure how to approach it in words, anyway. I knew I shouldn't wait too long, however, because the memory was falling farther out of focus with each passing day.

Where to begin? I almost want to back up to the very beginning, to the day I learned le Petit was on the way, or even before that, to the day when I finally felt ready to become a mother. Or I could simply go back to the last weeks of pregnancy, when I waited at home both terrified and impatient. I probably should write about all that eventually, but for now, I'll just start simply on the morning of the day le Petit finally arrived.

I slept in that day, and quite soundly, until 10:30. I wonder if my body knew what was in the works and decided I needed to rest while it was still possible. Not that it's uncommon for me to get a nice, late grasse matinée in any time I can! I woke up, lethargically made coffee, ate a yogurt and two full english muffins smothered with butter, then sat around in my pyjamas feeling a little uncomfortable. I sat down at the loom and tried to weave a little bit of le Petit's baby blanket, but soon gave up, for I had cramps. Nothing serious, I thought, just a dull, nagging abdominal pain I attributed to being a pig at breakfast.

My mother-in-law called to ask if I'd like to get together for lunch, go out for Italian food and eat lots of pasta, labor-inducing home remedy number one hundred and two. We decided to meet at noon, and I headed to the shower to get ready. The hot water made me feel a bit better, but the cramps were more frequent and were getting decidedly worse. After I got out of the shower I spent a few minutes curled up in bed holding my belly, trying to soothe what were now regular waves of pain.

I still had no idea what was happening to me.

The contractions I'd experienced for the last few weeks had been nothing like this, so I decided to blame the coffee.

I got dressed and went to my mother-in-law's house. I described my symptoms, and we decided that instead of going out to lunch we'd drop by the hospital, just in case. I found I'd lost my appetite, anyway.

The hospital was ten minutes away by foot and it was a cool and cloudy but pleasant July day. We decided to walk. I took a route I never take, entirely by accident, and found myself on a street I barely know: rue Danton. The pain was bad enough that I hadn't been paying attention to where we were going. I had to stop and sit for a while on the low wall of a flower bed. As I rested I wondered if I'd gotten us both lost, and if my mother-in-law would consider that I'd failed my first test of motherhood.

After more painful, waddling progress, I saw a cross street I recognized, and we were soon at the hospital. I explained myself at the reception desk. We were instructed to wait in the hallway until someone could come and escort me to the labor ward.

I was still half convinced it was nothing, that we'd be laughed at and sent home.

I explained my symptoms to the nurse who then told me nicely that I'd simply have to repeat it all to a midwife, that she was only there to give me a urine test. When I went to the restroom to take the urine test I found I was covered with blood. Everywhere. I almost felt embarrassed, like I was supposed to be neat and clean and organized, and I was falling apart. This wasn't at all what I had planned: first of all, I thought one always went into labor at night. I expected to be sitting in front of the television with my husband when the contractions started. I'd recognize them, time them, then when they were spaced by the proper interval, I'd calmly take a shower with the prescribed pre-op soap, we'd grab my two pre-packed suitcases and we'd head for the hospital. Calmly. On schedule, and following the script.

I was flustered and timid when the midwife arrived, and my French was faltering.

The midwife was unimpressed. "We'll hook you up to the monitor and time the contractions," she said, businesslike. I was led into Labor Room #2, helped onto a bed, and the monitoring belt was strapped to my belly. The sounds of my uterus were soon piped through the monitor's audio, punctuated by the staccato beating of a tiny heart. It sounded like the bubbling of a fish tank dubbed over the rhythm of a distant train. I'd already spent hours listening to it over the last weeks of my pregnancy, and it was familiar and comforting; it might have lulled me to sleep if it hadn't been for the cramps, now quite painful, that left me curled up in a ball on my side, groaning. As I struggled to find a comfortable position, the monitoring belt started to slide down my back and my contractions were captured irregularly. I didn't care.

When the midwife returned after what felt like a century she looked at the monitor's printout and frowned. "Your contractions are still spaced fairly far apart, so we'll probably have to send you back home to wait. I'll check to see how dilated you are first." As she gave me a pelvic exam, I decided that my contractions were just fine for admission, thank-you-very-much. I couldn't imagine waddling myself back home, or even waiting for my husband to pick me up in the car, only to come back a few hours later.

The midwife was surprised to find that I was already dilated four centimeters and announced the news as if I'd just unexpectedly passed an entrance exam. "Finally, you'll be staying with us," she said, to my relief. "Do you want the epidural right away?"

