call the sage-femme: notes from the life of a pregnant expat

You wouldn’t notice if you’re not looking for it.

It’s just a lively, sunny street like any other in Nice. A few blocks from the beach. There are busy cafés, antique shops, little kitschy stores full of ancient-looking sewing materials or dusty Lebanese groceries.

If you are looking, you’ll notice that this is a street full of pregnant women. You see them walking with friends or alone. You see them glamorous in sundresses and straw hats. You see them tired, clad in leggings and sneakers, struggling to transport all that weight. You might wonder where they are going.

blanket close up delicious diet
Photo by Scott Webb on

As I happen to be in the know, I can tell you. A well-known midwife practices on this street. She works at what some consider the best maternity hospital in Nice.

On my once- or twice-weekly visits, I buzz in, walk through a courtyard behind a heavy wooden door, and then take an elevator up several stories. The space is small, cozy, with a rooftop view that’s a little bit Parisian (save for the glimpses of palm trees). Colorful blankets are thrown on the low couches where I sit and listen to the midwife and take notes like my life depends on it.

Sage-femme. Literally wise woman. I am in awe of this woman: her knowledge, expertise, and manner. She holds hour-long classes about different aspects of birth–how to recognize labor, how to care for a newborn. As women (and sometimes their husbands) come and go, she scans cartes vitales (French healthcare covers these services), hooks women up to an electronic fetal monitor, answers the phone, and sets up new mothers with post-birth exercises in another room. Sometimes she returns holding someone’s tiny baby, and she’ll soothe it effortlessly, while discussing how to time contractions or while demonstrating breathing methods on an exercise ball. Though there’s so much happening, the midwife exudes calm. She doesn’t lose her train of thought. She never seems the slightest bit flustered. And though there’s some waiting involved–six of us on pause as she greets a new arrival or prints out the movements of a baby in utero–the environment is so generally agréable that personally, I don’t mind at all.

There are nine sessions covered by la Sécurité Sociale. Every time there are new girls–because these classes don’t have a set order–but every time I recognize a few. I haven’t spent any of my pregnancy with other pregnant women, and this has gotten lonely. No one to compare notes with. We live close enough to Nice to attend appointments there, but not close enough to spend real time there, the kind of time you need to actually make friends. I recognize this–loneliness–is a common expat struggle, and I’m grateful for the numerous blogs and books that discuss what it’s like to be alone in the land of your second language. Once the thrill wears off, it’s tough. The thrill wears off quickly.

So now, with all these pregnant women together in a room, I feel a little less alone. There are a lot of other foreigners–an assumption based on accent or the presence of a translating husband–and, obviously, a lot of prominent bellies. It is both a comfort and a fascination to look at all these people who look like me. This new me. No longer just woman or Millennial or brunette or American but the brand-new label: pregnant woman. It has taken some time to get used to that, to answer the questions I am inevitably asked in checkout lines at the grocery store.

Not only do all of us sport enormous third-trimester bellies–highlighted or camouflaged by various fashions–but I spy other swollen feet, others who have difficulty getting up from the low couches, and the telltale navy blue cotton band that characterizes most maternity jeans. As I’ve watched myself change in the mirror over the past several months, I have felt shock, occasional admiration, occasional horror. We change all the time, but rarely–I think–so quickly, so obviously.

I have grown used to many changes and I call that progress. The learning curve, though, can be so frustrating. Just when I think I’ve caught up, learned enough, mastered the French medical vocabulary, gotten good test results, or learned to balance all this new weight, there’s something new. Some new little worry, some new symptom, a new specialist to see just because (I suspect) my doctor is overcautious.

On my first visit to the midwife’s, I was nervous, not at all sure to what degree my personal space would be compromised. Now I enjoy the visits, trusting as I do that knowledge is power. While my doctor has no time, the midwife seems to have nothing but, despite juggling ten tasks (and a baby) at once. 

That first visit, the midwife puts the fetal monitor on my belly. I have a lifetime history of malaise around blood, needles, medical interventions, and even stressful-sounding beeping noises. It’s a proper phobia. I’m a fainter. The fetal monitor seems, somehow, to interest my baby, like it wants to show off for the attention. Previously that morning, I’d noticed nothing. As soon as I’m attached to this machine, wild movements start. The baby kicks around so furiously that my stomach–and by extension, the monitor–moves too. The numbers on the screen fluctuate rapidly and the sound of my baby’s heart is amplified, deafening. buhBOOMbuhBOOMbuhBOOMbuhBOOM. 

