Sunday 17 December 2017

Liberté, maternité: Julia Molony's tale of love, heartbreak and new beginnings in rural France

When Julia Molony first met the Gallic charmer who is now her boyfriend, he didn't immediately strike her as the father of her future child. And yet, six years later, she's spending the summer with him and their six-month-old son Roman in the south of France. But it hasn't all been stunning sunsets and chilled rosé. There was huge disappointment, paralysing fear and a white-knuckle pregnancy to get through before she found her joie de vivre. Photography by Boris Conte

Julia Molony. Photo: Boris Conte
Julia Molony. Photo: Boris Conte

There is a town in the south of France where everyone is busy making babies.

There's not a lot else to do here - apart from living out a bucolic cliche of picnics among the wildflowers, or drinking wine in pavement cafes. Both of which are internationally recognised preludes to baby-making, anyway.

The narrow cobbled streets seem to heave with gestating women. It is a place where, among the old stone, there are signs of new life everywhere. In the local hospital, the patients are either very ancient, or very pregnant. Perhaps that's partly why the pace moves so very slowly around here.

The hospital corridors are library-quiet, with the stark exception of the maternity wards, which are packed. Women in pyjamas and slippers pass each other in the halls, clutching their lower backs and groaning.

In January of this year, my boyfriend B and I joined the labouring hordes. Until quite recently, I don't think I could have predicted that I would find myself giving birth to a tiny French man in a medieval city. Nor that in the process of doing so, I would scream blue murder at foreign midwives, using a language in which I'm still far from fluent, in a hospital far from home.

I had hoped, however, that there would be a baby in my future. I'd known for some time that I was keen. I once told a boyfriend, during a row, that I felt sure my ovaries were screaming at me. I was only about 28 at the time.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that relationship didn't work out. But a few years on, I was in a jazz club in south London when a smiley Gallic charmer walked in. He had an accent as thick as Camembert and a twinkle in his eye - one that later became our now-six-month-old son, Roman.

B didn't immediately strike me as the father of my future child. But I liked him, so I agreed to a second date. He took me to a tapas bar in east London, told me his life story and announced, with a pantomime flourish, that he wanted to have twelve babies. "Would you like to 'elp me?" he asked, in the kind of cheesy flirtatious tone only the French can pull off.

Thankfully, the suggestion of twelve babies was just a line. But he was open to the idea of one or two. And so, after we'd been together for about three years, had drunk many bottles of wine at a variety of French seaside resorts and mountain chalets, my ovaries started piping up again.

Approaching my mid-30s, I figured making a baby would take some time. I am a committed panicker by nature, so I had, in fact, been getting steadily more and more convinced that I'd already left it too late. But we'd barely started trying when I found myself in a French pharmacy asking for a "teste du grossesse". To my astonishment and delight, it was positive. Though I had to check and double check that, given my poor grasp of the language, I hadn't misunderstood the instructions.

At almost the same moment I registered delight and excitement, the worries started to take hold. I fretted about everything - thoughts of the soft cheese and rare meat I'd eaten just before I'd taken the test sent me into paroxysms of regret. Even things that should have been considered a lucky escape, such as my lack of morning sickness, seemed like ominous signs.

I obsessively researched miscarriage statistics and risk factors and tried to prepare myself for the worst. But at eight weeks, now back at home in London, B and I went for an early scan which showed a single embryo with a good, strong heartbeat. I was temporarily elated and relieved. Until that point, the pregnancy had seemed abstract, unreal. Now I had proof that there really was a baby in there. I started counting the days until I was safely into the second trimester.

But the night before the twelve-week ultrasound, there was a spot of blood. The next day, heart racing, I held my breath as a sonographer squirted gel on my stomach, and turned to look at her monitor. The silence was leaden as she searched for signs of life on the screen. "I'm so sorry," she began, and I knew what was coming next. I sobbed as a kind doctor handed me a consent form for the D&C operation that was to follow, under general anaesthetic, smudging the ink as I signed.

Part of me desperately wanted to be pregnant again straight away, but a full year passed before I felt ready to start trying. If my confidence in my body's ability to grow and give birth to a baby had been scant before the miscarriage, now it was shattered. In the meantime, I read books by and about women who, by choice or by default, had not become mothers and had pursued other paths instead. I did my best to make peace with the idea.

By the time I was ready to think about giving it another go, B had relocated to his native country and he and I were conducting a cross-channel relationship. I had become a frequent flyer on the low-cost shuttle between London and Toulouse airport, where he'd pick me up in his battered Renault Scenic and we'd fly down the autoroute, past golden fields of sunflowers.

He had set up camp in his family's home town - a beautiful, miniature, red-bricked episcopal city, nestled along the banks of a picturesque river. France is rammed full of historic towns, but this one, little-known to foreign travellers, is not just chocolate-box pretty, but also a Unesco world heritage site. And given the number of rounded bellies around the place, it is also, evidently, a good place to breed.

