Wednesday, December 29, 2010

La vie en rose

I'm ashamed that I ever felt ambivalent about having a girl. Now that la Petite is here, so beautiful and so herself, I feel ashamed that I ever could have doubted, even abstractly, that I wanted her to be who she is. As her mother, I already feel a fierce feminine solidarity, ready to defend her as absolutely perfect to anything who dares say otherwise. She's been nursing well and gaining weight, and when my husband proudly pointed out her "fat," I irrationally jumped to her defense. It isn't fat, I countered, it's 100% beautiful baby! (Never mind that baby fat is actually biologically necessary.) Similiarly, when he mentioned that with her thin, short hair she looks like a boy, I protested. To me, she's obviously a girl. And a gorgeous one.

I'll have to tone down that knee-jerk response a bit as time goes on.

Before she was born, I had visions of walking out of the hospital with her wrapped tight next to me in a baby carrier, confident as I hadn't been with my firstborn. The day we actually went home, although she was snuggled up in the wrap just as I'd imagined, I was feeling shaky. Exhausted. Unsure of myself, although not nearly as much as the first time around. We walked half a block to the car and carefully buckled la Petite in her car bed, then drove ten minutes to home with her fussing in the back seat.

I cried, as I'm wont to do in such situations. My daughter was coming home. When we'd left, she was a mystery, a quantity of questions, an imminent event, a stranger. Now she was real.

And I, skeptical as I'd been of all things pink, pointed out with joy that, as we turned the last corner to our apartment building, the radio was playing "La vie en rose."

Saturday, December 25, 2010


On the first day of Christmas, my family gave to me:

My mother-in-law's homemade foie gras

Showers, by myself, taking as long as I want in the bathroom

A chestnut bûche de noël

A chocolate-coffee mousse cake from the best little chocolate shop in Paris

A nap, while le Petit and my husband went out to run errands

Complements on my (nursing-compatible) holiday dress

...and on my shoes

Five hours of uninterrupted night sleep (thank you, Petite!)

Perfumes and creams aplenty, for when my stubborn cold departs and I can smell again

A monkfish and shellfish feast (for which my mother-in-law waited in line at the poissonnerie hour and a half)

Time to nurse and cuddle la Petite

Time to read

Time to blog

Time to make cookies

Dishes that magically get done while I'm in the other room

A statue of the Virgin Mary (the original is from the 14th century, now in the Musée Cluny in Paris) nursing the infant Jesus

The joy of watching le Petit open his presents slowly, one by one, blocking out everything to concentrate on each marvelous new thing

The nurturing I needed to emerge from the fog of the last few weeks and feel competent as a mother

* * *

This year, with la Petite still so tiny and the weather so terribly cold and unpredictable, we decided not to go to the big family celebration in Troyes and instead stay home. My mother- and father-in-law came to celebrate, bringing just about everything, from the foie gras to the bûche to the baguettes to their able hands for preparing and setting up and minding the kids and cleaning the mess. I felt like I was still a bit disconnected, unsure where I should be or what I should be doing or saying, but by the end it all clicked. Today for the first time, I felt like I've found my groove with the new baby. I still don't know how quite to say thank you. (Probably not by staying up blogging until 1 am and thus ensuring I'll be a grump tomorrow...)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sleep (and random thoughts on newborns)

I should be sleeping, but instead I'm writing about it.

Perhaps to compensate us for stealing so much of our own sleep, newborns make the most wonderful sounds in theirs. I didn't appreciate this the last time around. I was too exhausted, frustrated and desperate for my life to return to normal, but my brain still stored the sounds somewhere and now I can recall them with nostalgia anyway. La Petite's crib is next to our bed, wedged against the wall on my side so that I can lean over and scoop her up to nurse in the middle of the night. As I was falling asleep last night, I listened, reassured, to her squeaks and sighs. Newborns smack their lips as if they were dreaming of nursing, and from time to time they make a contented noise that sounds like they're simultaneously clearing their throat and purring. I should record it so that I can listen to it again, when I'm well-rested myself.

* * *

We were all convinced, from my second day at the hospital on, that la Petite was less "high needs" than her brother at the same age. She seemed to sleep better, she could be put down in her crib, and she could be soothed easily by both me and my husband. Now I wonder, however, if it is just that we're more competent this time around. When she wants to nurse three times in a row, I don't question it. When she only wants to fall asleep in my arms, I hold her, or find my baby carrier. When she wakes up four or more times at night (as she still does more nights than not), I'm unsurprised. When le Petit was born, I spent the first month desperately trying to impose a feeding schedule, to teach him self-soothe himself to sleep, or to make him fall asleep in places he didn't want to. I was bitter and exhausted, and I wondered when and if normalcy would ever return. Then I spent the second month admitting what a real newborn is like, and learning new strategies to make it work. This time that competency is already in place. I'm still waking up four or more times a night, but I sit up, pick up la Petite, lean into the mound of pillows at the head of my bed, put her to breast and close my eyes, unworried and usually very shortly asleep myself.

