The cover is made of cheap blue material. Someone wrote my full name on it, a name that no one has called me for years. The family pediatrician must have written it. I still remember her face quite clearly. We (the nuclear family “we”) blacklisted her in 2004: she had failed to diagnose my mother—who was then suffering from serious hypothyroidism—lecturing her instead about “getting back on top of things.” But back then my parents trusted her. So it was she who wrote the name of their newborn baby on that booklet.
It overflows with loose pages: medical prescriptions all mixed up, from my teenage to my adult years, from benign afflictions to serious troubles. All of those scattered fragments compose an anxious being. Rashes, panic attacks, chronic diarrhea: nothing really changes, nothing really ever gets better. With slight variations, the same medication names come up again and again; 2005, 2013, 2021.
The pages inside the booklet look and feel old to the touch, as though I were born 50 years ago. But there it reads: Picot Pauline-Marie, born December 13th, 1990. A few pages later, the columns “her mother” and “her father” were dutifully filled by my father with their names and dates of birth. I recognize his writing; it hasn’t changed a bit in my 32 years. He also filled the column “her siblings” with the name of my sister. My mother told me that it was my dad who consistently took me to the pediatrician. She could not take a step there: she was too afraid of what they might tell her about me. She had lost her first child in 1984, so “children and doctors” had become too petrifying a combination for her.
My dad also indicated that my mother was a writer.
Never in my life have I heard her call herself as such.
Two small punches to the gut, in the form of a very simple question and a very simple answer. “Did the child have to be resuscitated?” “No.” Well. Good for me.
A lot of spaces were left blank.
“Family history”: blank.
“Pre-natal period”: blank.
“Living conditions”: blank.
“Additional information”: blank.
There is no way to know if those are mere oversights because the pediatrician had been in a rush, or if my father did not want those private elements recorded here, in this booklet. Well, there could be a way to know, I could just phone my father. But I would rather wonder.
Some pages later, another discrepancy between the neutral, administrative tone of a question and the vital importance of its answer. “Any changes in the child’s daily life?” “January 1996”. And just like that, my little brother was born—by the grace of some stranger’s hand into a small framed space.
For the most part the rest of the booklet is unreadable due to the very poor writing of several different pediatricians. Was ours on leave then, or did we take the booklet with us on holiday? I had this habit of falling ill during the holiday seasons (I still do). My own history, my own health, my own body, and yet I can’t make sense of most of what was deemed worthy of recording.
What I am getting, though, is a strong feeling of someone being cared for. Boxes were ticked, curves were filled in: “plays with her hands,” “weighs 10kg,” “is 83cm tall,” “raises her head when presented with an object.”
My mother often tells me that I had a very poor health as a child, and it shows: a 3 months old bronchiolitis, and from there a few bouts of gastroenteritis, a couple (!) of chickenpox attacks, and a whole lot of rhinofaryngitis. Someone even taped an extra page to the “6 to 12 years old” section.
Only one line was written through the “16 to 20 years old” pages, and it’s unreadable. And then: nothing. Several empty pages in a row. I remember that I stopped taking the booklet to medical appointments. I don’t clearly remember why. I must have felt like I was too grown-up to still carry it around. But for some reason, I still stuffed each prescription inside it when I got home.
I moved out of my family’s home when I was 25, in 2015. I left the booklet there. It was intentional. It was associated with my childhood years, with my parents’ care. It belonged there.
But when they were evicted from their home in 2020 and had to do a big sorting out of their stuff, I insisted on taking it with me, although nothing had been written in it for years.
And there it is. A strange self-portrait through the elliptic medical narrative.
A few pages for a life.
The child health record is a French invention that dates back to the end of the 19th century. In 1868, Dr. Fonssagrives, a doctor from Montpellier, published an essay in which he recommended that mothers monitor their children’s health, in order to reduce the high infant mortality rate. As the booklet had to be paid for, it was intended for privileged families who could not only afford the item, but also ensure regular medical monitoring of their child(ren). In 1876, Fonssagrives deplored that only 1200 families had purchased his booklet. His initiative, however, was taken up from the 1880s by other doctors who individually published various notebooks designed to keep a record of children’s growth.
In the preceding years, the Roussel Law had been passed to ensure the follow-up of children raised by childminders via a booklet that was to be dutifully completed in order to provide proof of their good treatment. At the very end of the 19th century, a public debate was initiated to vote for the extension of this law, by instituting the nationwide distribution of health booklets for children.
The debate was settled in 1935, when a decree stipulated that every child should be provided, at birth, with a free health booklet, which would gather necessary information for the Public Administration. It was a recommendation, not a requirement. Finally, a law was passed in 1942 (in the middle of World War II, in occupied France) that made it mandatory for all children in the country to be issued a free health record booklet.
This history of the health record booklet is the research of by historian and demographer Catherine Rollet, presented in her essay “Pour une histoire du carnet de santé de l’enfant: une affaire publique ou privée?”, published in 2005 in the “Revue française des affaires sociales”. More on the topic here.
Cover picture by Pauline Picot