Birthing a baby across the pond: part two – the fun stuff
Preparing to have a baby isn’t just about the medical side of things. In fact, for many of us, that’s just a sideshow – an inconvenient distraction from the daydreams of cute newborn outfits, stylish nursery décor and that all-important decision about your new set of wheels (I’m talking the pushchair variety – although with all that gear you may need to think about a car upgrade too). Whilst much of this mandatory preparation will be experienced wherever you are in the world, here’s a heads-up about some key distinctions in the US for expat mums-to-be.
Pink or blue?
Whilst at home many people leave the sex of their baby a surprise for D-Day, in the US that’s pretty uncommon. I know of only two other mums here who didn’t find out, and one of them is a fellow Brit. And it’s not just the finding out that is a thing: how you share that news with friends and family is also a big deal. Some people build a ‘gender reveal’ option in to their baby shower (more on these below); others hold separate parties to announce the outcome. Creative ideas for the ‘reveal’ itself include cutting an iced cake to reveal either blue or pink sponge inside, popping a balloon to shower your guests in pink or blue streamers, and handing out custom lottery-style scratch cards to uncover the news. A baby store catalogue I picked up featured the story of a couple who, wanting to find out the gender of their bump at the same time as their family and friends, picked out both newborn boy and girl outfits and handed them over to the shop assistant along with the (unseen by the parents-to-be) result of the scan so the assistant could package up the appropriate option; the couple then unwrapped the parcel at their reveal party in front of their guests. Wouldn’t you worry that the temptation for the cashier to mess with your head would be too much to resist?!
Getting the gear
It’s incredibly common in the States to register for the baby gear you have your eye on, much as you would with a wedding gift list, so that friends and family can help you furnish your nursery and newborn wardrobe with all the matching mini-items your heart desires. Big stores such as Babies R Us and Buy Buy Baby publish registry guides with recommendations for what you’ll need (bear in mind their objective is to sell – I can’t imagine exactly what you’d do with all of the 8 recommended baby bath towels – maybe they’ll come in useful for drying your tears over the cost of all of this gear?); upmarket boutiques will allocate you a personal shopper to curate your bespoke list. Despite our inherent British politeness, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before this trend finds its way across the pond. From a practical perspective, there is a degree of sense in avoiding overloading on more newborn onesies than even your tiny new sh*t machine will ever be able to stain beyond repair at the expense of them basically going naked by the time they hit 3 months as they’ve outgrown everything in their wardrobe. But I’m a little saddened that such a process would mean averting some of the surprise gems of gifts that made me weep with laughter after my daughter was born – like the hand-knitted pink hooded cape sized for a six year-old that made her (and me - obviously I had to try it) look like a giant woollen penis. I needed those laughs in the early days.
Showers have become more common at home in recent years and I can see why – what pregnant woman wouldn’t want to be spoilt and spend time with her close friends before her social calendar is altered forever? But this side of the pond they happen on a completely different scale: think unique venue instead of your mum’s house, professional room dressing instead of homemade bunting, and insanely intricate themed food instead of an M&S sarnie platter. My own shower experience was, frankly, excruciating: my husband’s female colleagues, unable to countenance the thought that anyone might not have one, took pity on my lack of local friends and threw one for me in their office boardroom, with upwards of 30 people – most of whom I’d never met. The sentiment was so sweet, and I was staggered (and embarrassed) by people’s generosity (in the absence of a registry or a definitive pink or blue bundle to buy for, people went to town with an abundance of cuddly toys, neutral onesies and gift cards totalling hundreds of dollars), but being the focus of attention of all those people I didn’t know, in a glass-walled boardroom on a Friday afternoon, was not exactly my idea of fun in my vast, sweaty, 36+ weeks pregnant state. Give me close friends, M&S sandwiches and my mum’s house any day!
