By Laura McKenna
When I found out I was pregnant, it was a welcome blessing – albeit one I didn’t expect to receive whilst living in China! I had been living in Shanghai for just under nine months and had just begun to feel like I was getting to know the city. My husband and I had met a great group of friends and we were enjoying bouncing around, hitting up the social scene and flitting in between bars and restaurants at the weekend, as well as making plans to explore every inch of Asia!
Now all of a sudden, far from home, I was completely bewildered and bloated! There are no babies in my family, as both my husband and I have nieces and nephews in their twenties and most of my girlfriends back home were still focusing on their career. So, on top of being in a strange country, I literally had no support around me.
After wishing my husband and I well, many conversations with friends and family back home went a bit like this:
Them: “So, when are you coming home?”
Me: “Probably after I’ve had the baby.”
Them: “Oh, so…but what about the hospitals over there?”
Me: “Yes! I think they have hospitals here.”
Them: “But what about the doctors, how will you speak to them? Will the baby be a Chinese national? They’ll have a Chinese passport right?”
Me: “No. They’ll be English, with a UK Passport and no Chinese passport.”
Them: “What will the baby eat? Where will you get clothes? What about vaccinations? What about the pollution?”
Left with feelings of fear and dread, I then spoke to my Chinese acquaintances. They made me feel much better about having a baby:
Them: “You’re very old to have a baby.” “Who will look after the baby after you give birth?”
Me: <puzzled> “My husband and I?”
Them: “But you’ll be in bed for one month. You need grandparents and a night nurse.”
Me: “I’ll be in bed for a…? What? WHY? No one told me about this!”
Them: “Or you can check into a hotel and they will look after the baby. Show you what to do.”
Me: “A hotel will show me what to do? ”
Them: “You look fat…it’s a girl.” “You look thin…it’s a boy.” “When will you shave the baby’s head?” “The Dad is not allowed in the delivery room.” “You shouldn’t be wearing make-up/nail varnish/colour your hair/wear heels.” “You go on maternity leave at 6 months.” “We can’t massage your fat ankles – bad for baby.”
At this stage, I was so overwhelmed. The biggest test for me came as I encountered the conflict in cultural differences. Also, I was extremely curious about some of the Chinese practices; such as maternity at six months and 1-month bed rest. They sounded great, but my husband wasn’t convinced! One thing I knew for sure was that we were absolutely going to have our baby in China and our son or daughter would have a lifelong connection with Shanghai.
In the last couple of weeks, I spent most of my time lying around watching back to back episodes of the ‘The Good Wife’ on Youku, when it occurred to me that I might have to wait 18 years until I got some me time again. So, against all Chinese advice given I checked myself in for a Mani, Pedi, hair colour and a trip to Browhaus.
And now, two years on, I feel like I could write a book about being a Mama in Shanghai, and this is ever changing and growing. Here are a few tips and bits of advice I’ve picked up along the way:
Hospitals and Doctors:
Top of the list is registering with a good hospital. There is a lot of autonomy for a family to be selective over their doctor, contrary to many of our home countries. You may find you use different hospitals for different purposes. For example, our family doctor and our family pediatrician are at separate practices.
Shanghai international hospitals employ doctors from around the world, so it is highly probable that you will find a doctor that you can connect with and communicate in your native language.
Do a tour of the hospitals and decide which one is best for you. What is most important to your family? Is it location? Cost? Facilities? There are some excellent hospitals with state of the art facilities and highly trained medics from around the world. However, Shanghai can be shiny and new and so can some of the hospitals. Do your homework and ask questions. You may find some hospitals are not geared up for critical emergencies and will transfer to a local hospital in such an event.
When you have found the right hospital, register your details and insurance documents upfront. This will avoid any unnecessary delays, should you encounter any future emergencies. Find out the hospital closing times, and have a backup plan for when the hospital is closed. Print off the address in Chinese for taxis. The last thing you want is an emergency with a child and not knowing where to go or being able to communicate where you need to go.
Larger hospitals like Shanghai United Family and Shanghai East will have everything you need under one roof. Other hospitals worth looking at are American-Sino, Redleaf Women’s, and Parkway.
Don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations of good doctors. If you have already selected a hospital, it may be a good idea to rotate your outpatient appointments with different OBY’s, until you find one that you connect with.
Finally, vaccinations! Whether you’re planning on giving birth here or bringing your children to Shanghai, you must consider the importance of their vaccinations. Post-birth babies will receive a number of vaccinations on day 1 – which are standard procedure in China, but perhaps not in your home country. We refused two of them. Ask the doctor for details and a schedule of these. As your baby grows, expect more. Many hospitals will try to follow your home country’s vaccination schedule, but always ask for the origin of the vaccine. There are laws in China that prohibit doctors from administering vaccines that are not from ‘Chinese’ pharmacies. For that reason, I know many mama’s who leave China to purchase and administer their children’s vaccines in their home countries or Hong Kong. This enables them to use vaccines that have been produced in Europe or the U.S. Vaccines will always be a tricky subject, so do what is right for you. We have had all our vaccinations done here but have been lucky enough to obtain European vaccines.
To Doula or not to Doula:
Doula n. a woman who gives support, help, and advice to another woman during pregnancy and during and after the birth.
