How 4 Western Women Experience Birth with their Chinese Husbands

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Pregnancy, childbirth and recovery is no easy feat, but WWAM couples must factor in cultural differences and attitudes toward pregnancy, labor and delivery, and postpartum confinement. Giving birth in a country other than your own can also present a challenge.

Pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period in Chinese culture receive extra attention and raised brows in the Western press, mostly the practice of postpartum confinement (坐月子). Confinement, sitting the month, or lying in isn’t something the West encourages. It’s often met with hostility or confusion because Westerners are only exposed to the extreme versions of the tradition though the custom really varies based on the MIL’s mindset.

Four Western Women, all with vastly unique experiences, share their stories of childbirth at home or abroad:

Julia Chen, China

I gave birth at a public military hospital in Chongqing. At first we decided on that hospital because my husband had a connection there, but eventually the doctors and nurses all recognized me. The evening I went into labor, my water broke and then contractions started three hours later. Labor was more or less smooth, except that my epidural needle got dislodged shortly after being put in. I kept telling the attending staff that I was still in a lot of pain, and that something wasn’t working, but they just told me it was meant to lessen the pain, not take it away.

I was extremely impatient to get my baby out so I walked to the delivery room while I was fully dilated and crowning, which I later found out is not very typical. My husband wasn’t allowed in the delivery room but the nurses and doctor were very kind and encouraging to me. After I gave birth to my son he was handed to me immediately and the nurse helped me during his first feeding and with skin-to-skin.

Pre- and Post-Birth

Pregnancy and the postpartum period are treated with very special care. Women in this period should eat well, rest well, and be cautious of everything. For me, I was willing to be very careful while pregnant, but after I gave birth I was pretty much over it. I didn’t follow any of the postpartum confinement rules. My PILs stayed with us for two weeks after my son was born, but somehow our relationship had changed overnight.

I learned quickly not to ask MIL for advice. Over time we’ve reached a relatively stable middle ground, but on occasion we suddenly need to jump a big hurdle when we can’t see eye-to-eye. I’d like to think eventually we’ll all agree with each other on how to raise a child, but let’s be honest, that’s never going to happen!

Felicity Miller, UK and China, WWAM Bam! contributer

I had three pregnancy experiences, all quite different:

Birth No. 1

First pregnancy took place in the UK. Textbook pregnancy and delivery. Only negative was not being admitted to the hospital until I was truly ready to give birth. Twice I was turned away, the second time in tears. I had a birth plan that involved a water birth in a midwife’s ward, but that didn’t materialize when the midwife literally pulled the plug as I had a slight temperature. Baby’s head popped out before I made it onto the bed. I had four ultrasounds (one extra to check baby’s position).

Husband cut the cord after a requested delayed cord cutting. I was feeding the baby before the cord was cut. I had no epidural and wasn’t induced, just gas and air. National Health Service cost was zero. We stayed three nights as a first time mum. I laboured in one room then was moved to a shared ward where we room-in with our babies. Overall it was a positive experience. My husband went to my prebirth classes and he watched several real YouTube videos to prepare. I didn’t do confinement.

Birth No. 2

The second was not a textbook pregnancy and took place in China. Read more about baby no. 2 here. 

Birth No. 3

My third was another textbook pregnancy. Same hospital as first baby. No epidural, no inducing, no water birth plan. Complication at the end due to baby’s first bowel movement inside me. Had a VBAC. Hubby cut the cord but not delayed this time due to the complication above. Stayed one night. No confinement (went to vote in the election two days after delivery) and played tennis outside after two weeks. Breastfeeding encouraged.

Kimberly, China, Nama Mama

I gave birth at the Red Cross Hospital in Xining, Qinghai. No birth plan. I had three or four ultrasounds. Pregnancy was very smooth. Since my husband is Tibetan, there was a mix of cultural expectations. In the area that he is from, only some aspects of postpartum confinement are followed. My SIL came to take care of us for the first week and during that time I was expected to rest and wear warm clothes.

I was not expected to eat special food or to strictly stay inside. I think I would not have been encouraged to shower, but SIL left after the first week and after I showed my husband scientific evidence that showering after birth is ok, he agreed. His family is not especially strict or traditional, which made my birth experience easier than it could have been.

The birth

I was fortunate to have the one foreign OB in the hospital. My husband was able to be there, and also my best foreign girlfriend. My water broke three days before my due date and then contractions started. I didn’t have any medical interventions. Breastfeeding was not encouraged or discouraged. There was a breast massaging machine that the nursed brought to me in recovery. It was surreal.

