Why moving abroad is just like having a baby….

My latest column for Expat Focus looks at the similarities between having a baby…and becoming an expat.

You generally find out you are pregnant nine months or so before the baby arrives (although for some of course this period is shorter). You may have been trying for a baby for some time before that, so have already started making at least mental preparations for when it eventually happens. Nine months is probably around the average amount of time an expat also knows about their move – some will be longer, some a lot shorter.

To read the full post please follow this link – and I would love to hear your feedback: what other ways do you think moving abroad and having a baby can be compared? Answers on a postcard in the comments section below please!

What to Expect When Expecting in Germany

Even though I have finally arrived in our new home in South Africa, I am still all over the place with work and blogging. It will be a few days  weeks yet before I can catch up properly so I am very grateful for this late entry to my Summer of Guesting posts. Today’s blog comes from Heather, who writes about her experience of childbirth in Germany. Posts like this are useful not just for expats in that part of the world, but for anyone considering giving birth abroad and wants to know what sort of things they need to consider before deciding where to have their baby. Over to you, Heather:

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When I followed my husband’s career to Germany with my two small children, I thought my family was complete. So when I found out I was pregnant half way into our third year living overseas, I was in a bit of a shock. Even though this would be my third child, I found myself feeling very much like a first time mommy to be as I had never experienced pre-natal care and childbirth in Germany.

Choosing an OB/GYN:
One of the first things I had to do was find an OB/GYN. The natural instinct was to ask my other expat friends for referrals and to check on some of the local Facebook and internet forums I belonged to. As it turned out, my neighbor was an American who had 6 month old twins born there in Munich, so she was a great resource for me and gave me a referral to her OB/GYN who spoke English. But as I went through the process, I discovered a few other things I should have considered and questions that I didn’t think to ask.

1) What kind of medical insurance do you have? Some doctors do not take public insurance or may already be at their maximum for publicly insured patients. If you are privately insured, did you buy the right kind of insurance to cover pre-natal care and delivery? Thankfully for me, the doctor my friend referred me too took the public insurance that we were on and it covered quite a bit.

2) Do you want a provider that does both pre-natal and delivery or would you rather have a pre-natal specialist and then the hospital’s delivery specialists? Many doctors in Germany chose to specialize in one aspect or another, though you can find doctors that do both pre-natal care and delivery. If you want to give birth in a specific hospital, you may have to have a certain doctor for your pre-natal care that is attached to that hospital. Or on the other hand, if you choose a doctor that does both, you may be limited to only being able to go to their hospital. I didn’t even realize that my provider wouldn’t be the one delivering my baby until I was 6 months pregnant. That added the stress of having to figure out if I would be able to understand the hospital staff doctors in the delivery room.

3) How comfortable are you in the language of your host country? While many doctors are able to speak adequate English, their office staff may have a very limited English. You will have to decide if you can deal with scheduling appointments, potential insurance issues, and general instructions for blood tests, weigh ins, etc. in German.

What to Expect During Appointments

The thing I loved most about my pre-natal care, and really about any care I received from other doctors in Germany, is how much the doctor does themselves. When I went in with a thyroid concern at my general practitioner’s office, the doctor decided on the spot that I should have an ultrasound and escorted me to the room next door where she performed the ultrasound herself, right there, and then discussed what she saw. There was no extra appointment needed, no films from a tech that the doctor then had to interpret and potentially decide wasn’t done at the right angle and needed to be done again.

The same applied to my pre-natal doctor. Once the weigh-ins or occasional blood tests were done by the nurses, I sat in the doctor’s formal office for any discussion, then went into a separate exam room for any ultrasounds or heart beat check-ups, all under the care of the actual doctor. Once your appointment started you felt like you had the full attention of your doctor, unlike my U.S. experience where you sat in an exam room the whole time while the doctors went from room to room checking on other patients and sending nurses in here and there to give you other information.