We hear something else, too, a little popping noise. The baby has the hiccups, the midwife tells me. I smile weakly. The concept is sweet. Amazing. Human. But what I’m looking at is my stomach, and here’s what I think, just before I almost lose consciousness. I think it’s something out of Looney Tunes. It looks like two small animals trapped in a bag, fighting to get out. A fist here. Pow. A kick there. Bam. 

I think: alien. Everything looks far away and I’m sweating like I’ve just come in from a run. My heart rate plummets. I am in the tunnel I’ve known since childhood, where I feel a misery and dread and pain that is typically only soothed by losing consciousness. My blood pressure, the midwife finds when she measures, has dropped to a ridiculously low level. My baby’s vitals have changed too. Then, somehow, I manage to come back. No fainting.

It means everything that the midwife doesn’t treat me like I’m weak or silly. She doesn’t express doubt or an attitude like–ha, good luck actually giving birth. She doesn’t laugh or say, wow, there’s a sensitive one. Instead she tells me something that surprises me: she too dealt with the same problem until her early twenties. Until after the first year of her midwifery studies. She says practice and gradual exposure was the solution. She says we’ll try this again, and again, until I’m okay with it.

At the next visit, I manage the monitoring with almost no discomfort. Ditto for the third. Each time I leave, I ask her a few more questions. Frankly I am most scared of giving birth in a country not known for customer service. I’ve heard stories of patients’ preferences being expressly disregarded. Google reviews of this very maternité say, in English and in French: that was the worst day of my life. I’m terrified of being forced into an outdated or unnecessary medical procedure. I am also very aware that I will likely lack the strength to both give birth and also fight the Man.

The midwife answers all my questions. She even alerts me when a French practice or standard tends to differ from the American one. This, to me, lends her a great deal of credibility. Still I feel the niggling worry of all these what-ifs.

She looks straight at me. She holds my face, says ça va bien se passer. It will be fine. She makes it possible to believe that this could be true.

embracing the absurd


That long, skinny vegetable.

That colorful thing in the sea.

That thing that you close with a key.

These sound like lines from a fun board game, but are in fact desperate definitions I’ve uttered within the past week when the French term for leek or coral reef or lock escapes me.

I can speak quickly now, producing French at about the same speed as my native English, but that ability doesn’t always disguise knowledge gaps: simple nouns and verbs that I missed or forgot along the way. I compensate with long, looping definitions, often punctuated by you know.

“So we bought some…” My story grinds to a halt. “Tu sais, that long, skinny vegetable?” The listener squints. They don’t know.

“White and green, tu sais, makes a good soup?”

Over five years of dedicated language study and I’m liable to get tripped up on a leek. img_2368

Cooking with a friend really drives the point home. “Could you pass the board for cutting things? Where is the bowl with holes in it? I need the thing for scraping, made of plastic.” I sound weirdly literal, like an alien who has studied human life from afar. Either that or like someone who doesn’t get out much. How have I made it this far and missed colander?

Learning the French language has been a first-class study in the art of French absurdism. This school of thought, motivated by nationwide dejection in post-war France, claims that our very existence is absurd. Certainty is impossible. Does life have meaning? The answer is paradoxical: a definitive maybe. Existentialists sometimes bemoan this fact. Absurdists embrace it. It is by facing the void (and often, by laughing at it) that we can reconcile our absurd state. It is still possible, Absurdists maintain, to live bravely. To seek beauty.

I read playwright Eugène Ionesco’s “La Cantatrice chauve” senior year of college. This “anti play” employs language that does not result in communication. Thanks to the many missteps of my language-learning journey, this idea of language divorced from communication is an area in which I have lots of practice. img_7425

Set in a proper middle-class English interior, the play opens with a Mr. and Mrs. Smith in the midst of a strange conversation. They speak in clichés and then are suddenly cold and literal, as if narrating their own behavior. They make statements and then immediately contradict themselves with no change in expression. Stage directions include: bursts into laughter, then she bursts into tears. Then she smiles. 

Soon, dinner guests arrive. Mr. and Mrs. Martin sit facing each other, without speaking. They smile timidly at each other. The dialogue which follows must be spoken in voices that are drawling, monotonous, a little singsong, without nuances.

