Oh, Baby It’s A Wide World – Women Share International Experiences Of Pregnancy And Birth
Women share their international experiences of pregnancy and birth
Having a baby might be the most natural thing in the world… unless you live in the US, where it is anything but. If you are cradling a newborn in Hong Kong, then chances are you are keeping warm at home being fed a special diet of soups. In Australia you might be at a yoga class, trying to get back into shape.
We asked women around the world about their cross-cultural experiences of pregnancy, birth and young babies.
Gigi Chan: Hong Kong born Chinese, living in Hong Kong
A few months ago, I gave birth to my baby in Hong Kong. The Chinese believe there are three major turning points in a woman’s life and each can affect their health drastically. They are menstruation, giving birth and menopause. After birth, a new mother will complete a period of confinement at home for at least one month called zuo yuezi, the name translates to “sitting the month”. This is usually done with the help of your mother or a professional confinement lady.
After birth, a new mother will complete a period of confinement at home for at least one month called zuo yuezi, the name translates to “sitting the month”.
The confinement lady prepares food for you according to the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) beliefs of the mother’s needs. The confinement lady also looks after the baby to ensure the new mum is well rested so she can recover.
It is believed when you give birth your body loses warmth and allows wind/cold to enter. This can result in health problems later on. TCM categorises food as 涼 lèung (“cooling”), 熱氣 yiht hei (“warming”) and neutral – practitioners use the nature of the foods to balance the body’s yin and yang. Traditionally during confinement, you were not supposed to bathe or wash your hair and you avoided windy places and direct air conditioning. In modern days, many confinement ladies and Chinese doctors are more flexible on this rule so air conditioning is permitted. My confinement lady prepared ginger and herbal bathing water for me every day.
Finding a good confinement lady that can fit in to a family can be a challenging task. I found mine through a referral from a good friend. The psychological support and knowledge sharing she gave to me and my husband was beyond our imagination. We were very lucky to have her.
Bridie Balderstone: born in New Zealand, gave birth in UK and New Zealand
My son was born in the UK and my daughter in New Zealand. The systems were different, although I suspect not significantly. The differences, however, did affect my experience. In New Zealand I had a dedicated midwife throughout my pregnancy, birth and for six weeks post-partum. As a consequence, I developed a close relationship of trust with my midwife. When it came time to give birth, I knew I was in safe hands.
In London, I saw a different midwife for every appointment during my pregnancy. When I went into labour at 36 weeks, I saw another team of midwives and obstetricians, followed by another set of midwives during the birth of my son, followed by a different team in the post-natal ward. I felt like I was on a factory assembly line.
In both countries, the midwives I encountered were professional and dedicated (albeit undervalued, underpaid, understaffed and overworked!)
Michelle Chan: born in Australia, gave birth in Hong Kong
I spent a month in confinement according to TCM beliefs after the birth of my baby last month.
The key focus of confinement is the well-being of the mum which is transferred to the baby via breastfeeding.
My daily diet included various broth soups drunken multiple times a day. These soups each have a specific purpose, for example, helping with postpartum bleeding, balancing the mother’s yin and yang or aiding milk production. With the use of TCM herbal ingredients, some of the soups didn’t smell or taste great.
My daily diet included various broth soups drunken multiple times a day.
I found the confinement process was half about nutrition and half made up of old superstitions. Not washing your hair and covering up (even when it’s sweltering outside), which meant that I couldn’t have bare shoulders or knees even when I am inside, I found a bit kooky. As such, my confinement lady hated me wearing singlets. However, my biggest annoyance during pregnancy was swollen feet, so I was diligent about covering my knees. My confinement lady also made me soak my feet in a ginger water bath and drink special tea to remove the excess water I was retaining. It wasn’t long before my feet went back to normal. I’m not sure if that was just part of the natural process or if it was because I was following the confinement lady’s rules but I’m not complaining.
The biggest positive for me with having a confinement lady was another pair of hands to help out in this new and crazy time. I was able to take naps during the day while my baby girl was being attended to, which then helped out with my energy levels for the night.
The biggest positive for me with having a confinement lady was another pair of hands to help out in this new and crazy time.
I would recommend “sitting the month” only to people who are accustomed to TCM beliefs and can handle staying in a small Hong Kong apartment for that length of time (Netflix became my friend and visitors were always welcome). Having a confinement lady in the house can be like having a traditional Chinese school teacher living with you i.e. expectations to follow her methodology was non-negotiable.
