Planning a Family Overseas
When you get pregnant overseas the first question many people ask is, “Are you going home to have the baby?” In my experience, having children overseas is not much more nerve-wracking than having children in your home country. It is kind of scary and exciting anywhere in the world! This is the life of an international teacher.
This is my second pregnancy in a foreign country where I speak little, if any, of the host language. The anxiety of being somewhere where they might not completely understand me is more than balanced by the knowledge I don’t have to fly far away from my husband and family for the six to eight weeks before the baby is born and then, in the end, have the baby on my own. I would much rather have my husband’s support and help for all those weeks than be able to talk clearly to a nurse for the few days I am in the hospital. I am pretty good at charades, and not surprisingly, people in all countries have similar concerns about babies, so health care professionals tend to anticipate or understand your questions.
Of course, I have been fortunate to find good quality health care as an international teacher in both Hungary and Ecuador. It pays to ask around, and see what other people – both local and foreign – have done. I have had excellent obstetricians whom I found based on the recommendation of other people who had children. They have both spoken English to some extent. In Hungary, our insurance was fully comprehensive and we were able to use a private clinic with modern facilities. In Ecuador the hospital was not quite as up-to-date but they seem helpful and efficient, and they have modern equipment although it isn’t always available – exactly like any regular public hospital, there are waiting lists and queues.
The biggest adjustment for me compared to my friends with children in their native countries is that we are missing the extended support of family and relatives. It would be lovely to have Grandma drop in and watch the baby for an afternoon or have various aunts and uncles to share stories and help out with chores. But for us, living overseas as international teachers is a cycle of making friends and new ‘family’ networks in each country, and we have found everyone to be very kind and generous with their time and advice. Teachers club together at the school and bring you meals. They may casually mention the time they were up all night in Singapore with their infant 15 years ago and divulge what they did to sooth them back to sleep. People moving on share armloads of baby clothes or maternity clothes suited to the climate you are in. In both countries the average-sized woman has been considerably smaller than me so this last type of generosity has been extremely helpful. If the school generally hires people starting young families, then you probably won’t need to take clothes or equipment with you – there will be a circulating supply. Most parents (myself included) are happy to pass it on rather than lug it elsewhere.
For my first child I read a tonne of pregnancy and baby books, but then, so did my friends elsewhere in the world. The internet was a helpful source of information, too, and there are lots of websites where you can sign up and get weekly email about your current stage of pregnancy or child development, with doctors’ advice and current medical information. It was reassuring to me to read that what was happening to me overseas was what would happen ‘back home’ and to be able to ask my doctor if he was going to do a certain test, or follow a given procedure, and why. Although my personal preference if I were at home would be to have a midwife, I feel the level of doctor-provided care overseas has exceeded what I would have received in a city in North America. Whether it is due to having good insurance, or being a foreigner, or that there is more personalized attention in other medical systems, even with the language barrier I have almost never felt marginalized, ignored, or poorly cared for. The sole exception to this was in the hospital in Hungary with our newborn son, when I was having difficulty breast feeding, and the nurse on my ward was particularly uncommunicative, and I didn’t know how to complain or ask for a different nurse. Otherwise I have never thought I would be better off in another country.
One piece of advice that I would pass on (that didn’t ever occur to me when I was single and pre-children) is to read the maternity/paternity leave policy of any international school very closely, if you even think there is a remote chance it may apply to you someday. In some places it is not written in the contract, but included in a staff handbook, that your contract says you will abide by. Some international overseas schools will not grant leave at all within the first two years of your contract (ie. You will lose your job) which could force you to have to choose between having the baby and having your job. Other schools grant you leave for anywhere from 2 weeks to several months, but many are not inclined to grant extended leave or flexible schedules because of the difficulty of finding quality long-term substitutes. In Hungary, we got 73 working days off, not to extend over summer break. This amounted to 3 months more or less, which if it was directly before or after the summer holiday, meant you could stay home for 4 or 5 months. At my school in Ecuador we get six weeks leave. I am fortunate that my baby will be born six weeks before the summer holiday starts, but if it were to arrive the last day of class before our eight week holiday, I would be back at work with no more ‘break’ than any other teacher. Worse, if it were born mid-year, I’d be back at work after only 6 weeks. This is all good to think about if you are fortunate enough to be able to ‘plan’ the timing of your baby in any way!
Another factor to consider is whether you will be able to afford the quality of childcare you want once you return to work. In many countries you can afford domestic help but will you want to leave your infant with the person who does the laundry? Nannies with good recommendations and experience with young children have been harder to come by for us than good doctors or baby equipment. It didn’t matter to me whether I could communicate the nuances of exactly where it hurt during labour as much as it matters to me what you give my child for snacks and entertainment while I am away. Maybe I am unusual in this way – but labour is much, much shorter and less hassle than living with a spoiled kid, the result of an overindulging nanny.
An unusual side benefit of being pregnant overseas is finding out the local customs and traditions about parenthood. This can be a little frustrating if the advice is persistently offered and counter to your own preferences, but mostly it is amusing. Who knew that you were supposed to sleep with the window open, drink a pint of beer a day, sing each night before sleeping, pray to the house spirits for the safety of the unborn child, or not take a new baby outside for 6 weeks, keep socks and shoes on all children up to the age of 3 at all waking moments (ha!) or feed babies coca cola if they were fractious? Not that I have followed some or any of the customs I have heard about, but it certainly was interesting to hear about how other people deal with the craziness of having kids.
For what it is worth, I recommend checking out the local health care and hearing what others have to say before deciding to go home to have a baby. It is certainly the right path for some, but it has been rewarding and delightful for me to be pregnant and have kids overseas. Plus, you get some great stories to tell the kids when they grow up.