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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Brown

Unexpected birth in China - Michelle's Story

Not According to Plan

The surprise pregnancy had not been in our plan. I would have to face my fear of giving birth in China. But God knew what he was doing. And in the end, giving birth in my host country gave me one more bonding experience with my local friends, a deeper understanding of culture, and a chance for God to continue to refine my heart.

Prenatal Care

At first, visiting the doctor at the hospital felt a bit like one of those dreams we have all had. One thing leads to another and nothing makes sense. But after a few times, I began to get the hang of it. I realized that the Chinese hospital system makes a lot of sense.

Hospitals are walk-in ready. The doctor’s visit, blood work, ultrasounds, picking up medicine—everything is done at the hospital on the same day of your visit with no advanced booking. This makes sense when one considers how society operates. Our children’s school gives a few days’ notice for the start of the school year. The gas man arrives unannounced at any time of day to read the meter. Friends don’t call in advance. Officials show up for surprise visits at work. I can only imagine the impossible task of booking appointments for the vast numbers of patients who have hardly given a thought to their plans for the next day.

For a prenatal visit including a test or two, expect to spend half the day at the hospital (bring something to entertain little ones in tow). Because there is no central database, patients carry their medical file with them. I actually appreciate this control, which allows you to go to any hospital in the country—no hold-ups or mix-ups with file transfers. I have personally experienced about six different local hospitals for various reasons throughout my eight years in my host country, and they all have been organized pretty much the same way.

On the day of your prenatal visit, after obtaining your swipe card or barcode sticker from the front desk (which tracks payments, prescriptions, and test results), you will go to the gynecology counter. You will be told which doctor's door to line up in front of. When it’s your turn to see the doctor, try not to let it bother you that there are other patients crowded around the doctor’s desk or sitting within ear shot of the open door. They are willing to let you share the experience of their doctor’s visits too—and sometimes you can end up gaining useful insight! Smile and bond together. The doctor will give you an order for blood work or ultrasound. Your new friends can point you to your next stop: the cashier’s desk to pay for the tests. Once paid for, the tests can be conducted at the respective departments. Take a number and wait for your turn. Your test will be done right then and there. Ask them when to pick up the results. You will come back after the specified time and get the results by either swiping your card in an ATM-type machine or by showing your number to the person at the results window. Then you will carry your results back to the original doctor's door, line up, and have your follow up visit. Again, no pre- booking! So all in all, it’s a pretty efficient and organized system.

I felt I could trust the quality of testing during my prenatal care. The hospital accurately diagnosed low thyroid function for me and a mild kidney abnormality in the baby, which thankfully resolved after he was born. There were more than enough tests and ultrasounds.

The doctor recommended a c-section based on my weight and the estimated size of the baby, a size unheard of for locals. I thought of as many reasons to put her at ease, one of them being that this baby’s older sister had been about the same size and was born naturally. The doctor left it that I would be responsible for the consequences and not the hospital.

Giving Birth

We had gotten special permission in advance for my husband to be with me during childbirth, which was against the rules. I had pleaded with the doctor and assured her that foreign men could handle it and would not get in the way, that it was our cultural tradition, that my husband had been there through the birth of my first child and wouldn’t be afraid or squeamish. She finally relented and told me not to spread the word around.

That morning as I was in labour, staff kept asking my husband to leave the room, and at one point asked him to leave for good. With unusual confidence, I said firmly in Chinese, "No! We have permission from the director for him to be here the whole time!” Thank the Lord they listened to me. My husband was amazing. He remembered everything from our oldest child’s birth. He was steady and encouraging, helping me to keep my pushing effective and to save my strength when pushes weren't doing anything.

My first birth experience had been in Canada with a very attentive nurse who kept me informed of everything as it was happening and asked for my preferences. This time, I had not one but three nurses in attendance. The doctor hadn’t arrived yet. They pulled up three chairs, sat down, and watched me. Occasionally, one of them would say flatly, "Very good.” Meanwhile, I positioned myself according to what was most comfortable, on my knees or on my side. My husband kept me focused. It is against local custom to expose a new mother to breeze, but to my great relief, he grabbed a paper to fan me with when I told him I was getting a headache from the heat.

