Lifestyle & Culture

Laura Kaye in Berlin: Having a baby abroad (during a pandemic)

(Editor’s note: You can see more of Laura’s posts about having babies and raising children in Berlin here.)

This post goes out to all the expat babies born in 2020 and 2021. To the babies who have yet to meet their grandparents. To the babies who will be unlikely to make the journey “home” to the country listed on their passports before their first birthday. 

To the mothers whose births were attended by people speaking a language other than their mother tongue. Whose own mothers were unable to fly out to support them.

All photos courtesy of Laura Kaye

To all the new parents self-isolating in unfamiliar territories, thousands of miles from their would-be “support bubble.”

To the grandparents who have suffered the repeated disappointment of cancelled flights and new travel restrictions. And to the aunts and uncles who are known to their littlest nieces and nephews as faces on a phone screen.

What a time to be born! What a time to give birth!! 

People regularly talk about how parenting in the 21st century can be a very isolating experience. But seriously, no one could have adequately prepared any of us for parenting in the 21st year of the 21st century. Particularly when doing so overseas during a time when our families are unable to cross those seas to help us.

My littlest expat baby was born in Berlin back in March 2020 at the height of first wave anxiety. Back when we had very little information about how COVID 19 might affect pregnant women and newborns. During the peak of global toilet paper shortages. You can trust me when I say that NO postpartum woman wants to hear they’ve run out of toilet paper! 😱

Having previously given birth here in Berlin, I was relatively au fait with the system here. I also already knew the relevant German vocab for most pregnancy-, birth- and parenting-related eventualities. All those handy terms and phrases that don’t quite make it into the workbook for your intensive German class. Braxton Hicks contractions, stretch marks, emergency cesarean section, pelvic floor exercises, mastitis, reflux, projectile baby vomit …

My previous experiences of bringing life into (a different part of) the world had been a steep learning curve. But not this time! This time I was so well prepared. 

Cue 2020: “Hold my beer!” 

This last year has been a very challenging year for everyone. But having a baby abroad during a pandemic has its own quite unique set of challenges, our first major challenge being when my Mum’s flight from the UK was cancelled shortly before I was due to give birth. Not only was it gut wrenchingly disappointing that she wouldn’t get to meet her grandson during his first few days of life, but it also meant scrambling around for childcare for his big brother.

Now, our wonderful German friends are a great source of support under ordinary circumstances. But it’s slightly awkward to ask someone who isn’t a family member or life-long friend to come and pick up your five-year-old in the middle of the night at short notice. Particularly when that five-year-old, though seemingly healthy, may or may not have been infected with that novel virus that everyone has been doom-scrolling about for the past few weeks.

It also turns out that finding your “support bubble” within your “expat bubble” can be far from straight forward:

Hey Jane, who recently moved here from Manchester. I know we’ve only known each other for a few months, but we get along so great that I wanted to ask you if you’d like to be the one and only person who comes over to our place for the next few weeks of lockdown so that you can help me wash the puke out of these tiny clothes and hold the baby whilst I go to the toilet. I’d also request that you and the other members of your household don’t see anyone else during that time. Sound good?

COVID cancel culture

And then there’s the fact that we’ve not been able to enjoy most of the reasons why we decided to start a family here in the first place. Berlin’s beautiful playgrounds have been off limits for much of the year. The free kindergartens remains closed. And instead of being able to offer our children the opportunity to be in immersed in another language and culture, we’ve essentially had to settle for switching the Netflix language settings to German.

So many aspects of life as an immigrant with a new baby are endlessly more complicated. If you think making new mummy friends in a foreign country sounds difficult, try doing so when the baby massage classes have all been cancelled. And whilst your charisma might be able to make up for your lack of language skills in person, try making new friends whilst communicating mostly with hand signals during an online postpartum exercise class.

But by far the most difficult aspect of this mess has been that at, 10 months old, our son has yet to meet the vast majority of his family. My Mum thankfully did manage to make it out here in the summer when the UK briefly added Germany to its “safe corridor” list. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, has sadly had her trip cancelled three times and is now unlikely to make it out here before his first birthday.

Resilient expats

Despite this gloomy situation however, we expats are a resilient bunch. Living life in unfamiliar waters and overcoming unexpected challenges is what we’re used to. And further to that, I have to say there have been some advantages to come out of this horror show. 

Firstly, not being in the United Kingdom has had its benefits because … well … I won’t have to explain that to anyone who’s been following the situation in the UK of late.

And despite the fact this last year has highlighted the distance between us and our loved ones, it also saw new ways for us to connect with family and friends far away as the whole world sought new ways to keep in touch with their loved ones, including those living just round the corner. 

My eldest son has been taking advantage of the new opportunities for distance learning and enjoying a few online classes with kids who speak his native language. And my 84-year-old grandparents can now confidently use FaceTime, and hold their own in family group chat messages. In some ways, we have more ways to stay connected than we’ve ever had.

But virtual hugs just can’t make up for all the real cuddles our babies are missing. So I’d implore everyone to check in on their fellow expats and family members living far away from home. And to keep washing their hands and wearing their masks. To avoid risky travel or unnecessarily breathing on their friends and neighbours. 

Then perhaps we might start to see light at the end of the tunnel before this year is over. And though my youngest son will unlikely see his Granny on his first birthday, maybe he’ll make it back to the UK to give her a cuddle at Christmas.

About the author:

Laura Kaye is a freelance writer, researcher and editor. Her work focuses on social and development issues, parenting and family life.

Originally from the Wirral in the United Kingdom, she is a serial expat now happily living in Berlin, Germany.

You can see all of Laura’s Dispatches posts here.

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