“It is 2010, why would you want to give birth like an animal”, and other helpful birthing tips from Romania
This month we are talking to one of our favourite family expats from the UK Catherine, who along with her husband Ivo you may recall we interviewed last year discussing her time in Panama being pregnant as well as raising a small child in Colon on the Panama Canal – not the tropical paradise you might imagine.
Today we wind the clock back further again to 2009. The Global Financial Crisis had hit in Dubai and hasty decisions for a number of expats needed to be made as significant projects were delayed or cancelled.
Catherine & Ivo had just gotten engaged and moved into a new apartment when Ivo was called in by his employer to be told he was starting on a different project, in Romania; within a week he had traded in the glorious winter sunshine of Dubai for the snow-filled streets of Pitesti – about an hour away from the capital Bucharest.
Catherine was left to sell up their Dubai life, leave her dream job and join the path of the ‘trailing spouse’. We pick up her story when she arrived in Bucharest in February.
Related Reading: Visiting Bucharest & Transylvania – a one-week itinerary
C: I flew into Bucharest and we spent the first weekend there. It was still cold and wintry and it felt like I’d entered the 1960’s. Big grey apartment blocks, very Soviet era feel to it. Everything felt, dark, bare, depressing and unfamiliar. Nobody smiled and it was looking grim.
Pitesti, where Ivo’s job was based was a good hours drive from Bucharest. As we drove out I was crying before we even arrived – this was not how I imagined our lives! There was no such thing as a luxury or International hotel in Pitesti so we stayed at Hotel Magic – it was like entering a complete time warp from another century!
The town itself was very industrial and full of cars. It all felt very backwards from what we were used to. The next day left all to myself I went for a run. It was utterly freezing and I was chased home by a pack of wild dogs.
After that, I really spent that first week just crying. I left after a week and went back to the UK to do wedding planning for a month. I think there were moments Ivo was sure I wasn’t coming back! But it was the best thing I could have done, I came back with as positive an attitude as I could.
OG: So you did return to Pitesti, how did you handle entering into an expat experience that you knew was not for you?
C: After seeing some awful houses during my first visit, we found a newer brick house with a garden that I could potter in and that kept me happy. We would sometimes drive to Transylvania on the weekends, that was far prettier then Bucharest.
It was difficult times though, Ivo worked from 7am to 7pm. It was apparent from very early on there was no way I could get a job. I researched expat groups or forums in the area and there were none. No one spoke English.
I joined an International Women’s Group in Bucharest and would drive in twice a week – though a lot of the women were Romanians who had been overseas.
The drive to get there was horrible though, really not safe but the only place I could go where people spoke English. Some of the families that worked with Ivo would live in Bucharest while the husband commuted but it made for a very long day, and with the traffic, not something I’d wish upon him.
Bucharest did have the upside that there were a few more international chain stores and familiar brands at least. It was really quite depressing until one day through a British forum I was put in touch with another British lady. We met almost immediately – she became my saviour in this experience, I cannot thank her enough for being there.
There was really nothing to do in Pitesti though. No one exercised, when I went for a run, people would look at me like I was mad. There was a cinema which we went to every single week for something to do. I would even go to the supermarket every day just for something to do!
I learnt a lot from the Internet about baking! We did get eventually get to have our summer wedding back in the UK, and then next I was pregnant.
OG: Your first daughter was born in Bucharest, talk us through the maternity services available and your decision to have your baby in Romania.
C: There was an international hospital in Bucharest with English speaking doctors, Euroclinic. We considered having the baby back in the UK but I didn’t want Ivo to miss out on seeing his first child born.
We were happy enough with the standards at the hospital, though medical services where we lived in Pitesti were very limited so most prenatal appointments I would drive to Bucharest for.
Everything was very old-fashioned. They seemed to love doing an internal examination at every opportunity. You would be ‘cleaned down’ by a nurse at every appointment and have your legs placed in metal stirrups.
