The Turners live in a tidy apartment by Zhongshan Park. On a rainy midday afternoon, their ayi helps 5-year-old Miles and 2-year-old Colin with lunch while mom Heather pulls cinnamon buns out of the oven and 3-month-old Adella naps. She’s a lowfuss baby, never mind the hectic, cash-strapped months that preceded her arrival.
Two years ago, Jared Turner had just finished his MBA. Both husband and wife were eager for an international experience. “This was our chance to do something different,” he says.
He turned down two promising job offers in the US to go to China.
Jared came over first with a start-up that went bust. Heather had already bought plane tickets, so she went ahead brought their boys over and for two months the family stayed with friends until Jared found a job at a market research company. It was a dead-end position so he switched to another company, but was laid off last April – two weeks before they found out Heather was pregnant.
They lived sparingly while Jared looked for work. He started talks with an American market research company seeking to open a Shanghai office. Things started looking up. When summer arrived, Heather took their sons to the States to visit family. Two weeks before her scheduled return, Jared called: the deal had fallen through.
“That was one of the hardest days of my life,” Heather recalls.
Heather’s parents suggested it might be time to repatriate. But they weren’t ready to give up. “We felt we had better opportunities here. In the States the economy is such a mess.”
Heather returned to Shanghai six-and-a-half months pregnant. Jared started working in marketing for an English training company, but the couple was down to its last 1,000 kuai and Jared wouldn’t receive his first paycheck until October. Prenatal care was out of the question until then.
Come October, Heather inquired at local hospitals (expensive expat ones were out of the question). At seven-and-a-half months pregnant, she couldn’t get a doctor to see her. People book far in advance in Shanghai, and everywhere was full. Finally, she went to a company that represents foreigners seeking treatment in local hospitals. Through the business’ guanxi, she got into a local hospital, but at four times the local price.
Prenatal visits were stressful and uncomfortable – she had to go topless for an EKG in front of six other waiting women. There were many indications her physician would push for a C-section. (According to the Shanghai Women’s Health Institute, 67 percent of Shanghainese women who gave birth had C-sections in 2010.) With two natural births behind her, Heather was adamantly opposed.
“I came home severely depressed,” she says. “I told Jared I’d rather give birth at home and he said, ‘Maybe we should look into that.’” His support was a watershed. “I’m kind of granola in some ways but I never thought I’d do this.”
They researched online and made a shopping list. Heather bought a plastic sheet for the bed. They asked friends, a retired paramedic and nurse husband-wife, to help. Heather continued prenatal checkups, but didn’t reveal her plan.
On a Tuesday morning, Heather started strong contractions. They sent their sons off with friends. On Wednesday evening, as Jared napped on the couch and their ayi rubbed her back, Heather’s water broke.
Jared called their nurse friend and she arrived with her husband 15 minutes later. 15 minutes following that, Heather gave birth to Adella. They tied off the umbilical cord with a sterilized shoestring and weighed her on a kitchen scale: 7 pounds, 8 ounces.
Afterward they went to the hospital. Heather was escorted to a recovery room with a rockhard mattress and seven other women. When Jared saw it, he decided they should go home instead. And they did.
The Turners aren’t home birth advocates. Their decision was born out of personal circumstance. That situation, however, is far from unique in Shanghai.
“I’m getting emails every day from people with no insurance who are trying to figure out where to give birth,” says Cristina Rueda, managing director of Bumps & Babes, a local parenting website.
The Turners still lack health insurance and must be careful with money; Heather makes almost everything they eat from scratch, buys from wholesale markets and gardens on their balcony. They’re grateful for the things life in Shanghai affords that wouldn’t be possible back home, and for the chance to experience China with their children.
“You can be very happy no matter what your situation. I have friends on full expat packages and they hate it here,” Heather says. “In the future we’ll look back and say, ‘Remember when we moved to China?’ instead of ‘Remember when we almost moved to China?’” adds Jared. “That’s living with no regrets.”
That’s Shanghai 2012
Photo by Nicky Almasy