I have a draft post on my pregnancy that never saw the light of day. I thought I would write on my experience on a regular basis, on moving back home to Montréal. But I had a baby and now he's 12-months-old. Here are the highlights before I forget!!
The high-level plan was that I would get pregnant in Belgium, take my three-month maternity leave in the country and then move back to Canada with Félix, living off savings while I take a few extra months to settle back home, find a daycare and then a job.
That simple. (In hindsight: LOL)
However, it made more sense than trying to move back while pregnant, since I would have to get back into the Québec healthcare system before giving birth, I wouldn't have the right to maternity leave (since I contributed to the Belgian system, not the Canadian one) and I wouldn't have time to see and enjoy all my friends and colleagues as much as I wanted before moving. So after 10 failed IUI attempts and one successful IVF, I finally got pregnant. And so the adventure began.
First of all, a few words on my pregnancy. For the most part, it agreed with me: I was happy, excited, had to manage a few weeks of morning sickness, but nothing unbearable. I enjoyed my figure, I travelled (a lot!), I nested. I did get a bit of back pain towards the end, got slower and less mobile, but again, overall, it was a peaceful pregnancy. I got to enjoy it with a couple of friends who were also pregnant, I got to start planning my move back to Montréal and I got to enjoy my last months at CENTR with extraordinary colleagues and members.
I'm especially grateful for some memorable trips, since I knew that given my situation, I would probably not travel much anymore once Félix was born. My little shrimp travelled the globe while cooking up in my belly: Melbourne, Moscow, Tbilisi, Barcelona, Montréal (summer holidays), Riga... I still can't believe how lucky I've been and I sincerely hope I keep up the habit of travelling with my boy in the coming years.
Félix was due on 27 November 2018 but decided to join the party a bit earlier, on 23 November. Despite a few minor risk factors, I got lucky: it went pretty much text-book, which doesn't mean it was a "beautiful" experience, in the new-age sense! Just like in the movies, my water broke before I could feel any serious contractions (it was around 3:00 a.m. and it was so surprising that I burst out laughing). My mom (who had arrived a couple of days earlier) and I took a taxi to the hospital, I was checked in and my dearest doula arrived a few minutes later. The contractions started to get painful, but I was managing them with the help of my doula. My plan was to get an epidural, but I simply didn't have time: the really painful contractions picked-up quickly and it was the most shockingly insane pain I had ever experienced. I remember that the contractions were so close together that I didn't have time to think about asking for an epidural... I'm so grateful my doula was there to channel my screams and pain into strength. By the time the agonizing contractions were underway, I was close to 8 or 10 cm so it was too late for drugs, and I felt the need to push anyway. I was told afterwards that I pushed for a good hour (or hour and a half, can't remember): Félix came out at 9:54 a.m. that morning after 7 hours of labour, which is mercifully short for a first baby. He was placed straight away on my bare chest and we got to cuddle for a while. He even made his way to his first breastfeeding, a habit he is still enjoying today.
Now I don't care how "natural" giving birth is: it's still a shocking, painful experience regardless. You will never hear me say that it was a "beautiful" or "wonderful" thing: I was well prepared, it went really well (for what it is) and I finally got to meet that perfect, tiny little human I had conceived, but it was a super intense experience and it takes a few weeks just to physically recover, even from the best possible scenario. Yes, I'll admit it: I'm proud I gave birth without any drugs, but I would have been just as proud with an epidural. I was mostly focused on starting my life with my little boy.
The first three months
I do hope that time helps you forget, because I can still remember that it wasn't easy, even with a quick physical recovery, a healthy baby and no real issues with breastfeeding. In my case, the most difficult part was planning a transatlantic move, with all the paperwork and packing that it implied, while taking care of a newborn that required a lot of attention and would hardly sleep if he wasn't on me somehow - in a baby wrap, in my arms, in bed next to me... When he was awake, I couldn't put him down for more than 15 minutes at a time before he became fussy. Try packing boxes or filling out paperwork when you only have chunks of 15 minutes to do it...
