Knocked Up Abroad: a book about expat birth and parenting

“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.

Cover

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.

Click here to buy the book.

Another great review of the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide

Before coming to South Africa I started researching what life would be like here. One of the best blogs I found to help me with this was the wonderful Joburg Expat. Sine, the American/German mum behind the blog, has been a brilliant source of information for me – not least because her children were a similar age to mine when they lived here. She is also wonderfully honest about parenthood and I love her anecdotes about quarrelling kids as much as her stories about travel in the region. There’s nothing like someone elses problems to make you realise you are not alone with children who grump even on the most beautiful beach in the world!

Anyway I was thus over the moon when Sine wrote a wonderful review of the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide. She is painstaking in her detail which makes me realise she must have actually read the whole thing rather than just skim!

It feels a bit weird giving an extract of a review that itself gives extracts of your own book but here is an extract:

Clara’s voice is cheerful, uplifting, occasionally funny, and she keeps it moving along at a nice clip. To me, that’s immensely important. I have to like the author if I’m going to stick with them for 300 pages of a self-help book, otherwise… sorry, there just isn’t enough time in my day to spend on uninspired reading.

And another one:

The second strength of The Expat Partner Survival Guide is the voice of other participants. Clara has collected hundreds of personal stories from other expats and expat partners, interweaving them very smoothly with her own narrative. For me it felt a bit like coming across long-lost friends, as I recognized quite a few of the people she interviewed from my own connections in the expat world, like Maria from I Was an Expat Wife and Apple Gidley of Expat Life Slice by Slice.

To read the full review please visit Joburg Expat.

And in the meantime if you haven’t yet purchased your copy of the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide (price fom £2.99/$3.99) – you can go here to find out where to get it from!

Finally if you have read the book and enjoyed it then please consider leaving a review on Amazon for me. I will love you forever. Thank you!

Review Wednesday: Diplomatic Baggage

Hi and welcome to the first in what I hope will become a weekly event – Review Wednesday. Every week I intend to review something – a book, a blog, a website, a group or forum – that I think will be useful to expats and in particular expat partners. I’m kicking off with one of my favourite expat books – in fact, one of my favourite of any kind of book: Diplomatic Baggage by Brigid Keenan. Recommended for: anyone who has ever been or is likely to be an expat partner; the spouses of all said partners.

dip baggage

There was a point, early on in our posting to Pakistan, where I am not too sure where I would have been without Brigid Keenan.

My good friend Lorna had presented me with Brigid’s book, Diplomatic Baggage, as a leaving gift, just before we waved goodbye to the green pastures of good old blighty and exchanged them for the scorching, dusty streets of Islamabad. I have already described our journey to Pakistan in this post – so, suffice to say, things did not get off to a good start. And nor did they get much better for a while – we were stuck indoors for hours at a time, without most of our things and with very little company (the majority of the other families having sensibly left the city during the hottest part of the summer).

So it was with a huge amount of relief that I started reading Diplomatic Baggage, and sympathised with Brigid as she described her first few weeks as an expat partner in a new posting:

Oh God, I don’t know if I can bear it. This is my first morning in Kazakhstan and it is only eleven o’clock and I’ve already run out of things to do and I have another four years to go (that means one thousand four hundred and sixty days) until this posting comes to an end. How on earth am I going to get through it?

And with that, I knew I had found a friend.

The book follow’s Brigid, previously a fashion journalist in London, now wife to an EU diplomat (known, enigmatically, throughout the book only as AW) through 30 years of her life as a “trailing spouse”. It starts in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan, but then returns to the beginning and takes us on a journey through Ethiopia, Belgium, the Caribbean, New Delhi, the Gambia , Damascus (a heart-breaking read, with the hindsight we now have) and finally back to Kazakhstan. I found myself laughing out loud constantly as I read along, following both Brigid’s physical journey from place-to-place but also her emotional journey as she works out what it means to be a trailing spouse, how to occupy herself and how to cope with the constant comings-and-goings of expat life. She’s honest, she’s funny and she’s just so damn real.

As well as being a book about life as the accompanying spouse to her diplomat husband, Diplomatic Baggage is also a book about being a mother. And as we are about to move again, and this time our daughters are a lot older than they were the last time we were overseas, I am re-discovering parts of the book that completely passed me by the last time I read it, like this about schooling:

We had asked our office in Delhi for advice and they told us there was a British school in Delhi, so we had booked places for Hester and Claudia – only to discover when we arrived that there were no British children in the British school. British children all attended the American school. The British school was patronized by mostly Indians, plus the children of non-aligned or even enemy countries – North Korea, Albania, Iraq and so on, who wouldn’t dream of setting foot through the door of an American school.

I can’t believe I am the only one for whom this resonates, along with:

We knew no one, but somehow heard there was to be a Hallowe’en party at the American Embassy compound a couple of weeks later…I took Hester and Claudia along and we stood nervously at the edge of the crowd. No one spoke to us, but at one stage I noticed an English-looking woman of my age with two boys leaving the main group and setting off across the football pitch. I ran after her – ‘Hullo….Hullo!’ I cried, ‘Can I introduce myself – we have just arrived in India…’ ‘No, not now,’ she called out brusquely as though I was an unwanted salesman, ‘we are late for an appointment,’ and she strode off.

Oh how many times have I felt like that! Just reading Brigid’s words and laughing at how she dealt with it all really does help – in fact , I would say it was the best pick-me-up possible for those early days when your only friends are your staff and you’re still trying to work out where to buy the ingredients needed for your evening meal. If this is you, or if you think this might be you any time soon, I thoroughly recommend this book.

Next week I hope to review a different book, written more recently but which oozes with advice. In the meantime please let me know if you would like to recommend a book, website, blog or anything else that you think would be useful for expats for me to review. I am happy to consider anything – and don’t be shy to recommend your own work 🙂