At the end of each appointment, all of your history and current stats are recorded in your “Mutter Pass.” This is a booklet that contains your medical history relating to your pregnancy that you carry around at all times. If you are in a car accident or taken to another doctor for any reason, having the “Mutter Pass” lets that new physician know exactly what is going on with your pregnancy, and better yet, if you are in the early stages, it alerts them to the fact that you are pregnant in case you are unconscious.

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Public Attitudes toward Expectant Mothers
In general, I had very positive experiences with people out and about in daily life while I was pregnant. Most people gave up their seat for me on the bus for me or held open a door. You’ll also benefit from being waved to the front of a long line in public buildings and bathrooms. But what most people might not be prepared for is how Germans tend to consider children “community property.” By that I mean the whole “it takes a village” approach is alive and well in Germany and people, especially the elderly who you encounter at the supermarket or on the bus, have no problems asking you about how you plan to raise or feed your child. I had at least had the exposure to the breastfeeding questions when I moved to Germany with a 2 month old. So I wasn’t as surprised when a man on the bus would notice my big belly and ask me if I planned to breastfeed my child! Be prepared for a slew of advice from strangers before and after your delivery.

Choosing a Hospital
In my whole pregnancy, the one area that probably caused me the most stress was choosing and going to the hospital where I would give birth. Even before I was pregnant I had read several questions and responses to hospital selection from other expats, and the horror stories that went with them. When I discovered that my doctor wouldn’t be delivering me, I was terrified of the choice.

The most obvious hospital would be the hospital closest to my home, which was literally a 7 minute walk from my front door. The only problem was, I had heard the most negative stories about this particular hospital. On the extreme opposite end of the spectrum were the dream hospitals, the two that everyone raved about yet described getting to be able to give birth there as challenging as getting into an Ivy League school. All of the hospitals offer some sort of information night where you can tour the facilities and ask questions (in some, it is a requirement to attend before you can register).

I had two small children that would still need to be looked after while I gave birth and my proximity to them and the hospital were my most important criteria. Since we didn’t know if any family would be able to come out and be there with us when the time actually arrived, I wanted some place nearby so that my husband could go easily between my boys and the hospital if my neighbors had to watch them. I took comfort in the fact that another neighbor told me she gave birth at the same hospital, Rechts der Isar, and had a wonderful experience. This particular hospital also had a neonatal unit, something not all hospitals had in Munich. So, if something were to go wrong with the baby, I knew that she wouldn’t have to be transported to another facility away from me.

One thing that most of the hospitals had in common though, was the multi-person recovery rooms. After you have your precious angel in your arms and are taken away to the recovery wing, you may find yourself sharing a room with at least one other mother and baby and in some cases, up to four other women! So for someone who previously gave birth twice in the U.S. in a private hospital room where I labored, gave birth and recovered all in the same room with my own private bathroom, this concept did not appeal to me at all! Certain hospitals have a few private rooms that are usually reserved for those new mothers with the right kind of private insurance. It’s also important to note that the average hospital stay for a normal delivery in Germany is 3 days. I could not even imagine sharing a room with a bunch of moms and their newborns, AND their visitors all hours of the day for 3 days. The way I got around this was exercising the law that only requires mothers to stay in the hospital for 4 hours after giving birth, provided that both the mother and the baby’s health is cleared by the attending doctors. While I had heard that most hospitals will try to dissuade you from doing so, my hospital was very respectful of my choice and did not try to change my mind.

In the end, the hospital was just as good as my experiences with my births in the U.S. and have since calmed the fears of many other mother’s considering it as one of their options. My pregnancy overseas came with a few different stresses than I had experienced in the U.S. but I felt that my overall care and treatment as an expectant mother was superior to my experiences “back home” and in the end, I had a very healthy baby girl.

Heather Jenks is currently a repatriated mom of three young children living back in the United States. She spent three years as an expat spouse in Germany with her two sons that were later joined by a little sister in their final year of living in Germany.  She continues to travel internationally for several weeks a year with her kids and shares her experiences on her blog www.mommyandmeoverseas.com

Have you given birth overseas? Or did you chose to go back to your home country – or even to a third country? I would love to hear your experiences – either in the comments below or if you would like to write a gurst post do get in touch via clara@expatpartnersurvival.com.

