Tales from the Stirrups: (Mis)adventures with a French Gynecologist

By: Crystal Gibson

After 7 years of being a Canadian expat in France, I figured it was no longer possible to be a victim of a culture shock sneak attack. By now, I’ve familiarized myself with strange French food, navigated through infamous French bureaucracy, learned when to give cheek kisses (les bises) and who to address as “tu” or “vous”. But culture shock doesn’t just happen in those first few weeks of moving to a new country or integrating a new culture. It can pop out of nowhere at any time in one’s expat life, and I was reminded of that during a recent gynecological appointment.

This was only my second time seeing a French gynecologist. The first time was when I lived in the Parisian suburbs, and the only thing I remember about that visit is that she told me if I ever have a baby, I’d absolutely need to have a caesarian section due to my “inadequate pelvis” (her words, not mine). Three years and a move to the Alps later, I needed a check-up and chose the female gynecologist closest to my house.

I arrived early to my appointment, let myself into the empty waiting room, and flipped through a fashion magazine from 2008. Moments later, another woman joined me.

(All conversations took place in French, but I’ve taken the liberty of translating them to make things easier.)

“Is the doctor nice?” I asked the lady. “This is my first time seeing her.”

“Oh yes, she’s great,” the woman replied. “When I got a bad infection from my IUD recently, she was able to see me right away.”

Now hang on a minute. Aren’t French people usually quite reserved and discreet? I once sat next to a French guy on a 10-hour transatlantic flight without ever finding out his first name or what he did for a living while I rambled on about my crazy university years and my husband’s annoying habits. I’ve known this woman sitting across from me for a grand total of 3 minutes. There’s no way I should be up-to-date on what’s happening in her uterus.

“How…convenient,” I stammered, unable to think of anything else to answer. (“Don’t you just hate those pesky IUDs?!”) She didn’t say anything else. Thirty uncomfortable minutes of silence later, the doctor popped her head into the waiting room and told me to come in. I noticed she didn’t smile, and wondered if that was a bad sign.

“So you are a new patient, yes? I need to ask you some questions for your file. How old are you?”

“I’ll be 31 in less than a month.”

“What do you do for a living?”

“Well, I’m currently unemployed, but before that I was an English trainer and worked in tourism. The economy in France is tough right now. There are not many jobs out there, and certainly not around here,” I sighed.

I expected perhaps a sympathetic nod or the perfunctory response to another person’s declaration of unemployment – You’ll find something soon, I’m sure! She did neither.

“Are you married?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have any children?”

“No, and I don’t plan on having any.”

She stopped scribbling and looked at me over her glasses.

“A baby might give your life some sense, you know.”

Come again?

Did she really say that? She’s only just met me and assumes my life has no sense because I’m not somebody’s mother? Now, I know that whenever I tell French people I’d like to live my life childfree, they don’t really understand why. France has one of the highest birth rates in all of Europe, and is a very family-centric culture. I’ve gotten used to the judgment and attempts to make me “change my mind”. But this was the first time someone – and a doctor of all people – told me that proliferating my genes might be the thing that would make my otherwise senseless life worth living.

I didn’t know what to say to her comment, so I said nothing. She was about to be poking around my insides and I didn’t want to tick her off. Thou shalt not bite the hand that wields the speculum.

The interrogation continued.

“Does your husband want children?”

“He’s mentioned that he’d maybe like one…or not. He’s not really sure.”

“But you can see yourself living childfree for the rest of your life?”

“Yup.”

“So you are willing to risk losing your husband by not having a child with him?”

*crickets*

Wait, what? Hey doc, 1952 called. It wants its ideology back.

My polite Canadian side made me bite my tongue, but inside I was reeling. I’m not sure how it was any of her business, and certainly these were not questions to be asking during a first meeting. I thought back to all the gynecologists I had seen in Canada. When told I was planning on being childfree, they’d all nodded and said something to the effect of, “Ok, no worries. If you ever change your mind, feel free to come on in with any questions you may have.” That was it. No judgment, no prying personal questions, no need for me to explain or justify myself. And I was about to be lying on a metal examining table and not a leather couch; I was there for a pelvic exam, not marriage counseling.