And there was so. Much. Paperwork. Leaving a country is a hassle. Leaving a country with a 3-month-old is like living with a ticking time-bomb. I needed the birth certificate to get my maternity leave pay. I needed it to get him in the Belgian healthcare system. I needed it for the baby's passport. I had to get the birth certificate (three times!) at the Anderlecht Commune where he was born (we lived in Ixelles). I needed a baby passport picture. For the passport I needed my own paperwork, part of which was still in Montréal. I had to ask for proof of his Canadian citizenship at the same time as the passport. I had to inform Belgium we were leaving (which meant a few extra trips to the Commune). I had to buy our plane tickets. I had to plan the move with an international moving company. I had to pack boxes, but sell and get rid of most of my stuff, all in a perfectly-timed way so I still had a table and a bed until the day I moved out. I had to give notice to my landlord, deal with the visits, deal with the moving-out paperwork (getting the deposit back, getting the "état des lieux", giving away the keys, pay for a parking spot for the moving company - another trip to the Commune). I had to get his proof of Belgian citizenship. I had to get his Belgian ID card. I was extremely lucky to have close friends that could host me and Félix for the week before we left Belgium, and extremely lucky to have a friend from Montréal come to Brussels that week to help out and to travel back with us on 4 March 2019. My mom was there for the first three weeks of Félix's life and my sister came for a week in January.
All the while, I also had to take care of my baby: worry sick about the sudden infant death syndrome (way, way too stressed out about that one), make sure he's feeding well, sleeping ok, deal with the start of a flat head on his right side, which meant I had to make sure he slept on his left side, which meant turning him several times a night, which also meant I had to see the kiné, osthéo and midwives... I wanted to enjoy my time with him, was lucky enough to spend quality time with friends, but there were moments when I thought I wouldn't make it because he would go on a spree of feeding every hour for 48 hours and I would be physically shaking I was so exhausted.
Plus, no matter how much I adore my little boy, I must say that I'm not a natural fan of newborns to begin with. It's the lack of interaction that's a challenge for me. They have an empty gaze, they seem lost in this new world, they are fragile and incomplete in so many ways (damn reflux, silly soft skull, useless neck, super soft but super sensitive skin) and they definitely don't come with instructions. And when you're told "feed on demand" and you are obsessed with best practices like I am, you offer unrestricted boob access with passion, even if it means you don't sleep anymore. When they say "cuddle like there's no tomorrow", you put that wrap on 18 hours a day if you have to so that he stays close to you. Unless you hit the jackpot of babies who naturally sleeps through the night at 6 weeks, you're gearing up for an uphill battle of getting to understand the best way to take care of your mini human (figuring out what works best for you both takes time).
And to add to the emotional roller coaster of that time in our lives, my grandfather passed away just a few days after Félix was born. My poor mom was stuck thousands of miles away from her dying father, who she took care of for more than 10 years before he passed. It was heartbreaking: we felt powerless. He was surrounded by our family in Montréal, but my mom is convinced he was waiting to hear that Félix and I were ok, and waiting for my mom to be away (since it would be super hard on her), before letting go. I wish Félix could have met the wonderful man that he was. We will tell him about him when he grows up.
Landing in Montréal with a 3-month-old
This is the part for which in hindsight, I grossly underestimated the levels of stress and exhaustion involved. Moving back to Montréal was not the end of a long moving process: it was just the second part of it. Getting back into the system (long waiting lines, writing and calling back and forth with the Belgian healthcare insurance and the Québec one), waiting for my things to arrive from the moving company (which took a full week and involved extra painful paperwork), unpacking (absolutely not to be underestimated, especially with my baby) and I was just too overwhelmed and exhausted at that point to deal with it all. It was by far the hardest part of this journey. The first few weeks of March 2019 were tough.
