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How pregnancy and birth overseas is so different than in the U.S.

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I didn’t get an epidural, a decision that still makes my head reel. Me? I’m no hero. I take Advil for mild hangovers, Ambien for transatlantic flights. I would never consider having a tooth extracted without Novocaine, so how on earth did I agree to have my baby extracted without any form of pain relief at all?

I wouldn’t say I’d been brainwashed, but I do live in a country where nearly one-third of all births are home births. That is the highest rate in any developed nation. The fact that I managed to negotiate delivering my baby in a birthing center rather than on the occasionally-Swiffered floor of my live/workspace already felt like major victory.

I live in the Netherlands. And as a pregnant American expat, I found the prevailing “you’re not sick, you’re just pregnant” philosophy here alarmingly nonchalant. When I first discovered I was pregnant, I went into full-fledged crisis mode, seeking to arm myself with as much information (factual or otherwise) and medical support as I could.

To my dismay, I discovered that an OBGYN was an elusive figure in the Netherlands, only to be paraded out for special occasions. Instead, my family doctor referred me to a midwife who sort of resembled a fairy godmother in a Disney movie. To congratulate me on my pregnancy, my insurance company sent me a care package, filled with gauze, vinyl gloves, sterilizing alcohol and a mattress cover — all the essentials for, you guessed it, a home birth.

Over the course of my pregnancy, however, I started to see the appeal of giving birth outside of a hospital setting. It was comforting (and, in retrospect, highly delusional) to think that I wouldn’t experience any pain my body couldn’t handle, that childbirth was fail-safe process engineered by Mother Nature for peak results. Once you remove yourself from the machines, the gurneys, the doctors with face masks, you can demystify the experience.

Instead of a hospital, I picked a birthing center that had four individual birthing rooms, each with its own design motif. I opted for the one with the soothing Asian theme and a birthing pool. I think part of me really might have envisioned myself in a bikini, drinking margaritas in the jacuzzi.

I’ll spare you the details of my delivery. Suffice it to say, it was not quite the pool party I had hoped for. By the time I finally broke down and demanded to transferred to a hospital so that a real doctor could administer an epidural, it was too late.

I gave birth to my daughter at the birthing center at 9:36 p.m. At 2:30 a.m., I was given permission to return home.

Let me put it another way: five hours after I gave birth, I was kicked out of the birthing center. And that was actually generous. Most people get kicked out after three.

Driving home in the middle of the night with a 5-hour-old infant in the car seat is its own kind of terrifying. A couple of hours later, when my newborn baby coughed up blood and I had to put in a panicked call to the emergency midwife hotline, (“It’s perfectly normal,” she assured me), I really could have used a medical professional on hand to allay my rising panic.

Here’s the trade-off: at 9 a.m. the following morning, my doorbell rang. It was our kraamzorg (probably best described as a “postnatal nurse.”) This is the woman who would come to our home every day for the next week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to teach us how to use a baby. She’d show us how to feed my daughter, dress her, change her, bathe her and put her to sleep. She’s the one we’d turn to when we needed to ask, “Is this normal?” When our confidence dipped and we started to realize we had no clue what we were doing, she was the person who’d assure us, “you’re a natural at this!”

But, wait – there’s more. Our kraamzorg also did the laundry, vacuumed, bought groceries, made lunch and, best of all, put clean sheets on the bed every day. She was here, too, to check out my stitches and make sure I was on the path to recovery.

You could argue that the first days after childbirth are critical enough to require the security of round-the-clock medical attention. On the other hand, you could also argue that those first days are far better spent nesting at home, gaining the skills you need to care for your infant under the guidance of a professional baby expert.

At the end of the week, our kraamzorg nurse helped us prep the Bugaboo for our first venture outside. (The Bugaboo is perhaps the Netherlands’ most valuable contribution to modern society. It is a required accessory among Dutch parents.) We took a short stroll to an impossibly trendy food market that had opened only a few weeks earlier. Without hesitation, the nurse held open the door and beckoned me in.

“We’re going inside?,” I asked, finding it hard to believe that a frumpy, sleep-deprived mother wielding a stroller the size of a small army tank would be welcomed among the hip and fabulous.

“Of course,” she said, already guiding me through the door. “You’re not an outcast, you know. You’re just a mother.”

Jennifer van der Kwast is an American writer who has been living in the Netherlands for four years. Her brilliant 6-month-old daughter can already cry fluently in three different languages. You can follow her on Twitter @jennifervanderk.

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