Welcome to Sunday Stories. Today’s post comes from Jennifer Arpin-Pont, an English woman who gave birth in Bourg Saint Maurice in Savoie (73).
Here are her responses to my questionnaire:
1. Tell me a little about yourself.
I live in the ski resort of La Rosière 1850 and originally came here in November 2006 to do a ski season. I studied French and Spanish at university and did my Erasmus year in Grenoble then Zaragoza in Spain. My time in Grenoble and previous experiences in France put me off the country and the language, so once I had finished my degree I decided I would never speak French again. Nevertheless, after living in Spain for 3 years I was looking for a change and when the opportunity to work a ski season in France came about I decided to take it – after all, it would only mean living in France for 6 months….
To cut a long story short, I met my now-husband, Stéphane (I’m sure you can imagine how it happened – the typical cliché of a ski instructor and a chalet girl!) and never left! We got married in the local Mairie in August 2010 and a year later, almost to the day, our daughter Sophie was born. In fact, we brought her home on our wedding anniversary – what a great present!
2. Where did you choose to give birth in France?
Living in a ski resort, there was not much choice as to where I would give birth. There are only two hospitals nearby – Bourg Saint Maurice (30 mins drive away) or Albertville (about 90 mins drive away). Bourg Saint Maurice was my first choice as it was nearer home and, being a very small maternité, I knew the care would be more personal. We also know one of the midwives, so I hoped he would be the person to deliver our baby.
3. Why did you decide to give birth in this location?
At my 5-month scan we were told that my baby was small and that I might have to give birth in Albertville, since the mother and baby unit in Bourg Saint Maurice does not have the facilities to deal with premature babies or those under 2 kg. I was rather worried about this, because I wanted to give birth in the nearest hospital possible – having never stayed in hospital before, this was the thing that made me most anxious. However, after having more scans, the doctors decided that if she arrived at term then she should be big enough to be born in Bourg Saint Maurice. I was advised to prepare a dossier in each hospital, though, just in case.
4. What were you doing when you began labor?
I was 39 weeks pregnant and started having period-like pains one evening. I told my husband that I thought it might be time, but not to get excited just yet. I thought I was going to be really stressed and scared when I went into labour, but I remember feeling very calm. My contractions started at about 8pm on the Monday evening and by 3am they were coming every 3 minutes. They were painful, although not incredibly so, but I was so worried about the drive down to the hospital that we went down far too early. With hindsight, I should have waited longer before going to hospital.
5. Tell us about your experience giving birth in France?
When we arrived at the hospital it was around 5am. We rang the buzzer for the maternité and a familiar voice answered – one of the midwives is a ski instructor in the winter and works with my husband. I also know him because I used to be a secretary at the ski school. I was so happy that he was there because he’s a lovely, calm and competent man and I also knew that he felt proud to deliver babies whose parents he knew.
The midwife was in the delivery suite when we arrived so it was a nurse who settled us in. Once he had delivered the other baby, N (the midwife)came straight in to see me with blood all down his clothes! After the initial shock – for some reason I didn’t expect there to be so much blood during childbirth – he got changed and hooked me up to a monitoring machine.
My contractions were still regular, but hadn’t got any more painful. N clocked off at 8am but before he left he came in to see me and told me that he hoped for my sake that I’d have given birth before his shift at 8pm that evening, but that he would be disappointed not to deliver our baby.
In my mind I was convinced I’d give birth at about 3pm, but my contractions were only marginally worse at midday. The gynaecologist came to see me and said that I might not even be in “real” labour yet and that the contractions could go on for 48 hours or more before labour set in. This really upset me because by that point I was convinced I would have my baby with me when I next went home – leaving the hospital before giving birth was not an option in my mind.
It was a long day, and the nurses more or less left me to it. I was in a private room and they came to check on me every couple of hours, but I remember being surprised that they didn’t come around more often. That being said, I had a buzzer so I could have called them, but I much prefer being left alone when ill or in pain so perhaps that’s why they didn’t bother me too much.
Despite having told them specifically not to come to the hospital, my husband’s family rocked up at around 3pm “just to give you a kiss”. I had surprised myself by being calm all day long, but when they turned up uninvited (my biggest bugbear and the one thing my husband and I ever fight about – our lack of privacy vis-à-vis his parents) I lost it and burst into tears. The midwife thought it was the pain, but when I explained she was only too happy to put a sign on my door saying “No visitors” – my saviour!
Lucky – or unluckily, depending on how you see it – my contractions became incredibly painful at about 5pm. My husband had gone home for a shower and I remember vomiting and swearing as each contraction came! But I was glad he wasn’t there to see me in so much pain – he couldn’t have done anything about it and it was easier to cope without being watched. In my antenatal classes I had been very sceptical about the breathing exercises, thinking that there was no way breathing techniques could really help with the pain, but when it came to it they were amazing and I was glad I’d listened and practised! I fully expected to be offered gas and air, as I’d read all about it in UK mother and baby magazines, but they don’t seem to have it in France – or at least not in deepest darkest Savoie! I was offered a shot of morphine but that sounded a little hardcore for me, so I refused.