She pointed to said examining table inches away from her desk (doctor’s offices are usually very small in France. I’ve seen closets bigger than some): “Please get undressed and get on the table.”

Like right here, right now? She stood behind her desk expectantly. Why is she staring at me? Shouldn’t she pop out in the hall for a minute and give me some privacy, or at least turn away? Why do they not provide paper gowns in France like they do in Canada??

And then in what can only be described as the world’s most awkward, non-sexual strip tease ever documented, I undressed as quickly as I could while she waited. I almost expected her to start tapping her foot on the ground impatiently.

“You are very thin,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “Too thin. Are you anorexic?”

(Gee, thanks for not beating around the bush, Dr. McLetsjumptoconclusions.)

“Nope, just a small build. I have a good metabolism.”

“Hmmm.”

Thankfully, the exam itself was quick and free from any further probing questions. And for the record, gynecological stirrups and pelvic exams are pretty universal. No culture shock there.

I got dressed and we sat back down at her desk so I could pay.

The phone beside her archaic computer started ringing. This in itself is nothing unusual in France. After years of seeing French doctors, I know that many of the smaller offices don’t have a receptionist or a front desk. Patients call and speak to the doctor directly to book an appointment or ask a question. I also know most French doctors will stop and answer the phone in the middle of a consultation with another patient. That bit of culture shock wore off years ago.

She picked up the phone without so much as an “excuse me one moment” in my direction.

“Yes, hello Madame Bovary (not her name, of course, but the doctor did use the patient’s real name. This in itself is shocking because I’m pretty sure it’s against confidentially laws…at least in Canada!). She listened for a minute before asking, “So you think you have a urinary tract infection?”

At this point I would have thought that maybe she’d get up and walk over to the window with her cordless phone, ask the woman to call back, or go out into the hallway for some privacy, but she stayed put at her desk as though I was not sitting right there in front of her.

What do I do? Do I leave the room? Should I go look out the window? (By this point, I kind of wanted to jump out of it.)

“There’s some itching you say? Does it burn when you urinate, Madame Bovary?”

I started fidgeting uncomfortably, cursing myself for having forgotten my cell phone at home. I could have fiddled with it to give the impression that I wasn’t suddenly privy to all the intimate details of the caller’s bladder distress.

“Ok, please come by today. I’ll fit you in between appointments.” She hung up the phone and turned her attention back to me.

“You will only hear from me if your test results show anything out of the ordinary. I suggest you give some thought to your future and try to gain some weight.” She stood up and thrust her hand over the desk for a quick handshake. I wished her a bonne journée and bolted for the door, promising myself that I’d look for another gynecologist the next time I needed one. I get enough judgment from my mother-in-law about not wanting kids; I don’t need it from my gynecologist as well.

Back at home, I told my French husband about the visit and how shocked I was at the gynecologist’s intrusive bedside manner. He didn’t seem surprised in the least, and gave a typical Gallic shrug. “Most French doctors are very blunt. It’s nothing personal. That’s just the way it is here.”

That’s just the way it is here.

Perhaps what I had perceived as a culturally-shocking encounter with a seemingly tactless French doctor was really nothing more than me unfairly comparing my home country to my adopted country (and it wouldn’t be the first time). French doctors are not Canadian doctors, and I just have to get that. Most Canadians will go out their way to avoid offending you, whereas the French will often be brutally franc (frank). They have different ways of doing things over here, and I am in no position to judge. I don’t have to like it, but I do have to accept it. That said, I’m not angry or upset over my visit with this gynecologist. If anything, my experience makes for a funny story.

And after all, what do I know? Maybe I need to have a baby in order for all this to make sense!

