My husband and I have been living in Amsterdam for quite some time. Six years for him, three for me. We are both French, from Paris, but Amsterdam is our home. The quality of life here is excellent, the people are calm and polite, and it’s a peaceful place even at the heart of an ever-crazier Europe: as Jews we feel safe, at least for now. Which is more than we can say for Paris
The degree to which we’ve assimilated to Dutch life was made clear when we got married a few years ago. Rather than return to France for the big event, we wed in Amsterdam’s famous Portuguese Synagogue. But a few months later, when I found out I was pregnant, the idea of giving birth here made me blanch. Why? One word: epidural. You see, after talking to a few people and indulging in lots of Internet research, I came to the conclusion that there are four types of pregnant women in the Netherlands:
1. The Super Moms – appointments are made with midwives, delivery takes place at home, no medication
2. The Cool Moms – appointments are made with midwives, delivery takes place in birthing hotels, no medication
3. The Cautious Super Moms – appointments are made with midwives, delivery takes place in hospitals, no medication
4. The Losers (including myself) – appointments are made with OB/GYN, delivery takes place in hospitals, epidural yes yes yes!
Being part of that fourth group might be a norm in France but it’s almost an act of defiance in the Netherlands. I’d gotten used to being the only person who didn’t own a bike and refused to eat bitterballen (basically deep-fried balls of gravy), but I didn’t relish the idea of fighting for something that seemed completely normal–highly effective pain medication during what might be the most painful experience of my life.
My first challenge was to find an OB/GYN who would understand my wishes. I was lucky to find an amazing one. However, he explained that the only way I could be 100 percent sure of getting the epidural was through an induced delivery, since hospitals in Amsterdam don’t always have an anesthetist on duty. If I arrived in the middle of the night, I would have to give birth naturally. I later learned this actually happened to two friends of mine, and their experiences were so traumatic that one doesn’t want to have another child in the Netherlands and the other doesn’t want another child at all.
At this point, I was ready to jump in the car and drive to Paris. But after more thought, I decided that if this was the country I had decided to make my home, I should accept their medical culture, despite it seeming medieval. I wouldn’t go so far as a “natural” birth, but I would deliver in Amsterdam. Oddly enough, none of my Parisian friends, nor my expat friends, asked me whether I was getting an epidural–because for them it was simply a given. However, I did have to explain my decision to Dutch people; even my husband was at the receiving end of criticism from some Dutch men, which I found pretty ironic. We were told–by complete non-experts, mind you–that the epidural is dangerous for the child and the mother, that the female body produces hormones that overshadow the pain, that going against nature is wrong, that risks of an episiotomy rise, and that I would feel less connected to my child after the birth.
After a while, the lectures drove me to lying about my plans. The first time was during a breastfeeding class. None of the other women were planning a medical delivery, so I pretended to be part of the gang. Lies to my yoga teacher and physiotherapist soon followed.
Fortunately, there was relief to be found within our local Jewish community, where most of the women I knew had had a birthing experience similar to the one I was planning. Perhaps that was because the Dutch Jewish community is diverse, with many people married to Israelis, French, Belgians, and Americans. But outside that world, the pressure kept up. As a “welcome to your second trimester” gift, I received a huge box from my insurance company. How nice! The first items I took out were cute gifts for the baby. But when I dug deeper into the box, confusion, then shock, then fear set in. I’d been sent, unbidden, all the equipment necessary for a home delivery, including mattress covers, alcohol, and gloves. It turns out that every pregnant women in the Netherlands receives one of these packages, since home birthing is very popular here (or maybe home birthing is popular because of all the free goodies…?).
A month before the delivery, a midwife came to my house for a birthing class. She asked us to tell our parents to only come a few weeks after the birth, to give us time to adjust to our new lives. No one would ever suggest such a thing in France. I asked, “Have you ever met a Jewish mother?” She laughed but I could tell she thought I was being irrational. She then spent the next three hours trying to persuade me to have a natural birth.
Maybe you think taking pain medication is the weaker option out when it comes to delivering a baby. But in the Netherlands, it takes a strong will to be weak. And in the end, the battle was worth it. I had a fantastic delivery, in a very comfortable hospital bed, with a highly professional staff who gave me the most adorable baby on earth–not to mention the most divine painkiller along the way.