My husband and I hail from different countries – I am British, he is Irish. Aside from such cultural distinctions as whether we say ‘broom’ or ‘sweeping brush’ to describe that useful cleaning implement, our personal backgrounds are remarkably similar. Here in France, when discovered to be an étranger masquerading as a native (his accent is heavenly), my husband generally loses his Irish identity altogether and we are both swept up by those whom we encounter into a general ‘English’ pile.
My husband is reluctantly bilingual. He moved to France aged ten, having previously lived a somewhat nomadic lifestyle. He attended the local collège (junior high school), where bilingualism was thrust upon him. He speaks to our son almost exclusively in French, so technically our two-year-old is also bilingual.
Our son talks in a glorious muddle of three languages: English, French, and a little known dialect of his own invention.
As for myself, I left the UK in 2011 for a four-month adventure, working as an au pair in the French suburbs surrounding Geneva. With three weeks remaining of my indentured servitude, my return ticket all but purchased (au pairing was not for me), life suddenly became romantically interesting. On an impulse, I found new employment within the week (I have a real weakness for blonds on motorbikes). We were married two years later, and moved out of our tiny Geneva apartment in favour of a rambling former farmhouse across the border between France and Switzerland, in the French countryside, with plenty of garden for future offspring. I was to become a ‘femme au foyer’, staying at home to care for our son.
In cosmopolitan Geneva, fitting in had been easy. But here, even my husband is still considered a foreigner. Not because of his light Swiss accent, but because he grew up an hour’s drive away.
Although we have largely been accepted by our neighbours, I would love to feel less uncomfortably conspicuous as an outsider and unknown entity (one neighbour even confusingly mistook us for siblings – a gaffe made more embarrassing by the fact that I was pregnant).
My cunning scheme, to become fully immersed in French culture, was to befriend other expectant mothers in the recommended antenatal classes, where, it is propounded, life-long friendships and support groups are forged. I would learn from these ladies how to become a ‘proper’ French maman. My plans, however, were thwarted, as the course was already fully booked when I was advised to register (the consequence, perhaps, of being followed by the already familiar department-run family planning clinic for the first five months of my pregnancy, instead of seeking a hospital midwife).
Only private classes remained open to me, but now at risk of premature labour I decided against the twenty minute solo drive to the nearest ‘sage femme libérale’ (independant midwife). Instead, I spent my lonely ‘resting’ hours studying past episodes of the British television documentary, ‘One Born Every Minute’, online.
Now at risk of premature labour I decided against the twenty minute solo drive to the nearest ‘sage femme libérale’ (independant midwife).
Having watched enough births to make me question my commitment to motherhood, I felt relatively reassured that I was only really required to stay alive and do as I was told. I then felt free to concentrate on my main fears: French small-talk on the ward during my captivity (the Duchess of Cambridge might be able to return home on the day of her son’s birth, as is usual in the UK when there has been no complication, but France insists upon a minimum stay of three nights, forgoing the daily check-up from a health visitor afterwards: a private midwife visited me twice) and giving birth naked.
I had been sufficiently traumatised by the ghoulish reminiscences of a friend, who had given birth to her son after a horrific labour three years earlier in Geneva, whilst wearing only her dignity and a pair of knee-high socks. My apprehension was heightened by the recollection of my first smear test in France when the doctor told me to undress completely, whilst the window remained mockingly open in her ground floor office, revealing a bustling residential area. I maintain the typically British emotions of shame and terror where nudity is concerned. My experiences of France so far suggest that its citizens have, in general, a more relaxed and, I daresay, healthier attitude towards that natural condition.
Thankfully, although I did not experience any of the mythical splendour associated with childbirth in a Geneva maternity clinic (rumours abound of celebratory champagne flowing; delighted parents dining on lobster and other choice delicacies in the rooftop hospital restaurant, whilst the new arrival is entertained in the nursery; and relaxing post-labour massages), I was given a wonderful regulation hospital gown, which meant more to me than any Swiss luxury could.
My contrary son had decided to bide his time, eventually arriving a whole four and a quarter hours late, testing both my patience and love of punctuality.
My due date arrived and I was still pregnant, but in the earliest stages of labour. My contrary son had decided to bide his time, eventually arriving a whole four and a quarter hours late, testing both my patience and love of punctuality. Yes, I mean four and a quarter hours late, not days. I’m British, mind you. We are always on time. I could have taken the private classes after all.
Matters progressing swiftly, we found ourselves, after midnight, at a hospital bursting with labouring women, and joined the back of a long queue. I was the last patient admitted; those behind me were redirected elsewhere. It transpires that nine months after Valentine’s Day is a very popular time to give birth.
As in my neighbourhood, even on the delivery ward I unconsciously failed to conform. Despite my extensive research, I still managed to achieve temporary notoriety as the obviously mad ‘anglaise’ who: prepared for labour by watching television; steadfastly refused the typical epidural in favour of a completely natural birth; and apologised profusely for being unable to refrain longer from pushing (another British trait, triggered in this instance by our national aversion to queue-jumping).
I cannot claim any heroism since I was only in active labour for around four hours, and had mistakenly anticipated the relief of gas and air. Having declined the classes, I had no idea that gas and air isn’t automatically offered in France, as it is in the UK. Still, a natural birth, though painful, was infinitely preferable to me than any birth au naturel.
The three days passed in a blur. My tiny tyrant took an immediate dislike to his plastic box and refused to sleep unless either being held or commandeering my bed (I am eternally grateful to the kind soul who suggested co-sleeping). I stayed agonisingly conscious throughout, whilst my nap-prone husband endured no such hardship, either in the delivery suite or on the ward.
My sanity and my French suffered. It seemed as though each auxiliare had a different strategy regarding the unpopular practice of breast-feeding, which I struggled to master. I horrified a midwife by answering her question concerning the number of stitches I had had with “sixty-three”, thinking she was asking my weight. ‘Points’ (stiches) and ‘poids’ (weight) sound remarkably similar to an exhausted foreigner. At least my fears of small-talk were ill-founded. Far from experiencing the bonds of camaraderie, my equally exhausted neighbour barely breathed a word in my direction from my entrance to her departure.
Now that my son has started nursery, my hopes of finding maman friends to guide and mould me have resurged. Hopefully one day we will be considered locals, although I fear that we may forever remain just a little bit different.
Emma O’Dwyer is a British stay-at-home-mum living in rural France with her Irish husband and their two-year-old son. In the dim and distant past she looked after other small children in an American nursery school in Geneva. Whenever she can spare the time from house renovations, a monstrously overgrown garden and keeping up with a lively toddler, who does not trust his mother to cope without his constant supervision, she writes as Chomeuse with a Chou about family life abroad. You can follow her adventures on her blog here as well as keep up with Emma on Facebook and Instagram.