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Mai J. Dinh

My Pregnancy And Motherhood Journey In Singapore

The highs (and lows) of being an expat mom in tropical Southeast Asia.

My husband, Eric, and I both wanted to live abroad at some point in our lives. Neither of us studied abroad in college and felt we missed out. When Eric became eligible for his company’s mobility benefit, he requested a short-term assignment in Singapore. I did not plan to work during the 18-month commitment, so we began trying for a baby before we moved. I thought it would take some time but we were fortunate to conceive after three months. Even though it was something we were actively working on, I was shocked when I saw those pink lines on my pregnancy test. We moved in August 2013 when I was six weeks pregnant. I didn’t tell my friends at our going away party because I wanted to wait until the end of the first trimester when the risk of miscarriage is lower. I felt like I was sneaking out of the country with the biggest secret of my life.

Adjusting to Singapore

I never blanched at the fact I'd be pregnant in a foreign country. Singapore has an excellent health care system and was ranked number one in health care efficiency by Bloomberg in 2014. Plus, I was excited to have access to Eastern medicine.

I was jet-lagged, unaccustomed to the unrelenting heat and humidity, homesick and lonely.

Singapore is known as one of the cleanest and safest countries in the world due to extensive laws and fines. The city-state touts a large expat community and the infrastructure to support them. And everyone speaks English! Coming from New York City, I'm accustomed to riding public transit and was relieved that Singapore has a robust system of trains called the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and buses. I marveled at the cleanliness of the trains and stations compared with NYC’s rat-infested, urine-smelling subway stations. Citizens actually followed the rules: no eating or drinking in stations or trains, and no one litters under the threat of a steep fine. There’s nothing to be done about the smell of riders sweaty from living near the equator, including my own BO! My pregnancy hormones triggered stinky body odor and a heightened sense of smell—what a combo! I couldn’t find an organic deodorant in Singapore that could withstand the 80-degree plus heat and humidity.

New friendships

Before getting pregnant, I had such expectations about what this stint in Singapore would be. But when I got there, I was jet-lagged, unaccustomed to the unrelenting heat and humidity, homesick and lonely. Eric started work right away and I spent all day worrying about being pregnant at 35, the age women are told pregnancy becomes more risky. I constantly worried about “my old eggs” and transferring some abnormality to my child, and was I ever creative in coming up with ways I’d be inadequate as a mother.

At the urging of two mom friends, I got on Meetup.com to meet other pregnant first-time moms in Singapore. When I was four months along, I went to a lunch date for expecting moms in the Orchard Road area, a popular neighborhood where expats live and is Singapore's equivalent to New York City’s Fifth Ave. I’m so grateful I took the advice of my friends back home and met these expecting moms. They opened up Singapore to me, and helped me cope with my first-time mom fears.

Photo: Courtesy of Mai J. Dinh

The sisterhood of motherhood

The expectant moms I met were expats from Great Britain, Sweden, Australia and Ireland. A few other women were also due in April and lived in our neighborhood on the East Coast—it was kismet! Over the next few months these women became my tribe. My friend Jen took the initiative to organize us and created a “Bumps” chat on WhatsApp so we could easily group text message. WhatsApp became my lifeline! We set up lunch dates and shared links to encouraging videos or health articles about pregnancy and babies. We asked questions like, “Is this happening to your body too?”

We compared shopping lists to prepare for baby and kept each other posted on what was on sale at Mothercare (a UK baby brand), Isetan (a Japanese department store) or the latest class at Mother & Child, a pre-and postnatal education center frequented by many expat parents. I learned new words like pram (stroller), nappies (diapers), cot (crib) and braces (suspenders), and about food like flapjacks (a British granola bar type cookie), pudding (British cake) and Vegemite (an Aussie condiment with no American equivalent). I found out about Singapore’s annual baby expos held at the convention center where cavernous halls are packed with vendors selling furniture, diapers, clothes and everything else you need for baby. I learned so much about pregnancy and mothering through our chats, and I still keep in touch with my friends on WhatsApp today.

At one of our “Bumps” lunch dates when I was about seven months along, Jen and Emma were talking about their birth plans. I had never heard of a birth plan. At the time, my plan was no plan. I was going to show up at the hospital and the medical staff would take it from there. I thought, "I’m not an expert—why would I have to write a birth plan? Isn’t there someone more qualified who could write it?" Well, thank heavens for my friends because that birth plan conversation jump-started my education on birthing. In one week, I went from clueless to writing a birth plan, actively seeking a doula, searching for placenta pill processing, and signing up for hypnobirthing classes and first-time parenting classes at Raffles Hospital.

