Never in my most outlandish childhood/adolescent/young adult dreams would I have imagined that my first positive pregnancy test would deliver the news to me in German, not English. The word for “pregnant” in German is “Schwanger,” which sounds like a very solid, round word when stated aloud, much like a growing belly. I stared at the test in disbelief for a few seconds before yelling for my husband to come take a look.
That was the beginning of my experience with pregnancy (sorry, get ready for a long descriptive phrase) as an American Jewish woman living in Bavaria with a Czech husband. It was the weekend, so I wasn’t able to set up an appointment straight away, but I was on the phone on Monday with my ob-gyn as soon as possible to set up the first examination.
Living in Germany was a decision I made in order to be with my husband, who had an academic position in Munich at the time of our marriage. He had already been living in the country previously, and I spent a year as an au pair there in my early 20s. I learned the language through a combination of classes, listening to the children’s repetitive phrases and simple books, and pure absorption through the German-speaking environment. Now I do all my doctor’s appointments in German, which I admittedly appreciate for its extremely literal pregnancy and birth terminology terms such as “Gebärmutter” (the uterus, translates as “birth mother”) or “Mutterkuchen” (the placenta, translates as “mother cake”).
In terms of Jewish life in Europe (outside perhaps of France and the UK), there are some inevitable issues to grapple with. For instance, I’m not yet sure of my child’s gender, but if it’s a boy, we would want to have a brit milah for the baby, which isn’t always the easiest endeavor in Germany. You are allowed to have a circumcision for religious purposes—so a bris is absolutely possible—but there aren’t many mohels (circumcision professionals) in central Europe. If we do find out we are expecting a boy and want the traditional ceremony, we’ll have to book one well in advance—so even if we didn’t want to know the gender, it’s almost a “must” here if you would want a bris for your baby boy.
However, by German cultural standards, circumcision is extremely uncommon and often looked down upon—it was a huge subject for debate in Germany in 2012 after a young Muslim boy had some complications after the procedure. This resulted in a brief period where circumcision was illegal in some parts of Germany, but then after an uproar from the Jewish and Muslim communities, it was deemed acceptable as a religious ritual that must be done within the first six months of the baby’s life, and afterwards must be performed by a doctor.
Additionally, if we had a boy and gave him a bris, I’m sure some of our German friends and acquaintances might hesitate in attending, because many Germans view circumcision as unusual and controversial. On the other hand, I think many of our friends here would be excited to attend for the exact reason—they have never been to a bris before.
Regarding prenatal care, and what insurance will cover for a pregnancy and birth here in Germany, it’s an entirely different world than what people in the States are used to. First off, there’s the midwife—called a “Hebamme” in German. In addition to your ob-gyn, you are legally entitled to your own midwife who meets with you before the birth (and is qualified to do some of your monthly exams), as well as every day after the birth for 10 days, and several further visits post-birth.
After the baby is born, insurance covers pelvic floor exercise classes to help your muscles recover from childbirth. And finally, perhaps the biggest difference between the American and German birth experiences, there is paid maternity leave. Six weeks before your due date and eight weeks after the due date, you are paid your full salary and not allowed to work; you also receive a chunk of your salary for up to two years after the child is born. As much as I miss living in the United States, it does make me upset to think that most of my friends and family back home only get a couple of months of unpaid leave after the birth, leaving many parents with difficult choices to make.
There are other American and Jewish traditions that have also come to mind during these earlier weeks of pregnancy abroad. One such example is a baby shower, which is popular among many Americans, although Jews seem to be somewhat divided on showers, with some people preferring to wait until the child is born to celebrate its arrival and acquire necessary items, while others join in on a popular national tradition. The shower is a celebration that won’t be happening for me in Germany, as this is not a popular thing to do here.
This fact is another element that reminds me that living abroad, while not a culture shock per se, means that not everything you are accustomed to will be a possibility in your new home. It’s been comforting to hear advice and words of wisdom from friends and family back in the States, even if it’s just reassurance that a pregnancy symptom is normal, because it can be hard be to miles away from your loved ones while a little one is taking on a new life in your body.