My son Luca was about three days old when the pretty nurse left a white slip of paper on my hospital bed. "What's this?" I said, confused, sitting up from the chair where I was struggling to breastfeed. The nurse smiled seductively and lowered her voice. "C'est pour votre mari," she purred mysteriously. It's for your husband.
The prescription was for a post-birth tradition in France, a procedure known as la rééducation périnéale après accouchement (perineal retraining after childbirth). I am far too puritanical and squeamish to discuss in detail what is actually involved, but it's a ritual nearly every French mother goes through. Let's just say it's like an extended course of gymnastics for the pelvic area, which also involves electric devices being used to strengthen the birth canal muscles. "It's so you can make love again!" shouted one of my very open-minded French friends. "And to get pregnant fast again! And make lots more babies again!"
Was she joking? Sex was the last thing on my mind. I had just given birth after a rough, high-risk pregnancy. The labour itself had been relatively painless, thanks to the French system of loading a patient with drugs. But the aftermath was as if I had run a marathon barefoot. I felt wrecked.
"Will you be needing birth control?" the night nurse asked me the next morning. Was she serious? No, I said. But did she have Valium?
Apparently my response was unusual. Instead of trying to breastfeed - frowned upon in France as it ruins your breasts - I should have been concentrating on pleasing my husband. And this was one of the many realities of life as a jeune maman that I was about to learn.
When I moved to France I was much like an anthropology student. Even though my husband was French, I knew nothing of childbirth or child rearing the French way. I was in for a shock. The baby arrived two weeks after I moved to Paris and was delivered in a French public hospital in a rather unfashionable suburb. The reason we did not go to the US or British hospitals, the first choice for many expats, was because this public hospital has the best neo-natal unit in France, as well as the Dr Spock of Paris, Professor René Frydman.
It was Frydman who delivered Luca (pulling him out with a vacuum cleaner-like device) and who later explained why I should do la rééducation périnéale. He went into great detail about the benefits of the treatment, and told me that six weeks after the birth my husband and I could begin to "make love" again.
God, I was embarrassed. He had actually said "make love", not "have sex". I kept staring at my hands. I am a woman who has lived through nearly a dozen wars and had to sleep in tents for weeks on end with male soldiers. But, at heart, I am an Anglo-Saxon prude. I had just given birth with what felt like the entire staff of the Antoine Béclère hospital in residence (the room was stuffed, it seemed, with people cheering me on - at one point I thought I spotted my ambulance driver) but I did not want to discuss any matters below my waist.
Apparently la rééducation périnéale started after the first world war when all the young men were killed and the women needed to procreate fast to produce as many little Frenchmen as possible. By doing pelvic exercises it was reasoned that they would be in shape to have sex - and, in turn, more children - more quickly. I dutifully did as I was told, but it took me about a month to muster the courage to go to the kinesitherapist, or kine - similar to a physiotherapist - a plump woman from Alsace called Sophie. I started getting nervous when I heard her snap on the rubber gloves. I became more nervous when she approached me with a "sonde" which looked like a white, electric wand. Please God, no, I thought, preparing to leap off the table.
Sophie paid no attention. She wielded the sonde like a weapon and made her move. Once it was in place, she said "OK, squeeze," in French. Then she told me to close my eyes and visualise. I closed my eyes because I was mortified, and the squeezing continued for the next 15 minutes.
I talked to other young mothers, all French, about the horror of it, and they thought I was being a drama queen. What was the big deal? It was a nice period of relaxation, wasn't it? I told them I would rather have 15 minutes lying in bed reading Paris Match.
I went to 10 sessions, all paid for by the French state, and then my doctor gave me a prescription for 10 more, this time for my abdominal muscles. Yes, I was prescribed a private trainer, paid for with taxpayers' money, to help get my stomach back in trim. This is, of course, the reason all French women fit into skinny jeans a month after giving birth.
For all my shock, this experience did have its benefits. For instance, I learned French words, mainly anatomical, that I am sure I will never use again. Bladder, urethra, kidney, gall bladder, G-spot and pelvic floor. Sophie also nagged me about my diet. "La régime - ca va?" she kept asking. I explained that I was eating what I liked, with the excuse that I was breastfeeding. Sophie simply shrugged.
And the whole experience of having a baby in France made me respect French women in a way I never did before. French women give birth, drop the baby at the creche, complete a merger and acquisition, seduce their husband with a delicious blanquette de veau and fit into the same jeans they wore when they were 16, all within weeks of labour.
It took me four years to lose my pregnancy weight and five years to get the mental focus I had pre-pregnancy. As for the blanquette de veau - my husband lived on lasagne from the Italian traiteur for six months.
French women get pregnant rapidly again, and again (the more kids you have in France, the more money you receive from the state. You get money for everything from nappies to childcare). They do not get cellulite or stretch marks or other afflictions because, by and large, they mother young. They don't wait to have children, as I did, when they are practically old enough to be retiring.
Oh, and they don't gain weight when they are pregnant. The maximum they are allowed to put on is 13kg, and most of them never hit that. I will never forget the sorrow on meeting up with a French friend who was as pregnant as I was, a week before I gave birth. I ordered two pastries plus hot chocolate. She ordered a green tea. "Don't you eat?" I asked.
"I want to get into my bikini," she said. "Paul and I booked a holiday for Easter. The baby will stay with my mother." French women don't exercise like we do - they don't need to. Occasionally they swim or do a little jog around the Luxembourg Gardens. And once the child gets big enough to walk, you immediately experience another facet of French motherhood - the shouting. The first time I heard this, in the Lord of the Flies children's playground in the Luxembourg Gardens, I could not believe it. You little monster! You bastard! You cretin! "French people think Dr Spock is too lovey-dovey," laughs a French child psychologist acquaintance of mine.
And while this might seem tough, their children are incredibly well behaved. They know how to eat escargot by the age of five. They say "Bonjour, madame," and "Au revoir, madame" when you go to dinner at their parents' home, instead of ignoring you and watching Tom & Jerry. The approach clearly seems to work.
That great Franco-American mother and singer/dancer Josephine Baker (she adopted many children and raised them on a farm outside Paris) once called her French-American experience "deux amours". I could not agree more. I love both aspects of mothering. The Anglo (in my case, Italian-American) side teaches me that motherhood is all about my son. And the French side teaches me that it is also about me - pelvic floor and all.