Up the duff in America

So, I got pregnant.  Which is a good thing, because a large part of the motivation for giving up my nice old job was the impracticality of conceiving a child when you and your husband are on separate continents.  This time last year, I thought: my biological clock is ticking!  By January, I was thinking: or maybe not so much ticking as stopped? Now every doctor I meet says ‘because of your age’ several times each conversation. 36 has never felt so old. I must finish my novel quickly, so I can get onto one of those best new novelist lists with a cut-off age of 40 and feel young again.

If becoming a parent is meant to turn you into a Tory, suddenly keen to castrate sex offenders, put the interests of your child before the good of anyone else in society, and indulge in a level of consumer spending with which you could restart the Portuguese economy, then it seems to be turning me into a raging nationalist. I was never as homesick and as irrationally pro-British as I have been since getting pregnant. Because how can one, realistically, contemplate getting through a pregnancy without either Mothercare or the NHS?

When we were growing up my sister and I had an odd attachment to the Mothercare catalogue, and on one notable occasion I bet her that she couldn’t spend an hour-long car journey cooing over the babies in it. She won. I’m not going to wax too lyrical about Mothercare, but there was something immensely reassuring about the layette list they used to feature in the catalogue. (Obviously, I don’t know if they have it any more BECAUSE I AM IN EXILE.) And there is a sweet Mothercare woman with a West Country accent who pops up on the Mumsnet sidebar and says sensible things like ‘don’t buy too many babygros’. In American baby shops, you have to learn a whole new language: buggies are strollers, cribs are bassinets, cots are cribs, babygros are onesies and nappies are diapers. Thus far I have not been able to bring myself to say any of these words out loud; if this condition persists we will have to do a lot of internet shopping.

But this is as nothing compared to the horror of trying to get through your pregnancy in a country where there are signs up in supermarkets saying ‘GOVERNMENT WARNING: According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects.’ I’m sure the Surgeon General has her merits, but frankly I don’t trust her in the same way I trust Zoe Williams, who convincingly demonstrated a couple of years ago that there is no known risk to drinking up to 10 units a week in pregnancy.  And trust is what this pregnancy is turning out to be all about. It’s all nice and fun playing at living in another country, until you start having to make serious decisions about your life and the life of your unborn child based on the advice proffered by the US government, a random assortment of doctors, and the simpering platitudes of What To Expect When You’re Expecting.

To be fair, the doctors have been fine. But they are obstinately unwilling to pretend that they are secretly working in the NHS and doing everything according to a British timetable. They say things like ‘you’ll have to check whether your insurance would cover a nuchal fold’ and ‘have you had your annual gynaecological exam?’ and ‘I’ll just do a quick ultrasound’.  What I am after is being signed up for a nuchal fold test without any fuss.  I want nice standard scans at 12 weeks and 20 weeks and not a lot of other weird scans that reveal the baby to look like a blob (8 weeks) or a glowing death mask (16 weeks). I want to sit in a shabby NHS waiting room with coughing pensioners and old copies of Reader’s Digest, not a half-empty private waiting room with soft pastel furnishings and posters about umbilical cord blood  banking. Above all, I want to avoid all unnecessary kneading and prodding of my breasts, inside my vagina and around the back of my shoulders. (God knows what that last bit was about.) And where are the midwives? What fun is any medical experience if you can’t indulge in a passive-agressive war of patronising remarks with a nurse along the way?

What’s more, it’s not just the alcohol. Americans tend to give up caffeine altogether while pregnant, too. And they have some weird thing about not eating ‘deli meats’ or smoked salmon. Which, along with everything else you aren’t supposed to eat – rare meat, liver, blue cheese, Brie, soft eggs, 15 kinds of fish, bagged salad, anything precooked and chilled – basically leaves you on a diet of crackers, boiled cabbage and cheddar. Instead, I am adopting a moderate approach.  I eat things I know I shouldn’t and then spend most of the next day googling ‘toxoplasmosis’ and ‘listeria’.

But I am well into the second trimester now. I no longer feel sick or exhausted, I have a visible bump and have even bought some maternity jeans. I have decided not to think about the birth for a few more months, though I was alarmed to learn that American hospitals do not offer you gas and air and that the one where I am giving birth says quite a lot of highhanded things about how – I paraphrase slightly – they will probably ignore your birth plan and make all the decisions themselves because they know best. Still, since my birth plan is ‘get me and my baby out alive’, I am going into the whole thing with just two simple demands that I hope they can go along with. And we will be visiting Britain in July: first stop, Mothercare.


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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17 Responses to Up the duff in America

  1. awindram says:


  2. AHLondon says:

    Congrats. I’ve got s draft of the opposite post–Where are the docs? Gas and air?! How so they know what’s going on if they never check?–that I should get up. Sorry you have to endure the deli meat/pedicure/hair dye/tuna insanity. It really is maddening. Best advice I got on that stuff: do whatever your doctor says. Listening to girlfriends, in laws, magazines, and the like will make you nuts, if it hasn’t already. Oh and have your husband block you from baby center and webMD. Those sound like good things, but I’m pretty sure panic attacks and stress aren’t so great for mom and baby. And Girfriend’s Guide beats What to Expect unless you just have to follow the “best odds diet” and need to worry about gestational diabetes weeks before your glucose test.
    If you need any baby gear translation help, send me a line. Happy to help.

    • It’s obviously totally irrational – for some reason you just want it all done the way you expected it. But please write the post and let us have the link! How far along are you?