The dialogue which follows concerns how this married couple might know one another. Hmm, they wonder. Did we run into each other once, long ago? It seems we are both from Manchester. They deduce, finally, that they share a bedroom, and even a daughter! How curious it is, how strange! Finally, Mr. Martin announces in the same flat, monotonous voice, slightly singsong, that “dear lady, there can be no doubt about it, we have seen each other before and you are my own wife…Elizabeth, I have found you again!”

The play ends with the characters screaming out rhymes, sequences of letters, and one-syllable utterances, shrieking together as the light is extinguished.

But it has not yet ended. The stage lights come on again to show Mr. and Mrs. Martin, now seated as were the Smiths in the beginning. Thus the play begins again, with the Martins speaking the same lines as in the debut. The curtain falls.

I wasn’t expecting my French homework to send shivers down my spine. But this innocuous little play somewhere in the middle of my battered three-hundred page textbook did just that. I was early to class the next day to find out more. img_7390

Funny, creepy, and like nothing I have read before or since, I would certainly recommend it. Click here for the English text and here for French.

When you think about how much can go wrong, the delicate balance of semantics and pragmatics, it’s a wonder that we can even understand each other at all. La Cantatrice chauve takes this idea to an extreme, language’s every possible ambiguity exploited. The results are far from pretty.

Little did I know that I would be installing myself, post-grad, in the Smith’s living room. In France, effortless communication was a thing of the past, replaced by accidental non-sequiturs, wild hand gestures, and desperate expressions. It was only a matter of time, I felt, before I would resort to full-on absurdism, to screaming incoherently into the night.

It is difficult to exemplify the linguistic chaos that I have experienced, for I have tried to erase many of these gaffes from memory. I do have a few recent examples. You need only to imagine the complications that could result from mistaking cheville and chevreuil. These words, which sound fairly similar, mean “ankle” and “venison,” respectively.

Last week I asked for ankle pâté.

My first week in Cannes, thanks to a one-syllable mistake, I asked a woman in a boulangerie if she knew of a nearby store where I could go run a race.

It is moments like these when the absurd is felt fully. I look respectable, I speak confidently and fluently…and I produce a sentence so unintentionally strange that I have learned to recognize a distinctive expression on the faces of strangers. It is marked by a slight widening of the eyes, a furrow between the brows. There is perhaps a reevaluation of my mental state. Those few uncomfortable seconds are an eternity: the time it takes to cross the gulf between language and communication. My heartbeat seems to emanate from my eardrums.

These moments were once agonizing for me. I used to walk around thinking that everyone knew I was une étrangère: my non-native awkwardness surely as visceral as a bright bullseye painted on my back.

It’s not fun to be forced into a starring role in an absurdist play.

Until it is. I took a cue from the Absurdists and I learned to laugh. At myself, at ridiculous situations, at what we call communication.

In hindsight, I see that my seriousness and self-consciousness came from simple fear. There is, after all, something scary and absurd about starting over as an adult, struggling to communicate basic wants and needs. The disparity between my thoughts and the language I was able to produce frustrated me to no end.

Time, experience, and improved language skills eased the fear. But even more significant was learning to lighten up. It’s something I still work on, a skill like any other. But largely, I see my “failures” as funny. It’s not so life-or-death: and why, I wonder now, did I ever think that? There are no French grammar police hiding behind a tree waiting to fine me for incorrectly conjugating the subjunctive. img_7422

Sometimes, even now, a notable language mistake or inability to communicate will make me feel like a child. But maybe that’s not so bad. Babies have a big, beautiful world in front of them, full of unknowns, ripe for the exploring. So do we, the language learners, the close observers, the passionately curious; those of us who choose to implant ourselves into a mysterious new culture and start over: just for the thrill of it. Let’s embrace the absurdity of communication. We need not run screaming into the night.



To read more about my wrestling with France, try French People Tell Me What to Do: “In my French life, there is almost always a slight sense of bouleversement–disruption–the feeling that I don’t quite know what’s going on at any given time. All the yawning aspects of daily life have been shifted, a bit like that prank where you move every piece of someone’s furniture five inches to the right. I am the one pranked: I don’t notice when I walk into the room, but am surely going to stub my toe.”