Thursday, March 27, 2014

What are you having?

Top Secret information obtained in the U.S.
What's the first question people ask when they find out that you're pregnant? The first may very well be, “How far along are you?” But any proceeding questions, in my experience, depend on what
country you're in. In America, it's usually, “Do you know what you're having?” with “Was this planned?” coming in at a distant third. In China, people never ask you about the sex of the baby, as couples aren't (suppose to be) told. Due to a cultural preference for boys and the added pressure of the One Child Policy, selective abortion became a huge problem in China once ultrasounds become popular. These days, doctors are (technically) forbidden from disclosing the sex of fetus. A kind reminder for patients not to ask is also posted outside the ultrasound room. I have heard of foreigners who told the sex, or discretely given a piece of blue or pink candy. Ming and I were under the impression that we would not be told, though I had the chance to satisfy my curiosity while in the U.S.

As for the third question, the ever-so-awkward, “Was this planned?”, I can't imagine being asked this by a Chinese person. The question did pop up a few times when announcing my pregnancy to close friends and family members back home. In the U.S., unplanned pregnancies are becoming the norm, as well as drastically increasing among single women. The situation in China is vastly different, as it is hard to get official documentation for your child if s/he is born out-of-wedlock. Couples are also required to obtain a special certificate, more-or-less granting them permission to procreate (valid for two years!), before becoming pregnant. Furthermore, it still seems to be somewhat rare for a Chinese couple to choose to be child-free. I'm under the impression that most pregnancies in China are planned, or at the very least, it is best to pretend they are. In any case, it would be very inappropriate to ask if a pregnancy was an “oops.”

So what do Chinese people tend to ask pregnant women? The most common question, the question I've nearly exclusively been asked, is: “Are you having a vaginal delivery or C-section?” While many personal issues suddenly seem fair game to the general public once you are pregnant, this still strikes me as a somewhat invasive question, especially from an acquaintance or stranger. Luckily, after having lived in China this long, I'm not much bothered by probing personal questions. I let everyone who asks know what my plans are.

A "black" place?
But why is this anyone's business? Why is this question on the forefront of people's minds? After becoming pregnant, I was surprised to learn how common C-sections are in China and how often they are encouraged by doctors. I initially thought it was because doctors genuinely believed them to be safer, but after learning more about it, it seems like they are often pushed as a means to make more money for the hospital, with a kickback going to the physician. One of my students and I were discussing medical procedures and hospitals recently and perhaps she put it best when she said, “Hospitals in China are blacker than you might guess.” Indeed, there seems to be some rather unethical money-making schemes going on. I've gotten a sense of this during my pre-natal visits, as I am encouraged to have an ultrasound every time I see the doctor, despite having a low-risk pregnancy. Every ultrasound costs 100 RMB (US$15), which doesn't sound like a lot by Western standards, but compared to the cost of visiting the doctor (a few RMB), it is significant.

You'd think that these practices would make me really angry and in a way, they do. I think it's sad that many Chinese people feel they can't trust doctors and have to be somewhat skeptical of prescribed tests and treatments. On the other hand, I do have some sympathy for doctors and hospitals. Most hospitals appear to be understaffed and underfunded. Doctors and (especially) nurses are paid poorly, yet it's important to keep costs down so patients can afford treatment. If you don't have the money for treatment, you can quite literally expect to be left out in the cold.
City Center Hospital, Chengde.
Where William will be born.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Birds and Bees in Chinese

I've been wanting to approach the PG-version of this topic with Ping for months. I first broached the subject with Ming's mom, wondering what her opinion was on discussing womanly issues with her granddaughter. I was desperately hoping she'd be up for the task, but I was quickly shot down.

“There's no need for that! She's too young! No need!” she assured me.

“But she could get her period soon. I got mine when I was eleven,” I rationalized.

“Impossible!” she declared. And that was the end of it.

Next, I turned to Ming for support, but he pretty much shared his mother's sentiments. Periods, sex, babies. . . no grade-schooler needs to learn about such matters! I asked him if anyone, at any point, had taught him anything about these things. They hadn't, which is probably why when we met, at 29-years-old, he thought people got AIDS from kissing. I didn't want Ping to be that kid. The clueless one who thinks you can get pregnant from a toilet seat or is convinced she is dying when her first period arrives.

Once I became pregnant, I felt like it was the perfect opener for discussing these issues with Ping. But my nerves kept getting in the way. How was I suppose to talk about this, and more importantly, how was I going to do it in Chinese? I told myself that as long as we had The Talk before William arrived, all would be well. Now that my due date is no longer some obscure date in the fairly distant future, I am feeling a push to get stuff done. The period + pregnancy conversation could wait no longer. The stars were aligned: Ming was at work. Ping was done with her homework. I was feeling motivated.

