Deciding to give birth in Qatar presented cultural challenges, but it was worth it, writes guest columnist Victoria Scott.
“There’s a leg!” shouted my husband. Seconds later, a red and white speckled infant was presented to us over the screen, upside down and flailing wildly. Boy, wasn’t he cross – but wow, wasn’t he the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen.
Childbirth is a subject that divides British expats the world over. Do you stay where you are and deal with a system that may be alien to you, or fly back to the UK and have your baby surrounded by your family and medical care you understand?
Each family’s situation provides its own answer. It was a relatively straightforward one for us.
My husband is an airline pilot and was therefore quite likely to be on the other side of the world when I went into labour. He’d never have made it back to the UK in time for the birth. Qatar it was.
Reactions from friends were varied. “I’ve heard husbands can’t be at the birth in Qatar,” chimed in one. Another pointed to the lack of midwives – prenatal care and childbirth in Qatar is managed entirely by doctors.
It’s true that at Qatar’s state hospital, Hamad (run along similar lines to the NHS) husbands are not able to attend the births of their babies. Indeed, bringing your partner into the delivery room is an alien concept, so much so that Arab friends wrinkled their nose in amusement (and possibly distaste) at my husband’s desire to watch the moment of birth.
Luckily, Doha’s private hospitals allow husbands to be present, but cost was an issue; with no maternity insurance cover, we had to pay for all pre-natal care and the birth ourselves. At around £2,000 for a natural birth plus all scans and appointments, it isn’t cheap.
A medical gulf emerged between the UK and Qatar during our nine months. In the UK, my pregnant friends were offered two scans; I had one a month at least. In contrast to British friends who were often sent home hours after giving birth, I’d be in hospital for a minimum of two days. Our son would be looked after in the hospital’s nursery as a matter of course, unless we requested otherwise. British pregnancy books spoke glowingly of birthing pools, low music and candles; the closest I’d get to that would be a shower with the light off and an iPod. And a home birth would be out of the question; they’re illegal in Qatar.
As my pregnancy progressed, we hit a snag. Our son was defiantly breech, and I was booked in for a planned c-section. Hospitals in Qatar don’t usually allow husbands to enter the operating theatre. We pleaded with our doctor, who’d worked in the UK for many years. Torn between our British expectations and Qatari norms, he hesitated.
He asked what my husband did for a job. “I’m a pilot,” said my husband. “Ah, ok,” said our doctor. Any concerns about fainting in the operating theatre were apparently allayed by the knowledge that my husband can land a 777 in a storm. (To this day, we are the only example I’ve ever come across of a husband being allowed in for a c-section in Qatar. We’ve become something of an urban legend.)
It’s just as well my husband has a strong stomach, as the operating theatre wasn’t set up for a partner to sit by my side. Standing tall in shoes several sizes too small which were borrowed from a hospital orderly at the last minute, he saw the entire operation from incision to sewing up.
After our son was born, it became clear the staff thought we were an oddity. We asked for him to stay in our room with us. The nurses were worried the air-conditioned room would be too cold. They swaddled him in a multitude of layers and scolded us when they caught us unwrapping him to see what he looked like underneath. (In a country where it’s rare for temperatures to dip below 20C even in winter, I’ve seen children wearing bobble hats and scarves when going for a stroll.)
The biggest snag came when I tried to breastfeed. I found it almost impossible. The hospital’s nursery nurse came to try to help, but declared that my breasts just weren’t “good enough”, and suggested I bottle feed. I declined. In the wee small hours of the morning of our son’s second day of life, the nurse told me he was crying because he was hungry. In pain, tired, and overwhelmed by the weighty responsibility of parenthood, I let them give him a bottle.
The next day, however, I got on the phone to a British midwife who’d just moved to Qatar. She came over immediately, declaring in a wonderfully matter-of-fact way that it would all be fine. At that moment, I realised how much I missed the NHS (and my mum), and a system that would encourage me to breastfeed, not berate me for trying to persist with it.
Would I do it all again? Despite the problems we encountered, the answer is yes. Medical care in Qatar is generally good, if a little over-zealous, hence the masses of scans and long hospital stays. And the fact that Qataris love large families means that obstetricians in Doha are constantly given a chance to hone their skills.
In fact I realised just how much Qataris love children when I had my last visit from my doctor on the day we left hospital. I was feeling rather like a rabbit caught in headlights, could barely stand and was desperate for someone to lock me in a hotel room and tell me to sleep for a week. Oblivious to my glazed expression, he looked at me and grinned. “I’ll see you next year,” he said, “for your next one.”
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