When an American friend living in the Netherlands tells me she’s pregnant, my first words are ones of congratulations.
After that’s established, and after we discuss the morning sickness and the crying jags and all the body parts that have suddenly become leaky (and I’m not just talking about the eyes, we’ve already established that), I say I hope she’s not overly attached to the American ideals of the joys of pregnancy and giving birth. Because if you are, I tell her, you should probably pack a very large suitcase and board the next westward-bound KLM plane.
Books like What to Expect When You’re Expecting, with its sections on choosing the right practitioner and month-by-month checkups, have no relevance in Holland, unless you would consider, perhaps, making a run for the Belgian border. The “right practitioner” is your village’s midwife, and you won’t technically get to choose her since there’s probably not more than one. If she has a practice consisting of more than one person, you should do a happy dance and thank your god of choice for it. Then at least you can feel like you have a choice, even though they all share patients and you get whoever is working on that particular day.
Your checkups take all of five minutes and consist of a one-on-one with a scale, a blood pressure meter, and a stethoscope. Your pregnant friends stateside make you jealous with tales of ultrasounds and comprehensive blood work, but then you find an ultrasound company that will do it for a hundred bucks and send you home with a DVD with grainy images of your fetus to boot.
You learn your midwife has a love for all things homeopathic, and you try to ignore the fact that it’s only because she isn’t licensed to prescribe actual medicine. She hands you a list of herbs for every pregnancy symptom you can imagine: nausea, irritability, heartburn, iron deficiency, and she gives advice that surely your great-grandmother once gave. Like drinking oil to induce labor.
“Oil?” you ask. “What kind of oil?”
“Castor oil. Mix it with orange juice and you won’t even taste it,” she says.
You do as instructed, even though you really should know better, and then aren’t the merest bit surprised when what you first thought were contractions turns out to be an enormous fit of diarrhea. You wish there were such a thing as a homeopathic margarita.
In your last trimester, your midwife encourages you to have a home delivery. “For what?” you ask, thinking she might know of a retail Web site you haven’t yet discovered. And then she begins going through the long list of materials needed, but as soon as you hear “plastic sheeting” you begin shaking your head. You’ve played along nicely so far, you think, but this is where you draw the line. There will be no babies born on purpose under your roof.
“I want to have the baby in a hospital,” you tell her, and when she looks at you like you’re being an overdramatic American, you add, “I insist.” She drops it, for now.
Because you live in a land where marijuana is listed on the menu next to sandwiches and Coca-Cola products, you are surprised, shocked even, when your midwife tells you pain medication and epidurals are “not possible” unless accompanied with a cesarean, which only occurs in the most extreme of cases. Your Dutch friends and family argue that natural childbirth increases a mother’s bond with her child, and you scoff and defend all the mothers out there whose bonds with their adopted children are perfectly fine, but your arguments fall on deaf ears. You suspect that there must be some reason for this societal aversion to epidurals that no one has yet explained. Is it the socialized medicine, you wonder, or perhaps a pact between midwives, who live in fear of their own extinction. Or maybe it’s as simple as resentment among mothers, a juvenile I-didn’t-get-it-so-neither-can-you way of thinking. You spend nine months pondering this, and then the contractions set in, and you can only concentrate on getting to the hospital on time.
There are no gowns at the hospital unless you brought one of your own, and so you end up in a longish t-shirt, naked from the waist down, in a room full of people you pray you will never see again. They mill around, chatting like it’s social hour, pausing occasionally to check the heartbeats or ask how you’re doing. Your husband is bored and hungry, and considers aloud the possibility of finding the cafeteria but then thinks otherwise when he sees the look on your face. He isn’t allowed to leave your side, but he isn’t allowed to touch you, either. And then, in the middle of it all, it’s four o’clock and time to go home.
“Home!?” you say, really scared now since you’re absolutely positive this thing isn’t done quite yet.
“Our shifts are over,” they tell you, and then they shake your hand and say, “Good luck.”
You look with rising panic at your husband, who is too busy to notice since he’s accepting cookies and a cup of coffee from a new group of nurses. “Would you like a cup?” they ask you after they’ve introduced themselves, and you wonder so many things. Like everything that could possibly be wrong with the combination of caffeine and childbirth, and how on earth you’re supposed to drink hot liquid in this position, reclined, and feet strapped into stirrups. And like whatever happened to ice chips.
Part 1 | (Part 2)