Becoming a mother was something I always knew I would do. What I didn’t know was that it would happen in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
When I found out I was pregnant in the summer of 2012, I plunged into a whole new world as I learned to navigate the Dutch medical system and adapt to the Dutch view of women, pregnancy and birth –of health in general. For starters, I still remember the shocked reactions of family and friends back home when I told them that I was under the care of a midwife, not a doctor.
Midwives and I
In the Netherlands, pregnancy and birth are the domain of verloskundige or vroedvrouwen (wise woman or midwife). Pregnancies are classified as low- or high-risk according to factors like previous miscarriages and gestational diabetes.
Midwives handle the majority of low-risk pregnancies, while high-risk cases are referred to an obstetrician-gynecologist at a hospital. The Dutch believe that hospitals and doctors are for sick people. Pregnant women are not considered sick but just pregnant! To them, pregnancy should not be treated as an illness but as a normal part of life—a view that began to make sense to me as months passed by.
For many Filipinos, midwives are seen as the last resort in rural communities where women have limited access to doctors or hospitals. In the Netherlands, midwives have far more experience with actual childbirth than doctors, making them more in demand in this case. Blessed with an easy, low-risk pregnancy, I decided to go with the flow.
Gaining confidence, making choices
My Dutch midwives were friendly, but firm and matter-of-fact. They encouraged me to travel. “If you feel fine, just go!,” they’d say. They treated me with a casual confidence that made me feel normal despite all the changes happening to my body. They gave me information in bite-size chunks so as not to overwhelm me, reminding me to take responsibility for myself especially when it comes to my weight and not to forget to relax.
As my belly swelled, I became more at ease and confident with being pregnant. I began accompanying my husband on his business trips to maximize our time together as a couple before we become a trio. We began making preparations and looking homeward to the Philippines for inspiration. I researched indigenous Filipino baby names and bugged my mom to find us a traditional duyan (hammock) for the baby’s room.
I also began to form my decisions about the birth and delivery. Going to a hospital wasn’t a foregone conclusion—not in the Netherlands, which values freedom of choice and has the highest rate of home births in the developed world. Statistics say 25 percent of Dutch babies are born at home, a huge leap over neighbors such as the United Kingdom, where home births are only at two percent. As midwives are not licensed anesthesiologists, pain relief such as an epidural is only available at a hospital.
Knowing that the Netherlands has a proven system for home births, I began to actually consider it. My family and friends thought I was crazy. As I read and heard more stories about giving birth the natural way, I realized that it is not like the movies: Water breaks, woman screams, and a few cinematic cuts later, the baby is born. It then made more sense to me to spend those long, difficult hours at a place where I felt most comfortable, cared for and relaxed—in my own home.
After researching about water birth, I decided to rent a birth pool. I had to translate, via Google, four pages of Dutch instructions and tips while my husband assembled the pool for a “trial run.” A few weeks before my due date, my mom arrived from the Philippines to give me emotional support. We felt ready, and all we had to do was wait.
Welcome, Tala Sabine
There are many things I’ll always remember from the night of my daughter’s birth: Feeling cocooned and comforted in my own bed, the warm weight of my cat on my feet, my head on my mom’s lap and my husband pushing my hips down and together through the contractions –just like how we were taught in our partner preparation workshop. I remember sliding into the warm waters of the birth pool and feeling instant relief from the labor pains.
As the pain intensified, I started to wonder if I could bear it to the very end. My Dutch midwife stayed neutral but gentle, reminding me that I was doing very well and that it had to be my decision, not hers, to stay at home or go to the hospital. It was frustrating at the time, not to get any push in one direction or another, but afterwards I understood. It was my daughter, and my body, not hers. Perhaps, the midwife knew that I already had a mother’s instinct and would do what was best for us.
After the first 10 hours of labor, I decided that I would need pain relief to go the distance. Another 10 hours later, due to an unforeseen medical complication at the moment that she was emerging into the world, our daughter Tala Sabine was born via emergency Caesarian section. I was so ecstatic, I didn’t realize I had suffered complications that would keep me in the hospital for another eight days, and hooked up to a catheter for a total of 19 days.
Dutch health insurance entitles all women to the care of a kraamzorg, or maternity nurse, for the first eight to 10 days after birth. The kraamzorg not only takes care of the baby but also nurses the mother as she recovers from the delivery. Seen as a “fairy godmother,” the kraamzorg cooks and relieves the mother of the burdens of housework, helps establish breastfeeding, and teaches frazzled new parents everything they should know about taking care of a newborn.
Since I had round-the-clock nursing care at the hospital, I was entitled only two days of kraamzorg care at home, but our kraamzorg Fatima gave me a small taste of how
comforting it was to have extra help when we lived so far from family.
Finding a balance
My daughter turns one this March. The past year has been a steep learning curve for me as I find out what it means to be a Filipino mother in a foreign land. I’m constantly reminded of how different we are: I can never go out with her without complete strangers exclaiming over how much hair she has and how dark it is, and what a small baby she is.
I always reply with a smile, “Yes, she’s small for a Dutch baby, but she’s perfectly normal for a Filipino baby.”
Having Tala has pulled me out of my expat bubble. Before Tala, I had set aside my Dutch language lessons. So now, I returned to them with fresh motivation as I realized I would soon have to be engaging with Dutch parents, children, teachers and the Dutch school system.
About the author
Deepa Paul is a freelance writer living in Amsterdam with her Filipino husband, one-year old daughter and Singaporean cat. She blogs about everyday life, travel, motherhood and other passions at www.currystrumpet.com.
This article was first published in the 6th edition of The Filipino Expat Magazine. CLICK to read the magazine.