“I quickly came to realise that the prenatal care would be different this time, and that pregnancy and birth is highly influenced by the surrounding culture”. Jannecke Balys, Chapter 10: The Land of Birth, Knocked Up Abroad.
Three things have dominated my life over the past ten years or so – babies, living abroad, and writing. Not just having my own babies (although they, of course, having dominated my life more than everything else put together) or my own moves to other countries. But also my work as an antenatal teacher and my voluntary work with new mothers, my job now with a birth and parent education journal and my constant contact with the “birth world”. And then, the fact that I have written a book for expats, started a blog to accompany the book and now spend quite a lot of my time corresponding with people over issues that affect us expatriates.
So it seemed quite serendipitous when I stumbled across a request for submissions to a book about babies….and living abroad. Right up my street, I thought, and contacted the brainchild behind the project Lisa Ferland. And so began my involvement in what has become a fascinating trip through pregnancy, childbirth and parenting in the world of expats.
Knocked Up Abroad features stories from 23 mums and dads, with the common feature that all of them are coping with being a new parent a long way from home. I say all of “them” but one of the stories is my own: drawing on a blog post I wrote last year about school life in St Lucia, my tales of coping with the strange customs, dress-up days and competitive parents makes it into the last section of the book (Parenting Abroad)
My tale aside though, this book is stuffed with fantastic stories of coping with the most unbelievable and often very funny circumstances that happen when you find yourself up the duff in a foreign land. Struggling with the language of obstetrics is one thing when it’s in your mother tongue; it’s something altogether different when it’s in Chinese. And not only is language an issue during this already emotional time, but some of the cultural practices of maternity units in other countries can seem downright horrible when you are already over-emotional due to pregnancy hormones. Take this from Meika Weiss in the chapter Knocked up in Nagoya:
My least favourite part of any appointment was the weight check. My Germanic frame and American habits were a poor fit for the Japanese culture of pregnancy and its recommendations to gain the smallest amount of weight as possible.
Every appointment was the same, “Your weight, it is too much. Please control”. I should consider more sushi, I was told, or perhaps less fruit.
Weight gain (too much, too little…) seems to feature amongst quite a few of the stories: just one of the many examples of how things are done “differently” when you’re not at home.
Childbirth, too, is already enough of a stressful time for parents without having to go through it in what can seem like a very alien environment. Reading the stories from expat mums all around the world, I feel like everyone featured in this book deserves a medal. This, from Michelle Estekantchi about the birth of her baby boy (Chapter 9: Glowing in Glamorous Dubai):
Then I don’t know what happened. I remember going to the operating room and Amir not being allowed to follow me there. I felt alone and scared, and maybe brave and confused, I’m not sure which. The C-section was painful. They had to give me more anesthetic half way through. Sadly, I passed out after that and only remember a glimpse of my baby boy on my chest….
But whilst there is commonality (eg everyone involved is a expat), there is – just like there always is within the contentious world of childbirth and parenting – plenty of differences too. From how to birth (natural? Planned caesarean?) to how to feed (breast or bottle?) through how to bring baby up (attachment? Controlled crying?), one of the great things about this book is that it covers all the usual debate but through the lens of happening in foreign lands. Which is what makes it so interesting.
I enjoyed every chapter in Knocked Up Abroad, and I also enjoyed the fact that they were all written in their own style, the style of the author of that particular section. It made every chapter very personal, a personal story not just of giving birth or bringing up a child, but of doing it in their own way in a culture that wasn’t their own. As I read, I really felt like I was really getting to know the women (and men – there are chapters contributed by fathers here as well) behind the tales. I also found a lot of the stories very funny, and often found myself laughing out loud. Although not far behind the laughs were some tears – birth is funny, but it is also emotional. And reading the stories of others brought back many memories of my own experiences of pregnancy and parenting in a foreign land.
Knocked Up Abroad is out as an Ebook now, with the print version to follow soon. If you enjoy reading stories of triumph in the face of adversity, of expat life combined with becoming a parent, of humorous situations and downright ridiculousness, then I can thoroughly recommend this book.