The done thing in Romania is for women to have c-sections. When a colleague of my husbands (an intelligent women mind) heard I we planning a natural birth, she stated to me “it’s 2010 why on earth would you want to give birth like an animal”; at this point, it was clear we had significantly different parenting perceptions!
This apparently dates back to the days where people would pay to get the doctors they wanted – even paying more if they could deliver a boy! You would lock in your delivery date and everyone was happy.
We knew Euroclinic had a very strict no payments policy, anyone found effectively taking bribes would be immediately dismissed. But still, c-section rates are as high as 80%.
The midwives I was seeing were supportive of me seeking a natural birth but warned me from 37 weeks they’d start pushing for a section. Sure enough, this is exactly what started happening.
My doctor started making excuses as to why a c-section might be better but we were determined on a natural birth. Then Easter was approaching and I was overdue, I had a replacement doctor and after pushing us for a c-section earlier, we were then told: “you’ll be fine, come back in three days”.
By this stage, they had panicked us that something was really wrong and our baby was in harm. Inductions here are difficult as they could only use a drip, they couldn’t use a pessary, as apparently in this very Catholic country this was seen as an abortion drug.
We were basically talked out of going down this avenue as being a very painful and undesirable alternative, so ended up with the c-section.
Ivo was not allowed in for the birth and the only person in the theatre who spoke English was the doctor. The nurses tried their best to be reassuring and caring though, even after the first needle they gave me failed.
Our baby girl was safely delivered, then she was taken from me immediately. Thankfully Ivo was allowed to go with her.
I got nothing though, not even the baby placed on me – no such thing as attachment parenting or a chance to immediately hold and bond – absolutely no skin to skin or getting her immediately on the breast.
By the time they had washed and changed her, beautifully presented her back to me they told me they had already given her a formula feed and put a dummy in her mouth.
Throughout the pregnancy, I felt sick and had some very dark thoughts. In hindsight, I guess I had pre-natal depression. But being so new to it all I didn’t recognise it and just felt it was something I had to cope with.
OG: What post-natal support did you have?
C: Very little! There was absolutely nothing like NCT classes so I was so glad for having my friend there who had her first baby a few months before me to ask questions to, but other than what I was reading everything on the internet I had to learn a lot on my own, there were absolutely no baby groups.
I did not have a successful start to breastfeeding either. I was in agony, crying, bleeding; she obviously wasn’t latching on properly. There was little support in this regard, views on breastfeeding being ‘suckling’ and therefore animal-like were similar to giving birth.
It wasn’t discouraged but certainly not actively encouraged. Without proper help, I took the route of being a happy mother without a hungry baby rather than continue to struggle through this stage. It scarred me enough though that I didn’t even attempt it with my second baby.
My mother did come out from the UK after the birth to help support me but otherwise, there was little support in the way of a community health visitor or midwife. An online counselling service for expats would have been ideal at this point.
Getting some baby items was a difficulty too. There was a Mothercare in Bucharest but that was about it. I had to get nursing bras from the UK. Amazon would not deliver to Romania at this time as too many parcels were stolen.
I guess a positive aspect was all our medical costs were covered by insurance and any additional costs relating to the pregnancy paid for by the company.
Society around us was critical of our parenting too. No one seemed to have a problem telling you exactly what they thought you should be doing. It would be 16 degrees (a balmy day in England!) and strangers would stop me in the street to have a go at why did she wasn’t wearing a woolly hat!?
At 12 weeks old, all girls are examined for hip dysplasia. I took my little girl for her appointment and they told me she had to immediately be placed in plaster from her waist down for the next 6 months – imagine the tears on hearing this news!
Thankfully, this was at the point we were leaving the country and could get a second opinion. (Of course, she did not need this at all). We had never been around children before or had any experience.