But I wasn't sure where to start. I can vaguely remember my own mother sitting me down on her bed one night when I was about 8. Out of nowhere, she explained the facts of life. I wasn't sure I could go It's Not the Stork, as well as I stack of tampons and pads. And Fei Fei. What better way to describe anatomy than by using your own dog!
photo by Beastyd74
via Photobucket
about it that directly, especially with the language obstacles I was facing. I needed props. First, was the trusty Children's Sexuality book (yeah, they make those) I had purchased back home,

With props in hand, I called Ping into our bedroom. My nerves quickly dissolved and I suddenly went into teacher mode. I started out with a simple question, asking her how her body and my body differed. Other than height, she couldn't think of any other major differences, which gave me an opening to explain. . . well, I won't go into details. You've probably had The Talk before and don't need it again from me.

While I didn't go into the fine details of everything and didn't even delve into the topic of sex, we were able to cover the basics about periods and a bit about how babies grow and are born. Ping seemed pretty comfortable with it all. Her only question was what umbilical cords are for. I think it's safe to say that she let me off easy! With the initial talk behind us, we are up and open for future dialogue. I think next time might be a little easier, maybe it will be in English.  

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Buying for Baby

Raising kids isn't cheap, most parents will tell you. Babies are particularly expensive, as their arrival seems to come with an endless supply of “must have” items. I was not even aware of the amount of crap available for little ones these days. They even make warmers for wet wipes so your little bundle's tush doesn't get too cold when you clean his bum. How did we survive babyhood without these marvelous inventions? In China, wet wipes didn't hit the market until fairly recently, which made me realize that the Chinese have gotten by without a lot of stuff we consider the most basic in America. Not to mention, development-wise, China is ahead of the times compared to many countries. Somehow, babies around the world still mange to survive without both wet wipes and wet wipe warmers.
Who needs a Baby Throne when
a wash machine will do?
Photo via Taobao

It's made me realize that there's a lot of stuff out there that new parents think they need, that they don't really need. I've been trying to be realistic about what to buy, though Ming thinks I've gone terribly overboard by buying a breast feeding pillow and a sling. He claims that high chairs are a complete waste of money. His mom laughed when she saw the baby rocker (pictured) I bought. I told her my friends said they are great for soothing babies and having a place to put them down when you want to cook or clean. She told me she just put Ping in the washing machine when she needed to get stuff done. She wasn't joking. While I have my (fake) Moby sling, (knock-off) Boppy pillow, and (imposter) Fisher Price "Baby Throne" rocker, there will be no changing table, no bassinet, no car seat. We have no need and no room for all these items, plus they just aren't that commonly used among Chinese people.

Diapers are for suckers. Slit-butt pants
all the way!
Photo via Taobao
Clearly, by American standards, we are baby item minimalists. So having a baby in China must be cheap, right? Ha ha! No, not really. It doesn't have to be all that expensive, but it depends on a lot of factors. Firstly, having the baby itself costs money, as most people pay for hospital expenses out of pocket. I've heard wildly different estimates as to how much labor and delivery will cost. Anywhere from 2000 RMB (US$300) for a vaginal birth at an average local hospital to well over $10,000 RMB (US$1500) for a c-section performed at a “good” local hospital. I'll have to report back on this later. Currently, I'm budgeting 3,000-5,000 RMB.

Another major expense is, of course, diapers. Disposables have become very popular in China recently and aren't much cheaper than what you'd pay for diapers abroad. We, however, are planning on going the old-fashioned route and will be (mostly) cloth-diapering. Ming claims that they just used old rags to diaper Ping when she was a babe! Well, little Will is getting an upgrade because we actually purchased diapers with cloth inserts. On the cost saving side, most Chinese babies don't seem to be in diapers long, as many of them transition to split-butt pants before age one. If you don't know what that is, the baby's pants have an open seam where there butt-crack is so they can freely pop a squat wherever (see photo). How successfully this works will have to be a discussion for a future date. I'm still not entirely sure about the method, but I'm willing to give it a try when the time comes.

You want HOW MUCH money for that!?
photo via Taobao
I will just add one more to the list of expenses. . . can you guess what it is? Ah, yes, formula! Formula vs. breast milk, this seems to be on the forefront of the internet “Mommy Wars.” If I hear the phrase “breast is best” one more time I might puke. I am all for breastfeeding and intend to do it, but I don't have anything against formula, except the price! I was curious to see what it would cost if we ended up formula-feeding. I quickly realized that we probably couldn't afford it unless I was working. A four week's supply of Enfamil would eat up nearly 1/3 of Ming's monthly salary.