The broken nights are still getting to me, though. That's the other big difference, however: this time I know that it will get better soon enough.

* * *

La Petite has dark blue eyes, a thin fold line at the bridge of her nose, and a soft cap of scarce, downy hair. Her feet are delicate and proportionally tiny, and her fingers slender and surprisingly long. She looks wise when she's awake, peaceful when she's asleep, and I imagine that right now she could explain the meaning of life to me but will forget it all before she learns to talk. When she's upset, she turns red, scrunches up her eyes and nose and opens her toothless mouth as wide as she can -- but in that, she's simply like every other newborn.

(Why don't we ever think to take pictures of them crying? Are we afraid of documenting our own incompetence? Now that we've got two kids to try to simultaneously capture on film, there are a few unfortunate pictures where la Petite is noticably unhappy--or le Petit has his finger in his nose--duly documented for posterity.)

I once asked my dad if I was cute when I was born. He replied, "No, but you got cute fast." He meant well, but I was highly unsatisfied with this response. OK, I admit, I took it a bit too personally.

If my children ask, I'll tell them what I hold to be true. They weren't cute at birth. They were beautiful.

* * *

Before la Petite was born, if I tried to sleep in after le Petit and my husband were both awake, le Petit would run into our bedroom, climb onto our bed, clamber up next to me, jump on my back and yell into my ear, "Wake up!" He repeated himself loudly until I finally, reluctantly, got out of bed. He usually speaks to me in French, but for this important task he resorted to English.

Now that la Petite has arrived and is often sleeping in her crib or on my lap when le Petit wakes up, he makes a quieter entrance. He still climbs on the bed and jumps onto my back, but then he asks quietly, "Tu peux laisser [la Petite] dormir?" He wants to know, can I let her sleep without me or does she still need me? No matter how short the night seemed, I usually pull myself up and stumble off to a family breakfast, much less reluctantly than I did before.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dans le pays de maman

Le petit is sick, I'm sick, and the weather is miserable, so we're all home watching Planet Earth on blu-ray today.

The camera flies over the Rockies. "C'est le pays de maman!" my husband tells Le Petit. That's Mommy's country.

Le Petit turns to me and marvels, "Ton pays est très pointu." Your country is very pointy. My husband and I both chuckle.

"Beaucoup plus pointu que l'Alsace!" Le Petit continues. A lot pointier than Alsace (currently his only reference point for mountains).

A little bit later, he runs off to his room to build a waterfall flowing out of his bed with his blanket, and a river across the floor with his pillows. The teddy bears are fishing for salmon, he explains. He carefully places a couple of stuffed animal ducks on the river.

I have to admit, it looks just like chez moi.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Playdough year

When we planned how to space our children, we agreed that three and a half years would be perfect for our family. Le petit would be well into his first year of nursery school, and I'd have my days free to take care of the new baby. School would last until four o'clock and extended day to seven, and we duly signed Le petit up for both. I figured my infant caretaking experience would be more or less the same as last time, at least until five or six in the afternoon. On Wednesdays, a day off from school in France, I'd have both kids, but I figured I could make it work with some pinch hitting from Grandma and Grandpa.

The best laid plans, eh?

Le petit wasn't entirely ready for school in September. We went ahead with half days, and crossed our fingers that the potty and discipline issues would straighten themselves out. They did, and Le petit loves school. In the meantime, however, Le petit has definitively given up his naps, and afternoons at school are only lunch and naptime. The teachers have a lot of kids on their hands, and one who won't nap is problematic, to say the least.

I can only imagine, too, how Le petit would react to suddenly being signed up for full days, essentially kicked out of the house upon the arrival of his little sister.

So here I am, a newborn and a three-and-a-half-year-old on my hands from 11:30 to 6 on weekdays, and from 9:30 to 6 on Wednesdays. Paris is gripped by a cold spell, and at any rate, I don't dare go out on my own with both kids just yet, because what on earth do I do if a sudden tantrum hits and I need to wrangle (gently and respectfully) the preschooler? Le petit has decided that now that Mommy is back from the hospital has a lap again to sit in, he no longer wants to spend any time at Grandma's house. I go to bed as soon as La Petite is nursed down for the night in order to take advantage of her first, longest sleep stretch and thus hold onto the shreds of my sanity.

Did I mention I also have the worst cold in recent memory?

At first, I was on this super mom trip. I wouldn't use TV as a crutch. I'd engage Le petit in educational activities. His English would improve. We'd bond. That lasted one day last week, Thursday. By the end of the day, when my husband came home, I was in tears in front of Elmo on, Le petit beside me ordering me to click the mouse, La petit nursing on my lap. My mom had just called and left a message, and I had neither the strength nor the mobility to get up and answer the phone.

