“Childhood is the sleep of reason.”
I am SO NOT one of those people who can wait until the precious and precarious first three months pass to tell people I am having a baby. After making my life-changing and monumental decision, I call my copine Zola here in Paris, call back my sister Lily, and call my BFF (friends since we were twelve) in Los Angeles, Kathy. There’s lots of howling with joy interspersed with plenty of serious candor. My euphoria has even affected my beloved cat, Verdi, who is ricocheting off the walls and virtually up to the seventeenth-century poutres (“exposed beams”) with shared enthusiasm, which I find endearingly empathetic.
With so much to think about, plan, and ponder, I can’t even stay in my apartment. Too much energy coursing through me to be contained in these four walls. I race over to Zola’s flat—amazingly, one street away—since I feel like I’m going to explode with pure joy if I don’t have an outlet to revel in this, the most marvelous of events. (Mental block on baby’s father exit? Oh yes. Coping tools working at precision efficiency, thanks.)
My chère amie Zola is just, hands down, the most loyal friend and while we are opposites in a lot of ways, we get on like a house on fire. She’s funny, smart, and, while sometimes she could be accused of dressing a bit like a secretary, she’s an amazing partner in crime. Read: she will meet me for drinks at Café de Flore after work on a Wednesday night and bounce around St. Germain until we end the night having danced until 3 A.M. Some could even say we are each other’s surrogate family or even act like a couple, since we buy each other heaps of birthday and Christmas gifts, celebrate New Year’s Eve by making an elegant dinner chez elle and going out après. Every Saturday we window shop, lunch en plein air, and run errands like an old couple.
She is so in as godmother for my baby, since she will be wonderfully doting and a great counterbalance to my influences. And on a silly note, I love her name (I think people often evolve into the name they are given, and that’s why I’m choosing my baby’s name with the greatest care). Zola was named by her parents for the writer, Émile Zola. How elegant is that? Yet, I am eternally grateful that my mother didn’t name me after her favorite writer, Dostoevsky. Without doubt, I would’ve been doomed to a life of bad teeth and chin hair.
Zola is a petite, red-haired, porcelain-skinned beauty if ever there was one; part Debra Messing and part Vargas calendar girl. Interesting footnote—for some totally absurd reason there is a French myth that women with red hair smell particularly bad. And in the always twisted way that the Gallic put their spin on an idea, the not-so-appealing smell is supposedly from redheads’ nether regions, or, as they say in slang, from en bas (“downstairs”). What a crazy crock, huh? And even sillier, this odd belief still permeates the minds of some of the less educated souls of France. I know this because of many a story from Zola, where she regales me with tales of ex-boyfriends being pleasantly surprised that she is as fresh and fragrant as an orchid.
Alas, after door codes galore and passing by the concierge, who always glares at me like she’s been reading my diary or something, I burst through the door of Zola’s tiny jewel box of an apartment and we grab arms and dance in circles, chanting, “No way!! No way! A baby!” I’m seriously relieved she is being so supportive and open-minded about all this, since she is more than a bit conservative and a smidge religious—when she wants to be. I am beginning to accept that this whole “baby solo” idea is really out there for some people.
We sit down on her canopied bed, the only place for two people to sit together in the three-hundred-square-foot studio apartment.
“Wine? Champagne? Maybe just a sip?” she asks, since we are the most faithful drinking compatriots and always start off every rendezvous with a glass in hand.
“No thanks, I am drunk on bliss and I am not going to risk anything with this baby. I’m going to stop my daily runs, I’m even going to stop riding on scooters … Oh god, I’m going to be a mom … Do you believe it? Strangely, I’m not even nervous, I’m just so excited to be pregnant. Do you think Blake will come around? Truthfully, he speaks so glowingly about his kids, it’s just endearing beyond words,” I say, falling back into the masses of silk pillows and shams.
“You know, it’s impossible to say, but I’ve seen you two together; you are an amazing couple and he clearly loved you. But you can’t bet on it or hope for it, since it would be agony if it wasn’t to happen. You sure you want to do this, Kiki? It’s going to be really hard sometimes … more than we can imagine, probably. You know you won’t really have a framework of help in family close at hand. I will always be there for you, but I know you, you like your freedom, and your whole life will change. What will your father say?” she asks, pouring herself a second glass of the pretty decent Aligoté from the Nicolas wine shop on rue du Bac (4.20 euros a bottle, pas mal).