Memorable Journeys #7: First Journey of a Tiny Expat

Journeys can be memorable for many reasons. Previously I have written about a journey that was memorable because I spent 12 hours at Moscow airport – with a sulky brother who wouldn’t speak to me. And another journey that led to us spending the day in a hotel in Dubai – when we weren’t ever meant to be anywhere near that country! And guest poster Pheobe from Lou Messugo wrote about her very memorable journey in Mongolia – on a very dodgy airline. But they can also be memorable because it’s the first time you have ever done something, too. Here, in the latest in my Memorable Journey series, Yuliya of the Tiny Expats blog describes what it was like to take their eldest daughter on a plane for the first time.

For Clara’s Memorable Journey series, I decided to tell you about our older daughter’s first experience of relocation. We were moving from Hamburg, Germany, to Shanghai, China, and had to change flights in Dubai.

Hamburg-Shanghai

This was the first flight for our daughter and it was also the first flight for us, as parents, with a small child (she was 1 year and 4 months old), so we had absolutely no idea what to expect! Hamburg-Dubai flight lasts approximately 6 hours and we hoped that our daughter’s day nap could supply us with at least an hour or two of free time to sit back and relax a little. In my experience, plans that include small kids don’t usually work out the way you want them to. A trip to the airport, all the security checks and detailed investigation of all corners of a a waiting lounge proved to be quite exhausting, so our daughter fell asleep in my arms in the airport and decided to wake up, when we were invited to board our plane. “Would you like any newspapers or magazines for your entertainment during the flight?” asked the flight attendant. “We believe, we will have more than enough entertainment on our hands as it is..” came our gloomy answer.

One thing I can say for sure – I was very happy that I still breastfed at that time. You just can’t beat the benefits of breastfeeding during long journeys! I didn’t have to worry whether she would like the food we could get in the airports and on the flights – she could always top up with milk. And, of course, it’s the direct route to tranquility, albeit a temporary one.

The 6 hours went past surprisingly quickly. Although, our daughter already had a nap, there was so much to discover – buttons, screens, weird chairs, strange windows. Being in a business class didn’t hurt as well. When we landed in Dubai, we could exhale in relief – now just a few hours of wait in a lounge and a night flight to Shanghai.

Our wait in Dubai was not bad at all. There was a play room, where either my husband or I babysat our toddler. It got more difficult as it started to get closer to bed time. Our flight to Shanghai was scheduled to depart around midnight and we hoped to be able to entertain our kid until we boarded the plane, so she could fall asleep for the night. She was excited in the new surroundings and stayed up longer than usual in any case, but she still was a one and a half year old, who could switch off anywhere if she needed to.

Like a professional baby carrier that I was, I took her cuddled up in my arms all through the long walkways and check in. My husband went with a stroller and carry on. I would’ve preferred our daughter to be in the stroller, but she was too tired/stressed out and in a serious need of a cuddle, so the stroller was just an unacceptable option.

As soon as we sat down and I buckled her in together with me, she just switched off in an instant. In about 9 hours, I actually had to wake her up, as the plane was about to land in Shanghai. The night went by quickly, only interrupted by some milk top ups (I think, more for comfort than for food), but she didn’t even fully wake up for those.

It was a morning in Shanghai, as bright as it could get, with a yellowish disk in the sky trying to shine through the grey smog. That was going to be the next chapter in our expat lives, totally different to Hamburg.

P.S. If I could give you an advice for taking small kids on a plane, it would pretty much come down to these points:
– continue breastfeeding at least until after the relocation – it’s just such a great help!
– night flights are the best
– if possible, don’t do it without your partner; you would, of course, survive, doing it alone, but at a greater cost

Thank you Yuliya for sharing your Memorable Journey with us, and some great tips there. I would particularly agree with the point about continuing to breastfeed if you possibly can – it is hugely reassuring to know you will always be able to feed your baby, whatever the circumstances. If anyone else suddenly remembers a journey they have taken that might make a good yarn, please do get in touch. It doesn’t have to be a flight or even a long journey – a train or bus ride, a walk, a horse or donkey ride……

Memorable Journeys #5: London to Islamabad via Dubai (where we should never have been)

The run up to our posting to Islamabad wasn’t easy – we had a baby and a toddler, the baby got ill (gastroentiritis), she then developed some sort of exploding nappy syndrome…luckily at the last moment I remembered the doctor mentioning that gastroentiritis can lead to lactose intolerance in babies (and STUPIDLY I had given up breast feeding just before we were about to launch on an epic journey when not having to worry about her formula would have been one thing less to worry about)….