Thankfully, my family and friends were extremely helpful: the apartment was set up by my mom and my sister, since I was moving into the half-basement apartment below my mom's place (which used to be my grandfather's before he moved into a nursing home, passing away only a few months later). My mom helped me as much as she could, but most of it I still had to do myself (sign papers, make calls, breastfeed). I was so tired that my milk production went down, Félix got fussy and hungry (hangry), I got stressed out about it, I had to rent out an electric breastfeeding pump to boost my production, I didn't have the energy to unpack but couldn't settle because I was always looking for things in boxes... In short, it was hell. I also had to deal with well-intentioned advice from my loved ones about how best to take care of Félix, but didn't have the energy to defend my choices politely (or to simply ignore them).
But as the weeks passed, the paperwork got in order, emptied boxes started to disappear, breastfeeding got back on track and I found Félix more and more interesting (sorry, love!) as he was starting to become more human, alert and mobile. One of my best decisions at the time was to sign up to mommy-and-baby classes at the local community centre: that marked a turning point in my efforts to settle back. I met an amazing group of moms from the neighbourhood I got really close to and it was an immense relief to spend time with them and their babies, to chat and vent about breastfeeding, sleeping (or lack thereof), motor skills, transition to solid foods, etc. It helped me get a clearer perspective on my situation and find extra support for when I had troubles or questions. We're still seeing each other, keeping in touch through a WhatsApp group and supporting each other through similar challenges: babies starting daycare, going back to work, dealing with ongoing sleep deprivation, tips to make it all happen over the weekends (grocery shopping, cooking, schedules, playtime, etc.). They're a truly amazing group of women with adorable babies and (for most of them ;) supporting husbands/partners. We're all hoping our kids will grow up together! I'm glad I have them in my life and that Félix has friends too.
Post-move: regular life with a baby in a single-parent home
I'm often asked if it's tough taking care of a baby by myself. It's not easy, of course, and there are times when it's a real challenge. I do burst out in tears of exhaustion sometimes, but in a way that doesn't phase me too much and I truly believe it's because I went through so much worst with the transatlantic move. Anything else compared to that seems manageable. However, here's how I'm making it work.
1. Sometimes it just doesn't work and I fully accept and admit it. When Félix is overtired or sick and starts crying and screaming inconsolably, I feel powerless and as if I was doing something wrong, otherwise he would be happy. I let the sadness bubble up, I cry it out and do my best to help Félix out (even if sometimes it means saying no, holding on to boundaries and accepting that he needs to cry it out too).
2. I'm ruthlessly organised. I would not be able to manage my day-to-day life without losing my sanity if I wasn't a master at keeping things in efficient and easy order, planning ahead, maintaining lists (omg, what would we do without lists??), keeping my agenda up-to-date (including with reminders), testing out routines, etc.
3. I choose my battles. I realized early on that I wouldn't be able to do it all: I chose to use disposable diapers, tried composting for about a week but quickly retreated to recycling "only" and chose not to cook during the week by preparing meals over the weekend instead (until I got help: see point 4). I don't go shopping anymore (I know it's an evil company, but Amazon Prime really makes my life sooooo much easier) and I order clothes from H&M online. There will be a time in my life when things loosen up and I'll have more bandwidth to save the planet.
4. I got help. Once I found a job and the steady revenue that comes with it, I invested in finding a cleaning lady that could also cook a couple of recipes once a week. I found a real gem who, in four hours on Mondays, cleans my place and cooks up 2-3 meals. I take care of doing the groceries over the weekend and print out a couple of recipes. As you can imagine, it's a real life-saver. I'm incredibly grateful to have extra time on weekends to take care of Félix and do actual activities with him instead of running around like a headless chicken.
5. Last but not least: I have such great friends and a wonderful family. I don't feel like Félix and I are "alone". We have a priceless support system, our weekends are almost always planned ahead to see people we love and who are very caring. There is no void: we are happy.
