- Maternity care in France, like most of the health service, is excellent. When you give birth you will have access to excellent doctors, stay in a comfortable private room for at least 4 days, and even the hospital food is will be delicious.
- Childbirth in France is over-medicalised. Your baby will probably be whipped out of you by C-section before being whisked away from you to spend the night in a nursery being bottle fed before you can weakly cry "Breast is Best!" from your sickbed.
Out there on the big scary internet, giving birth in France is often presented from one or other of these points of view. Based on my own feelings on the subject, eight years of living here and perhaps a pinch of optimism, I was more inclined to believe the first version, but aspects of the second did play on my mind a bit. I didn't have very specific ideas about what I wanted the birth to be like (and was glad I didn't have to spend any ante-natal classes "visualising my birth nest", which is apparently a thing in some circles), but I was keen to avoid unnecessary interventions, have as much contact with the baby as possible after the birth, and at least give breastfeeding a serious try.
And I was lucky, because things worked out perfectly, more or less by accident. When I discovered that I should have registered for a maternity hospital earlier than I did, I sent applications to three hospitals that my GP recommended on our side of Paris, and the only one which could offer me a place was the Maternité des Bluets in the 12th. Les Bluets is a not-for-profit private hospital where the charges are the same as those refunded by social security. It's a "hôpital ami des bébés", which is a label accorded by the WHO and UNICEF largely for the promotion of breastfeeding, and there is a focus on giving birth as naturally as possible. At the same time, it is an actual hospital, with doctors and anaesthetists on hand, an operating theatre and a connecting door to the Hôpital Trousseau, which has a Level 3 neonatal intensive care unit.
I actually went into hospital the day I gave birth with an appointment to be induced, as the baby was measuring large and there was a risk that, because I had diabetes, she would be huge, risking extra complications during the birth. To my great surprise, however, when the midwives did their exams and hooked me up to the monitoring system, it turned out that I was already in labour. I had an epidural, which I had said I wanted because induced births tend to be much more painful than natural ones, but there was a point when I almost regretted it a) because it made me feel really sick and b) because everything was going so easily without. In the end, though, it was just as well I did, as in the last hour my calm, gentle birth turned into a bit of a medical drama when the baby's heartbeat dropped and they couldn't get her out quickly enough. A doctor was called, and as I pushed desperately, with two midwives shoving on my stomach, he used every instrument in the box (which looks like a set of medieval torture instruments) to try to pull the baby out. And then she was there, and she was fine, and I was mostly fine, apart from feeling incredibly weak and almost passing out any time I tried to get upright.
Luckily, the post-natal care was as good as promised. Understanding Frenchman had a pullout bed in my room and was able to take care of the baby as I lay weakly watching him, and we had regular visits from midwives and nurses to check that everything was OK. As well as giving all the appropriate medical treatments, they recommended lovely things like having as much skin-to-skin contact to help the baby get over her scary experience of being born. One night at 2am I was really struggling to feed her and she was screaming her head off, and all I had to do was buzz for a nurse who came to show me what to do and reassure me that everything was working OK. (If that situation had arisen at home, I don't know what I would have done!)
So in the end, my experience was quite medicalised, but certainly not over-medicalised, and we got all the "natural" things that I wanted to.
Also, the hospital food was indeed very tasty.