Lisa Ferland is a US citizen who has lived in Sweden since 2012, working as a public health consultant. Her greatest adventure, parenting, combined with the often challenging foreign environment, has led to some of her most exciting discoveries about herself. We had a chance to catch up with Lisa on a few of these discoveries, including her thoughts on the true meaning of “home” as a new mother and the biggest differences between childbirth in the U.S. versus other countries.
How do the experiences in your new book, Knocked
Up Abroad, speak to the true meaning of “home” for mothers and their little ones? In many situations, the women in Knocked Up Abroad created their own supportive network of closely knit friends and family. Anyone who has moved away from their hometown can relate—when relying on family isn’t an option, we turn to our friends for support, and we may even need to rely on strangers to help us in our most vulnerable moments. For me personally, our Swedish neighbors came to assist us after the unintentional home birth of our daughter.
“Home is where the heart is” rings true for anyone living far from the home in which they grew up. After we moved abroad, home was no longer the place where we grew up as kids, but the place we created for our immediate family. Home is not made of bricks and mortar, or even the same country that is shown on your passport. Home is the feeling you have when you walk through the door and see faces that you love after a long day of work. It is sharing holidays and special events with people who care about you. For women raising families far from “home,” motherhood can feel isolating and lonely at times. There are so many days when I wish I could pop around the corner and have a chat with my mom or attend a family event that doesn’t require 18 hours of travel. However, I have learned that creating that same warm and welcoming “home” for my children is my responsibility as a mother. My children’s home is in Sweden where their parents and friends are (and more importantly, where their beloved toys are). Fortunately, family togetherness provides the warmest feeling in the world for a child, and a mother can create that in many different ways, whether she is living abroad or in her childhood home.
In your experiences, what are the single biggest advantages and disadvantages of having a baby in the U.S. versus a foreign country?
We can learn so much about pregnancy and childbirth from learning about how other cultures approach these two very vulnerable times in a mother’s life. Cultural and social norms drive medical practices regarding pregnancy and childbirth, and how people define a “normal” pregnancy varies widely around the world.
Taking that into consideration, I think the single biggest advantage of having a baby in the U.S. is the abundance of healthcare options. There are many criticisms that the U.S. treats every pregnancy like a disease and is too quick to offer interventions. However, the U.S. offers a myriad of birthing options. There are birthing centers, home births, midwives, and OB/GYNs who are more than willing to help a new mother in whatever style she chooses.
Whether she wants a home birth, water birth, at-home water birth, or repeat C-section—a woman can find (and pay) someone to support her in having the type of birth she envisions for herself and her baby. Or, if she has a high-risk pregnancy, the medical system is extremely well-equipped to provide whatever medical services she may require.
In the chapter, “Land of Birth,” Norwegian mother Jannecke Balys describes how different her birth experiences were in the U.S. than in Norway, where the options are more limited. In some countries, there are resource constraints, such as not enough doctors, or not enough (or any) anesthesiologists to provide epidural pain relief. In some cases, hospitals may not even be equipped to provide safe C-sections during emergencies. In some countries, it is against the law to have a water birth (Sweden) or home birth (United Arab Emirates). The U.S. offers women so many options for childbirth, which is a true advantage for mothers during this stressful time. However, one of the biggest disadvantages in the U.S. is the social and economic pressure placed on mothers so quickly after childbirth.
In the U.S., there is a cultural feeling that new moms should be “back to normal,” “back to work,” and “back in pre-pregnancy clothes” almost instantly, as if having a baby was not a huge, life-altering, physically demanding event.
I wish mothers in the U.S. had the time they need to allow themselves to heal from pregnancy and childbirth—the physical changes, sleep deprivation, and fluctuating hormones—in order to enjoy that blurry temporary haze of postpartum life.
The U.S. would benefit greatly from paid parental leave, something that the rest of the world has already discovered, to allow parents this crucial time to adjust and care for their families and themselves.
In the chapter, “Moon Months,” Canadian mother, Ember Swift, describes China’s requisite resting period for mothers to heal during the postpartum period. In many Asian cultures, mothers are restricted to 30 days indoors in an attempt to give their bodies enough time to heal properly from the birth experience. In Sweden, the non-birth partner is provided ten days of paid leave from work to stay home to help the mother and newborn baby.
In our case, my husband was thrilled to have two weeks at home with our newborn baby in Sweden, which was in stark contrast to the five days he was begrudgingly allowed (and discouraged from taking) in the U.S. after our son was born.
These cultural differences define the expectations of new parents in other countries around the world and illustrate how different life is for parents in the U.S.
In terms of practical and emotional needs, what advice do you have for a woman considering having a baby in a foreign country?
Practically, I would do as much research and ask as many questions as possible about how the birth process works in that country. Talk to your doctor (or midwife) and as many friends as you can in order to physically and mentally prepare yourself. In the chapter, “Baby in Benin,” Sarah Murdock heard from women who were bullied by midwives (one woman was even slapped!) and her Beninese friend warned her not to touch the floor during birth as it could be dangerous for the baby due to poor hygiene. Preparing for as many unknown factors as possible will reduce (not eliminate) stress around childbirth. Creating a birth plan can help to make your wishes known at the hospital. Of course, I recommend having a few contingency plans because pregnancy and childbirth rarely seem to go according to plan.
Once the baby arrives, give yourself time to adjust to the arrival of the new baby before inviting guests to stay. As much as family may want to see the baby, having visitors can be stressful (or even disruptive). My mother-in-law visited us when our daughter was two weeks old. I bravely told her that my house was not going to be clean and that she was in charge of meal preparation. I was even bold enough to assign her small tasks like helping with laundry and grocery shopping.
Emotionally, I would recommend that parents schedule Skype or FaceTime sessions to stay connected with friends and family after the baby is born. Long-distance travel may not be feasible with a newborn, so connecting with loved ones virtually is the next best option for introducing the newest addition of your family. When you are fortunate enough to have face-to-face connections, make them meaningful. I vividly remember a good friend visiting me when my daughter was two weeks old and taking me to a nearby cafe. She bounced and played with my daughter while I leisurely sipped my coffee without worrying about anything. We laughed and conversed like adults and for a brief moment, my mind wasn’t repeating “diapers, laundry, cleaning” on a loop. It was so refreshing to have adult interaction after two weeks of relative seclusion with a newborn. Maintaining those emotional connections with friends is essential for your sanity as a new mom. Even a brief stroller walk each day is good for our mental health—and even better when we have a friend with whom to stroll.
Some days it is a struggle just to find clean yoga pants, but pull your hair into a messy bun, put your baby in the stroller, and get out of the house, wherever it may be.
Motherhood can be lonely and living abroad can be even lonelier. Experiencing motherhood far from our support network means that we have to rely on others for support. And when we are able, it is our turn to provide support to other new mamas who are parenting abroad.