“I know … I know. I am ready to do this solo if need be. I’ve wanted to be a mother since I was twenty-two, and I am so bored with all the self-focus. With only having my own little life to think of. God knows, you’d agree, I’ve been killing relationships left and right for years by trying to push silly Frenchmen too quickly to the let’s-move-in-marry-and-have-a-baby stage, when all they want is to have an affair with an American girl for the unique experience of it. Let’s face it, when you’re careening toward forty, you know who you are, what you are capable of, your strengths, weaknesses, and what you really hold dear and precious. Hell, I truly believe this happened now because it was meant to be. And let’s face it, I am not going to let the sea of waffly Frenchmen ruin my shot at motherhood. Frankly, most of the men I’ve dated here are too immature emotionally to become great fathers and husbands. Not a one of them I have known since I moved here eight years ago has ever gone on to a monogamous relationship, let alone marriage.” We nod, after briefly running through mental files and realizing this is true for us both. Bizarre.
I continue with my defensive diatribe. “And eventually when I do get to date again, having a child by myself will weed out those flakes and only leave men with integrity and decency. Right or non?” I say, with assuredness. That way of rationalizing every detail to my point of view is a big part of me, I fully admit.
Zola smiles slightly but her eyes quickly dart out the window, revealing a tinge of doubt at that last point. True enough, but I let it go. I’m swimming in blissful la-la land and nobody is going to squelch the joy of motherhood for me! I am not some wishy-washy twenty-something trying to find myself or thinking a child is a great accessory. I am probably more passionate about wanting a child than anyone I have known, and I am ready for the judgments and even the scorn that I may encounter. Bottom line, if I listened to everyone else’s opinion my whole life, I would never have the life I do have. I’d be back in Wisconsin, working in, hmm, retail? Or as a bank teller? Oh god, horrors.
Zola and I wrap up the night taking another pee test (positive again, hip hip hurrah!) and making a list of what to do next. Blood test for true confirmation and go see her OB-GYN; as a self-employed artist, I am not—and this isn’t very clever of me—in the French health-care system, so I only see doctors in the US when I go back for annual visits. This means that my pregnancy and the birth will all be out of pocket for me, but get this? It’s still about half to a third as expensive as having a child in the US—even when you’re laying out the cash as a foreigner. And I am dead set on an American hospital as the birth place since no way am I going to have my baby in one of the dozens of hospitals in Paris that don’t even have air-conditioning—not to mention that I need to know 100% of what the hell the doctors are saying. Dilated to six centimeters and in the final hours of giving birth is not a time to be asking for a translator. Once I fainted while running, and the ambulance doctor kept saying, “Bouge pas!” (“Don’t move!”) as I wrestled to sit up while he was taking my blood pressure. Alone and terrified, I thought he was saying “bougie pas,” which translates, sort of, to “no candles.” Point made.
With energy to burn, Zola and I dashed out to an invite-only cocktail party at the Armani boutique on the coin (“corner”) of boulevard St. Germain and boulevard Raspail. Never a bad idea to celebrate something momentous in a divine setting and surrounded by glamour and beauty. Honestly, I would’ve been just as tickled to loiter around a Greyhound bus station in Detroit for all my happiness, but you work with what ya got, right? Of course, I found it not at all difficult to pass on the champagne and still have a great time. Nevertheless, it should be noted, this is landmark HUGE for me, très shocking, since I think of champagne as one of my four food groups, the others far less glam, one being baguettes, another, tuna.
The tiny baby inside me had already taken hold and was spreading the joy. That night, I was, dare I say (and I can, because it is so bloody rare)—I was unstoppable! Met a flurry of new interesting women friends, a bevy of handsome successful men. A few of us zipped off in a friend’s Maserati to a dinner for twelve at Société, and I was … well, what we all want to be at a party—our best selves ever, fun, clever, and fabulously happy. To crown the evening, the king of the Parisian social world, Daniel Marie Rouyer, saw me leaving after we finished dinner, stood up, blew me a kiss, and said, “Bonsoir, Kiki, the Queen of St. Germain!” This fleeting annointment (and maybe he says it to every girl) was like a kiss good-bye to the brow of the girl I wanted to be when I moved here, became if only for a blink, and now was very quietly leaving to become a mother. Indeed, it was my quintessential last grand soiree: a final hurrah and, paradoxically, the first magical evening of what I consider my new life.
