Being pregnant and giving birth to Isaac in Japan was a scary, yet hugely positive, experience. The scary parts were the prospect of being so far from family and friends while going through such a big life event, and of course the giving birth part. I won't even go into the fears I had about being a new mum, as that's a whole essay in itself! However, with a very supportive James by my side, the amazing care from my pregnancy clinic, a church family, and some great friends, it was a lot less daunting.
There are some big differences in how I would have experienced pregnancy and birth if I had lived in England compared to Japan. One of those things would have been the pregnancy ultrasounds. In England you usually receive two scans during your pregnancy- one at twelve weeks and the second at twenty weeks. This is radically different to the amount of scans I received in Japan. At twenty-six weeks pregnant I had already had six scans and would have received more if I hadn’t been in England for a whole month during the summer. When I got to my last trimester I graduated to a scan once a week! At each appointment, Isaac's heartbeat was also monitored for twenty to thirty minutes with a sensor on my huge bump to pick up any Braxton Hicks (practice) contractions that I may have been having. Although I appreciated having so much contact and assurance that Isaac was okay that last month, getting to the clinic via public transport every week was becoming a bit of a mission. Isaac was a 4.1kg (9 pound) baby, so all the walking probably did me the world of good.
Having experienced so many scans, I wonder how it would have been if I was giving birth to my first child in England. THE NHS provides so few scans in comparison, I would have been a lot less sure about how the baby inside me was growing and developing. I can imagine that going for such long periods of time without having a check-up could have made me anxious. I was very happy to be in Japan where I had regular checks and chances to see Isaac growing. It was an amazing experience to see the scans so often and imagine who that little baby was in there. My clinic also provided 4D images of him meaning an even clearer view! On top of that, I had a USB that the doctor uploaded the videos of my scan onto every time. I have fond memories of coming home after my scans and watching the videos over and over with James in the evenings- watching every movement that Isaac was making and feeling more and more excited.
If I had given birth in an NHS hospital I could have been released from as early as 6 hours after giving birth, as long as Isaac and my health conditions were stable. Having told various people in Japan about this, they were very shocked about how quickly mothers get sent home. I have been equally shocked about the amount of time mothers in Japan can stay in their clinic after giving birth. I stayed for 5 days in mine! The knowledge that I would be in the clinic that long gave me a lot more confidence about having a baby away from England. I knew my first week as a new mother would be with doctors and nurses around me just in case there was a problem. I also had nurses to teach me how to bathe Isaac and breastfeed. For all those mums breastfeeding out there, you will understand how tricky it can be at first! I am so grateful to have had this type of support. The first few evenings having a button beside my bed to call a nurse for help was literally my lifeline once visiting hours were over and James had to go home.
In terms of costs, from the medical care I have received in Japan, I would have expected to have paid a very high price for such regular check-ups and high-tech scans. The wonderful thing is that we didn't have to pay that much at all. After going to the clinic at the start of my pregnancy I received a book of coupons from the government which I used every time I had a scan. Depending on how expensive your clinic is, your coupon may cover the whole cost or majority of an appointment. On some occasions I had to pay 1,500yen (around £10) and once I had to pay 4,000yen for additional checks (around £28). The cost of the birth also depends on your clinic and any special medical attention you may need. The government covers a standard birth with no complications, meaning if all goes well you may not pay much (for Isaac’s birth the government paid 420,000yen or £2,800, and we paid the remaining 75,000yen or £500) That sounded like a very good deal to me seeing as my clinic was what I thought a private one would be like. I never would have imagined being able to have such high quality care, at such a low cost.
The giving birth itself is weirdly an experience that I look back on very fondly. Of course it was the most painful thing I've ever felt and I didn't feel like I wanted to do it again for a few months after but I was very fortunate to have had no complications. In Japan it's very common that your clinic will not offer any pain relief which to my British friends sounded pretty prehistoric. That means when choosing a clinic you need to keep that in mind.
To be honest, we chose my clinic (Fukuoka Birth Clinic) because it was the only one James came across online in a foreign couples blog and they mentioned there were English speaking staff. It was quite close to where we lived and later I realised another friend who was also pregnant was going there and very happy with it. We visited and instantly loved how modern and clean it was and I didn't really think to ask them their birthing policies, I just really wanted to go there!
When discussing my birth plan it wasn't the detailed plan that I've read of people having. There were simple questions about who was going to be there, how it was going to work and what type of facilities they had on offer in the labour and birthing room. In the labour room they had essential oils, a massage chair, exercise ball, calming music, various cushions, a bathroom, and a bed. Then when the active labour was going to happen they would move me into a birthing room.
I felt very relaxed about the fact that I didn't have lots of options, as I didn't need to worry about it. The idea of a detailed birthing plan freaked me out more than just accepting it would take its course and someone who knew what they were doing would be in control. The basic outcome was I would give birth naturally unless there were complications and then they could give me a c-section. In a way I found it helpful, I was presented with how it was going to go and I just needed to get on with it.
Once the contractions became a few minutes apart I had one midwife, along with James, in the labour room who checked on me periodically and massaged my lower back throughout most of my contractions. That was amazing as most of the pain was in my back. She was on-hand to get me heat packs, ice packs and water. Then in the birthing room I had two midwives who also were massaging me and helping me push. I can only go on accounts I have from friends in England- but having midwives with you (especially 2) the whole time is quite unusual. James was a great coach and although my midwives could speak a bit of English he translated their instructions for me as I had no idea what they were saying as I was so focused on my breathing.
I know that in the later stages of contractions, when the pain was so intense, if I'd had the choice to have pain relief I would have instantly said “Give me all the drugs you have!!”. But as I didn't have the option I just prayed like crazy that God would keep me going and I kept thinking of the Bible verse ‘I can do all things through Jesus who strengthens me’. That really helped me. The fact that I didn't know if Isaac was a girl or a boy was extra motivation to get him out- I was so excited to know and hold my baby after all that time wondering.
In the end, when it was time to push, my contractions weren't strong enough so they put me on a syntocin drip to make my contractions stronger. I didn't think it was possible for them to be any more intense but, alas, they were. Isaac came out very quickly after that- so much so that the doctor who was on call nearly didn't make it for the moment went he came out. Then came the most amazing relief that he was out and it was all done, James and I both erupted “Boy or girl?!” but the midwives and doctor were so engrossed in checking him we had to ask again and it felt like the longest 10 seconds ever. When we found out we had a son it was the most euphoric moment I have ever had- I just couldn't believe we had a boy!
So there you have it, a very different experience of pregnancy and birth than I could have imagined in England.
In my clinic I had my own private room with en suite for the five days that I stayed. All the meals I got were on par with a hotel menu, presentation and all. Isaac was checked a few times a day and so was I. Although I had a turbulent time with all the emotion and tiredness that came after, I am very grateful for the support and care I received that week. I couldn't imagine being sent home after a day or two and left to be responsible for a baby.
If I have the choice next time, I will definitely return to the same clinic. So I do hope I will be in Japan for my next baby.