I feel compelled to write this. I have some lovely friends who have recently given birth and some who are due in the spring, and I wanted to share the essential things that I came to learn, sometimes the hard way.
Pregnancy in Hong Kong (or anywhere for that matter!)
I remember being quite pregnant in Hong Kong (about 30 weeks) with my first baby, and almost everyone from the Watson’s cashier to the waiter in a restaurant asking me if the baby was “coming now” or commenting, “Wow, so big, due any minute!”. One woman shouted to her colleague across the shop, “hot water and towels”, which was more helpful than her response (“cannot”) to my product enquiry. No, still about 10 weeks to go, thanks. It was probably a good moment for them to leave it there without responding: “But, why so big? More than one baby? No, (shaking head in disbelief), but SO big, Pinky, come see”.
As a first-timer, you visibly shrink in the face of this unwanted attention, praying that the ground will swallow you up. You have no idea what is ‘normal’ for you, and you were already feeling emotional before you met this person. At this point in the pregnancy, you’re constantly on the lookout for maternity clothing options in Hong Kong to make you feel like the person you once were. Not another jersey wrap dress please. Come on Topshop Hong Kong, where is your maternity range?
The next time around will be different, we hope. Friends have told me that your attitude changes. You’re passed caring (or too busy to care) and although every pregnancy is different, you now know what to expect, just how bad you might feel and what you need (biscuits, pineapple and chips, and definitely no broccoli). You’ll carry snacks in your handbag for nausea. You’ll tell the coffee barista where to go if they suggest you should have a decaf latte rather than a caffeinated one. Yes, I was once refused to be served in a coffee shop in HK and was so shocked that I didn’t dispute it. You’ll ask the HR Manager not to rub your pregnant belly every time he sees you by the lift – a major HR violation, surely?! You are not ‘open season’.
The Antenatal Class, a great place to start your new parenting journey
Where to start on my antenatal class teacher (not based in Hong Kong, I should add)… I remember her opening line to eight couples all completely green and unsure of what to expect from the class was, “The first three months with your newborn are hell on earth.” Okay, that’s powerful stuff, can we back out now?! This was closely followed by “One in three of you will divorce, or is it one in two now?”. Yes, she was a barrel of laughs. She also asked us to take a good look around at the people in the room because we would know each other for the next twenty years. I don’t think there was a single one of us who believed her.
She may have over-shared and scared us on countless topics, but she wasn’t wrong about making friends. Although your whole group might not stay together, firm friendships are forged during this intense and life-changing time of early parenting. You are on the same journey, at the same time, and you can rely on these people for advice, support and laughter in the face of adversity long after your teacher has packed up and left the building. The best thing we did with our group was set up a mums WhatsApp group which we named ‘mumsapp’, and a rather less successful dads messaging group. This was (and is) a place where you can ask, vent, share and laugh, and not be judged for any of it. Or that’s the idea anyway… not all of us are quite so lucky with the people thrust into the same room as us.
Establishing this group of friends was by far the most important part of the antenatal course. Certainly more useful than our teacher’s rather bizarre ramblings, especially one moment when she suggested that humanity would evolve to a point when women would “just breathe the baby out”. Whilst she said this she was clutching a one-armed doll, which she was unconsciously ‘nursing’. This combined with her parting offer to help us with breastfeeding “absolutely anytime” filled all of us with dread beyond belief, but made for a few good stories afterwards.
Unsolicited advice is not welcome advice.
Before the baby is born you are open to (pretty much) any and all advice. Friends, family, helpful neighbours, random strangers will share all sorts of gems that helped them and this is fine (mostly) because you have the mental and emotional capacity to take it onboard and the time to listen. You probably won’t the second or third (or gulp, fourth) time around, but you’ll blurt out “It’s my second/third/fourth pregnancy”, which usually stops them in their tracks.
However, after the baby is born, and if you are like me, you only want advice if you ask for it. Crazy, I know. Everything else regardless of how well-meaning it is, is unsolicited. It doesn’t matter who it is from, how experienced they are (or think they are) and what the context is (even if you are crying at that very moment with a screaming newborn in your arms). It is still and always will be unsolicited, unless the new mum has asked for it. Full stop.
