Giving birth abroad as an expat

What do you get when you combine the adventure of living abroad with the journey of pregnancy? One crazy unique experience! Now dub those hormones in a multitude of languages across various channels and that’s when the pregnant expat party really begins. Tune to channel 1 for overjoyed, channel 2 for emotional, channel 3 for hungry, channel 4 for…I forget…can we just go back to channel 3 please?

When we moved to South Africa I knew there was a possibility that I’d not only be living abroad but having our first baby abroad as well. So, I did what any normal American living in South Africa would do and pictured a tribal drum circle in the middle of the wilderness surrounded by animals to the tune of “Circle of Life” (obviously). While that wasn’t exactly my birth environment, I still changed my entire outlook on the birthing process due to being away from more familiar surroundings and was therefore forced to investigate a birth setting as unique as my expat lifestyle. That being said, if I could get a drum circle with Rafiki as my midwife for baby #2, that’d be pretty sweet.

So, what could have changed so much you might ask? The mechanics of the situation were going to be the same for Operation Baby Jailbreak (ideally sans shiv), but the result didn’t have to be the same. Here’s how birthing abroad changed my life:

  • Different Medical Care – Did our South African OBGYN support our goal of an unmedicated natural birth? “Sure!” he said. But upon further probing, we discovered that he had a 95% C-section rate. So, we ran from Edward Scissorhands like we were escaping the Zombie Apocalypse in search of a more supportive birth partner. Enter the midwives and their baby catching prowess. Since I hadn’t pictured the baby to come out at the speed of a tennis ball machine I didn’t realize I needed a catcher. Was it 3 pushes and I’d strike out? Was the baby going to slide into home plate? We quickly learned that midwives facilitate the normal physiological process of a mother giving birth to a baby. This is in stark contrast to an OBGYN who is a highly trained surgeon utilizing technology to actively manage potential complications and deliver the baby (“active” unfortunately can mean “unnecessary medical intervention”). To understand this difference was the first major turning point in what was vs. what could have been.
water birth abroad expat
  • Alternative Birthing Environments – The idea of giving birth outside of a hospital environment was as Ludacris as having a baby in unfamiliar Area Codes. I had always assumed white coats, bright lights, big cities. Enter the Birthing Center’s holistic approach. I know what you’re thinking, birthing adorned with a Coachella inspired flower crown is all nice and dandy until shit happens (literally and figuratively) causing you to crawl back to Dr. Scissorhands with your umbilical cord between your legs. For me, I was lucky enough to find a birthing center with on-call OBGYN’s and an in-house operating room in case said shit hit said fan. It also came with a large bed for our new family of 3 to sleep in post birth extravaganza instead of pushing Sunday to rest in a hospital chair after the longest day of both of our lives.
birth and labor abroad
  • Additional Supportive Measures – In an attempt to do a 180 from my early days in NYC and “Say no to drugs”, we wanted to give ourselves a fighting chance against medical intervention. Enter the magic of a doula. I couldn’t understand where a doula would fit into the lineup which already consisted of an experienced midwife and a dedicated husband. After 30 hours of labor I can confidently say that I now understand the value of a Doula. Instead of inducing labor with oxytocin or numbing labor pains with epidurals, the doula, Sunday and I walked, squatted, climbed stairs, massaged, breathed, mantra’d, and then squatted some more. I clearly had the Richard Simmons of doulas and was about to Jazzercise this baby right out of me (but with less glitter and more unattractive facial expressions). The doula’s role went well beyond what my husband could have ever known to do as she quickly reacted to each new stage of labor working with us to progress the birth. As the doula, Sunday, and midwife took turns supporting and monitoring me, I realized I had officially achieved my #birthsquadgoals.
Giving birth abroad in South Africa
  • Unconventional Birthing Methods – Hospital bed, legs up, that’s the way you like to…birth? When asked about my birth plan I scratched my head and said “I’d like it to come out please.” I figured hospital, IV’s, doctors, the works. Little did I know there was a plethora of furniture, twister poses, and spa environments at my disposal (I hear you can even hire Enya by the hour). Based on my love of bath time I figured a water birth was the best way to birth our baby beluga. So, there I was, 30hrs of natural labor later, sitting in a big bathtub, surrounded by candles, in a birthing center, in South Africa, with my birth squad at 4 in the morning welcoming our little lion cub into the world in a scene that I never could have pictured in a million years when I was younger. These are the moments that change you.
water birth abroad expat

After learning about conception from Look Who’s Talking, water breaking from Baby Mama, and birthing from Knocked Up, I figured I had a good handle on what having a baby entailed. Shockingly, that Netflix line up didn’t appropriately prepare me (damn you Katherin Heigl!).

So, what was so life changing? What I found out was that birth can be amazing, painful, beautiful, long, surreal, exhausting, and transformative. It doesn’t have to be a clinical routine procedure in a medical institution in order to be safe. The reality is that birth looks different for every woman all around the world and rarely does it happen the way we pictured…or hoped it would be. Regardless of how it all turns out, know that you have the power to find out your options whether you’re local or abroad. If you don’t like the plan that’s presented to you then Stand UpRoll Out, and Act A Fool until you get to Shake Your Money Maker the way you want to (and that’s 6 Ludacris references in a birth post for the win!).

Why not?!

P.S. – For a more educational lineup of movie entertainment, pour your partner a strong drink and check out The Milky WayBusiness of Being Born, and Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives on iTunes and Netflix.