…so eventually we bought some lactose-free formula, the baby’s nappies stopped being quite so horrendously green and smelly, our bags were packed, we said our goodbyes to all and sundry and we set off to the airport, all of us packed together with about 6 large suitcases, two car-seats, a buggy and one of those huge nappy bags you have to take everywhere with you when you have any child under the age of about two.

We were lucky enough to be flying business class – these were still the days before the austerity cuts put an end to that (for us, at least). So check in and the period leading up to the flight was all relatively relaxed. We got on the plane, found our seats and settled in for what we thought would be a nice, straight-forward, A-to-B flight.

Never turning right again!

Never turning right again!

I can’t say the main part of the flight was fun. First the baby slept while the toddler was awake (see above – E, aged two, enjoying the best BA Business class has to offer). Then when the toddler finally feel asleep, it was the baby’s turn to wake. Still, I told myself as I paced the aisles bouncing a crotchety seven-month-old in my arms, it won’t be long until we’re there and we can all collapse into bed in our new house….

And we were nearly there. We were VERY nearly there. Unfortunately, we had been beaten to our destination by a very large thunderstorm. Which meant landing in Islamabad was going to be impossible. And since we couldn’t land in Karachi (security issues) or in Delhi (too many Pakistani’s on board – the Indians wouldn’t let them in) the only viable option open to us was to turn around and head for Dubai. Groan!

From London to Dubai

So the captain turned the plane around and back we went. This was annoying but we thought it would just be a blip. We were reassured that there would be BA ground staff waiting for us when we arrived in Dubai – they even made it sound like someone somewhere had a clue what they were doing. Ha ha ha ha ha.

When we landed in Dubai – one of the busiest airports in the world – it soon became clear that in fact no-one, not the Captain, nor the crew nor anyone at the airport had any idea of who we were, where we had come from or what to do with us. The plane wandered around aimlessly for a bit before finally finding somewhere to park. We were ushered off and taken on a bus first to one gate, then another. Eventually we were pointed inside the airport building and led around in a few circles. No-one went through any kind of security and I almost lost the toddler in the scrum. I screamed at her across the airport as she was about to disappear into a dense thicket of thawb’s, abaya’s, kameezes and dishdash’s….

Finally we found ourselves, plus some of our suitcases, on a bus to a hotel. Where there was a queue of fellow-passengers snaking around the room and to the door. We found some seats and made ourselves at home. While my husband and I took it in turns to queue, the children fell asleep…..

Now just to add some context here, the London to Islamabad flight was a night flight. We hadn’t managed to snatch more than a few minutes sleep before we arrived in Dubai – by which time it was some time the day after we originally took off. As for meals, I don’t think we had any idea as to what we should have eaten when. We’d gone through so many different time zones, and then back again, by this point that the only clue as to when it was time to eat was our grumbling stomachs. Unfortunately we were now in a country for which we had no relevant currency….

Eventually we were taken up to our hotel room where we were presented with one bed for the four of us….and certainly no such thing as a cot or anything safe for the baby to sleep in. Luckily, although the rest of us hadn’t had anything to eat in a while, I had packed some pouches of food for the baby (Ella’s Pouches – thoroughly recommended!) as well as some formula in little boxes (once again, why oh why had I stopped breastfeeding before this journey?), so she was able to eat. We were eventually presented with some tokens for the restaurant downstairs – where we managed to stuff the toddler with bread as there wasn’t much else that she recognised on offer.