All that being said, I think I don't realize how much relief I would get if I did have a supportive partner. It's a bit like asking only children to imagine everything they might be missing out on by not having a sibling: they can try, they see other people with siblings around them, but they just don't know what it's like to have one. It's the same for me: I see how helpful partners can be, but I just don't know what it's like, so it's hard for me to "miss" it. I still think it could easily be more of a burden than support if the guy isn't mature enough to roll up his sleeves to help out, but that's my cynical self talking. I do hope I meet someone caring, affectionate, mature, loving, funny and respectful one day: I just don't know when that will be when I go to bed between 20:00 and 21:00 every evening!
Other milestones in a nutshell (that would deserve separate posts, but I want to go to bed)
April 2019: Félix starts part-time home daycare. It's not my dream place, but it's a subsidized home daycare where Félix is well taken care of and allows me to do things (so many things to do!) in the afternoons, such as updating my CV, for example. Finding work takes a lot of time!
1 July 2019: Félix starts going to a "real" daycare. We're super lucky to get a space for him: like many places around the world, daycare spots are a rare commodity, especially the state-subsidized ones. And that place is a real paradise with a wonderful courtyard, amazing educators and 5 minutes away from our place. It was still a long transition for Félix: he went through 5-6 weeks of introduction to daycare (from a few hours per day to half-days and finally full days), right in the middle of his separation anxiety phase, so there were a lot of cries and drama every morning. Now he loves the place so much he barely waves goodbye when I leave before going to play!
16 September 2019: first day of work at Mediagrif, where I used to work 10 years ago. After a few unsuccessful interviews during the summer, I finally got a breakthrough and was hired as Director of Corporate Communications at Mediagrif. It's pretty amazing for several reasons: I already know several people from "back in the day", I know the company, it's a great position where I can be very helpful to the organisation and I started the same day as the new CEO, so let's just say there is never a dull moment at Mediagrif. Again, this would deserve a post in itself (single mom working full time: check!).
Ah, Félix: my little cookie, my shrimp, my lobster, my kitten. My love. The best way to describe how I feel about Félix is by telling you about the first time I heard him laugh when I tickled him: I knew in that moment that my greatest purpose in life now was to make Félix Gauvin laugh. Seeing him smile, seeing him happy makes me feel like I've made the world a better place.
I also think that love grows. The first few months of his life, I'm not sure I can say that I loved Félix for who he was, since he wasn't anyone yet: the feeling is more one of fierce protection, a visceral need to care for him and to protect him. As he grew and started to interact more, we got to know each other and to connect.
Also, I find it difficult to tell what's a personality trait and what's just a regular phase every baby goes through, especially since this is my first child (and last, but that's another topic). They almost all like the same kind of toys and books at the same time, learn to turn, move around, grab, throw, express frustration, joy, all at more or less the same age. It's only recently that I started seeing habits and personality traits that I believe are specific to Félix. He's an adorable, funny and sensitive little man. He's a sweet boy: no sudden movements, he's careful. He's also charming: gives big smiles and blows kisses to people he likes. He's also sensitive in the sense that he really needs his routine and can get quite upset when we're not perfectly following his schedule. He's still struggling to sleep by himself, although it got better after sleep training around 7-months-old and much better once I stopped breastfeeding at night around 11-months-old. He's a cuddler and I'm taking full advantage of it (most of the time: when we're both tired, he gets clingy and it can be exhausting). He's not a great sleeper and transition to solid foods took much longer and was more challenging than I had hoped, but we got to a good place where he sleeps most of the night now and eats quite well of almost anything.
They say time flies with kids, but I have to admit I haven't had that impression yet. It's been 12 months and it feels like 12 months. We've been through so much already (have you seen the length of this post??) and I'm enjoying seeing him grow so much that I can't wait to see him take his next steps (literally!). I will even say something fairly taboo: I don't miss the 6-month-old Félix, and I certainly don't miss the 1-month-old Félix. I'm glad he's now one-year-old: he amazes me every day with new skills, new sounds, new ways to communicate, and I know there will be new challenges every step of the way (potty-training, tantrums, terrible two, fucking four, pre-teen years and teenage years), but I'm looking forward to living through all of it, through the good, the bad and the ugly, doing my best to help him become the best person he can be.
I guess that's what they call unconditional love.