Before that morning, I'd been convinced I wanted a natural birth. I wanted to live my birth experience completely, I wanted to avoid exposing le Petit and myself to unnecessary pain medication and, most of all, I was just damn curious to know what childbirth was like as almost every generation of women has known it. My curiosity was now fading and my courage failing me with each contraction. But I wasn't ready to renounce my choice just yet. "No," I said timidly, "I think I'll wait..." I almost expected the midwife to try to convince or coerce me, but she just acknowledged my response with a thin smile and left.

I was alone. It was one o'clock in the afternoon, and the next hour passed very slowly. I remember worrying if anyone would find my mother-in-law, who I was certain was still pacing anxiously outside the labor ward's doors. She eventually was brought in to talk to me, and hurriedly left to call my husband, who was at work. I spent an hour gritting my teeth, trying breathing techniques with little success, and wondering how long I'd last before giving in to anesthesia.

When the midwife returned and checked how dilated I was, she told me she'd have to break my water to speed things along. When she asked again about the epidural it was with a pointed pause, and I wearily realized my curiosity about natural childbirth was temporarily satisfied. Yes, bring on the epidural. Bring my husband. Bring help, because I'm not doing so well on my own.

The nurse returned to hook me up to an IV. She pricked me twice, while unsuccessfully trying to find a suitable vein in my left hand, then apologetically switched to the right. I tried to smile between waves of pain, and she watched with practiced compassion. The IV finally installed, she assured me the epidural wouldn't be long. She left, then returned a few minutes later to prepare my back.

A lesser but very real reason for my hesitation had been that the thought of having a needle inserted into my spine frightened me much more than childbirth itself. I was still anxious, and I'd given in relatively early in part for fear of not being able to hold still long enough between contractions. I currently had a few minutes to catch my breath in between, and I hoped it would be enough. I wondered with terror if the nurse who had just floundered my IV would be aiming the needle, even though I knew it couldn't be the case.

My fear overcame my tact and I asked anyway, "You're not going to be giving me...?"

"No, no, the anesthetist will be here shortly," she replied, offended.

My relief was greater than my embarrassment.

My husband arrived just before the anesthetist, and I had just the time to explain to him weakly that the pain was worse than I'd expected before he was chased from the room. As the doctor prepared something that I mercifully couldn't see behind my back, I started steeling myself. I can hold still, I must hold still, I thought. As another contraction started, I announced it calmly, and when the doctor didn't respond, I repeated myself , insisting fearfully.

"It's okay, I heard you the first time," was her curt response. Aren't I allowed to be panicked? I thought. I caught my breath, the contraction passed. I closed my eyes, and felt a small prick in my lower back, then heard something being taped up. It was over. My husband was allowed back in. Slowly, over the next ten minutes, the pain from the contractions subsided, until I could only detect them by watching numbers flash on the monitor.

If it weren't for the wonderful anticipation, it was almost like waiting for a train. We sat together with nothing in particular to do, talked, and held hands. I started to wonder if I'd made the right decision. Was this labor, or was this just a waiting room? I thought back to the hour before the anesthetist arrived and decided that, if this was like waiting for a train, I'd ignore the wait and focus on the marvelous destination.

I'd charged up my iPod with calming music and birth affirmations, but I found that all I wanted to do was smile at my husband, feel his caresses, and talk. Talk about what was happening, about the before and the after that were being created in the hours that were passing by. From time to time we nervously watched the monitor that was recording le Petit's heartbeats, surveying a flashing number that terrified us when it would suddenly drop off. Finally a nurse explained that he was simply moving, and his heartbeat had been temporarily been replaced by my own. The midwife checked in every hour and announced the slow progress of my dilation. The sun behind the frosted window started to disappear. I began to worry that my son would be born on his due date, Friday the 13th, and not the auspicious Thursday the 12th I'd been counting upon.

The midwife that had welcomed me was soon at the end of her shift, and two new midwives came in to introduce themselves. They were warm and reassuring, and I felt immediately more comfortable than with their no-nonsense colleague who'd been on the day shift. I was almost grateful that le Petit was taking his time. The first, Solène, explained that she was a student, and gently asked if I accepted that she attend my birth. I readily agreed. The second, Fanny, explained that she would provide an experienced second.

At ten o'clock, they declared me to be fully dilated, and folded the bed, origami-like, to allow me to sit upright with my back supported. Nothing to do but wait for le Petit to start his way down the birth canal. My husband and I started talking to le Petit, telling him about all the wonderful things that were eventually waiting for him on the outside: foie gras, vacations in Spain, cuddles with Mom and Dad. The epidural was beginning to wear off, and I started to feel the contractions again in the small of my back. Solène and Fanny explained that I could recharge it, but gently suggested letting the sensation slowly return, making it easier to know when to push when the time came. My husband said nothing, but looked at me pointedly, transferring confidence; he knew that my moment had come to be brave.

