Communal labor rooms – and other stories of giving birth abroad

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Living in some exotic locale sounds exciting, but what’s it like giving birth abroad in a foreign country? It’s easy to assume the best health care is available here at home, but is that really true? We talked to five North American moms living abroad, who shared the highs and the lows of their birthing experiences around the globe.

 

Kerry Dudman from Cupertino, Ca, delivered two daughters in Chile

I had both my daughters, Josefina and Isadora, in a private hospital in Chile. Your rights as a woman are somewhat limited here, but by using a private hospital, I was actually consulted and given choices that I wouldn’t have had in the public hospitals, such as having my husband in the delivery room and him being able to cut the cord.

With my first child, I felt like I wasn’t given a say in anything and I had lots of drugs and interventions pushed on me. The experience was very medicalized; in Chile, pregnancy is treated as a sickness that needs treatment, instead of as a natural process. I was really surprised that I wasn’t given choices. Having grown up in California, I took it for granted that you can do things how you want to. With my second child, I managed to get things done my way—despite the fact that the doctors practically laughed at me when I said I wanted a natural birth. After both births, I had to really push to be able to do attachment parenting, as the nurses try to get the baby away to the nursery so that the mom can rest.

But still, the private system here is probably better than in the United States. The hospital was spotlessly clean, with the most modern equipment, and it’s pretty much like staying in a hotel. You’re expected to stay there for three days and there are people checking on you all the time to see if you need anything.

Genesis Davies, from Salt Spring Island, BC, delivered two babies in Guatemala

I had my sons Dante and Dorian in public hospitals here. And, although the health care is free, it’s pretty lousy. There is a private health-care system, but we couldn’t afford to use it. No husbands are allowed in the hospital except during regular visiting hours, so, when I went into the hospital, my husband dropped me off, they stripped me and gave him my clothes, then he had to leave while I labored.

The health-care system is overstretched; there are too many people having babies, I guess! I spent some of my labor in a hallway on a gurney that had someone else’s blood on it. The hospital was not clean, by North American standards. Some of the equipment was disgusting and there was a lack of basic supplies.

I was eventually placed in a communal laboring room before going into a slightly more private area to give birth. When I told the staff I needed to push, they said I couldn’t because they were too busy! Interns delivered my first son because it was Christmas and there were no doctors on duty. I had a midwife, but she, too, was only allowed in the hospital during visiting hours.

No pain relief is offered whatsoever unless you are having a C-section. If you are really having difficulties, then you are offered oxygen—but that’s it. Before the birth, my husband was told to go buy a coagulant drug, then donate it to the hospital in case I needed it after delivery.

Straight after the birth, I went on to a ward with eight other women. There was absolutely no privacy. I was given two diapers for the baby but my husband had to go buy more, plus water and snacks for me, and bring them in. There is no money for the hospitals to provide extras to their patients.

Kris Adams, from Albuquerque, NM, gave birth in the Philippines

I had my son Matthew by C-section in a luxurious “foreigner hospital” that caters to ex-pats like us. It was a completely different experience than I’d had giving birth to three children in the United States. Although I had an excellent ob/gyn who had trained at Stanford University, ideas around birth there are quite different. For example, husbands usually aren’t allowed in the delivery room, your baby is taken to the nursery as soon as he or she is born, and you are expected to stay in the hospital for five days. None of those things were what I wanted, so I had to play the pushy American to get things my way.

The hospital offered me way more drugs than I wanted and a few times they attempted to start an IV without telling me what was in it. I had to keep refusing the pain relief they tried to force on me.

One nice thing was that we got to go into the hospital before the birth and select the room we wanted. There were all different types—we could have had a three-bedroom suite with its own kitchen if we’d wanted.

A strange thing about giving birth in the Philippines is that you can stay in the hospital for as long as you want after the birth, but you need to pay your bill in full, in cash, before you leave. We were scrambling before the birth to make sure we’d have the 120,000 Philippine pesos to pay. We had the money, but we could get only 5,000 pesos a day out of the ATM.

One of the benefits about living overseas is that I had hired help at home, so that I didn’t have to worry about cleaning my house and could spend all my time bonding with the baby. I certainly never had that kind of help in the States.

Liora Pearlman, from Jonesboro, AK, gave birth to her two children in China
When I had Rachel in Shanghai, the experience left me feeling violated. I was in a foreigner hospital, which caters to people with good insurance, that has English-speaking staff and better equipment. Expats are treated as VIPs here; it’s a very classist system.

It is the norm in China for women to have C-sections, as having one is a status thing to show your wealth. Women will often schedule the birth according to the Chinese calendar or their work. Although my doctor said that she had delivered 1,000 babies, I doubt many were birthed vaginally, as she panicked after I had been laboring for two hours.

I ended up having a very medicalized birth. I was a patient hooked up to machines; I was induced and cut, then a vacuum extractor was used to pull the baby out. Nobody was careful about what they said to me or how they said it, and the doctor completely ignored my birth plan. I felt like a piece of meat in a factory. I had a midwife but she just stood there and said nothing, giving me an odd squeeze of my leg from time to time. Rachel was physically fine, but I felt so unsupported.

We bought a package deal for the birth, and it cost us about $5,000 USD at a mid-range private hospital. When I had individual services done at local hospitals, I was shocked at how cheap they were compared to the United States. For example, an ultra- sound cost only $12 USD.

After Rachel was born, I connected with the local La Leche League, which is very active, and made lots of friends who shared my parenting philosophies. It helped me decide that I would have my second child, Yaakov, who is 2 years old, by unassisted home birth. Home births are illegal in China, so I had to register at a hospital, and then pretend that I had the baby so fast I couldn’t get there in time. My mom came out to help and that second birth went beautifully. It was a redeeming experience after the way the first birth went.

Tasha Boerner, from Riverside, CA, had her son in Germany

The care and support for parents here in Germany are very good, so good, in fact, that it would be idiotic to come back to the United States before we were finished having children. The state paid for an eight-week birth preparation course, reimbursed the cost of my prenatal yoga lessons, and then offered a pelvic-floor exercise class, with free childcare, six weeks after the birth. The hospital we chose had new, modern birthing rooms with specialized beds, birthing stools, and hanging straps for labor. All women are offered a water birth and get to stay in a hospital for five days. My husband was given the option of staying with us in the hospital after the birth, which he did, and it was a great bonding experience for our family.

In Germany, midwives deliver babies unless there are any complications. I had preeclampsia and needed vacuum extraction, so I was attended by an OB/GYN. After my labor, Maté was put on my stomach before he was cleaned, then once he was cleaned, he was put straight on my breast.

Here, maternity and paternity leave allowances are very generous. New moms get six weeks at full pay before the birth and eight weeks after. Then, there are a further 14 months of maternity leave at 66 percent pay that can be split between the parents. I’ll be taking the first seven months off and then my husband will take the rest. It’s a really supportive system.

— Lola Augustine Brown is British, but has nothing but good things to say about delivering her daughter, Perdida, in Canada. Brown also writes for Glamour and Redbook.

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