In London, the outside space in our rented home was a small, dark patch of gravel where nothing grew but weeds. Here, for quite a bit less than half the price, B had a three-bedroom (although run-down) house, with a garden full of fruit trees. He took up horticulture in his spare time, and planted a forest of tomato plants. The soil, it turned out, was rich, and the plants thrived. At dusk, the light in this corner of south-west France turns a special kind of orange-pink. In the early evenings, we'd sit out among the tomato plants, wine glasses in hand. Though I barely dared to hope, it did seem obvious that a baby would fit perfectly into this picture.

And so it was during a stay on his turf that I made the trip back to the same pharmacy again and bought another pregnancy test, which confirmed my suspicions for a second time. This time, back in London, I turned down my GP's offer of an early "viability" scan, on the principle that it had made no difference to the outcome before. Instead, I spent most of my first trimester affecting denial, trying to pretend to myself that I wasn't pregnant at all.

The idea of initiating the antenatal process filled me with dread. I had decided to do it in France, this time, so that B and I could attend appointments together. The date of the 12-week ultrasound fell, by bizarre coincidence, exactly a year to the day of the one in London that had confirmed the end of my first pregnancy. It seemed like a terribly inauspicious anniversary. The uncanny sorcery of conception and pregnancy can bring out almost anyone's superstitious side, and I was in quite a state in the days leading up to the scan.

When the day arrived, I had a tantrum and insisted I wasn't going to go. My boyfriend called the hospital, explained my dilemma and asked them to rearrange for a different date. The male midwife who would be performing the scan scoffed at my lack of nerve, and insisted we come in.

I couldn't understand everything the midwife said as he steered me firmly into his darkened office and onto the examination chair, but the sound of the galloping heartbeat that filled the room as soon as the probe touched my abdomen needed no translation.

Nevertheless, I'd lost my innocence the year before, and the reassurance didn't last long. I'd already watched a tiny heartbeat flicker on a screen and then go out, and had little faith that it wouldn't happen again. Most of my pregnancy passed in a haze of anxiety. I felt sick before each appointment, terrified every time that the midwife's Doppler machine would register only static and silence. I was well aware that, according to the statistics, I should have felt more confidence with each passing week, but instead I felt only that the stakes were rising precipitously higher and higher as time passed. I couldn't allow myself to feel celebratory. The idea of buying things for the baby or considering a baby shower seemed like unthinkable hubris. I could barely bring myself to tell people I was pregnant, and many of my good friends didn't know until I was well into the third trimester.

Early on, I had imagined that once I started to feel the baby move, I'd be able to relax a bit, but instead the opposite was true. I monitored and counted movements obsessively, and felt frantic each time the baby was quiet, mentally preparing for a dash to the hospital.

One midwife, in an attempt to reassure me, told me I should only start to be concerned if I felt no movement at all for two hours. This was easy to check during waking hours, but going to sleep each night felt like a perilous dereliction of duty. In fact, a state of high alert had penetrated my subconscious, so that every two hours on the dot I'd wake with a jolt, my heart racing until I could feel baby wriggling again.

A series of uncomprehending French medical professionals couldn't understand why I was struggling so much to relax. Pregnancy, they assured me over and over, is not an illness but "une belle adventure".

But to me it seemed a treacherous journey, fraught with risk. I doubted my capacity to get us through safely. Floating in amniotic fluid, I imagined that my baby was scuba diving unsupervised, and that the slightest technical hitch could cut off his oxygen supply.

As well as worrying about whether he and I would make it through alive, I worried about the effect all the adrenaline and stress would have on him if we did. To try and atone, I took myself off to the swimming pool as often as I could, flinging myself up and down the lanes until exhaustion finally neutralised the fear.

I was coming up to 41 weeks when my waters broke. Labour passed in a terrifying, excruciating blur in which the foreignness of my surroundings only served to compound my feelings of being utterly out of control. Physically, however, everything went fine. The only impediments to a good birth experience, it turned out, were in my head. But that didn't matter in the end, because my baby and I had both survived. I was a shattered wreck with a face full of broken veins from pushing, and an undercarriage full of stitches. But he was beautiful.

In France, women are encouraged to spend a minimum of four days in hospital after giving birth, and public maternity wards are kitted out with luxurious-seeming private rooms with en suite bathrooms. A team of nurses and midwives are on hand at all times to help baby and mother get to grips with breastfeeding and changing nappies. They even guide bewildered new parents through the process of baby's first bath. After the white-knuckle ride I'd just been on, this kind of gentle, attentive stewardship during those overwhelming first few days felt like the perfect reprieve.

Roman was a winter baby. But he will spend his first summer in the south of France, in the town where he was born. Saturday morning is market day here, and as we walk him around the town, the old ladies stop to coo and he replies with his biggest smile. Now that he is starting to taste his first solid foods, we feed him morsels of organic fruit and vegetables from his father's kitchen garden. It feels a world away from our formerly hectic London lives here, but that's OK. It isn't always easy, especially for a foreigner like me, struggling to understand and be understood. But the way of life is certainly gentler. And, right now, a bit of tranquillity seems exactly like what we all need.

Despite my best efforts, I'll probably always be a worrier. Now that I'm a parent, I'm sure I will always have anxieties about my little boy. But here among the vineyards and the fields of sunflowers, I hope he will see for himself that life can be just fine.

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