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Intercultural Learning – giving birth and dealing with health issues on the move

Birth, Expat, health, intercultural learning, intercultural sensitivity, TCK / By Elisabeth "Elle" Weingraber-Pircher

Intercultural Learning – giving birth and dealing with health issues on the move

tckTCI loved and still do love Brazil. There is no other place in the world I know that is as friendly and welcoming as Brazil. Besides all the problems, it is still filled with “alegria” (joy) and a focus on understanding your particular situation and helping you find creative solutions to “impossible” problems. I guess Brazilians also have their fair share of practice in overcoming impossible problems. I started to adapt and to take on a Brazilian persona at work and at university, a British persona when hanging out with my British & Commonwealth friends and dancing at Burns night dinners, and an Austrian persona when meeting my Austrian friends. Sometimes I was wondering if there was still a distinct “me”, if I had lost my distinct “Elle” identity. Was I a “cultural Jekyll and Hyde”?
I had no answers to this question and then got slightly distracted by a life changing event … my first pregnancy and the birth of our son, Leopold. Being far from family and in particular my mother, I was hungry for information on how I could best take care of Leopold. So I searched Austrian, German, US American, and Brazilian web pages for what to do and not do, which vaccinations to give and not to give, which remedies would alleviate his tummy cramps etc. Frustratingly, comparing the advice from different countries mostly confused us more than we were already. Having subsequently given birth to our second son in London, UK and our youngest one in Düsseldorf, Germany, I have seen first hand how the same physical process of pregnancy and birth is viewed very, very differently.
What is ok in one country is absolutely horrifying to doctors and nurses in another country. While natural homebirth was all the rage in Europe, it seemed a very odd, almost ancient, practice to my Brazilian friends and doctors. While pain during birth was considered good and natural in the UK and Germany, as you would keep any potentially harmful substances from your baby during birth, I was advised to make my birth as painless and enjoyable as possible in Brazil, after all “We are in the 21st century for a reason!” It should be a joyful and family event, thanks to modern medicine. Bathing your baby once a day was considered good standard practice in Brazil (and necessary due to the heat, sweat and pollution). German websites in turn decried frequent baths in the first months, as they would destroy the natural skin protection of the newborn. A strict no alcohol policy was key to a healthy pregnancy and baby for UK doctors while a Caipirinha a week was normal for a relaxed pregnancy in Brazil, and the German midwife brought me a bottle of champagne after birth to celebrate and stimulate my milk flow. While it was normal for my French friends to go back to work after a few weeks of giving birth and be considered good mothers, my German friends who went back to work too soon where viewed with suspicion. Initially this was all very confusing as all doctors had research and experience and stories to back up their advice and recommendations. Together with my husband we worked out that it was our child, our family and we would follow what made most sense to us, based on our own upbringing, our current lifestyle and the needs we thought our children had. This approach required a lot more research, reflection and courage while at the same time being quite liberating to know “our” right way was probably “right” someplace else as well.
It also highlighted the importance of culture for me. Birth is a key event in human life and how you approach it and deal with it is a cultural phenomenon and can give you precious insights into cultural values and priorities of a particular culture. This belief was further reinforced when our second son, Gregor, was born with a cleft lip and palate in London. After being cared for and operated twice in London by one multi-disciplinary group of doctors and nurses, we moved to Germany and later to Italy. Again we noticed substantial differences, not only in the sequence of the surgeries, with every physician
convinced of holding the one, exclusive key to the right sequence, but in the approach to the “medical issue”, who was involved from family and friends, how the professionals viewed each other and worked together (or not). I could write a book about the cultural differences I noticed in the approach to medicine and health. In order not to bore you with details let me just sum up my learning from giving birth to three boys in three different countries and caring for a cleft lip and palate child in four different countries: science and medicine and their respective research do not follow universal standards and are key areas where culture becomes a main factor. It doesn’t mean I should discard any advice from my doctors, nurses etc., it means I have to consider their cultural norms and values as well as my families cultural values and norms as equally legitimate and find a way that works for both, in the best interest of my family and my child, in the given context. And let me immediately volunteer that this is easier said than done!