So at this point we thought we would all at least be able to sleep while we waited for some news from the airline. However, if you remember a little further up the story, the children had slept while we waited to check in. And were now wide awake and full of beans. And jumping (well, the toddler was jumping, the baby was watching her) all over the room.

We were getting close to two days without sleep and it didn’t look like we were getting any soon.

It was a dismal, dismal situation. We were stuck in a small hotel room in Dubai with no money, no information, no food and no sleep. And this is what the view out of the window looked like:

Dubai_Arch_Tower_Under_Construction_on_10_January_2008

As the day wore on we started to get more and more desperate for information. I am sure our sleep deprivation, as well as all the accumulated stress from the weeks leading up to the move, wasn’t helping, but things were starting to get a little emotional. We tried calling the airline, but just kept being put through to the inevitable clueless call-centre operators. There was no-one from British Airways to be found, anywhere.

EVENTUALLY we were told a bus would take us back to the airport that evening and we would be put on a flight to Islamabad. The children fell asleep and we all managed to get a couple of hours kip, before we had to wake them up, bath them and get them ready for the next leg of our seemingly never-ending journey.

We didn’t want to stand in any more lines so changed enough money for a taxi to get us to the airport and thus one step ahead of our fellow passengers. We still had a three or four hour wait at the airport and I remember how interesting it was watching all the people in all their various different outfits – Dubai really is a true crossroads of the world. I was also starting to feel a little more benign towards our unwanted destination, now that we knew we were on our way out of it.

So the rest of the story is actually quite unremarkable. We got on the plane. It flew to Islamabad. We got off, entered Pakistan, were picked up by my husband’s predecessor, drove to our house on the diplomatic compound, found with huge relief that someone had turned the air-conditioning on….and collapsed into those beds we’d been dreaming of since before the u-turn over Islamabad. Our time in Pakistan was difficult, full of drama and short -lived. But despite this, the memories of that awful journey haunt me to this day.

This post is part of my memorable journeys series. Read the other posts in this series: 

London to Cameroon via Moscow 

Keeping it Sterile

A Step into the Unknown at Frankfurt Airport

Mongolian Airways to Khovd via Moron

And please don’t forget, if you have ever had a memorable journey and would like it to feature in this series let me know!

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A tale of a toddler, a crayon and a multilingual experience in Czech hospital

A perect example of why it’s always wise to be prepared (where to go, how to communicate when you get there…) for any medical emergency when you move overseas. A scary situation at the best of times, somethig like this can be very daunting if you have just relocated somewhere new.

Having two small kids around, it helps to occasionally let go and allow yourself not to worry about little things. Little annoying things. For example, mess all over your flat, plastic cutlery in a socks drawer, toys in a kitchen cabinet, etc. A tidy up maniac that I am, I think, I’m doing pretty good nowadays, trying to control the urge to wash everything as soon as it gets dirty and yesterday was a pretty good example.

You know those soft crayons, which are made specifically to use as a face paint? My girls love them. Not only do they’d colour all of their bodies in an Indian/Avatar patterns, these crayons are easily washed off the surfaces, therefore, mom doesn’t get all mad, when they make living room laminate floor so much prettier. The colour of the day was black and by the time the girls moved on from body…

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Bliss: A Moment in Time

Today’s photo101 challenge is to capture our idea of ‘bliss’. I was tempted to take a picture of a box of Hotel Chocolat chocolates because obviously that is the most blissful thing I could think of. But I came across this picture of my youngest daughter, M, on a swing in our garden in St Lucia and I love the double meaning. It’s bliss for her, swinging in the garden, mastering something she’s just seen her older sister do. But her little baby chubbiness is also blissful – you forget this stage so quickly, when you’re trying to cope with endless tantrums and fights and mounds of washing…don’t you just want to go and squeeze her?

Martha on a swing in St Lucia

She’s got it!

I’ve also just noticed her shoes are on the wrong feet!

 

 

Seychelles Mama

Travelling with children: why introducing them to the world is so important

Yes I know taking children overseas is hard work. I’ve wrangled with the miniscule changing tables in airplanes. I’ve dealt with the most horrendous nappies known to mankind at 30,000 feet. I’ve also worried about malaria and sunburn and heat rash and food poisoning. Oh yes and I have dealt with the tantrums from hell while trying not to miss a plane.