My new life avec bébé was cooking along beautifully, if you don’t linger too long on the fact there are generally two people sharing the extraordinary joys of pending parenthood. (Though, thankfully Blake has stepped up and done a great many things for this baby’s future.) And I say that not carelessly, since I won’t dwell on it again, but Blake’s absence was heartbreaking and not just for the innocent child we created but also for me—I loved him terribly and mourned losing him with great seriousness. But I am a woman who picks up and carries on. I have had my heart broken before, and I survived, and now I need to be everything stable, healthy, and good for this baby.
Zola was my rock through this tenuous period. Ever at the ready with an ear, a hug, and support as the weeks passed. She was a freaking saint to offer not just to accompany me to my first OB-GYN appointment in three weeks but also to be with me during the birth. That is a true and rare friend. To have a child alone is one thing, but to imagine giving birth alone with no one to share that experience? Oh god, that would feel really heartbreaking. As this pregnancy pushes forward, I’m starting to really see that unquestionably sad moments will occur. I just want to sidestep as many as is feasible and make this unique adventure as joyful as possible. As the pregnancy books say, the fetus can be influenced by your hormonal mood swings as well as the happiness-inducing cortisones your body releases.
Mental note—in short, don’t cry or stress. This proves excruciatingly hard at the five-week mark, when my adored cat of fifteen years, Verdi, falls ill with a stomach tumor and dies. Fuckity, fuck, fuck. I’m shaken to my core since suddenly I’m really, really alone in my tiny world. No man, no family, no faithful cat that I adore. Her presence in my life was incredibly like a ballast, and here I had to kiss her good-bye as she struggled for her last breath? Torture. I battled for the baby inside menot to sob and wail with the crushing sadness. Verdi was so magnificent, she deserved to be mourned with a full emotional tribute, and yet I couldn’t allow myself to go there. I stifled my grief as best I could. I could hardly breathe that day she died as I operated in a trance, tossing out her toys, litter box, and blankets. The apartment felt empty without her, and I didn’t even want to leave it, to avoid experiencing at my return the absence of her delightful meow that had always greeted my every arrival. I will always feel that this cat, who knew me better than most people, took her quick and quiet departure sensing that I was going to have a baby and that she and I were closing the chapter of life as the best of buddies.
After that bleak week, I had a trip to the French OB-GYN, who confirmed by sonogram that there was a baby in our midst. Hurrah all over again!!
Only in France do you sit in the waiting room and read a selection of magazines like Paris Match, Uomo Vogue, and Galawhile sipping espresso, before being told by the female doctor, “Indeed, you are enceinte. I advise you to feel free to drink a bit of wine each day to relax, and if you smoke, cut down to four cigarettes a day. You need not worry about soft cheese or sushi but mon dieu, don’t gain more than twelve kilos during the pregnancy!” (That’s a skimpy twenty-six pounds.) She followed up by showing me exhibit A; a photo of her own darling child and saying with that Gallic pride that is generally-to-always tiresome, “I myself, gained only six kilos and was in my favorite Chanel skirt the day after giving birth.” I must add she looked at my already burgeoning belly with a raised eyebrow, as if to say, “Oh, you Americans really let yourselves go when you get pregnant.” Ei yi yi.
Staggered and stunned by this whole experience, I vowed to stick with American doctors from that day forward, since this is not a time to feign embracing the French way; I can adhere to all the French rules here, like “a woman never pours herself wine at a party or a dinner out” and the rigid, “arrive no sooner than twenty minutes late for a dinner as a courtesy to the host,” but I think I will stick with some of the good ole USA’s pregnancy advisements, merci.
Humorous detail I shan’t soon forget: on the way to the doctor’s office, I was hotly pursued by a fairly attractive businessman, who essentially chased me down to the very door of the doctor’s office and said, “I really like your skirt.” (Italian eyelet in virginal white, thanks. Color chosen intentionally to counteract new awareness that single motherhood may be odd or racy to my new doctor). “May I have your cell number?”