Now I'm using TV, and planning on ordering more Sesame Street videos. They'll be in English, and thus I console myself.

Today was hard again. I'm living a contradiction: on the one hand, I'm not attempting anything that moms everywhere haven't done before me. On the other hand, I know that this will be hard. Exhausting. Going back to work in nine months may seem like a huge break (and again, I'm counting my blessings to have that kind of parental leave). I think there will inevitably be huge rewards, bonding, and understanding if I make it, but can I really do it? Well? At all? I'm lucky that La Petite is relatively low-key at the moment, and Le Petit relatively cooperative, but still, I may not be up to it all.

Gotta go. Elmo is over, and La petite is waking up. Here we go again.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Elisabeth Badinter has it (only) half right

The French feminist, intellectual and author of the recent book Le conflit: la femme et la mère argues that the pressure to breastfeed, to stay at home, and to excel as mothers is leading women in the industrialized world to renounce motherhood altogether, or at least find it less than fulfilling. According to Badinter, by setting the mothering bar so high, women are being pressured out of the workforce or forced to choose between work and parenting, often surrendering their self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, men are off the hook, not expected to be equal partners in parenting because they supposedly lack the biological equipment and mental wiring.

I read the book this spring, expecting to be irritated. And yes, her stance on breastfeeding (Oh, the pressure! Oh, the limitations of it all!) bothered me. But she has some very good points, starting with the complaint that most men still do not feel like they need to roll up their sleeves and do their fair share. Yet she wrongly blames breastfeeding, among other things, for this.

Over and over, I hear the same refrain: breastfeeding excludes dads. If you want Dad to be involved, pump your milk! Let him take a feeding! Otherwise, his attachment to the baby may suffer. I know it seems that newborns spend 24/7 on the breast (just ask me at four a.m.), but, hey, guys, there's lots more to do. There's bathing the baby. And changing diapers. And teaching her new ways to be soothed to sleep. There's taking her off for long walks when Mom just can't hack it anymore and desperately needs to nap. There's taking care of the older kids, and going grocery shopping, and if you really can't find anything else to do, there's always laundry.

There are men who want to be involved, and they will be, whether their wives breastfeed or not. There are men who, under the pretext that they've mixed up a few bottles of formula in the middle of the night, consider themselves off the hook. And then there are men who, like a colleague of my husband's, think like this:

"Is your wife breastfeeding?"

"Yes," my husband says proudly (he's become somewhat of a breastfeeding evangelist).

"Well, you're lucky, then. There's nothing for you to do."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Baby journal

La petite is, thus far, less "high needs" than her brother was as a newborn. Which is globally saving my sanity, for I don't know what I'd do with a three-year-old and a baby that will not be put down. Muddle through with my favorite baby carrier, I suppose.

The nights are easier, too, since La petite wakes up, nurses, and usually falls back asleep easily, but she's still nursing a minimum of four to five times a night. She seems to have her days and nights a little mixed up, because her naps can lengthen to three or four hours. And the old advice about "sleep when the baby sleeps" doesn't work for me right now, since Le petit is only in school until eleven-thirty, and on school days I have lunch duty plus half the day alone with both kids before Daddy comes home. I've never been one to deal well with sleep deprivation, and the fractured nights, the post-partum hormones plus a ferocious head cold have me holding on by the skin of my teeth.

But I'm in love. With both of them. When I thought I wouldn't "get" parenting a girl, I was wrong, so wrong. At eleven days old we haven't hit Disney princesses, or mean girls or Gossip girls or whatever bumps in the road may lie ahead, but I don't care, my daughter and I are a team already, I know it. And she looks absolutely adorable in pink.

When I was pregnant, I had nothing but time (and rest!), but I'd lost the inspiration to blog. Perhaps as my belly button disappeared my need to navel-gaze diminished along with it. Now that I'm once again caught in the whirlwind of infant parenting, I have so, so much to say and no time to say it. So I'm going to try to write something every day or two, most often just a few lines, quick and off the top of my head. Thoughts that come to me while I'm nursing La Petite at four in the morning. Things I want to remember, and fish out from the haze of the next few months. I won't spend much time rereading or editing, and I won't make any promises on timing -- who am I kidding, I can't find time to vacuum the floor -- but I'll work on putting out enough that you can glimpse my world right now. And I'll be able to come back and remember it later, when I'm feeling sad that it passed by so fast.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

La Petite est arrivée !

Just a very quick note to let everyone know that "la Petite" (which I'm testing out as her Official Blog Name) arrived on the evening of December 2nd. We both just got back from the hospital yesterday, and we're sleepily, joyfully settling in as a family of four. I have tons to write now and not yet the time to actually do it, but stay tuned!