(I’d just like to add a short disclaimer so as not to come across as an ungrateful expat, because it is not my intent:

I’m very fortunate to live in a country where healthcare is accessible and affordable, and I certainly don’t take it for granted. The culture shock I’m referring to in this essay is in response to the gynecologist’s professionalism, and not a reflection of whether she is a competent medical professional or not (because I’m certain she is). I’m just always a bit taken aback at how doctors in France talk to their patients. I’m generalizing, of course, and I know there are tactless doctors in all countries, but over the years, I’ve heard similar accounts to mine from other expats in France, so I know I’m not the only one who has experienced this type of culture shock!)

About the author

Expat Blog ListingCrystal Gibson is a Canadian expat living in France. Blog description: A 30-something homesick Canadian girl and her Frenchman (plus a dog and 3 cats) living a love-hate relationship with France (currently in the Alps region, via Lille and Paris!)
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Contest Comments » There are 15 comments

April wrote 7 years ago:

I love this story as I'm childfree and intend to stay that way. However I would love to move to France so now I know not to mention that I won't have kids :) Been reading your awesome blog for a long time and I hope you keep writing.

Decoybetty wrote 7 years ago:

I've only been to the gyno in Australia and I was pretty shocked (and relieved) to see that there were no stirrups! When I told her I didn't want to have children her response was "good for you" which seemed also quite strange to me!

Crystal Goes To Europe wrote 7 years ago:
(AUTHOR)

Thanks for all the comments/shares/"likes" so far, everyone! It's been a lot of fun reading them and a grand merci for all your lovely compliments and words of encouragement (and commiseration it seems!)

Candi Cane Canncel wrote 7 years ago:

Your article is great! I just moved to the Netherlands from the States and fortunately have yet to experience healthcare here! But oh man, if its anything like your experience... Good luck with your entry!

Milam wrote 7 years ago:

That's about right. Like the party guest who told me my daughter was kind of bad last year but even worse this year. Being brutally honest runs in their genes.

Tara wrote 7 years ago:

Mirrors my experience with a gyno outside of Paris. She was very nice, but couldn't understand my need to stay child free. I had an even more "interesting" experience with my French banker. While opening a second account, with my French husband, she asked him why he married an American. Aren't French women good enough for him? Huh? Goes to show that cultural differences abound!

EmmaK wrote 7 years ago:

I know this trip to the gyno probably pissed you off but on the other side the way you told it it was really funny. So I learnt a lot about French gynos and got a laught out of it too. I am amazed you didn't tell her to mind her own business!

Sami Veloso wrote 7 years ago:

Great story. She would petrify me and I don't think I would go back either!

Danielle Esau wrote 7 years ago:

This is spot on!! I loved this recount and the bluntness of the gynae was perfectly worded. This is DEFINITELY a winning blog.

Den Nation wrote 7 years ago:

This is exactly how it is to be childfree in France. I don't know of any other childfree expat bloggers based in province and I only know one childfree French woman personally, and I can't begin to tell you how comforting it was to read this. Life in France is even more lonely as a childfree immigrant. Stay tuned for a post about this issue on my blog!

Alexis Bunbury wrote 7 years ago:

Why does every gynecologist have to be so into kids? Isn't the world already suffering from overpopulation? Just go in there, do your business (or check mine?) and let me get back to my day. Congratulations Crystal for standing up for all the "fruitless wonders" out there who are happy to live child free. If I want to keep a man then I'll buy expensive cable and learn to cook -- both of which are easier than 9 months of essentially illness. More articles like this please expatsblog.com!

Left Bank Manc wrote 7 years ago:

You should have said: "I'm paying you to examine my vagina, not my lifestyle choices. Get down there and keep your ridiculously dated opinions to yourself." Unbelievable!

Holly Nelson wrote 7 years ago:

This is why I follow your blog!! I felt your pain so much throughout! All done for writing about culture shock in such an imaginative, yet explanatory way!

Iza wrote 7 years ago:

Just wondering...can they take the honesty like the give it to you? Hmmm...somehow, I do not think so, but maybe i'm wrong...:)

CPascala wrote 6 years ago:

These are great stirrups! I've never thought of this kind of things happening in France! It is very interesting.

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