AT THE MOTHER-CHILD HOSPITAL OF EASTERN PARIS, YOUNG MOTHERS LEARN HOW TO BOND WITH THEIR CHILDREN
At the corner of Rue des Bluets and Avenue Jean Aicard in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, the multicolored letters of the inscription "Mother-Child Hospital of Eastern Paris" stand out from the grey facade of the building. The establishment, housed in the former premises of the Bluets maternity hospital, welcomes pregnant women and young mothers along with their babies.
In the colorfully painted corridors of the hospital walls there is a sweet smell of baby lotion. On each floor, a notice board indicates the menus and activities of the week: nursery rhymes workshops, discussion groups, cultural outings... All women have a single room with a crib.
This is neither a maternity hospital -- women do not give birth here -- nor a pediatric hospital. The focus here is the strengthening of the mother-child bond. All the women who are taken in are in psychologically difficult situations that prevent them from being fully available for their newborn children. Among them are many migrant women who are traumatized by their journey to exile and are sometimes victims of rape.
Fatoumata, 36, arrived at the hospital after giving birth. In her bright room on the second floor (for children aged 0-3 months), she looks tiredly at her two-and-a-half-month-old son, Ali, who is fidgeting in his crib. The young mother, a red scarf tied around her head, has to put him to the breast so that the little boy will calm down and give himself up completely to his mother's arms.
Fatoumata is Senegalese. Back home, she worked with her mother in a dairy unit. She had obtained a visa to work in Spain, but things "weren't going well there," she says without going into details. Her time in Spain comes up several times during Fatoumata’s retelling of her story, and she seems to have a traumatic memory of it. The young woman categorically refuses to talk about what she experienced there. When she arrived in France in 2012, she settled in with a Senegalese family living in the Paris region.
Her situation became more complicated when Fatoumata got pregnant by the man she was dating. The unwanted pregnancy left her totally distraught. "I felt fear and despair when I found out I was pregnant [...] Before Ali was born, I thought about giving him away for adoption and even suicide," says the young mother.
On top of being pregnant and in an unsettled situation, Fatoumata had to deal with the rejection of the father of her child. "When I told him I was pregnant, I saw another face of the man I thought I knew, he wasn't the same person anymore," she says, remaining evasive. The man finally acknowledged paternity but abandoned Fatoumata during her pregnancy. Today, they "no longer have any relationship".
It was the social worker at the maternity hospital where she gave birth who told Fatoumata about the Mother-Child Hospital of Eastern Paris. Because of her background, Fatoumata had great difficulty accepting the arrival of her son and lacked support. "It was an unexpected child, I had a very lonely pregnancy and the delivery was complicated, so even today, I am still having a hard time with my child," she whispered as she looked at her son.
The newborn is also suffering, in his own way, from the situation. He spends his nights crying. To give Fatoumata a little respite, the night nurses now take care of the little boy in the nursery.
"At first I didn't want him to sleep there, I was worried and I slept very badly anyway because of my past. Now I'm sleeping better, thanks to the pills I take, but sometimes I still keep an ear out for his cries," explains Fatoumata.
Like Ali, other children of hospitalized migrant women show symptoms of bonding disorders. "In the very young, that translates into children who in their very first months sleep all the time, avoid eye contact, having feeding problems or cry a lot," explains Virginie Gomas, a manager of midwives at the hospital. These children need to be followed closely because as they grow older, the signs become more pronounced.
As she spends weeks and months in the hospital, Fatoumata starts to relax and begins to project herself into her life as a mother. "It helped me a lot to come here. The team is here 24 hours a day. We're able to think about what we're going to do next," says the young mother, sitting on her bed with pink sandals on her feet.
While hospitalized mothers eat their meals alone in their rooms, they can also take part in joint activities with other women. For Fatoumata, who feels lonely away from her family, these exchanges are precious. "My neighbor across the hall is Senegalese. We are in the same situation and we've encountered the same difficulties, so we can talk about it together," she says.
The distance from family and loneliness are difficult challenges for these women to overcome. Fatoumata did not dare tell her parents, who are still in Senegal, that she was pregnant. "You know, in African and Muslim families, when there is no marriage, some people are not happy," she says.
Fatoumata confided her secret only to her sister. From Senegal, she supported Fatoumata by message and telephone. But in Paris, Fatoumata felt as if she was experiencing her pregnancy "alone in [her] corner". "In Senegal, the sisters and the grandmother give baths and massages [to the young mother]. Here, it's very different, so we have this nostalgia, this lack of being surrounded."
After several months in hospital, Fatoumata is feeling better. Ali cries less and has been able to go back to his bed and his mother's room for the night. The young mother hopes to get a place in a maternity center.
In these centers, designed for women in difficulty and their children, young mothers can set up a reintegration project and benefit from daycare services. But this option is only available to "regularizable" women. "The others have to call 115 and sometimes end up on the street with their babies," says Gomas.
In 2017, only 30% of patients who left the Mother-Child Hospital of Eastern Paris joined a maternal center.
•••• ➤ Also read part one: Motherhood in exile (1/3)