Life as a mother-to-be can be confusing, lonely and stressful. We’re bombarded with conflicting information on the internet, force fed advice we don’t even ask for and excluded from our social circles just because we can’t stay awake to party like it’s 1990. And wine is off limits.
Add cultural issues and subtract friends and family you’ve got yourself an expat pregnancy.
It’s not all bad though. As I wrote last week, giving birth in Switzerland was a wonderful experience for me on the whole. With the right information and support, giving birth abroad can be a really good thing.
Recently I was contacted by The Virtual Midwife, an online and in person service for expectant mothers. The group workshops and individually tailored programmes for VIPs are led by Karen Wilmot, a South African midwife who has assisted over 600 births and whose CV includes working with the Omani Royal Family at their clinic in Muscat. Karen founded The Virtual Midwife as a response to growing demands from fellow expats for information, guidance and support through pregnancy:
‘I chose to focus on expats because I understand the challenges expats face – even though nothing about pregnancy or birth is inherently different when you are an expat. It’s just the way that you respond’.
As an expat herself, Karen appreciated how tough life can be abroad. ‘One of the hardest aspects of being an expat is being far away from family and loved ones’ she tells me. She quickly found herself becoming an authority on pregnancy, labour and postnatal care for expats confused with conflicting advice on the internet. She also began to understand the power of online information:
‘Often I would find myself debunking myths and misinformation that my clients had read online. They turned to Google for everything… Many times I would end up doing damage control, which was frustrating. It made me realise how powerful the internet is and how it is changing the way that you find information’.
What started out as informal poolside chats with other expats in her Muscat compound turned into a fully fledged business.
‘I set about learning everything I could about how to create a program that would as closely as possible replicate what I was doing in real life, but able to reach millions of people around the world’.
I asked Karen for her thoughts on giving birth abroad, including how to find the right support, how to communicate in multiple languages and in different cultural contexts, as well as how to understand different healthcare systems and stay focused on the most important people in the room (mother and baby). Here is her advice:
Do your research
Be informed. If you don’t know your choices, you don’t have any.
You cannot change the hospital system, or the fact that you are living on a different continent to your family, or the language and culture of your host country, but you can change your response to these circumstances. You can learn about the hospital system so that you can work with it, rather than against it.
Be open minded but true to yourself
Speak to other expats and locals about any traditions, customs or procedures that might be routine and acceptable for locals, but strange for you. Don’t be afraid to decline them in a culturally sensitive way if they’re not right for you.
There are going to be cultural misunderstandings. Guaranteed. Prepare for them and as far as possible, and try to prevent them.
What you say and what they hear are often completely different. Get things translated, including policies, prescriptions and routine blood tests. If you don’t understand what is written, how can you make informed choices and decisions? Also, don’t be afraid to be specific in explaining exactly what you want and need in the simplest possible terms and in a culturally sensitive way.
Look after yourself
Remember, you only get to spend about ten hours with your doctor in an average 40 week pregnancy, so the rest of the time it is up to you to look after yourself. Know the difference between high risk and low risk.
Positive mental attitude to make it happen
It is up to you to change the way that you respond to the events and circumstances you are faced with for the outcome that you want. If you believe that a positive birth experience is possible, then make it happen. Shift your perspective on the external factors and examine your internal influences and resources.
Learn everything you can about the things that you can control, and let go of those you cannot.
Expat life and its surprisingly positive forces
There is sometimes a natural tendency to think that things are better back home. Expat life can also be lonely and it can feel as if you are not supported. Add to this cultural and language barriers. All these expat challenges hold surprising benefits however: you are forced to research more and you are forced out of your comfort zone to meet other mums. In terms of communication you have to be clear, to ask effective questions and to understand your choices.
Believe in yourself
You are always stronger than you think you are. This is true in life and in labor. If this resonates with you then write it down and stick it somewhere you will see it often. Remind yourself of this when you are in the transition stage of labor and you think you cannot go on any more.
You are the boss
Having a baby is a life experience. Not a medical event. You are in charge of how it will unfold. And it all starts in the mind. Your thoughts, your beliefs, your behaviour.
The Virtual Midwife offers six week programmes from $279 USD as well as limited, tailor made VIP programmes from $1497 USD. While Karen leads all matters relating to the birth herself, there are plans for a breastfeeding consultant and sleep expert to join the team for additional post natal support.