Hypnobirthing—here we go

We attended Mongan-method hypnobirthing classes for six weeks taught by American hypnotherapist and doula Di Bustamante at ParentLink. I was comforted by Di’s melodious voice and American accent, reassured that I was born with a body created to rise to this challenge. I loved the philosophy grounding hypnobirthing: Women’s bodies are designed for childbirth and we should trust nature and remove the fear associated with labor. Di’s approach was gentle and knowledgeable; we learned calming techniques, stretches and birthing positions in addition to meditations, affirmations and how to emotionally prepare ourselves to be parents.

Eric and I grew closer in these classes, releasing our fears and stepping into our roles as mother and father, husband and wife, and partners in birthing our daughter. We became friends with the two other couples in the class and learned about parenting traditions from other countries. I left the class transformed and empowered. I embraced my pregnancy with joy and looked forward to meeting my daughter Fei Fei. I no longer dreaded labor or worried whether my “old eggs” were riddled with defects or if I was going to be enough for my daughter.

Trouble at 37 weeks

When we shared our birth plan with our doctor at Raffles Hospital, the hospital recommended by the relocation concierge service provided by my husband’s company, she would not approve it. She wasn’t a supporter of hypnobirthing and I found myself looking for a new doctor at 37 weeks. Despite being so far along in my pregnancy, I didn’t lose my mind over not having a doctor (something I most certainly would have been agitated about before taking the classes). Di and our doula Eileen recommended some doctors and we switched to Paul Tseng, MBBS, MMED, FAMS, at Thomson Medical.

When I went into labor, Eric texted Eileen, who advised him to keep me home as long as possible to avoid undue medical intervention. But as my labor progressed, communication with Eileen got spotty. She didn’t make it to our birth and we later found out she had a migraine. Despite losing Eileen, the universe set the stage as it should be: Eric stepped up and was truly the best doula and partner during labor. He helped me stay calm and focused. He and I worked together to bring Fei Fei into the world without the aid of painkillers. I listened to his steady voice, felt his arms around me and heard his encouragement. Our little girl was working to be born and we labored on the outside for her to join us. In total, I labored for 25 hours, mostly at home. We arrived at the hospital at 4 a.m. and Fei Fei was born at 6:24 a.m. on April 3, 2014.

Photo: Courtesy of Mai J. Dinh

Postpartum care

With our families halfway across the world, I wanted backup when we brought Fei Fei home. We hired a confinement nanny to live with us the first six weeks of Fei Fei’s life, and that investment will forever be the best money I spent (trumping my wedding videographers). We found Helen through an agency and were so fortunate to find a great match. Helen exclusively works with expat families and was accustomed to Western traditions and cooking.

In Singapore, it’s also common for new moms to get at-home Javanese postnatal massages and wraps.

Traditional Chinese confinement nannies prohibit new moms from washing their hair and leaving the home (per the term confinement) in the first 30 days, and they also cook herbal Chinese dishes to help recovery and promote lactation for the new mom. Helen cooked for both Eric and me, which was a huge relief, but didn’t use Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) herbs since I was breastfeeding. She mostly made soups, buying kampong chicken (Singapore’s equivalent to free-range, hormone-free meat) from the wet market across the street. (Wet markets are like farmers markets but much less quaint.)

Photo: Courtesy of Mai J. Dinh

For my confinement diet, Helen also cooked black chicken herbal soup, known for its healing attributes, and pork rib soup. I ate a lot of papaya, which is supposedly good for lactation. I loved dragon fruit, lychee and mangosteen too. In addition to feeding us, Helen got up for each night feeding with me. She burped Fei Fei, changed her diaper if needed and put her back to sleep. All I had to do was breastfeed and go back to sleep. Eric and Helen made sure my sole jobs for the first two weeks home were breastfeeding and resting. They handled all the other newborn care so I could concentrate on recovering from labor.

Photo: Courtesy of Mai J. Dinh

New mom pampering

In Singapore, it’s also common for new moms to get at-home Javanese postnatal massages and wraps. I bought a package at one of the baby expos for a discount from Beauty Mums & Babies. A massage therapist came to my home every day for seven days, working around my newborn’s schedule, to give me a massage. At the end of each massage, she’d rub my stomach with a mud mask—that smelled spicy like chai tea— meant to help shrink my uterus, prevent stretch marks and tighten my skin. Then she tightly wrapped my hips and stomach with a long canvas cloth around my midsection, which I had to wear for a minimum of four hours but a maximum of six. I felt like a Kardashian doing postnatal waist training. I don’t know if it really helped because I still have a stomach bulge a year after giving birth, but I don’t regret giving myself a little luxury right after having Fei Fei.