He massaged my back for the next hour, held my hands, and encouraged me as the pain got worse. Le Petit's progress was slow, and an eternity passed before Fanny announced that I could start to push. The bed was refolded so I could sit with my back slightly inclined, my legs spread, and my knees bent. As a contraction began I was to take a deep breath, hold it, and push.

I breathed, I pushed, I held my breath as long as I could, and each time it wasn't enough. Fanny and Solène encouraged me in French with each attempt and the phrase they kept repeating, "Voilà! C'est très bien ce que vous faites!" is one of the clearest memories I have of le Petit's birth. I held on to their calm words, trying to convince myself that things were working. My husband both cheered me on and begged me to keep pushing, to keep holding my breath, and it became clear that he was starting to panic.

I held onto the stupidest of worries: would le Petit arrive on the 13th? I kept looking at the clock. It was half past eleven, and I had only a half an hour to go. Preoccupying myself with superstition felt safer than worrying about something real, I suppose. The pushing wasn't working. Would I have a C-section? Forceps? Oddly, I never managed to worry whether le Petit would end up okay. I was blindly certain of that.

A third midwife briefly checked in on us. I missed her worried expression when she looked at the monitor, but my husband did not. Shortly after, the obstetrician hurriedly arrived. A handsome, middle-aged man, he introduced himself with exquisite French politesse, and said he was there to help. I don't know what I said -- I probably simply whimpered -- but I thought I don't care who you are, just help me.

Most of what happened next is a blur. Everyone, the doctor, the three midwives, and my husband, all continued to exhort me to push. The midwives invited my husband, by now quite pale, to sit down, but he was frozen at my side. The doctor ordered him with a forceful, "Monsieur, sit down!," half in English, half in French.

I heard a snip, snip, snip and realized I had an episiotomy. I was barely aware, or perhaps I didn't realize until it was explained to me afterward, that le Petit was guided out with the help of plastic, spoon-like forceps. All I remember was repeating over and over, as I used the last strength I thought I possessed to push, "Help me, help me, somebody help me!" I was no longer trying to speak in French; I was no longer trying to be coherent; I was just trying to communicate my distress any way I could.

Then, suddenly, he was there: le Petit was placed on my tummy, where all of him seemed like a giant head of damp, thin hair, with tiny legs and arms. I held him close for a second and started sobbing in English, "I'm so glad you're here!" My husband started yelling, in French, "He's not crying, he's not crying!" And he was pulled away, shuffled from one midwife to the next, his throat cleared of liquid, and he finally started to cry. I looked at the clock. It was ten minutes before midnight.

I have only the vaguest memories of what happened next, and they all seem disorganized, disordered. My husband accompanied le Petit through the Apgar test and his weigh-in. He was diapered, a tiny cotton hat was placed on his head, and something orange was smeared in his eyes. He was wrapped up and taken out in the hallway to meet my mother- and father-in-law, who'd been waiting anxiously for news for hours. I was sewn up, dressed in a large t-shirt, and le Petit was brought back for his first meal. The midwives helped me place him at the breast.

I felt shivery, happy, anxious, yet not at all in pain. I could hardly believe that the tiny being that had been kicking inside me for so long was now outside, all 8 lbs, 7 oz, in my arms and sucking at my breast as if -- and rightly so -- his life depended on it.

The calm of afterwards felt almost bizarre. We were left alone, just the three of us, to settle in and get to know one another. My husband took pictures. I nervously held le Petit close, unsure that this strange new title of mother I had suddenly acquired actually gave me any qualifications at all. Eventually, a nurse appeared and told us it was time to dress le Petit. Trying to follow her instructions, my husband searched in vain in the two huge suitcases we'd brought for the clothing we needed. The first pyjamas he found were too small, the first hat he unearthed fell on the floor, and it turned out we hadn't brought enough warm items. The nurse shook her head sadly as if to say, these two parents, they're off to a very slow start.

Le Petit was finally bundled up like a small blue and white football. We were placed together on the same stretcher and wheeled up to our room, where I was transferred to a bed and he to a Plexiglas bassinet. My husband lingered for a while before wishing us both a good night, and the midwives and nurses passed to say goodbye, then it was just me and le Petit, all alone in the near darkness of the maternity ward.

So the adventure begins, I thought to myself. I prayed in thanks for le Petit's safe arrival, for what was quickly becoming the most beautiful moment of my life. I then prayed fervently for help. The easy part is over, I thought to myself. Please, God, help me figure out what comes next.