The hunt for ‘mom’ friends
Friends at home who’ve had babies have often turned to the NCT to find local, like-minded friends with whom to muddle through the fog of the first months of maternity leave. Perhaps acknowledging the reticence of Brits to ‘put themselves out there’ and proactively invite follow-up contact (the grown-up equivalent of asking ‘will you be my friend?’ in the playground), many local branches automatically schedule a parental play-date once all of the babies have arrived, by which point exhaustion and desperation presumably get the better of pride and the mums swap numbers for late-night texting and weekly coffee meet-ups. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an NCT equivalent here, so had to set about forging my own ‘mom’ friendships; fortunately, I found that many people here were incredibly receptive to my advances, and equally happy to make their own. A couple of girls in one of our classes were keen to swap emails and come to lunch once the kids arrived. A now very close friend clearly saw my eager-to-please smile (think first-day-of-uni look) at a paediatrician’s visit and slipped me her business card. Another – a fellow Brit whose daughter is a couple of months older than mine – overheard me talking to a shop assistant in a maternity store towards the end of my pregnancy and gave me her number on the spot. Her pleading look said it all: we’re in this together, kid. So, whilst in my experience there may be fewer organised channels through which to build your ‘mom’ network than at home, the plight of the new mother desperate for comrades in the field is pretty universal – just shed your British reserve and ask for her number.
The market for keepsakes to help you savour those precious (ahem) memories of pregnancy and birth is positively booming this side of the pond. You’ll find any local parenting website, directory or kids’ centre chock full of ads for professional belly casters, labour and delivery photographers (well, if selfie-capturing isn’t top of your own priority list, it’ll be good to have someone else there to capture the magic, right?!), and experts in placenta encapsulation, who for a small fee will steam, dry, and grind your placenta, and make it into pills for whoever you choose to ingest. If your hospital is anything like ours, there will be a professional photographer doing the rounds during your hospital stay to take ‘absolutely no obligation to buy’ pictures of your new little one. Of course when I heard about this weeks before giving birth I scoffed at such a ludicrous service; of course when we saw the proofs of our darling two-day old daughter (we’d just been looking to kill some time whilst we waited to be discharged, honest) we were bowled over and promptly ordered the most expensive package with enough copies for both sets of grandparents, aunties, and the neighbour’s dog. In fairness, I actually look back at these beautiful pictures with genuine fondness now – not just for my vulnerable newborn daughter, but also for that very special time that is represented in them. Still, I can’t see that kind of service catching on in NHS hospitals at home, can you? (Although, capturing the new parent market like that might go some way to helping to balance the budget deficit…)
Hospital hullabaloo: everyone’s invited!
Given that you (or, at least, your insurance provider) are paying for the privilege of giving birth, US hospitals are much more relaxed than at home about who’s in on the party. You can basically have whoever you want in the delivery room with you (partner, parents, siblings, boss – ok, maybe not the last one) and whilst you’re discouraged from having the rest of the extended family waiting in the wings of the waiting room for news (who knows how long they could be there?), there’s nothing technically to stop that (as I type that, I can picture the hoards of aunts, uncles and cousins from My Big Fat Greek Wedding pacing the floor and stalking the nurses’ desk for updates – shudder). Once you hit your postpartum room, our hospital had a ‘quiet time’ of two hours in the early evening when visits were limited to spouses; other than that visitors were absolutely welcome to come in their droves at any time. Much as I would have loved for our parents to hold our baby girl hours after her birth, with protocols like that there is something to be said for doing this thousands of miles from most of our friends and family.
The name game
I’ll finish on a practical note. Many moons ago, my grandmother discovered, on her husband’s return from the local council office, that her son’s (my dad’s) name had not in fact been registered as Anthony Peter – the names they’d chosen together and been using for two weeks – but that he was instead to be called Brendan Patrick Michael. Perhaps in recognition of the wrath that such a disgruntled new mother might wreak on her partner, our state and many others have sought to avoid the repeat of such a scenario by requiring new parents to complete the paperwork to register their baby’s birth before they leave hospital, meaning you’ll have to decide on your chosen name by the time you’re discharged. So if you happen to be reading this days away from delivery with a husband who, like mine, is still running through the NFL Draft list looking for inspiration (‘are we definitely saying no to DeMarcus? What about A’Shawn? Can we compromise on Le’Raven?’), it might be time to start narrowing down that shortlist.