Granted, much of the travel we have done with the kiddies has been sort of forced upon us – either to get to my husband’s place of work, or to escape from it before we went insane. But even if our life didn’t involve moving abroad for work, I still think we’d be taking our children to other countries as often as we could afford. Let me tell you why.

First there was Pakistan
When my eldest daughter was nearly three, and the baby not yet seven-months-old, we moved from the UK to Pakistan. We weren’t there very long – just three months, before we were evacuated following the bombing of the Islamabad Mariott hotel in 2008. And those three-months were pretty hellish: the outside heat made it difficult to leave the air-conditioned house between the daytime hours; most of the other expat families were out of the country and preschool was closed. We also didn’t have most of our stuff – the girls’ toys only arrived a few weeks before we left.

But despite everything, despite the heat and the loneliness and the fear and then the massive disruption of having to re-pack everything we’d only just unpacked, I’m still glad we went.

 

My older daughter and the Faisal mosque in Islamabad

My older daughter and the Faisal mosque in Islamabad

I have lived in many places in the world but until Pakistan I had never lived in a Muslim country. For the first time in my life, the calls to prayers became a backdrop to my daily routine. As did having to think really hard about what I was going to wear every time I left the safety of the diplomatic compound. Oh, and missing pork products too – pizza just isn’t the same without pepperoni or ham. But what I liked about living in Pakistan is that it exposed not just myself and my husband (who worked at the British High Commission), but the children as well, to a completely new culture.

We are a family of atheists, but we live in a predominantly Christian community. The girls’ school here in the UK (where we are currently living, preparing for our next overseas move to South Africa) is not church-run but prides itself on its “Christian-ethos”. There are children from other faiths at the school but they are few and far between and subject to the same Christian-dominated RE lessons, assemblies and general dogma as my own children.

So by living in Pakistan we were at least able to introduce the idea that there are other major faiths in this world, and that it is important to understand not everyone thinks as we do, or as our Christian friends, neighbours and school teachers do. It was also a good way to introduce them to the fact that despite these different faiths, we are all (or at least MOST of us) basically the same. We all like to eat and play and sing. We all love our children and moan about work or school.

Of course the children were a bit young to absorb more than the very basics of this lesson – in fact, the baby was too young to absorb anything at all! But to help reinforce the message we took them on a holiday to Egypt a couple of years ago.

And then there was Egypt
This time they were both old enough to understand why the staff at the hotel we were staying in weren’t eating between dawn and dusk (we were there during Ramadan). We were able to discuss why we saw so few women and when we did, why they were so covered up. We were also taken out into the desert where we met some members of a Bedouin tribe – and were able to talk about why their children probably didn’t go to school. On the same trip, our guide discussed why so many men were called Mohammed, talked about the make-shift mosque used by the local tribes and introduced us to the joys of eating gritty naan bread straight off the fire.

Fire in the desert

Fire in the desert

It was certainly a trip the children will never forget. We have travelled a lot with them but mainly it’s been to relatively “familiar” countries (the US, Spain, St Lucia, the Netherlands). To go to somewhere totally different, where people have a different faith and a totally different way of life, was a fantastic learning opportunity for them as well as a lot of fun (there was a large waterpark in the hotel where we were staying!).

The impact of travel in these countries
Now when we talk about Muslims, the girls don’t just think about the women covered from head to toe in black that we sometimes see in one of our neighbouring towns, or the snippets of news from Syria or Nigeria or France that they might overhear on the radio. They also think of our guide in the desert showing them the stars, the colourfully-dressed little girl who tried to get us to ride her camel, and the life-guards who hurried off as soon as the sun started dipping towards the horizon to have their iftar meal.

Yes travelling with small children can be hard work. But as we prepare to take them to yet another completely new culture, where they will learn first-hand about poverty and racism and inequality, but also about how these things can be overcome, I think the effort is worth it.

This post was written as part of a series about travel with children on tinyexpats.com.