Giving birth is a weird enough experience. Of course, I had to go ahead and make it as weird as possible. I’m an American who gave birth to my children in China.
When I tell most people this, they find it intriguing. After all, it is. What person in their right mind would have a baby in China? Actually, it costs much less to give birth there, even with a c-section. It wasn’t my intention to go there to give birth to cut costs, though that was a nice side bonus. I did it for love.
Don’t we all?
I met my Chinese husband, and it was a whirlwind relationship. We were having the time of our lives, going out to karaoke on the weekends with our friends, exploring ancient temples and ruins, shopping the latest styles, and living our best life. Suddenly though, that would all change, and I was pregnant with our first child.
We moved closer to his family so they could help us with the baby, and my world was suddenly turned upside down. We went from living in a cosmopolitan Asian landmark city to a place I’d never even heard of, quite literally, overnight. Smoggy air, a language I couldn’t understand, and odd bits of culture made my time there challenging.
I’d love to say it got easier, but it was a harrowing experience. While I couldn’t understand much of what anyone said, I knew I was getting that fun buttinsky advice that people love to tell pregnant women. Maybe it was better. I didn’t understand it after all.
My mother-in-law would come over to help me out, but all she did was make it worse. Bless her heart; she’s a kind soul. She truly is. But she stomped all over my clean floors (I was heavy into my nesting phase by then) with her shoes caked in street dirt from China below our apartment. Stabby feelings were rising in my throat.
Bleak Conditions That Challenge Your Gag Reflex
It wasn’t just her, though. The conditions of things there unsettled me. Hospitals in China aren’t exactly clean places. While it’s true that in the states, you can pick up lots of germs in the hospitals, the floors are filthy over there.
The bathrooms? Also visibly disgusting. 🙁
When you’re pregnant and feel like your bladder may betray you, you will go anywhere; I promise you this. There was a time my husband and I walked around the surrounding area to our apartment. We headed to a nearby university to distribute flyers for a female Chinese tutor. He hoped he could find me, someone I could be friends with.
While on campus, I naturally had to pee again, so we found the nearest ladies’ room. When I stepped inside, I was instantly smacked with the vile odor of excrement. It wasn’t a backed-up squatter (the porcelain hole in the floor that they favor over toilets). There were piles of poop all around the place. Thankful for the frigid cold weather, I pulled my scarf over my nose and mouth and inhaled my perfume. I returned to my husband, who asked me if I’d seen a ghost. “No, just the poop left behind from 1,000 of them,” I’d replied.
Birth is What Happens When You Make Other Plans
Everything I’d planned went out the window when it was time to give birth. My eldest made my water break all over my pants, an erupting waterfall just like in the movies. I remember writing emails to friends back home. My mother-in-law had finally gone home for the day, something I’d prayed for. I specifically remember saying to myself, “Please, God, don’t let me go into labor when she is here.”
My prayers were most definitely answered, for 20 minutes after she had left, that’s when my water broke. I stopped typing for a moment, and an alarm went off in my head. I wondered if I’d peed in my pants, but it seemed like a lot of pee. So, I stood, and more water rushed out. I called my husband, who left work once so we could have this baby.
In the hospital, I was forced to stay in bed while random teams of doctors and nurses would flock in, lift the blanket, run tests, and basically make me wish I could crawl into a hole. I’d never before flashed my bits to so many people; I had some wild college days.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t dilated enough, so I had to lie in a horribly uncomfortable hospital bed and wait it out, enduring contractions the whole time. We’d originally come in around 3 pm. Now it was night, and they were telling me I should get some sleep. Right. My contractions were coming on strong every 5 minutes. Sleep was futile. My husband was sound asleep on the neighboring bed, though. Every shriek I emitted from my pain stirred him, and he mumbled, “Shhhhh,” at me. I considered throwing my bedpan at him.
By morning, I was dilated enough to get something for the pain and squeeze out the baby. I couldn’t wait. Oh, but this child had other plans for me! About 30 minutes after my epidural, I was in a world of hurt. The baby had turned around inside me and was essentially headbutting my tailbone. Lovely. I tried to coax a turnaround, but it was useless. By this point, I’d been in labor for nearly 24 hours and was exhausted. With no other options, I had to be rushed for an emergency c-section.
Only the Lonely: Recovering from Giving Birth in a Faraway Land
It’s funny, though, how that pain fades away, leaving you to forget it when you hold the tiny little miracle that kept kicking you every time you ate something spicy. In China, that was all the time. I got my wish come true, a baby girl. But naturally, I had a long recovery ahead of me. Stuck in the hospital with a husband that had to go back to work, now my mother-in-law was left to keep me company.