I had asked in advance about epidurals, which were available, but my labour had progressed too far by the time I reminded them. It ended up being alright. Giving birth without any pain relief was not as bad as I had thought it would be. Once the baby was in the birth canal, I didn’t feel pain as much as pressure until right at the end when he was crowning. At that point, his head started emerging and then went back in a little. The medical staff all started shouting and scurrying, and without warning, hurriedly gave me an episiotomy. I wished they had attempted to ease the head out slowly (as was the case with my first child). He was born in a flash after that, about an hour and a half from the time I had climbed on the bed. Then, came the worst part of my whole experience. The doctor started stitching me up without freezing me! Getting the stitches literally hurt more than labour! But then the worst was over.

Not half an hour after my sweet baby was born, they wanted to give him water, to which I said no and that I would breastfeed him. When I started to feed him, one of the staff came over and questioned me, saying, "Do you even have any milk yet?" I didn’t have “colostrum” in my Chinese vocabulary, so I just said smiled and said, “Yes.”

For the rest of our stay, various staff suggested I supplement with formula because I surely would not have enough milk for such a big baby. I was polite, but I just kept breastfeeding him anyway. They would exclaim, "You're STILL feeding him?" One nurse saw me feeding him in the football-hold position and chuckled, asking, "You can nurse him that way? I've never seen this before!" I smiled and said there were different ways to do it. Throughout my hospital stay, I was grateful for what I had learned through reading and through experience with my first child.

As I recovered, the nurses and doctors were very attentive to my care, checking on me regularly. Often the reason for coming in was to swab me with cold iodine. Now I know what our little babies feel like when we wipe them with cold wipes! Shudder. But then they would bring out the heat lamps to speed up healing, which felt wonderful.

The Lord worked on my heart during this time. I began to really BE thankful instead of just trying to be. Appreciating the nurses’ efforts and always being positive, chatty, and polite went a long way. At the very least, it helped mitigate hard feelings when I didn’t follow their advice. Before we left, we gathered all the staff from the floor for a group picture, which we sent with a thank-you note later. It was a good ending.

Cultural Differences

I committed a number of faux pas according to local childbirth traditions. The mother isn't supposed to touch anything cold, and I had smuggled in an icepack from home to sit on. The lady that emptied the garbage bins in my room saw me eating a banana and told me I should have soaked it in boiling water first. A nurse caught me drinking from a room temperature water bottle and warned me to use the kettle next time. Everyone thought we were crazy for keeping the AC on—endangering my baby and myself—and not wearing the hospital long-sleeved flannel pajamas (in 30°C weather indoors and out). On day two, a nurse came in to offer me a traditional herbal-medicine-water sponge bath, and I said thank you, but that it wasn't necessary since I'd already showered. She gave a shocked laugh—because everyone knows you're not supposed to wash your hair for a month.

I was the talk of the ward. My husband overheard patients and their families saying, "She gave birth to a 4.3kg baby. Natural birth!" "She doesn't wear the hospital clothes." "And she walks around doing things, not staying in bed." "And she doesn't wear a maternity hat!".

After we got home, we tried harder not to overtly break too many customs. I stayed inside with the baby for a period of seclusion (though I only lasted ten of the thirty days). We put together red candy favours, as per local custom, and gave them out at the office. Friends visited us after the appropriate time. We received their gifts, including a live chicken which the giver thoughtfully offered to slaughter on our balcony for us. Had it been dead at the time of giving, she explained, it would have brought an omen of death. When neighbours scolded me for not dressing the baby warmly enough, I adjusted his blanket obligingly. Showing concern for physical well-being and offering advice is a way to express love.

Giving birth in our host country was not in our original plan. And yet, the memory of our son’s birth is a beautiful imprint on our minds—even the less desirable parts, which now cause us to split our sides in laughter. My local friends have been part of one of the most profound experiences of my life—pregnancy and childbirth—drawing us together. I have become more confident. I trust God more fully. My heart is softer. I’m more patient, more respectful. Experience is a great teacher. God really did work all things for good, and he still is.

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