The last few weeks have been insane.
Our family is on our fifth week of spring colds. I’m planning our son’s birthday party. Our church is coordinating a city-wide blood drive, for which I’m one of the primary organizers. I can’t remember the last time my house was this dirty.
So…call it an excuse, but I’m cheating a little on this week’s post. Many of you are new to this blog, so I’m pulling from something I wrote last year.
Our son, Titus, is two years old this week. And since childbirth in Ukraine was by far the wildest cultural experience I’ve had, I’m sharing a little of that story here. If you’re squeamish about birth, don’t worry – I won’t get graphic.
Childbirth in the back of a van?! Well, almost…
I was home alone with our two year old when I felt the first contraction. The next three or four came in quick waves, and I called my doctor to let her know I was coming.
We didn’t have a car. Josh was working in town. I called him and told him to meet me at the hospital – no way he’d make it home in time on a city bus. Called my mom and brother (who are also missionaries); my brother would stay with Nora, and Mom was coming to the hospital, in case Josh needed translation and I wasn’t able to do it. She called my dad, who would drive us.
I gathered my pre-packed bags. Cultural moment here – in Ukraine, you don’t just pack baby clothes and PJs and diapers for the hospital. No, you also bring the bed sheets (two sets – one for delivery and one for post-delivery stay), gloves for the doctors, syringes, gauze, umbilical cord clamp, toilet paper, and oh, so much more!
Bag of hospital supplies and half the list of items I was responsible to bring.
My family arrived, I gave Nora a quick kiss and hug, and we were out the door. Contractions were getting closer and closer. I texted Josh – “Better get there fast!” He was having trouble getting a bus or a cab, so he ran about 1.5 kilometers to the hospital.
We got stuck in traffic. At one point, I asked my mom, “Do you remember how close contractions are at the end?”
“About a minute or two.”
“Okay…um, we might want to hurry, ‘cuz that one was about two minutes!” I was still calm, but starting to plot out the details of delivering in the back of that van.
We made it to the hospital (as did a worn out Josh), and they took me to triage. I let them know the contractions were close, but maybe I didn’t seem panicky enough. The nurse was working through my paperwork when the doctor arrived to check my progress. After a single glance, she said, “She needs to be in the birthing hall NOW! Baby is already coming!”
They rushed us to the birthing hall, which was clean and tidy, but reminded me of a hospital room from a ’50s TV show. The nurse made up the bed, using the sheets I had brought, told me to pee in a bed pan at the end of the bed (embarrassing!), and I spent a grand total of fifteen or twenty minutes on the bed in labor. Just over two and a half hours from my first contraction, Titus made his appearance.
Hospital Stay with New Baby
In Ukraine, the typical length of a hospital stay after giving birth is four days. My recovery room was for six women. That means six women, six newborns and usually six caregivers (husbands, moms, friends), plus any visitors who came to see the new babies.
The room was connected to a second recovery room (no door between them), which was also for six women, their babies, and their caregivers. As you can imagine, we didn’t sleep much! The day I went home from the hospital, I was so exhausted that I felt like I was having an out of body experience.
There was no toilet in our room. The entire department had one bathroom for patients and visitors with three toilets in it. Our room did have its own sink, but only cold water. Each woman brought her own hand soap for herself, her guests, and her doctors to use.
There was a shower head and a drain on the floor in the public bathroom, which was uni-sex, mind you. No curtain and right next to a huge window. Three days after giving birth, I decided I had to at least wash my hair and sponge bathe. The water was so cold that I had a headache by the time I was done!
The pediatrician and my doctor were both amazing. They came by frequently to check on Titus and me, and they took great care of us.
Another cultural moment – I learned very quickly that nursing moms are under MAJOR dietary restrictions here, compared to the States. I felt like every time the pediatrician walked into the room, she was scolding me for something I was eating. They were very concerned about allergies and possible negative effects on Titus, whereas in the States, I had been accustomed to an “eat it and if you notice a reaction, don’t eat it again” approach.
Another obvious difference, although not a new revelation for me, was that newborns are treated with extreme caution. Our room was probably about 75 or 80 degrees Fahrenheit (no AC), but the babies were still bundled in thick, wool blankets and hats. Titus was definitely the odd man out in terms of dress code!
The hardest difference for me was that children are not allowed to visit in the recovery ward. We arranged for my parents to bring Nora to the hospital one day, and I met her outside for a walk, leaving Titus with Josh in the room. While I was loving the one-on-one time with our new son, it was killing me to be apart from our two year old for so long. Thankfully, Nora was as happy as ever, just anxiously waiting for us to bring her new brother home.
Bringing Baby Home – A Cultural Event
I feel like Ukraine has America beat in the area of “bringing baby home from the hospital.” It’s a big deal in the States, and your close family and friends are usually a part of it, but here, bringing baby home is a beautiful, cultural event.
The day we took Titus home, there was a mass exodus of moms and babies. Every mama got dressed up in her “Sunday best”, did her hair up right, and put on her makeup. Women I’d been with for days, who had worn pajamas and bath robes and not put on a stitch of makeup, looked completely different – fresh and excited. Every baby was dressed in something fancy and then wrapped in a beautiful, carefully selected blanket.
Husbands, fathers, grandparents, friends…they all arrived, bringing lavish bouquets of flowers and sporting big, beaming smiles. The nurses came into the rooms to make sure each baby was properly attired, and then, one by one, they carried baby to the door, escorting Mom and Dad all the way. Outside the hospital, for every baby, there was a group of eager loved ones, anxiously waiting for their new arrival to make his or her first appearance into the outside world.
When our turn came, we experienced one of the sweetest parenting moments of our lives so far – Nora ran toward us as we walked through the door, holding out her chubby little toddler arms and begging to hold her new baby brother.
Culture Shock, Comfort Zone and Learning to Adapt
I remember saying when I was pregnant that I’d never felt like such a foreigner as I did being pregnant in Ukraine. I experienced more culture shock than I had in years, having moved here when I was only twelve. Every day now, I’m realizing that parenting cross-culturally involves just as much culture shock.
A huge part of our lives as missionaries is adapting. I don’t love adapting. I like being comfortable and familiar. Change is hard for a lot of us, isn’t it? Whether it’s changes in family, work, the place where you live…change has a way of ripping us from our comfort zone and forcing us to make a choice: dig your heels into the past and hold on or embrace some new facet of life and become stronger.
Sometimes I dig in my heels for a while, but in the end, it always makes more sense to accept what God has allowed to come my way. I may not like the changes initially – actually, sometimes, I don’t like them period! But in adapting to change, there is a richness to be gained.
In our lives as missionaries, that richness is found in incorporating a “new” culture into our family. It’s a beautiful thing to draw from the good in both American and Ukrainian cultures, whether it’s in pregnancy, childbirth, parenting, or other areas. Yes, we face culture shock and are forced to adapt sometimes when we’d rather not, but in the end, we see that God is using it to grow us, challenge us, enrich our lives, and hopefully impact the hearts of people around us.