As ever, I always ask that a man gives me his number so as to not be put in the position of waiting for a call or giving out my number. (Control issues much? Oh yes!) Anyway, this was more to ditch him politely, but love this reply of his, without missing a beat, “I am afraid that would be a bad idea as I am married, so I would rather take yours to avoid complications.”
Only in France! Complications? It was almost like a sign that going it alone into pregnancy with the crop of absurd men out there was a mighty fine idea after all! But truthfully, despite the exhilarating news that I was absolutely preggers, I was starting to reel emotionally from all the stress of losing Verdi and the lonely path that lay ahead. So when Zola suggested we take a short holiday together to have fun, get away, and tourner la page, as they say, I was game. Entirely.
“Kiki, we could go to St. Trop, I know all the right people to go to Rex … blah blah,” she puts out there, as for unknown reasons she loves St. Tropez madly. Sitting by the pool at Nikki Beach or Club 55 in Chanel head-to-toe is her complete bliss. I am the dead opposite in every respect. I prefer a week on the tiny island of Île d’Yeu, off the coast of Nantes, watching, in rain slickers, as the first fishermen set off in their tuna boats on cold wet mornings. Voraciously reading books, devouring the local fig tarts, and scooting around on bikes in the classic French striped tees that are worn like uniforms on the island. Despite loving glam events I believe vacations should be just that; the antithesis of regular life.
“Ah, that would be a big fat no, as one, I am a big fat cow now that I stopped running and am eating like a wildebeest and two, you know I loathe places like that. Never have been and never want to go to St. Tropez. I’m sure it was amazing in the fifties, but it’s really nouveau riche now, non?” I reply, trying to just murder off that discussion, as I unexpectedly catch a glimpse of my new chubby face in the mirror over her fireplace. Jawline? Gone. That was frigging fast. Just how fat will I get? I always thought I could keep it together and be fit and chic when I got pregnant, and I was dead wrong. I’m already falling apart physically. Lovely.
“Well then, where? Maybe London again? We always have a rage in London,” she counters.
“Oh dear, no London. I would surely try to show up at Blake’s doorstep, which is ridiculous. No, I’m in no shape—literally—or mood for a ‘rage.’ Doll, why don’t we just go to a château in the country somewhere? Or a spa? Isn’t there a chic Givenchy spa in Versailles?” I ask, clearly assuming the air of my once far wealthier self as I struggle with grasping my new identity.
“Cool idea. Okay. As you like, I’m in. But maybe Hubert can come by for a night or two?” she says, referring to her aristo-rat boyfriend.
I nod. But I hope she can take a break from him for more than a day or two. I know she is afraid he will go to some club and replace her in an instant—since that’s exactly how they met. That fear always goes hand in hand with the relationship when you’ve met your amour in a club at 1:00 A.M.
We plop down on the floor and go online to book a reservation. Not so fast, since it’s like 320 euros a night and that’s all I could possibly spare for an entire holiday. After more searching, we blow off the beautiful beach towns in Brittany and Normandy, like Deauville and La Baule, which are almost all fully booked, scary pricey, and long train rides. We settle on a charming castle, Château Hotel Mont Royal, just thirty-five minutes from Paris in Chantilly. Parfait! At just 90 euros a night, with a posh buffet each morning, the price is a total steal in August. (Reason being all of France flocks to the beaches and it’s just a nineteenth-century castle, not seventeenth-century, for example, so it’s considered not exactly high end—so many castles, so little time.)
That settled, I find I’m positively elated to take a break from my apartment, where I miss Verdi madly and where worries plague me for the future. Au revoir reality.
The château does not disappoint; set on a high hill overlooking a lush forest below, it’s sublime to just, well, eat ghastly decadent breakfasts, swim in the pool, hang poolside … and luxuriate in some peace. It’s divine to just dial down the constant need to be self-aware, and, indeed, I end up wearing the same cotton sundress for days, soaking in the ability to justbe, to not be seen or on display, as one feels compelled to in St. Germain.
Like a bit of a kook, Zola can’t bear it, and with a suitcase of strapless dresses, a toilet bag full of makeup, and wildly eager to go show Hubert her new slimmer body care of a rigid protein-only diet, she flees back to Paris after a day. I stay on alone. This is fine. Solo is my new world, and this is a great time to embrace it. Not to mention, as we had traveled to the château by train and taxi, we had no means of leaving the grounds, so I was finding it none too thrilling to be trapped in a castle with a girlfriend whose whole agenda was refusing great food in lieu of boiled eggs and sending texts to her boyfriend. (Insert catty hiss.)