Expat moms unite

Most of my friends gave birth in April like me and it was invaluable to have each other’s support and advice as we navigated life with our newborns. We continued to share helpful articles and tips about breastfeeding, sleeping, tummy time and anything else baby. When the babies got older, different moms would host playdates at their homes so we’d get out and visit with our friends.

We’d meet at malls— the epicenters of Singapore social life— and get coffee and take stroller walks. I actually loved going to the malls as a new mom because: There are so many to choose from that are conveniently located on a MRT stop; they’re air-conditioned havens out of the 90-degree plus heat; they aren’t just clothing stores—they have grocery stores, enormous food courts, movie theaters, spas, libraries (for real) and nearly any other aspect of life; and almost all of them have family rooms to accommodate breastfeeding moms. The family rooms range from adequate to spectacular depending on the newness and scale of the mall. I will always love Singapore for its family-oriented urban planning. I could comfortably breastfeed Fei Fei and be out in public, something I wouldn’t have in NYC with a very young baby. As our babies could do more, we went on swim dates at each other’s condos, visited indoor play gyms and took walks at the Botanic Gardens or East Coast Park by the sea. While some days were hard when Eric was away for business trips, I had a great network of stay-at-home moms who helped me get out of the apartment and explore Singapore.

Photo: Courtesy of Mai J. Dinh

City life with Fei Fei

In Singapore, I mostly traveled by taxi or MRT. For a fee, I could order a taxi to my apartment and the drivers, nicknamed “uncles,” were usually helpful and would collapse the stroller and help with any bulky shopping bags. I’d occasionally take the bus and strap Fei Fei in a carrier too and someone would always give up a seat.

Being back in NYC, I miss how every MRT stop had an elevator (that didn’t smell like vomit), making it stroller-friendly and super-convenient. In each train car, the end seats are designated for the elderly, injured, parents with kids or pregnant women. When someone who doesn’t fit into one of those categories occupies the seat, 98 percent of the time the person will get up and offer the seat to someone who needs it more.

Photo: Courtesy of Mai J. Dinh

Moving back to NYC

Eric’s company asked him to come back early for a position that started in December 2014, cutting our time in Singapore short. Fei Fei was eight months old at the time. She and I were happily set in a routine of playdates, going to our pool, or meeting a friend at the mall or at Musical Monkeys at Tanglin Mall through Mother & Child. We found our groove and then—poof!—it was time to go.

I felt a deep sadness about leaving my tribe. We went through baby boot camp together as first-time moms and I loved being part of a global community.

While I was excited to introduce Fei Fei to my family in the US and leave the humidity of the tropics, I felt a deep sadness about leaving my tribe. We went through baby boot camp together as first-time moms and I loved being part of a global community. If I hadn’t met Emily who grew up on the Isle of Man, I wouldn’t have learned about Hop-tu-Naa, the Celtic celebration of New Year that has nothing to do with Halloween, even though they are both on October 31. In the US I probably wouldn’t have heard about the benefits of lambskins, commonly used by German and Australian parents, for Fei Fei’s crib. And there’s no way Fei Fei would be able to country hop like she did in Southeast Asia. By eight months, she had traveled to Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Japan. I didn’t get on a plane until I was 21 and my baby already had a passport and several stamps!

I still miss the “Bumps" on a daily basis but I’m settling into life in NYC. I’m working on some new mom friendships but it’s a lot tougher than in Singapore. stay-at-home moms are the norm in Singapore whereas in Manhattan I feel like an oddity. I scope out my library story time for potential mom friends, but I mostly meet nannies who are polite but not looking to befriend us. I don’t like going on the subway with Fei Fei and haven’t tried the bus yet. I feel less adventurous than I was in Singapore, but with the weather getting warmer, I hope to venture out more. It’s spring (something Singapore doesn’t have) in New York City—not a bad place to be.

Mai is a stay-at-home mom to Fei Fei, who turned 1 in April 2015. She’s interested in spirituality, self-help and promoting consciousness through social media and technology. She previously worked in digital product development before taking on motherhood. You can read her blog at withlovemai.com and follow on Twitter @withlovemai

PHOTO: Courtesy of Mai J. Dinh