The first time I walked into JinXiNanFang Hospital I was eight weeks pregnant.
I saw a mass of people elbowing their way to the check-in counter, hospital beds being pushed through the crowded entrance in every direction, and a window where a nurse was taking blood from a woman on a stool. I felt queasy.
My friend grabbed my arm and said, “Don’t worry, just stay with me,” as she led me up the four flights of stairs to the Ob/Gyn department where the Chinese woman who would be my doctor for the next eight months met us. Little did I know this gray, concrete building and seemingly disorganized messy process would become all too familiar over the next few months.
More than three years later, my husband and I have lived in China for four years and have two sons (now almost 3 years old and 6 months old) who have both been born in local Chinese hospitals. Many people’s first reactions to this have been, “Wow! You’re so brave!” But it certainly didn't feel like this was the case! We were in China when we found out we were expecting our first baby. We had just begun a new teaching semester, and the thought of going back to the U.S. for the birth was a little more overwhelming than staying in what had become our home at that point. So, for anyone who thinks having a baby in another country would be too far out of their comfort zone, here are some tips I learned that made giving birth overseas the smoother, easier, and ultimately most perfect choice for us.
- First, equipping myself with every possible piece of knowledge that I could find brought peace about our decision to give birth here. Being in a new country with different hospitals, procedures, doctors, and norms, I found that reading everything I could get my hands on about the kind of birth I wanted to have and being ready to ask the doctors all kinds of questions was crucial to helping me feel confident and ready to make the best decisions for myself and my baby. At first I felt that being in a country where I didn’t have access to any birthing classes or even English libraries was a great disadvantage to the natural birth I wanted to have, but we actually found more resources than we could ever need online and through friends.
- Second, the support of friends and teammates here made a huge difference. Local Chinese friends who had given birth in local hospitals, other expat moms, other moms who shared my passion for non-invasive natural birth, a local friend who translated my birth plan into Chinese, and many more acted as my personal army who fought for what I wanted, even when I was too drained. I was in labor with my oldest for a full three days before he was born (naturally, without any of the interventions my local hospital suggested), solely because of the support of people who knew when to say, “She’s fine! Let her go home to labor” or to give me much needed advice. And then, after each of my babies was born, we were showered with so much help and support that remembering this almost makes me cry. Although it was hard not to have our families with us, the body of Christ knows how to be like family in the most beautiful ways, just when you need it.
- Third, having an attitude of determination and fierce mama bear-ness that was ready to go against the local cultural norms when needed made birthing abroad possible for me. Once you’ve decided to give birth abroad, just go ahead and decide that you really can do this! Be prepared to make adjustments for things you feel like you’re “missing out on” and pick your battles. For example, both times I’ve given birth in China we were in hospitals where no one is allowed in the delivery room except the birthing mother. But each time, after negotiating with the hospital beforehand, my husband was able to be by my side and offer necessary support and encouragement. The hospitals may have been a little dirtier and lacked some things (you have to bring your own toilet paper!), but being empowered to ask for what I wanted, such as having my husband in the room, moving around as I pleased during labor, and having immediate skin-to-skin contact with the baby, while not culturally normal, all happened and were worth fighting for. And the smaller inconveniences, such as not being able to make appointments or the lack of soap and toilet paper in the bathrooms, I learned to let go and now laugh about.
We are grateful, not only for two beautiful and healthy boys, but for the cultural insight and experience that having our babies in China gave us. I can honestly say that giving birth overseas is one of the bravest, most empowering things I’ve ever done.
About the Author: Bethany is an educator and classically trained pianist. She and her husband have lived and taught in China for four years. Click here to read more about living overseas with children: The Rewards of Moving Overseas with Children.