I know some people have terrible experiences with confinement but overall mine was positive.
Allie Steel: born in Australia, gave birth in Australia and the US
I had one baby in the US and one in Australia. There are very different prenatal and postnatal care and birth experiences in each country for systemic reasons. The US process is much more medicalised as opposed to natural – it’s big business in the US. Care in the US is pretty much all obstetrics whereas in Australia (through the public system) I was cared for by midwives. There were four midwives in my obstetrician/gynaecologist practice in the US and it was impossible to get in with them. Women must have booked them before they were even pregnant.
The US process is much more medicalised as opposed to natural – it’s big business in the US.
During pregnancy, Americans, New Yorkers in particular, were bloody delightful. Generous, helpful and warm. Australians seemed to care a bit less and were more inclined to stand back and act like they didn’t notice the burgeoning bump.
Neeti Jain: born in India, gave birth in UK; currently living in Hong Kong
I’m from India but I gave birth to both my girls in London. In the UK there are fewer rituals around childbirth than in India and it’s calmer. I appreciated not being talked at by various grandmas and aunties about how to do things such as how to get my milk to flow – there are no boundaries. Because of the 40-day confinement period, you are not expected to leave the house. But because you may not be able to breastfeed in front of visitors for reasons of modesty, you often need to stop mid-feed and traipse out of the privacy of your own room to meet an endless stream of visiting relatives. I didn’t mind missing out on all that. In the UK, people gave me space and friends asked before popping over to visit. Also, friends who did visit knew when to leave.
In the UK there are fewer rituals around childbirth than in India and it’s calmer.
I did miss my family fussing over me though. I was doing laundry the day I came home from hospital. My mum was there to help, but she also felt weird being in our small London flat and being in the way all the time. She left ten days after the baby arrived. It was really hard initially but we managed. I think I had Postnatal Depression to some extent. I do wonder if my experience would have been different if I had been surrounded by family in India and not stuck with a screaming baby all by myself.
For Asian culture as a whole (including India), I think there is a better understanding of what is a healthy diet for the mother, confinement after birth and how to best help your body heal.
For Asian culture as a whole (including India), I think there is a better understanding of what is a healthy diet for the mother, confinement after birth and how to best help your body heal. Indians have a very special diet for the mother to get her to produce milk, as well as massages and binding to help her heal. So, I did miss that in London, although I tried to follow as much as I could, based on my Mum’s instructions. India also has a strict confinement period of 40 days which I did sort of observe in London. Literally on day 40, I felt like I was steady enough on my feet to go out. So that day I took the Underground for the first time after giving birth and went to watch the London Olympics being aired live in Hyde Park. I think there is some logic to these ancient confinement rules.
Rachel Jacqueline Thompson: born in Australia; giving birth in the US soon
I am having a baby in the US and have been shocked at how medicalised it is. I will be 35 – just – when I deliver, and was encouraged to have a CVS procedure (an invasive prenatal test that is used to detect birth defects) “just in case”, and because other women “like to have all the information”. It all was made to seem very routine and normal. I don’t know about you, but the idea of shoving a giant needle in either my abdomen or vagina and into my tiny little growing baby’s placenta “just” to have extra knowledge, and when no other indicators pointed to an abnormal birth, didn’t seem normal to me. I cried, and politely refused. In the UK and Australia, these procedures are only offered in high risk pregnancies. (Our NIPT (non-invasive pre-natal blood test) results, that came out a few days later, showed we were having a “low risk” baby girl. I’m so glad I trusted my gut there, particularly after learning a friend lost her baby at 18 weeks to an amniocentesis (another invasive pre-natal test) “just because”, a week earlier.)
I am having a baby in the US and have been shocked at how medicalised it is.
Elissa James: born in Australia, gave birth in Hong Kong
In Hong Kong strangers on the street seem genuinely concerned about a pregnant woman’s welfare. People stare at my bump a lot (“are you giving birth to twins”) but they also look out for me by letting me skip the taxi line, help me down stairs, and wave a finger my way when I consume cold drinks (according to TCM cold drinks can cause miscarriage) and eating bananas (the baby can suffer life-long congestion). I’m finding it quite sweet.
In Hong Kong, people stare at my bump a lot but they also look out for me, for example, by letting me skip the taxi line.
In Australia, I feel there is more of a “get on with it” type attitude. “You’re pregnant, so what? It’s not like you’re creating life or anything”. In Australia, I found it awkward being pregnant. I felt side-lined and very uncool.