Aside from shuffling her feet all the time and making it difficult for me to fall asleep. Having her there also reminded me of how lonely I felt in China. I had only a few friends at the time, unlike back home. Perhaps worse than that lonely feeling of being stuck in a room with someone you can’t really talk to very well was that the cultural elephant in the room was also lurking.
For example, they believe drinking hot water is better for you and that you should never drink cold water.
I purposely let my boiled water sit and cool to enjoy a refreshing glass of water. My mother-in-law felt it, gasped, and blabbered in Chinese about it not being hot. “Noooooooo!” I wailed in agony. My precious, cooled water! Gone!
Then there was the time when one of the nurses came in to administer something to me. Most of them spoke enough English to make it easy to understand what was happening, but this one didn’t. My mother-in-law, who speaks zero English herself, decided to try to help by translating for me. She repeated exactly what the nurse said to me, just as quickly, as though her saying it was suddenly going to make me go, “Aha! I understand! Yes!”
With very few English-speaking doctors and nurses, misinformation about breastfeeding (they wanted to give my daughter water which you’re not supposed to do), and a bunch of other aggravating things, it was a happy day when I got to go home from the hospital. And while it was difficult trying to recover and get our baby girl settled in, it was nice to be in a somewhat familiar place in an unfamiliar country.
Say, Let’s Do That Again!
You’d think all this would have been enough for me to keep from having more kids, but no. Oh, how we loved our daughter! We wanted another one, and lucky for us, we got pregnant on the first try when we decided we were ready.
This time though, we planned our c-section. And this time around, my Chinese had improved. So had the hospital. They didn’t tell me misinformation about breastfeeding, and they spoke more English than before. Still, my doctor, who was fantastic at her profession but a bit pushy, kept asking me if I wanted to try for a VBAC.
I didn’t doubt her competence for a minute. I even had a good friend who’d also had her firstborn as an emergency c-section and then went on to have her second child via VBAC through this very same doctor. I doubted that I could handle it should we have another complication. I’d rather have a planned c-section than another emergency.
Good thing, too, for my second child, decided to come out and play a week before the scheduled c-section. I went into labor around midnight, though I watched the clock just to be sure it wasn’t a falsie. Oh, it was real. The contractions came every 15 minutes. At 6 am, I informed my husband we should go to the hospital.
I was scared, and who wouldn’t be? 😕
Yes, I’d been through a c-section before. Yes, I’d done it in China before. And yes, it was the same doctor, the best in the province. Yet, I was freaked out that I’d die. But soon, I heard the first cries of my second daughter, and I knew I’d be just fine.
The biggest problem with the birth of our second daughter was that she was born in the summer. Most of the year, it was cold or cool. But in the summer, it was like warm death. It didn’t help much that Chinese people very much fear fans and air conditioning. They believe it will make you cold, which will kill you. True story.
As you’re probably aware, one of the best things you can do after giving birth is to rest. Nurse your baby, rest, repeat. Neither of us could get comfortable because they kept shutting off the air conditioning in our room. My husband screamed at the staff until they promised not to touch it again. They couldn’t believe my baby, and I could sleep soundly after that.
The Most Surreal Surprise of All
With both daughters, I found the hardest part about coping with being a mom was that I might as well have been Barbie walking around in a homogenous land like China. Everyone wanted to take my picture and look at me. Same with my kids. Only in China they want to show their friendliness by touching your child’s hands or face.
I can’t tell you how many karate chops I doled out during my time there to keep filthy fingers from touching my kids. I guess those martial arts classes from my younger years really paid off.
China wasn’t a wholly bad place, though.
Despite their lack of knowledge about germs and sanitary efforts, people were kind. I heard many horror stories of friends back in the states who were publicly confronted for breastfeeding. Never once did anyone say anything negative to me while I nursed either of my daughters. In fact, people would offer their seats or suggest a more comfortable booth in restaurants where we could have more space. It’s a warmth Americans could really stand to work on.
The cultural differences and the surrealness of giving birth made my life in China a bit crazy. But I really wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Besides, with the money we saved having our kids there, we can put them through college here. Not a bad tradeoff if you ask me.
Plus, living abroad really deepens your perspective on the world. You don’t know how good you have it when you’re from a first-world country until you spend some time in a developing nation. That perspective has helped me count my blessings every day since I’ve been home.
Leslie Berry lives with her husband and two young daughters in Los Altos, California, where she loves helping other moms get comfortable with motherhood and embracing the insanity with facts peppered with laughs.
She loves eating too much sushi, exercising, and jamming out on her Fender. Read more about Leslie here.