I can’t believe it’s already been almost three months since I gave birth to our daughter Libby. She was born less than an hour after we left the house, in a candle-lit room with dimmed lights and a bathtub. Yes, it was intense, painful and exhausting but it was also beautiful, powerful and empowering. I felt extremely supported and I couldn't have wished for a better experience. Thankfully, despite Coronavirus-related obstacles, my parents were able to visit and support us before, during and after the birth, taking amazing care of us and especially of Libby's brother Robin.
We've been living in Berlin for almost three years and Robin was also born here, 2.5 years ago. His birth was also on the quicker side (around 13 hours since the contractions started until we held him in our arms in the hospital) and with the help of our wonderful doula, I managed to get through most of the contractions at home and to give birth naturally.
Obviously every woman, family, baby and birth is different, but no matter how and when it happens, giving birth is a life-changing experience on every possible level. It is also extremely unpredictable. I have had two really good and different experiences, but both times we had to deal with additional challenges that made it even harder to prepare for - with Robin we had to plan in advance for giving birth in another country without the presence and help of our immediate family and close friends, and with Libby we had to face Covid related difficulties.
Initially, I wasn't sure if I wanted to share my birthing experiences here on the blog. However, knowing firsthand how intimidating giving birth as an expat can be, I thought that if this post can help even one of you, give you information and confidence and lead you to a good birthing experience, then my work here is done.
Like I wrote in my "up close and personal" post, we moved to Berlin from Israel when I was seven months pregnant. Around two months before moving, I started researching and reading in relevant Facebook groups about how things work here. I contacted a Hebrew-speaking doula living in Berlin Julia Zehavi, and she was generous and kind enough to give me a lot of information, even though she knew that she wasn't available during our expected due date. Most of what she told me really shocked me because the Israeli way of doing things is so different from the German way. Germans love to plan ahead, while Israelis, well, not as much. Also, there is a shortage in all baby-related services, such as midwives, pediatricians and daycare centers. Therefore it is necessary to take care of the logistical side of things, prepare, and contact all the necessary people as early as possible. After that conversation, I knew that I had much work ahead of me. Even though I was still in Israel and it seemed so early and far away to me, I followed Julia's advice and signed up to give birth at Vivantes Klinikum am Urban hospital, started looking for an English-speaking midwife and doula, and scheduled an appointment for a gynecologist in Berlin.
The second time around I was already living in Berlin, and I did all of that right after the first appointment at the gynecologist. I started with contacting our amazing doula again and got her advice regarding where to give birth this time and all other current concerns, but more on that later.
We knew quite early on that we wanted a doula. It was our first birth, neither of us knew anything about pregnancy, birth and babies and on top of that, we were new to this country and didn't speak the language. I don't remember exactly how I found Annie, but I knew that I wanted her there with us right after our first video call. Her calm energy and voice gave me confidence, even though everything was still so vague.
Her presence at Robin's birth was incredibly helpful. She met us at home, rode with us on the taxi to the hospital, spoke to the staff on our behalf when we got there and almost got sent to another hospital (yeah, apparently that can happen here) and of course supported me through the pain and stress of the situation.
When we found out that I was pregnant again, we wanted to recreate as much as possible the good experience that we had the first time around, so we contacted Annie once again. We weren't sure that having her there was necessary and we wondered if it wasn't a luxury that we didn't really need this time, but I'm oh-so glad that she was there! On all pregnancy and birth-related issues, I believe that there is no such thing as "too much support". Annie knew exactly what to say and do and when to do it, in order to improve the atmosphere in the room and to support us on this crazy ride.
Even though it's not easy to move to another country mid-pregnancy, there were many advantages to giving birth in Berlin in relation to Israel, like the year-long paid maternity leave, the existence of birthing centers, the softer and more natural approach of the hospitals, and the services provided by the midwives in the prenatal and postpartum phases. In Germany, there is a continuity of care that simply doesn't exist in Israel. The midwife of your choice can do regular checkups before and after birth and in some cases, like if you choose to give birth at home, at a birthing center (Geburtshaus), or with a support of a Beleghebamme (a midwife that is certified to work in a specific hospital), the midwife could also be there for the delivery itself.
With Robin, we got to enjoy this amazing service only during the postpartum period, but it really made all the difference for us. Again, we were clueless new parents to a tiny and too sleepy baby without a support system nearby. Our wonderful midwife Stephanie helped us through breastfeeding difficulties, mastitis and even surgery. She visited us daily for two weeks, gave us a ton of advice and much-needed support.
After that experience, as we were about to become parents of two, we knew that choosing the right midwife for us was extremely important. This time I got to experience the advantages of the entire process. Because it was during Covid, Rafael couldn't join me on most of the doctor's and birthing center appointments, but still, I felt less alone during the process thanks to the amazing midwives at the Treptower Park birthing center. Even though the birth was super fast and the first few weeks went much more smoothly than with Robin, I still feel that this service is a real gift to new parents.