      What on earth is wrong with pedicures?!

      Mumsnet is my resource for all pregnancy related concerns – that and pestering my sister, who’s a GP. I did buy a US pregnancy magazine and was so horrified at its ability to see either peril or a purchasing opportunity, or both, at every turn that I vowed not to buy another…but maybe I’ll check out the Girlfriend’s Guide, which I think I’ve seen in the library.

      • AHLondon says:

        Working on post. Will tell you when up. Until then I’ve got other advice and posts. (Countering excessive stress of pregnancy and early motherhood is one of my missions.)
        First, know what you are up against in the US. While the US is far better at preventative care than the UK (I’ll go off on that soon), the focus on prevention gives the illusion that all things can be prevented. You are fighting the precautionary principle, which holds that since we can’t prove X isn’t harmful, then we will assume that it might be. This isn’t so much the medical community’s attitude, but the media and public’s attitude (and a result of the legal environment). Mention this to your GP sister and she will likely point out that negatives are usually impossible to prove and something about the poison being in the dose. In short, the precautionary principle short circuits all reasonable risk analysis. Ten cups of coffee a day is bad, and we don’t know exactly where the line from fine to bad is, so we will assume it is at 1 drop of coffee. Your doc, and it sounds like you switched to a reasonable one, is your best source for risk analysis.
        Second, to the extent you can, skip all the birthing books. You have an excellent birth plan. (Who gives a crap about soft music if your baby’s shoulder gets caught?!) Read enough to know generally, very generally, what to expect, how to recognize labor, etc. but otherwise read up on baby care. Birth is a day. Motherhood is forever. You need to know a whole lot more about infant care than timing contractions. (This is why Girlfriends Guide is cool. It is less about prolapsed cords and more about maternity clothes, i.e. practical stuff.) You need a copy of Baby 411. And I was serious when I said this is a mission of mine.
        I also cover introducing solids, potty training, attachment parenting, and vaccines–oh and circumcision. Breastfeeding links in response to Expat Mum below.

      • Yeah, I agree with you on the birth/baby wedding/marriage analogy. I’m going with Penelope Leach, plus one or two other books. Didn’t mean to give the impression that my *only* sources of information on either pregnancy or childcare were Mumsnet and my sister – I am reading lots of other stuff (because that’s how I am about everything), but ignoring the bits I don’t find helpful!

  3. Chris Brooke says:

    Jo and I enjoyed laughing at Naomi Wolf’s book Misconceptions, once upon a time, which presents itself as a denunciation of the American pregnancy industry, but really just shows you how thoroughly acclimatised to it even its supposedly radical critics in fact are. You might enjoy it.

  4. Expat Mum says:

    Oh ho ho, if you want passive aggressive hospital people, just wait till you come across the lactation nurse! She will come into your room just as your OB?GYN is trying to visit, give you a half hour lecture on the benefits of breast-feeding, refuse to believe that it’s at all painful, tell you you need to breatsfeed every hour and pump for a further twenty minutes, and generally reduce you to tears if you are having any difficulty at all. (Actually skip the “passive” – it’s just total aggression.)
    I did find my doctors gave me a lot of choice and I was in on every decision that was made; the one thing I found (three times at Prentice) was that the nurses and doctors didn’t have a great relationship. The nurses think that the doctors don’t know a lot and quite often they ignored directions or did things that hadn’t been discussed. Given that you see your doctor for you entire pregnancy and not just at the end here, I felt very disloyal when the nurses did this.

  5. Cathy says:

    Can I just say that I love the title of this post. It could be a Judd Apatow film.

  6. Annie says:

    Congratulations! So happy for you. I feel slightly like a stalker saying this, but I stumbled upon your blog a while back and have been following you for a while. I’m an American (from near Chicago!), also an academic, and I did my PhD in the UK, where I experienced the reverse of many of your cultural surprises in the US! 🙂 I’ve since come to live in Australia (also a trailing spouse!), which I’m finding a curious mix of British and American culture. My current theory is that everything that existed before about 1950 aligns with British culture, but once TV came in, Aussies embraced (or unconsciously absorbed) American culture.

    I eventually found the perfect academic job over a year after coming here, and then not long afterwards had a baby! So now I’m using words like nappy, pram, and dummy in my everyday speech, but I have to translate for my American friends and family, or else they think I’m being pretentious!

    I’ll look forward to hearing more about your journey! (Oh, and I found a great lactation consultant – very reasonable and supportive. They do exist.)

  7. Marion says:

    Lactation consultant, lactation consultant — what the heck!!. Yeah I am old and my youngest child is now 32, but being a Brit and having given birth to my two children in the UK the breast feeding approach was very different. Take the baby — tease it with the nipple — when it is hungry it will latch on. The nurses would assist with helping to adjust the baby to a better position and calming you when the baby wouldn’t feed and you were getting panicky. Here I am 32 years later living in Panama and from seeing the number of young girls breast feeding their babies it just reenforces the fact that breast feeding is natural and definitely not rocket science. Lactation consultants — just another US medical ploy (and believe me I know their health care system having lived there for 28 years) to try to make you think you REALLY need something you actually don’t just so you and your insurance company have to fork over more money.
    Happy Pregnancy and Congratulations, I wish you much joy with the new addition when he/she arrives. Don’t let “the experts” take away the wonder and happiness of this special part of your life.

  8. Pingback: Syntactical drift | The Sceptical Expat

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