Being pregnant

The perils of giving birth overseas

As a Canadian who is giving birth in Paris while being a permanent resident of Abidjan, Cara considers what all of this paperwork ultimately means for her baby.

My growing heap of documentation includes two passports, permanent residency card for Cote d’Ivoire & international certificate.

We have migrated across borders and barriers; our passports have been pleated, perused and stamped. And the migrations have continued inland, between cities and apartments, hospitals and halls of officialdom.

Of course, these migrations are voluntary: Giving birth in Paris allows me to prepare for the baby’s arrival with both my family and my partner’s close by.

But being rendered temporarily “homeless” can be unsettling even when I’m with family: I sit surrounded by other people’s objects, mired in the trappings of my own rootless life.

And the freedom that accompanies this restless existence is part myth: When you live under someone else’s roof, another set of rules presides, overriding your natural appetites and schedules.

My body is also grappling with its physical limitations. I’ve been nursing a cold for two weeks. In the last month, there has been waning mobility and mounting lethargy. And the internal quarrel between the baby and my organs — bladder, stomach — is ongoing.

But I’m grateful to have people in my life who love me enough to put their own hectic lives on hold while I work through my to-do lists. I just have very little patience with all the paperwork: Being a Canadian who is giving birth in Paris, but resides in Abidjan is a bureaucratic nightmare.

My first visit to the hospital yielded a whirlwind of paperwork. And now there is a rainbow of forms to complete — hospital admissions, insurance and other documents I never even knew existed.

And it’s only just begun.

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Paris is a city that renders every romantic cliché true without trying; it’s a place where whimsy and circumstance intersect with exquisite regularity. But it’s also a city that’s shackled to what writer Adam Gopnik calls its “official culture”; behind the century-old façades beats — and creaks — the cranky heart of bureaucracy.

As a former Paris resident, Gopnik understands the Parisian mindset toward any questions that veer from the norm; its citizens don’t sway from the script, rather all explanations come in a predictable sequence”. First, they tell you that the person you require is not available; secondly, that policy dictates that there may not be a prompt solution (if any); and finally, with a shrug of their shoulders, that this is the way things are. In other words, c’est la vie.

Nowhere was this attitude more evident than in my recent phone call to the Centre for Tropical Diseases.

“Bonjour, I would like to make an appointment to discuss my baby’s vaccinations,” I said. “I’m giving birth in Paris in mid-February, but we live in Côte d’Ivoire. I wanted to collect some information before the delivery.”

“Madame.” There was a slight hitch in her voice. “You cannot see the paediatrician without the baby. Call us after you have the baby.”

“Would I be able to ask the paediatrician a few questions?”

“No, she is not available. And without a baby, Madame, you cannot book an appointment. It is our policy.”

“Would you be able to refer me to someone else at the centre?”

“But you have no baby, Madame, so I cannot book an appointment.” The tone had shifted from courteous to slightly surly.

“Yes, I understand, but perhaps I can speak to another doctor at the centre?”

“No, Madame, I cannot help you. The paediatrician is the right person to help you, but – only – after – you – have – the – baby.” She uttered the last sentence in a clipped, abrupt manner.

In this case, language wasn’t the issue, but rather a stubborn adherence to protocol.

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Filling out paperwork is a necessary evil wherever you live, but here, the traditions can confound as much as the language. I have to give up my autonomy and I rely on other people to help me navigate the perils of Parisian bureaucracy.

But it will be worth it in the end: Our baby will be born here and will eventually have Canadian citizenship — this duality opens up a world of possibility. I want so much for our child to feel at home in two languages and multiple homelands, unlike its timid mother.

But it occurs to me that achieving this kind of overseas fluency has to begin with me.

So perhaps I can ascribe a higher purpose to all this paperwork: If online documentation is a digital love letter to our baby then this documentation is the paper trail that captures the baby’s identity. By transcribing our itinerant existence, the baby not only gains a sense of its roots, but also permission to imagine a life that transcends boundaries.