The entire birth cost around 4,000 RMB which included the VIP room. It was covered by my husband’s insurance. It is interesting to note that my employer, at the beginning of the school term, asked if we planned to start a family that year, and if we were, he would not be able to hire me. I said no, of course, but got pregnant that winter.

We stayed for three days. It was a different room from the delivery room, and we shared it. Recovering in the public hospital and having local roommates and families was sometimes annoying, because everybody wants to look at the foreigner and mixed baby. I expected my husband to be more involved after the baby was born but he disappeared and his sister primarily took care of us.

Birth advice

My advice for other expectant WWAM moms is to do your homework. Examine your own needs and desires regarding any area you can think of, find articles that support it, and find articles in your husband’s native language(s) that support it as well. You’re going to come up against some strong cultural values and feel quite outnumbered. Connect with other WWAM moms; the support will mean the world.

Marissa, U.S., Xiananigans on the Prairie

I gave birth in the U.S. in a Catholic hospital (I mention this because I’m Jewish). It was one of two choices available to me where we live (North Dakota). I wrote a birth plan with “what if” contingencies but was determined to have a natural hospital birth. I had three ultrasounds (one in early pregnancy to confirm due date, second trimester where we decided not to find out the baby’s gender, and three days past my due date to check on baby).

We attended childbirth preparation classes, but it was a book I found at the library that ultimately guided me (ZJ read excerpts). Pregnancy went smoothly. We waited for our daughter a week past my due date. She arrived two days before my scheduled induction. The hospital’s on-call doctor delivered her.

Supportive husband

ZJ, my husband, both participated in and attended the birth. He took leave from work, took me on walks, cooked and cleaned, timed my contractions before we headed out the door, even suggesting we stay home a little longer to be sure our old wives tale ways of activating labor worked (walking, doing stairs, red raspberry leaf tea, nipple stimulation with a breast pump). The only other people who attended my birth were two friends of ours; one of the two is also my coworker. The coworker supported me while my husband grabbed food.

The birth

Here’s where it gets interesting: I labored and delivered naturally, though I did allow the doctor to break my waters. No epidural or other interventions. Hydrotherapy helped move things along before relying on my husband to literally support me when I used the birthing ball (he applied a heat pack to my back). He encouraged me to vary my breathing patterns and positions. When I started to experience off-the-charts contractions, he made sure I continued breathing. He swayed and danced with me when I was standing. I leaned on him as he stood behind me, going limp in his arms. He whispered words of encouragement in my ear. When I was pushing he held onto my left thigh with my nurse on the right one. I pushed for no more than 20 minutes.

I didn’t know we had a baby girl until a few minutes later. ZJ cut the cord after a requested delayed clamping. When I demanded he take off his shirt and start skin-to-skin with her after I had done some (I was losing a lot of blood and I felt very weak as they stitched me up from a natural tear), he didn’t think twice.

Breastfeeding was encouraged and our daughter’s nurse helped get her latched. Because of the excessive blood loss, the nurses waited to move me to the mother and baby wing until I stabilized (vitals were good but I was shaky).

Post-birth stay

Once in our private room, ZJ again didn’t think twice when telling the nurses they needed to move me (the heating wasn’t kicking on and nurses wanted me to breastfeed). ZJ told them there was no way they could bring baby in there, demanding we get another room. They waited 45 minutes before making that decision because maintenance was working on “fixing” it.

This was really the only cultural difference we experienced. In China, keeping warm, especially during times of blood loss or illness, is very important to ensure one’s condition doesn’t worsen. Americans are AC-obsessed and may not pay as much mind to body temperatures (we experienced this difference whenever nurses came into our room, commenting on the temperature). We stayed for two days.

Confinement (坐月子)

I am partaking in a two-week modified confinement. ZJ looks after me; he also does the grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning. We’re using this time to relax, recuperate, and bond as a family of three. He’s adjusted some Chinese-style dishes with (稀饭,牛肉肝汤,猪肉肝汤,鱼,西葫芦炒鸡肉,菠菜炒鸡蛋) ingredients we’re able to find.

I’m indulging in the occasional cupcake and bowl of ice cream. I eat most fruits as long as they’re at room temperature. I’m doing light housework, taking showers, and took one after our daughter was born. I use warm or hot water. And though it’s May, I’m wearing extra layers, staying indoors and bundling up when we take her to the doctor (it’s windy out here in N.D.).

Birth advice

I advise other expecting WWAM moms to do what feels right to you regarding pregnancy, childbirth, and confinement. As long as you and your husband are on the same page, it doesn’t matter where or how you end up experiencing birth. Ignore both sets of grandparents if necessary.

Marissa Zhang

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