The littlest Trudeau

Journalist Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau talks about her new son, Xavier, postpartum anxiety and the age-old struggle of women trying to have it all

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A friend of Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau once described her to me as a “genuine idealist” – a term he also ascribed to Grégoire-Trudeau’s husband of three years, Justin Trudeau, the teacher turned politician and eldest son of the late prime minister Pierre. The label sits well with Grégoire-Trudeau. “I want to change this world. I want to bring something positive to this planet,” she told me recently, as we sat down for our second interview in two years for Chatelaine.

Now 33, Grégoire-Trudeau has balanced a media career – she is a correspondent for CTV’s entertainment newsmagazine eTalk – with social activism. She has collaborated with her mother-in-law, Margaret Trudeau, to film a CTV documentary about their work for WaterCan, a Canadian aid agency that brings clean drinking water to developing communities. Her plans for the next year include a documentary about women’s issues in Canada. She tours the speakers’ circuit, expounding her views on youth and women and describing her struggle with bulimia, a condition that plagued her from her late teens to her early twenties. And among other projects, she has been a spokesperson for the Weekend to End Breast Cancer for the past two years.

In April 2007, a pregnant Grégoire-Trudeau supported her husband as he won the Liberal nomination in the Montreal riding of Papineau, at long last launching his anticipated political career. Six months later, on October 18, she gave birth to the couple’s first child, Xavier James (the first name is one they simply liked; the middle name is a tribute to Margaret’s father, James Sinclair), a blue-eyed boy who weighed in at nine pounds, two ounces. He is the Trudeau dynasty’s second grandchild, cousin to 17-month-old Pierre-Emmanuel, son of Alexandre Trudeau and Zoë Bedos.

In conversation with Grégoire-Trudeau earlier this spring in Montreal, I found a new mother at ease in her maternal role. The optimism I encountered at our first meeting is now tempered with a good dose of practicality.

Maryam Sanati: So here we are again, Sophie, almost two years since we first sat down to talk for Chatelaine. Now Mother’s Day is approaching; you have baby Xavier and I’m about to have my first child, also a boy. I had a very strong hunch from the start that I’d have a boy. Did you?

Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau: Justin and I resisted the temptation to find out in advance, but – and I don’t know how to explain it – I did feel it. I felt a masculine energy in me. When he came out, Justin was surprised – he’d expected a girl – but it just made sense to me.

Sanati: How was your pregnancy?

Grégoire-Trudeau: Flawless. But we thought I was having a seven-pound baby, and he was just over nine – and very tall. I kept feeling his little feet against my rib cage. I had difficulty breathing. I was gasping for air all the time. They call it air hunger.

Sanati: When did that start?

Grégoire-Trudeau: Early. In the fifth month, and then it never went away. Other than that, I’d been waiting for motherhood for such a long time that I treasured every moment of being pregnant. I cherished the curves that came with it, the transformations in my body. It made so much sense just to let go, let your body take charge. I ate all I wanted, but I kept exercising; I walked everywhere. And I think that gave me a very easy pregnancy. Labour, though, was different.

Sanati: How was your delivery?

Grégoire-Trudeau: I was two weeks late, so my labour was induced. It lasted about 18 hours with two epidurals, but I was among the tiny percentage of women who don’t take epidurals well; the anaesthesia didn’t work. So I felt everything. And it finished with a C-section.

Sanati: Did you have a midwife?

Grégoire-Trudeau: No, I had Justin [laughs]. He helped me tremendously. My whole labour was spent concentrating on something that Margaret [Trudeau] repeated when delivering her five children, which is, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” It keeps your breath up here [points to her chest] so you forget about the pain down there. Justin focused with me for 18 hours repeating that rhyme.

Sanati: Describe the elation of seeing your baby for the first time.

Grégoire-Trudeau: There’s nothing – our language is too limited. I remember the emotion, but I can’t put words to that emotion.

Sanati: Tell me about the initial few weeks after he came, the kind of “fog,” as mothers call it, of adjusting to this new state.

Grégoire-Trudeau: I had an easy baby in that, because he was two weeks late, he was a bit heavier and his system was a little more mature. He was a good eater. I breastfed immediately. And we did the nights and the days. Justin woke up with me. He was a lot of help and offered a lot of moral support. But I have to say, I did have postpartum [anxiety].

Sanati: Postpartum issues are a lot more common than we realize.

Grégoire-Trudeau: Yes, absolutely, and I have no problem talking about it. I felt not depressed, but anxious. I’ve always been an idealist, but at one point, you think, Oh my God, I have to do everything for this child. And it’s overwhelming. I thought, We live in a crazy world. And how am I going to protect him from this and that? It was scary. That was part of my anxiety: thinking to myself, Well, there’s going to be a very serious Asian flu and I’m going to have to hide with my family; those kind of thoughts. About five weeks after the baby was born, I started having awful dreams that lasted for several weeks. I felt so emotional. I know that some people carry postpartum for much longer and unfortunately sometimes it’s not diagnosed well, so it’s not treated. You need to acknowledge the way you feel.

Sanati: Women report that they suffer anxiety more than men; and they are hospitalized for anxiety disorders at twice the rate for men.

Grégoire-Trudeau: Absolutely. I’m not surprised, though, because of the rhythm of life and the level of emotional suffering we have in our society.

Sanati: And it’s women who take more antidepressants than men.