The Chinese outlook on the birth can be very different to the Western approach, the Dad not being allowed in the delivery room for one! Being away from home can be daunting, and sometimes you encounter things you wouldn’t elsewhere. I delivered at Redleaf Hospital which is where I also met my Doula. I’d never even heard the word Doula before so this was a totally alien concept to me.
Hiring a Doula was one of the best decisions I made. She had helped deliver many babies in Shanghai and was familiar with the drill in the hospitals. She made sure the hospital followed my birth plan as much as they could and was supportive to my husband I throughout the birth and after. If you feel like you would like a helping hand to give you advice and support before, during, and after, a Doula is the way to go.
Vibe with your Social Networking Tribe:
A great Mama’s resource amongst the expat community here in Shanghai comes from other mama’s in the city. There are a gazillion forums, WeChat groups and various local groups around most areas of the city.
A good starting point is Shanghai Mamas. These guys have been operating in Shanghai for over a decade and have excellent connections with businesses and schools in the city; they also host coffee mornings and have built up quite a mass of articles, forums and classifieds.
Do find your Mama Tribe on WeChat and stick with them. Identifying the Chinese Zodiac birth animal of your baby sounds crazy, but will serve you enormously as your child grows. My daughter was born in the the Year of the Horse, 2014. Therefore, I’m in the Horse Mama’s WeChat group! I probably know just a handful of the 200 mum’s in the group, yet some of the faceless names and personalities have offered me the best advice and tips for raising my child in Shanghai. As mum’s of kids of a similar age, we are experiencing the same trials and tribulations in unison: teething, sleeping, potty training and so on, and it’s nice to have someone to talk to about these things. The kindness and support the expat community shows never fails to amaze me.
Trying to find and purchase safe European or US quality approved goods is easier than you would expect with stores like Motherswork, Baby International and Lollipop all stocking a number of imported goods. Although you’ll find most are produced in China, the import tax on the foreign company goods means they can sometimes be double the cost compared to the price in your home country.
We found shopping for a baby in Shanghai expensive (admittedly at the time I still hadn’t quite got my head around Taobao). I would recommend those looking to find savings to use Taobao or check out some of the second-hand groups on Facebook or WeChat – the never ending rotation of expats means you’ll be able to pick up lightly used goods for next to nothing.
Buying clothes is easy as there are many international retail brands in most of the malls: H&M, Zara, Marks & Spencer, and Gap to name but a few. If you’re interested in having a good rummage and local haggle, then head to the underground Children’s Market at Pu’an Lu.
Failing all that – take a quick trip home and stock up on clothes, shoes, medicines, food, furniture, toys! We did this last week in fact, on a trip back to the U.K., and I accidentally bought most of Zara Kids fall collection for about two-thirds of the price!
Shanghai Mama’s posted a great article on this subject which you can read here.
My only advice on the air pollution is keep a close eye on the AQI daily, keep masks in your handbag (try Vogmask for cute kids versions), purify the air in your home (Blue Air) and decide what your AQI limit is for your kids to go outside (mine is 160).
Food and Water:
When it comes to food, I would also recommend you do your research. There are a number of food scandals that have plagued China over the years and as a result, high-end supermarkets such as City Super satisfy the demand for imported produce amongst the rich Chinese. In addition, online delivery stores such as Kate and Kimi, Epermarket and Mahota farms offer organic and imported goods for the expat community.
After a few months, I both fed my daughter and introduced formula, which I was unable to purchase in mainland China. There were Chinese alternatives, but given the food scare of the 2008 milk scandal, we personally felt our only safe option was to import. As a consequence of this incident, the demand and price of imported milk formula is astronomical, with the cost of a standard imported tin as high as 500rmb. As such, we would ask any visitors, friends or colleagues visiting home to bring a tin or two back with them when they could!
Hopefully, you know not to drink the water?! And keep a close eye on your kids with it too – while brushing their teeth, as well as in the bath and shower. Recently I was bathing my daughter, and when I looked away for a second I turned back to find her sucking the water from her bath sponge. Our bath didn’t have a filter – but it does now! You can buy filters from a great company called Greenwave, these guys will do a home visit, test your water and ensure every tap in the house is filtered and cleaned on a regular basis. To test the water you can find TDS pens online, which will indicate the solid particle content of the water.
Raising a little baby here has had its Shang hai’s and Shang low’s, but for every challenging obstacle, I have had an equally rewarding experience. There are a few local child-rearing practices I have picked up along the way, and I’m steering well clear of – split pants being one of them!
The best thing about having a baby here are all the stories I’ll be able to share with my daughter when she is older – such as the time she walked on The Great Wall when she first learned to walk, or the first time I heard her say ‘Xiexie’ and the meaning of her Chinese middle name.
Despite the concerns, they’re easy to manage and living in Shanghai is like living in any other city. Enjoy your time here and let your kids enjoy it too.
Other links and tips
Soft Play – Check out LittleBugz soft play.
Music Class – ZnB host great classes a few times a week
Baby Yoga – Om Yoga keeping it Zen
Swimming – splash around withMulti Sport
Hair Cuts – Create little hair do’s at Qkuts