We had an awful lot of self-doubt but just had to back ourselves that we were doing the right thing. None of it was my dream scenario, in fact, everything from the cesarean through to the bottle feeding it was the complete opposite of how I expected motherhood to be.
OG: What were some of the differences you noted in parenting style with Romanians?
C: More so in Bucharest, the women were educated and driven. They handled the birth and returning to work as very procedural. The key concern seemed to be about getting your body back.
They placed importance in looking beautiful for the birth – if I booked my birth in I could go and get my hair and nails done the day before. This advice was coming from educated women, it was just how it’s done.
You’re happy as you get the day and doctor you want, the doctors are happy to book in their schedule and get paid more. In Pitesti, you would see a much more traditional family unit where the father would have little to do with the children.
OG: Had you stayed longer what were schooling and child care options?
C: There was absolutely nothing in Pitesti. It was an industrial town, workers were very poor, there was nothing by the way of International or English speaking nurseries or schools.
Schooling was available for local children, though they would only attend for half a day – morning or afternoon as they were needed for work.
A couple of other expats that we knew were based in Bucharest did send their children to the International British School of Bucharest, and there was an international nursery option there.
OG: I’m sure despite the difficulties there were some positives and highlights of living in Romania?
C: You do need to look for the positives. I loved experiencing proper seasons; winters and summers were long, with proper snow in winter and warm sunny days for many months.
Being close to farmland meant we could get hold of some amazing fresh fruit and vegetables, though meat wasn’t so great. I did a lot of cooking so Ivo was always taking crumbles and breads to work. I even taught myself how to make sushi and tended to my own vegetable patch.
There was a beautiful park in town where I could walk with the baby, though not much in the way of equipment if she was older. But then there was always the stray dogs to be wary of. Transylvania and the mountains were beautiful.
You could visit Bran Castle of Dracula fame, the medieval town of Sibiu was lovely.
OG: And the biggest cons?
C: Where to start! Being chased by wild dogs on my first day in Pitesti was definitely a low-light; the lack of food choices in the supermarket places to shop.
A real issue, not just for us but for the Romanian’s is the Gypsies. They were prolific beggers, detested by the Romanians as well – they hate that people think the Roma are from Romania and associated with them. They can cause a real blight on the countryside, leaving their camps and mess behind them.
We never personally felt for our safety (the stray dogs were a far bigger issue) but they were an annoyance.
OG: You ended up spending 18 months in Pitesti; how did you go about engineering your exit?
C: After the first week Ivo put in his request to leave. This was denied. The company had a policy of moving in 6-month cycles. After the first 6 months, he was unsuccessful in getting moved, then after 12 months I was getting heavily pregnant so we felt it would be too disruptive to move.
Finally, after 18 months we got the offer to move to Oman. We were ecstatic at the idea of moving back to the Middle East. We packed up, took time back in the UK then absolutely 11th hour were told, actually now you’re moving to Colon, Panama – as you know that was another unexpected expat adventure in itself.
OG: What would you recommend to any potential expats to Romania?
C: I’m afraid there is absolutely no amount of money we could be paid to return. If you have no choice, there are obviously more options available for shopping, schooling and entertainment in Bucharest than in Pitesti, but be warned the roads are dangerous.
There weren’t a lot of other expats living there, though you would come across a lot of American Missionaries. They were doing things out there with the poorer communities like encouraging safe family planning (as they don’t believe in abortions) and spreading the word about the church. Missionaries are quite a different type of expat, however.
On reflection, overall it was just a really hard experience. Parts of the country are beautiful, but the facilities are basic, systems somewhat archaic. We all got out with our health and it made an interesting story but that’s the only way we can sum up our experience.
We are as always grateful to Catherine and her family for sharing the details of their expat posting, showing us that even in the worst of times and circumstances you can still pull out some positives and still get through the less desirable postings which can at times be unavoidable.
Don’t forget to check out the rest of our expat parenting series.
© Our Globetrotters | Photos courtesy of the Mertens family