Grégoire-Trudeau: Women have to deal with many, many pressures. They have jobs. They’re still the nucleus of the family – most of them, right? Men have their pressures as well, but those are different. I think women are still trying to fulfill all the roles that we expect of ourselves. And we don’t have to. We can do anything, but we don’t have to be everything.

Sanati: We take on too much.

Grégoire-Trudeau: Yes, I do think we take on too much. It’s actually counterproductive. Women have a tendency to be very emotionally generous. We give life; each month we have this cycle that is so in touch with life itself. But we forget about that because we’ve become over-hygienic. Our periods are now about, “Get rid of it.” We forget to make contact with our bodies. Still, there’s one thing that we can’t pass by, and it’s giving birth. And yet, there are tendencies for some people in rich countries to have C-sections because they don’t want their vaginas to go through this crisis. To me, that’s just not true to our nature. We’re not gaining anything from it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have an epidural…

Sanati: We shouldn’t suffer, but at the same time, there’s a disconnect from our bodies.

Grégoire-Trudeau: It’s about denying our human nature. We’re grossed out by growing old. Our youth don’t look up to their elders; they don’t look up to their wisdom. And I think that makes for a young generation that’s lost. I don’t mean everyone, because we have great, great young people. But I think that this generation gap is a huge problem.

Sanati: Obviously body image is a topic you know well, having recovered from an eating disorder. As you were going through pregnancy, did you look back on your late teenage years and think, “What a journey it’s been”?

Grégoire-Trudeau: Oh my God, yes, and I get emotional about it when I think about it. I’ve never felt as at peace with my body as I feel now. The thing is, also, that people think eating disorders are only about anorexia and bulimia, whereas [there are many more] distorted ideas about food and your body image. Eating disorders do not stop at what they’re described as in the textbooks.

Sanati: Every woman feels that burden at least some time in their life. We spend far too much time thinking about denying our bodies.

Grégoire-Trudeau: We’re losing brain power to all this worrying; it’s just a waste of time. Think about it: during one day, how much time we spend thinking about the way we look, or how we feel toward our body and self-image. I’ve just read A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle [the Oprah Winfrey–endorsed bestseller that advocates abandoning egocentricism as key to “awakening your life’s purpose”]. I have to say, there was a shift in me when I read it. There is a reason why we’ve become a planet with so much suffering, and gaps between rich and poor: We lack spirituality, and I’m not talking about religion. And our young generation lacks it even more because they’re constantly bombarded with advertisements and anything that has to do with not being themselves. And by pushing them to not be themselves, how can they get in contact with who they really are? How does their self develop? That’s why we need to awaken.

Sanati: These are all issues that intensify, I know, as you become a mother. I know that your own mother, Estelle Grégoire, has been with you from day one with Xavier. What have you learned from her about raising a child?

Grégoire-Trudeau: I learned to have faith in your baby. We want to control everything because we don’t have control over our lives sometimes, but it’s not such a good thing to want to always be in control of your baby. Babies are just right. They’re made to be here and they know how to react most of the time. So let them be, let your baby be, and adjust to his personality.

Sanati: And what did you learn from your mother-in-law, Margaret?

Grégoire-Trudeau: Follow your instincts. I mean, she’s been through it five times.

Sanati: How do you think Justin has changed with fatherhood?

Grégoire-Trudeau: Lots of people have told us that when you have a child, nothing else matters. For Justin and me, it’s the complete opposite: Everything else matters, even much more. Justin already wants to do everything to save the world, but with Xavier it’s put more peace inside us and more tools in our hands to do it. He’s giving us more mental tools. He’s making us feel stronger.

Sanati: Do you feel that you are always fighting an instinct to be overly protective of Xavier?

Grégoire-Trudeau: No, no. We want to just blow under his wings, so he can fly through the first years of his life, when we’ll be there. But after that, it’s him. The Indian philosopher Krishnamurti wrote that parents think they love their children but they are simply afraid of their own suffering. I will love my son for who he is. He’s my child but he does not belong to me. He belongs to life, just as we do.

Sanati: Has being a parent made you more of an idealist or more of a pragmatist?

Grégoire-Trudeau: Both. It’s made me more of an idealist because now I want to change the world even more because of Xavier. But it’s given me a more practical conscience. I feel strongly that women and especially mothers in this country can have a global impact on the physical and mental health of our children by being environmentally conscious: buying glass bottles, cotton nursing pads, recycled and biodegradable diapers, organic baby food; showing kids how to recycle; carpooling; and buying local products such as children’s clothing and baby slings.

Sanati: Speaking of all things Canadian: Obviously the Trudeau family dynamic has changed with the births of two new babies. That must be a wonderful feeling, to have the cousins so close in age.

Grégoire-Trudeau: It is. And if you look very closely, they look alike around the eyes. That’s one thing that really got to me when I saw Xavier for the first time; I remember everybody in the hospital room saying, “He looks like his mother,” and I thought, No. The shape of his eyes, the almond shape, is Pierre. Xavier was born, believe it or not, on Pierre’s birthday, October 18, at 12:28 a.m. I remember there was a huge clock in my room, and I could see the numbers change and I thought, “I can’t believe midnight is coming; he’s going to be born.” Somebody up there was watching out for us.

Check out what Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau had to say at Chatelaine’s 80th gala.