How do Chinese families do it? How do they pay for all the diapers and the formula, not to mention bottles and clothes and everything else? There's a phrase in Chinese that helps explain it, it goes something like: “One child, six wallets.” These days, since most parents are only children who only have one child themselves, many families only have one grandchild for two sets of grandparents. In other words, there are four grandparents and two parents for every baby and much of the adults' resources go to raising that baby. Our family definitely isn't in that position. We'll have two children with one grandmother in China, but I'm not too worried. I feel fortunate that I can work from home with flexible hours and Ming's mom will be around to help a lot--there are some things you can't really put a price on. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Woes of Parenting: Myth or Fact?

I try not to read too many online articles on parenting as I've found that the bulk of them mostly moan about the endless woes of parenthood motherhood. I realize that women need an outlet to vent, but sometimes all the negativity can be frightening to those of us who haven't experienced having children yet. I suppose I'm a special case, as I actually have helped raise a child for the past several years while also spending much of my time working with children. From my experience with children, I don't fully understand all the stress and drama that I find on mommy blogs, but I also don't know what it's like to take care of a baby or how it feels to have a biological child. Will it really change everything? I thought I'd write down some of my biggest fears about becoming a parent and taking care of a baby. Maybe I'll look back at them and laugh at their ridiculousness or maybe I will cry at my pre-baby naivety. Are they myths? Are they reality? Here are some of the ones I both question and fear:

1. I'll never sleep again. This is by far by biggest concern. I love sleeping and don't feel like myself without a good 7-8 hours. I realize I'm not going to be getting nights of uninterrupted sleep for awhile and there will be days that I don't get enough sleep. But how long will it last? Some parents talk as if it goes on for years. YEARS. I can't wrap my head around that, nor do I want to try.
There's no turning back now!
About 34 weeks.

2. I'll never have sex again. I DO understand having kids cuts into a couple's alone time and having a baby around will further complicate things, but how long of a sex drought are we really talking? And how much of this is to really blame on having kids and how much of it is to blame on just being married?

3. I'll never stop worrying. Ming does enough worrying for the both of us. I also grew up around two insanely epic worriers--my mother and grandfather. They were afraid to let me go to the neighbor's house alone in case I was abducted or murdered on the way. These fears continued well into my teen years. I refuse to be that type of parent.

4. I'll fail to change clothes for days, perhaps weeks, at a time. I won't find time to shower. Quite frankly, this doesn't bother me that much. Since living in China, I find myself wearing clothes two or three days in a row (though locals may go up to a full week). Showering daily only happens in summer. But at least these are choices I've made, not been forced into by an infant or toddler that requires so much attention that I can't change my underwear or brush my teeth.

5. I'll constantly be covered in spit up, barf, pee, and/or poop. Are babies and small children really this disgusting? Mothers make it sound that not a moment passes by without a bodily fluid leaking out of their little bundle of joy.

6. I won't love my dog anymore. There are those who say that once the baby comes, any pets are completely neglected. They may even been seen as such an annoyance that they are given away. This makes me really, really sad. I know Fei Fei won't get as much attention once the little one arrives, but I hate to think I won't have a place left in my heart for that little ball of fur.

7. I'll finally understand love. Another one that makes me feel sad. Can it really be true that you only appreciate love once you've had a child? I've read comments by people who claim they didn't experience or understand love until the birth of their child. I believe there are different kinds of love, but I think I already have a pretty good grasp on what it is thanks to my many kind and loving friends and family members.
This is really happening! (about 28 weeks)

8. I'll feel guilty pretty much constantly. I have pangs of guilt over Ping from time to time, though they were much more frequent when I first became her step-mother. I guess I already have somewhat of a grasp on parental guilt. . . wondering if I'm doing the right thing or perhaps totally screwing up my child. But I have worked hard to try and overcome those feelings and become a more confident parent.

9. My time will never be my own. Mothering is a 24-hour job. Really? Never a break? Don't you have a husband, friend, or grandparent that can help you? Mothers who claim they are always on the clock annoy the crap out of me. You should find a way to delegate your parental responsibilities so you can have some time to yourself. Maybe I will feel different once I have a baby to take care of, but I hope I can eventually manage to schedule some "me" time, as well as some special time for Ming and myself.

I'm sure there are more I could add to the list, but I'll leave it at that. It won't be long until I'll be able to sort fact from fiction, or at least understand the reality of parenthood from my own perspective. There's no turning back now; William should arrive within a month.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Month

Photo by ANWAR_WARSI via Photobucket
With about a month to go, I'm looking past pregnancy to what almost inevitably follows in China: zuo yuezi (坐月子). In English, this is roughing translating as “sitting the month.” Yes, it is pretty much as it sounds--after giving birth to a child, the mother is basically expected to lay around, resting, eating, and (preferably) breastfeeding while her mother-in-law and other relatives take care of the cooking, cleaning, and errand running. Sounds like a pretty sweet set-up, right? Well, let's not draw any conclusions yet, because all this lazing around comes at a pretty steep price. There are numerous rules to follow and I've realized that if I'm going to try sitting the month while retaining my sanity, I'm going to have to better understand this practice, what it involves, and how much of it I am willing to embrace.