These last few weeks, despite her help and friendship, it’s quickly becoming apparent to me that Zola and I are going in different directions in life and there is no denying that this pregnancy, this baby is going to be a personal journey and I won’t be the same person in even five months’ time. Already, there is this palpable shift in my ability to deal with the superficial—and that entails watching Zola starve herself and play all the necessary games to simply intrigue a French boyfriend. Now it irks me. All the catering to men and the back-and-forth manipulation that is so integral to relationships in France seems so absurd once you step away from it for a reprieve. Amazingly, now pregnant, away from Paris, and alone, I can extract myself from the mentality that one has to adopt on every level to live as an expat in Paris, and it’s an eye opener. The fog has cleared, it is refreshing as hell.
In my days at the château, I find immeasurable solace in walking through the woods, listening to the varied calls of the birds, noticing the different songs that wake you at dawn versus the soothing symphony of the whippoorwills in the evening. I watch the rain-filled storm clouds gather at sunset, and, with my hand on my small belly, I smile at the wind that whips my hair into loose tangles. Mornings are spent picking wildflowers to put by my bedside and afternoons are whiled away with book in hand. The fresh air is like an elixir and the smell of blooming lilacs and lavender quiet all the worries and sadness that were so in step with my daily life in the city. It’s good to be alone, hear the quiet voices in me that are drowned out by the drama of Paris.
Living in a big city, it’s easy to forget that time spent solitary in the midst of nature’s offerings is truly enchanting, moments that are completely free, private, and revitalizing to your spirit. I needed this break more than I knew, as instantly this reconnection with the exquisite beauty of the wilderness brings me back to my own childhood in Wisconsin. Recollections of myself as a wily ten-year-old tomboy climbing cliffs, discovering mossy caves, and building tree forts in the forest of our summer home flood my thoughts. They were the times that gave me the elements of self that are my true core. I am not the equivalent of my closet’s contents nor even the image I present. I am still that tomboy kid who just thought it might be great to see what being a glam diva in Paris might feel like. And I guess, unlike some people, I just went for it and, by sheer luck, it came to be my reality. But now, as I embark on being a maman, I wonder if I want to keep being this hipster chic person or if I could, even if I wanted to? Paris was a dream the way I had lived it, but my images of motherhood aren’t as connected to living in Paris. It’s more about being a parent who can offer walks through the woods than dragging my child to Café de Flore while I try to keep up a social life. Being here, getting dirt under my nails and thistles on my pant cuffs, reminds me how terribly precious and vital playing in nature is to a child’s soul—building curiosity, independence, and imagination.
In this day and age, of a global need for preservation and awareness of our environment, do I really want to raise my child in a busy city in the midst of car exhaust and car alarms? And in a small apartment? Are the advantages of life in Paris more valuable than those of the midwestern countryside? I really don’t know. And since I am the only one who has to make all these monumental decisions, I start to feel the extreme weight of responsibility. Scary as hell. I welcome accountability, but it is daunting after so many years alone and becoming a parent alone.
Watching a dandelion teeter under the weight of a lusciously fat bumble bee, suddenly, I hear a new voice of calming intuition pipe up, “You have to take it slow, let things unfold, and listen to your heart. As long as there is a healthy child who is lavished with love, the pieces will fall into place … souffle.” (BTW, that doesn’t mean “go make a soufflé”; it actually translates to “exhale,”… seems my intuition is fairly fluent, cool.) Exactly what my mother would say, holding my hand and with a gentle caress of my furrowed brow. What I would give to speak with her about all of this.
Amid all these heady thoughts, I feel a tinge of morning sickness cresting. What the F?
I am—or this baby is—craving, of all things, circus peanuts. Yeah, the barfo neon orange candy of pure puffy sugar that not so shockingly isn’t on the room service menu. Proving you can take the girl out of the Midwest but you can’t take the lowbrow palate out of the … good god. This kid in my belly is already making me laugh out loud.
Copyright © 2011 by Kirsten Lobe