Pregnancy in the Himalayas
By Maggie Doyne, CEO and Co-Founder of the BlinkNow Foundation, an organization that provides schooling and a home for orphaned, impoverished, and at-risk children in Nepal. She is currently the guardian to over 50 children in Surkhet, Nepal.
I’m seven and a half months pregnant this week! A few things first: I’m NOT having twins! I’m just very big and very swollen because that’s the way my body has responded to being pregnant. When I was four months pregnant, people thought I was six or seven. Now that I’m seven, people look at me like I’m about to give birth at any moment. Rest assured, I’ve got some time, which is good because I still have quite a bit of prep to do.
Being pregnant in Mid-Western Nepal is very culturally different from being pregnant in the US; it’s not really something that people talk about here. I’ve found that it’s taboo to talk about pregnancy, especially with men or your elders. You’re expected to keep your belly covered at all times, not leave the house much, and basically hide the fact that you’re pregnant.
The kids and I were all taking a walk the other evening when one of my neighbors stopped in the middle of the road on his motorcycle, took off his helmet, looked at me in shock and said with a gasp, “What’s happened to you? You used to be so tall and thin!” Without even thinking twice (and with the biggest attitude ever), I looked at him straight in the eye and said, “I’m pregnant!!!”
My teenage girls looked at me mortified and then giggled. Later, they told me they thought I was going to bite the guy’s head off. I have lots of stories like that one. Learning to navigate this new experience for myself while also respecting the local culture is a delicate balance to strike. I’ve found that when I do open up and talk about it, others do the same, and everyone really does want to know how I’m feeling, how I’m doing, and if I want a son or a daughter. My favorite part of being pregnant is hearing people share their own stories.
Jeremy and I don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, and we have chosen to wait and be surprised. Of course, there have been moments when I wanted to find out, especially when the ultrasound technician is like, “Okay, cover your eyes!” And especially when I’m trying to picture who this little person is growing inside of me, like, “I love you but I don’t even know you! Who are you in there? Take it easy on me tonight, okay? I need to sleep.”
We often don’t know who we’re getting until the day the kids arrive here at Kopila, too. I enjoy the slow unraveling and learning about who a little person is, and watching them grow and learn and become who they become. I already have plenty of boys and plenty of girls, so keeping the surprise is fun. The kids keep going back and forth on whether it’s a brother or a sister, which I think adds to the excitement. The girls, for the most part, want a girl. The boys want a boy, with a few exceptions. We have a book on childbirth and I’ve caught them reading it a few times. M is reading the chapter on how to deliver a baby in the book, Where There is No Doctor, just in case she needs to step in for the task. How I love her for that.
I love being pregnant, even on the hard days, but when people say, “You’re finally having a child of your own,” I cringe. Or when they say, “This is going to be so different,” I feel defensive. Maybe it’s too early to say, but it doesn’t feel different for me. Having a child that comes out of my body is no different for me than having a child come into my life in any other way. Love is love is love. The hormones? Guess what? You get the same exact crazy hormonal surges when you adopt a baby, especially when they are sick or have endured trauma and loss.
I have intermittent moments when I even feel a little selfish. Like, “I already have so many kids. They really need me right now. So much is happening. How am I going to take this time off to give birth?” I try to breathe through those moments and let them pass. I’m grateful for it all. The biggest realization I’ve had while being pregnant is that one day my children are going to have babies and be pregnant or they will have partners who are pregnant. I feel grateful I’ll have had experienced it and get to share my insights with them. I hope I’m there to deliver chocolate ice cream and make them put their feet up.
My second trimester has been smooth and I can’t believe I’m officially headed into my third. On the busy days of life and work and kids, I forget I’m even pregnant. Then I’ll look down or feel a kick or realize I’m sitting on the back of a motorcycle with my huge belly and I’m like, “Whoa, you’re pregnant! What are you doing?” There have also been days that were so hard they took me off my feet. The grief is hard too. The grief and missing Ravi is lonely and hard and confusing.
I’ve been doing my prenatal care in both the states and in Nepal. I have a midwife named Jeanne who is renowned and amazing and has helped me through so much. I love her. Jeremy and I have decided to give birth in the US and I’ll take a few months of maternity leave until we feel like the baby is ready to come back to Nepal. I’ve learned a lot from this experience already. I’ve had so many interesting conversations with women who have given birth in either place, and the experience seems both starkly different and so much the same.
I realize how privileged of me it is to get to have the choice to deliver in America. I’ve talked to women in the past few months who have delivered their babies in rice fields, in the forest while looking for firewood, in huts on their own in the middle of the Himalayas without a prenatal vitamin or an ultrasound or a check-up, and in hospitals and clinics that are substandard. A few days after giving birth many women get right back to work carrying water and harvesting their crops and taking care of their other children.
I met with the obstetrician-gynecologist here in Surkhet who says he is often so tied up in emergencies and C-sections all day from women coming down from remote districts and regions who haven’t had any prenatal care that he doesn’t get to see women who are having a typical birth. Also, there aren’t epidurals here. and the fathers, men, or even female relatives aren’t allowed in the birth room. In villages outside of Surkhet, having a baby in a cowshed is the norm, and often you’re not allowed back in your house for 13 days after because of chaupadi rules. Many people don’t know that chaupadi rules don’t just apply to menstruating, but also childbirth.
Despite all of this, incredible strides have been made in Nepal in the past decade when it comes to maternal and neonatal deaths. Nepal has even been used as an example for hitting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for the reduction of childbirth-related deaths. The rapid improvement and survival rates are attributed to educational initiatives like hand washing, umbilical care (such as no longer putting cow dung on the umbilical opening), the training of village midwives, and access and improved distribution of the proper medicines to stop hemorrhaging.
I’m humbled knowing my pregnant Nepali female peers are out in the fields working as I read my birthing books at night, develop my “birth plan,” listen to birthing meditations, and follow my pregnancy along on the many pregnancy apps on my iPhone. It’s broadened and deepened my understanding of pregnancy and privilege and the value of education.
As for the next month, I’m working hard. I’m writing. I’m reflecting on ten years with BlinkNow and getting ready to celebrate in December. I’m helping to bring this new beautiful school of ours to life. I’m mothering. I’m eating a lot of rice and daal and yummy vegetables and trying to keep this crazy craving for chocolate ice cream under control because it’s really hard to get it here. I’m savoring each and every moment possible with Jeremy and my children and my team, making sure we’re all feeling ready to embrace this next chapter together. This experience has been unbelievable and I want to thank you all for the love and support.
Thank you for reading my thoughts on pregnancy. I would love to hear the important lessons you’ve learned as a mother. Please share your insight in the section below.