By 7pm, I was still only 2cm dilated, but the midwife saw how much pain I was in and marched me to the delivery suite. She called the anaesthetist (who was doing her shopping!) and I got my epidural very soon afterwards. I was really impressed by the way the midwife handled this, because I was a little afraid of going to the birthing suite and so for me it was great that she didn’t give me the choice (although she had asked me earlier if I wanted to go and I had declined). My waters hadn’t broken, so she broke them with a hook. I remember feeling like I’d wet myself and asking if it would stop soon, but she said it’d carry on until the baby came out – yuk!
At 8pm, our friend N clocked back on and came straight to see me. After the epidural, my contractions had more or less stopped so he hooked me up to something to get them started again. As soon as I saw him I relaxed and was happy that he would be the one to deliver our baby, even though the other midwife had been great too.
Shortly afterwards, he examined me and said I was fully dilated. He then explained that we’d let the baby’s head come down the birth canal on its own, then it would be time to push. At around 10.15pm I felt the baby’s head “down there” so I was ready to push.
Once again, the antenatal lessons came in useful and the pushing was surprisingly easy – much easier that it looks on TV! N asked me what position I wanted to be in and I said that I wanted my husband to sit on the bed with me, supporting me from behind, with me sitting between his legs. N said he wasn’t sure it was possible as I had an epidural catheter in, but that we could try. In the end it was fine, although I think Stéphane did pull the epidural out a bit because I could feel a faint echo of the contractions when pushing.
I had a bit of trouble pushing the baby out because apparently my coccyx bends inwards slightly so she kept banging her head on it, but eventually she came out, albeit with a bruise on the top of her little head!
Sophie Alice was born at around 10.45pm – we all forgot to check the exact time, but it doesn’t matter! N passed me a warm, slimy creature, which was the most bizarre sensation ever! Stéphane cut the cord and I lay Sophie on my chest. After a while I put her to my nipple and she had a suck. We were left alone for a while, just the three of us, while N and the nurse tidied up and did the paperwork. I had torn (they seem more reluctant to perform episiotomies here, preferring to let you tear naturally) and so N sewed me up. At around 2am they wheeled me back to my room with my baby.
I didn’t have a birth plan as such, preferring to go into it open minded, but all in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better birth!
6. What was your most memorable moment?
When the midwife pulled Sophie out and passed her to me, I couldn’t get my head around the fact that only seconds before she’d been in my tummy and now she was here. I didn’t feel a rush of love (that came the next day) – instead I felt like someone had just passed me a poo that I had just done (sorry!)!
7. Is there anything you would do differently if having another baby in France?
I was really pleased with the birth, but the problems came the next day.
Sophie had problems feeding on the first day because she had acid reflux. I had read a lot about breastfeeding and how important it was not to give a bottle at the beginning, so I was adamant that I didn’t want a bottle to pass my baby’s lips. Nevertheless, there was one puéricultrice (health visitor) who told me that she had to have a bottle because she needed to eat something and so she took Sophie off me and forced a teat into her mouth. I had told her that I didn’t want her to have a bottle but that if she had to have a bit of formula could it be in a syringe, but she said no. A different nurse on the night shift said that we could use a syringe if Sophie still wasn’t managing to feed, so I think it was just that particular puéricultrice that was the problem.
Sophie’s temperature had also gone down overnight, and the same puéricutrice told me that we had to get her warmed up otherwise she would die – you can imagine how alarming that was for me to hear! What I didn’t know is that this is very common on the first day/night, so had I known this I would have been more prepared.
I would advise expectant mothers to read up about everything they can beforehand, especially if they want to breastfeed. I, and many of my English friends who have given birth here, have found that on the whole people here are not very knowledgeable about breastfeeding (although some midwives are extremely knowledgeable and encouraging), and often suggest “topping up” right from birth or a few days later. Anyone who has read up about breastfeeding knows that if you “top up” then your milk supply will not be sufficient, so I advise mothers to be forceful – French healthcare workers and mothers-in-law can be very persuasive so you must trust your instincts! All of my friends who have breastfed, me included, have been told to switch to formula at some point – one after just a few days, me personally after 3 months – but we have all persisted with breast only and we have all reaped the benefits.
8. How was your experience different than giving birth in your home country (if you are a foreigner)?
I have never given birth in the UK, but both of my sister-in-laws have and the care I received in France was so much better than the care they received in the UK. The French system is very thorough – I had more scans and was more closely monitored than my sisters-in-law all the way through my pregnancy. My mum said she knew I was in safe hands, which made being thousands of miles away while I was giving birth much less worrying for her. I wouldn’t hesitate to give birth in France again, but I would not be so keen to do so in the UK.
Have you given birth in France? Share your birth story.