While growing up, I heard on many occasions that the birthing experience really depends more than anything on the hospital staff, meaning the midwives and doctors on duty, and in Israel, in most cases, that can't be predetermined. I'm somewhat a shy, quiet and introverted person, so it takes me a while to feel really comfortable with people. On top of that, as expats we face language barriers, and naturally, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the whole situation. That's why having a familiar face and knowing who is going to be there when we arrived was extremely important for us. Like I wrote above, that could be possible with a Beleghebamme, home birth, or birthing center.
I started with contacting English-speaking Beleghebammen but they were all already fully booked on our expected due date, even though I contacted them while I was only 8 weeks along. Add to that the fact that this was in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, which meant that during hospital childbirths every woman could be accompanied by only one person, meaning a spouse OR a doula.
So our doula Annie suggested that we consider a birthing center, and added that I would be an ideal candidate for that kind of birth, because I gave birth to Robin naturally, without pain medication and without complications. I wasn't sure about it and neither was Rafael. We deliberated for a few days and really struggled to make a decision.
Here are a few things you need to know about birth at one of Berlin's Geburtshäuser:
To conclude, it was perfect for us but it's not for everyone. For example, I know that many Israelis consider the worst-case scenario in making birthing plans, so some would choose a large hospital with a neonatal unit. I can totally relate to that, and as I wrote, we thought about this long and hard, went back and forth, but eventually decided to go with our gut feeling and not let our fears take charge. We did however prepare ourselves for any situation and for the option of being transferred to a hospital. I don't know how I would have felt if the birth was longer and more complicated, but personally, I feel like we made the best decision for us. I was able to get all the support that I needed, give birth in the bathtub, have a couple of hours of quiet time before going home, ,and celebrating the birth with a small and beautiful ceremony with our doula and midwives.
When I first found out about the pregnancy, way back in the summer of 2020, I couldn't imagine that I would have a "corona birth". But there we were, in the middle of another lockdown and a lot of uncertainty regarding hospitals, flight and travel regulations.
The pandemic hasn’t impacted us dramatically, however, it did give us another reason to choose to give birth at a birthing center and not in a hospital. During pregnancy it meant that besides two specific examinations (Frühdiagnostik and Fein Diagnostik) Rafael couldn't accompany me to any of my many appointments.
Other than that, we had to endure the added stress and uncertainty brought by this pandemic, especially in regards to our main support system - my parents, who wished to travel to Germany from Israel for the birth. Obviously, traveling during this time was somewhat impossible and up until the flight itself, we weren't completely sure that they would be able to make it in time. When Robin was born we were here alone, and really loved having the space to figure out our new reality and the dynamic of our new family together. But with Libby everything was different and we had Robin to think about.
So there we were, with a 2.5 years old toddler that, thanks to the Coronavirus, went through months in and out of daycare, without spending quality time with other kids and adults and not used to being taken care of by anyone but us.
We had a plan B (brother-in-law) and a plan C (babysitters) but not knowing who would be able to be there for him at the moment of truth really kept us awake at night with worry.
Eventually and against all odds my parents did make it as planned, and landed in Germany three weeks before the birth. Even though we had planned it this way, we didn't even realize how much we would need their help and support during these days. When we arrived home after the birth my mom and I had the most amazing and emotional moment, one that I will never forget, and on top of spending time with Robin and providing him with much-needed attention, they helped us with grocery shopping, cooking and all household related chores. We, like most expats, are not used to having this type of support on a daily basis, so we really don't take it for granted, especially during Covid.
Like I wrote above, we worried who would be there with Robin during the birth but that was only the tip of the iceberg of our concerns. We worried how he would take this whole idea of a new baby sister, wondered if and how we could take care of a toddler and a newborn at the same time, and thought about how to best prepare him, and ourselves, for it.
Here's what we did:
We bought a couple of books on the subject, talked to him about it and saw a zoom lecture by Israeli parenting expert Einat Nathan on the subject (her wonderful book is now available in English by the way). We also took care of all the material things - sorted out our basement, got additional second-hand clothing, organized the storage in the nursery and around the apartment, did initial shopping for the first few weeks, and, of course, organized the bag for the birth. I listened to an Israeli podcast about pregnancy and birth and continued to follow relevant profiles on Instagram with excellent and generous content such as nurse.with.love, guy_rofe_obgyn and bshvil_breastfeeding (all in Hebrew). In other words, we did everything we could to minimize the feelings of uncertainty and insecurity.
Given that this was our second child (and third pregnancy) we already knew what to expect, but somehow that didn't make things easier. My body still remembered the pain of the first birth and the physical and mental difficulties from the continuous lack of sleep. So to an extent, it was even harder. On the other hand, I thought of this as my last pregnancy and was determined to enjoy that feeling as much as possible. I always wanted two kids, so even though we knew first hand that not all pregnancies end in a beautiful and healthy baby, I tried to stay positive and optimistic, not worry too much and cherish this amazing thing that is happening to me, my body and my family.
We are very aware that every child is different and Libby has already proven that. Most things that worked with Robin as a newborn don't work with her and getting to know her is a process on its own. They have different temperaments and characters and that's perfectly okay. As second-time parents we are more laid back, we know that every behavior can change from one day to the next and that all phases eventually pass. So we go with the flow, get to know her and our new family dynamic and do the best we can.