So what does “sitting the month” entail, exactly?
That is what I'm trying to get to the bottom of. I've talked to Chinese friends, read the limited articles and blogs (such as Taiwanxifu) I can find on the subject in English, as well as read the concise but helpful book, Lockdown, by Guang Ming Whitley. Mostly, zuo yuezi involves a lot of practices that most Westerners and many modern Chinese women would find unbearable. Forgoing activities such as showering, teeth brushing, reading, watching TV, and facebooking for an entire month after giving birth. Does that not sound miserable? Well, it's only the beginning of a long list of restrictions. Others include a long list of prohibited foods and beverages, banning visitors, crying, going outside, air-conditioning and even opening the window.

What's the reasoning behind all these rules?
Put most simply, zuo yuezi helps the mother recover after giving birth. The full answer is complicated and not something I can answer with much authority. Everything relates to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), most importantly to the ideas surrounding yin and yang. While I am by no means a TCM convert, I can see the value in some of its principles.

So what's the upside of sitting the month?
Clearly, a mother's well-being affects the well-being of her child. While this seems pretty obvious, I think it's something we often forget. Women often talk about “putting their children first” and I'm not sure that's the best approach in the long run. We need to take care of ourselves too, especially after giving birth. In America we put a lot of emphasis on mothers making a speedy recovery and getting life back to normal asap. In a way, this does sound rather appealing, but once I became pregnant I thought a lot about the benefits of easing myself into the routines of everyday life and motherhood; I think zuo yuezi will help me do that.

But am I really willing to do this?
I'm definitely willing to try. I will try my best with the dietary requirements and limit my time reading, but I will be showering and brushing my teeth. Luckily, Ming and his mom have not been overbearing during my pregnancy so I assume they will continue to be openminded about the decisions I make for myself and the baby after he is born, but I think it is important for me to also open my mind to some of their Chinese ideas and practices, such as zuo yuezi.

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird

“Pregnant women are weird.”

Ming has said this to me a few dozen times since I've been pregnant. And every time I fall into the trap of arguing with him.

“No they aren't. My dad said my mom was in a great mood while she was pregnant. It was the happiest he'd ever seen her.”

“He's lying,” Ming insists.

“Well, I'm not any weirder now that I normally am. I'm usually this crazy, if not more so,” I try to argue.

“No. You are like this because you're pregnant,” he assures me.

I want to continue my futile defense, but it always ends with me realizing that perhaps I'm further proving his point. So is Ming right, are pregnant women “weird”?

I can only speak for myself, because I haven't spent much time around any other pregnant women. Honestly, I don't know if I buy into all that talk about crazy hormones and killer mood swings. Part of me thinks that is simply being a woman, not specifically being a pregnant woman. I have felt pretty upbeat and psychologically sound through most of my pregnancy. Mentally, I don't feel I am any weirder than I was pre-pregnancy.

photo by Yisel_5 via Photobucket

The past few days, however, I have been feeling a bit blue. I'm tired of having my body on display for all to comment and criticize. I think what is most depressing is the realization that this is only the beginning. Once the baby arrives, I will be subjected to further advice on how to cloth, feed, and raise my child. How will I deal with this without resorting to a series of expletives? Maybe I should go into hiding?

This morning, that seemed like the best solution. I wanted to crawl under the covers and stay there all day, to not face the world, not face China. I wanted to throw myself the biggest pity party ever. I'm different. Nobody understands me. I'm lonely. I miss America. I want to go home. . . .

Nine years and I still allow myself to spin down that spiral? At this point, it doesn't really matter if my pregnancy is to blame for such thoughts; the heart of the issue is that I can't allow myself to feel this badly. After all, no one is forcing me to stay here. And the frustrations I have now are nothing new. If I dealt with them in the past, can't I deal with them now? How did I cope when faced with this before?

Then it came to me--I must always remember to take the good with the bad. For every intrusive comment that makes me want to scream, there is at least one kind gesture that makes me smile. For every person who scolds me for walking my dog, there is another who happily gives up his seat for me on the bus. For every stranger that I wish would just mind her business, there is one that sings the praises of my future biracial offspring (“Oh, a mixed-blood! He'll be so cute! And smart! Very strong!”). Yes, there are good things. There are lots of good things about being in China. I must be particularly careful not to lose sight of them now.