Once upon a time I sent the following message in response to a ‘how are you and little one’ from one of my friends: “I’m having one of those nights. I can’t get baby down and she won’t stop screaming, neither of us can settle her and I’m feeling pretty horrendous.” My friend replied with something like this: “The baby is probably picking up on your anxiety and stress, and not sleeping. I would step away for ten minutes, give you both a break and then go back in, you’ll feel calmer and they might respond better.” It was kind, well-meant, but in no way helpful, especially after a couple of hours of being tortured by an infant. It actually put me off telling her how I was feeling.
Another case in point: A close friend’s toddler doesn’t sleep very well, and she can’t abide the constant ‘advice’ well-meaning people give her whenever she mentions it, which isn’t very often. She’s intelligent, so is her husband, and they’ve tried everything, read every book and online article on the subject. Unless she has asked you for your tips, what she wants to hear more of is, “That’s so tough, poor you, but you don’t look tired with only four hours sleep a night…”.
My rule without exception (and I have to check myself occasionally) is to only share advice with a parent who has asked for it. Answer a question, and provide sympathy and understanding for anything else. I find humour, tea (or a G&T!) and cake, and a little well-placed white lie occasionally doesn’t hurt either. (Oh and to my sleep-deprived friend, this doesn’t mean you, you do actually look good on four hours’ sleep!)
Old Wives’ Tales
I’ve heard some incredible old wives’ tales and expired wisdom. A friend of mine left her newborn with her mother-in-law for a few short hours to go to an appointment with her husband. When she came back she found that said grandparent had given the baby a bottle of water (boiled or tap, we don’t know) because she wasn’t convinced the expressed milk was enough to quench the newborn’s thirst. My friend was livid. We’ve also heard stories of condensed milk in the bottle, a tot of whisky, and in the case of one friend, she found (again) the mother-in-law putting ice cream on the dummy to ‘calm’ the 4 week old. Back away from the baby, slowly, with your hands where I can see them…
Go with what is right for you as a mother and as a family. Banish the guilt, turn your back on any pressure to do what your parents did, what the health visitor suggests or what your neighbour has done, and do what you think is best. Go with your gut. Read the books (if you must) and then put them back on the shelf again and leave them there. They offer one person’s ‘esteemed’ opinion, so take it with a pinch of salt and cherry pick the bits that work for you. The best opinion (in almost all cases) is yours. Between you and the baby, you’ll work it out. At least in Hong Kong, you’ve escaped some of the pressures of home, you’ve probably gained invaluable domestic help, and you’ve added a few other challenges into the mix as well (lack of part-time work when you do return, pollution levels, pressure-cooker attitudes to education). But all in all, we are very lucky to be raising our families in Hong Kong.
Going through the doorway
No matter what your past life, career trajectory, bank balance, age, marital status or persuasion, parenthood is the ultimate leveller. Now you’ll be more prone to acknowledging your fellow MTR passenger (if you didn’t before) when they smile at your sleeping baby, or give a comforting roll of the eyes when you spot another fraught parent with a writhing toddler mid-tantrum at rush hour in Central. You are now on the same journey, in the same boat, even in the fast-paced melting pot that is Hong Kong. Enjoy this moment of solidarity. It’s just the beginning.
… And the end. For those on the cusp of parenthood, this marks the end of the unencumbered life you once knew. The end of being able to blend into anonymity, read your book in peace, drink a hot cup of coffee in one go, or people watch. From this point onwards, it’s all change.
In public, you and your little one will see and receive the whole human spectrum of emotion… admiring glances, affectionate pats, admonishing looks, angry mutterings. Sometimes, even your flirtatious 16 month old reaching up to take the hand of the lady in thick rubber gloves who has just cleaned the MTR toilets! Oh yes. Antibacterial wipes at the ready, and as soon as she is out of sight, SCRUB. Strangers and your childless friends may ask “What’s wrong with them?” when they just won’t stop screaming, because the little person who shares your name is tired, hungry, annoyed, or just likes shouting. You just have to hold your head up high and say to yourself, “We were all here once.” And keep repeating it.
We were all little, hot and bothered, and frustrated, once. Frustrated that we couldn’t walk or speak or make our needs heard. So, ignore the neighbouring table of well-dressed septuagenarians who tut and scorn you for daring to bring your baby to the restaurant with you for lunch. Ignore it and enjoy this special time.
Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln sums up parenthood perfectly in an article on family values: “When I had my first child… I called my parents within a few hours and said, ‘Look, I’m sorry for all the worry I have caused you over the years. I understand now’.” I suddenly knew what unconditional love was and the responsibility of being a parent. Having children was a revelation – its like going through a doorway and everything is different for ever.”