I fell in love. But it wasn’t love at first sight. The first time the Dutch doctors popped my third child into my view (despite their “Ah, mooi”s) I screamed at the crying, gooey alien.
Five months earlier I’m lying on my back with gel on my stomach and my husband's hand clasping mine. Cosette is bouncing up and down on a chair in the dimly lit room, staring at the black and white screen hanging from the ceiling. The ultrasound technician speaks. “Ja - so. Must I tell you? You see it’s a boy, yes?” she proudly says. She smiles at my daughter. My eyes widen.
Cosette speaks my mind, “A boy? Oh NO!!! It’s supposed to be a GIRL! We don’t need another crazy boy like Holden!!” My eyes close. I try to breathe.
The technician is confused and flustered. “Another boy? What do you mean?” She blinks.
Tears well in my eyes. “Yes, yes - we already have a boy, but he’s at home because we can’t take him anywhere!” Tears spill over. There is a running faucet on my face. During the next two minutes I relive three years of frustration and exhaustion - the sleepless nights, the flighting to put Holden in the stroller, to keep his shoes on, to put his clothes on, to keep his pajamas on, to change his diaper, the screaming, the chasing - at home, at the museum, at the park. The struggles to get him to sit, to eat, to read a book - the loud, active, son I already had. I went into this third child thing with the complete and total faith that the universe would not send me another son. Of course, I adore Holden, he’s funny and loving and wonderful - but at this moment in time, all I can think of is the exhaustion. Cosette becomes agitated - no doubt a result of her mother sobbing like a fool. Vinny ushers her outside the room and leaves me alone with the tech. I scold myself for being so ridiculous and selfish and I wipe tears with the back of my hand. “I’m so sorry. My son is just a handful - two handfuls, really. I’m just tired. I’m sorry. I’m so glad the baby. . . that he’s healthy. Truly I am. I’m sorry, I’m so very, very tired.” I repeat.
She smiles. Her hair is short and she wears those funky glasses the Dutch are famous for. “You know. My daughter is two handfuls, too. It doesn’t matter boy or girl.” I give her a half-hearted smile. She doesn’t know what genes I’m playing with.
With my first two pregnancies - I knew what we were going to have. We had dreams about the sex of our children and they had come true. Vinny had told me he had a dream about our third being a girl and I took that as confirmed. I felt horrible (like I did with Cosette), I craved sweets (like I did with Cosette) and I had visualized it all - the baby girl, her name, her nursery theme. After the appointment, we walk back to our house in a daze. My mother - who we had surprised at Amsterdam Schiphol airport just a few days earlier with our news of pregnancy - is at our home, taking care of Holden as he sleeps. I by-passed her and go straight upstairs. “So,” she said. “I take it, it’s a boy?” she smiled. Vinny nods.
“You know. . . “ my husband says tentatively that night, “. . . it was always a 50-50 chance, right?” and he raises an eyebrow without looking at me - folding clothes and putting them into a suitcase. I’m lying in a ball, on the bed. Again, scolding myself for being so selfish, but reason is no match for a hormonal, pregnant woman.
“No. It wasn’t. I knew it was a girl, and now it’s not.” Two fleeting thoughts enter and scamper out of my brain like the mice in my kitchen - “It’s all the Netherlands fault” because, sometimes. . . as an expat, you like to blame anything that goes Not Your Way on the country - Gah! and second, “Well. . . we could always try again for the girl.” Heh. No. The two pesky ideas gulping down poison and dead by morning.
I always like the idea of surprises - but in reality, I’m terrible at them. I know it is a good idea to find out about the sex of the child half-way through the pregnancy. Over the next months, I become accustom to the idea. I hold my Baby Girl a little tighter - knowing she’d be the only girl I have and just. . . not knowing what to expect from another little boy. My Dad is surprised at my reaction, “Weell, Cea-leeest, I thiiink it’s a goood thang, be-cause you’re goin to be at home with Howl-den and ah-think it will be good because he’ll haaave ah brother!” I hadn’t really thought of it. I had only thought of Cosette and her desire to have another sister. What did Holden really think? What would our family look like with two boys? Maybe. It could be pretty cool. Then we had to decide on a name.
We bought French name books (the girls names we had picked were French - to go with Celeste and Cosette, naturally), we peruse websites for others. Although Vinny suggests a lot of American names, I want to capture our expat life in his name, plus he is half Dutch by heritage. We bought a Dutch name book when I was pregnant with Cosette. We open it again. I find it. I share with Vinny and he loves it, too. Brecht. It was just “Dutch-enough” but I hope it is easy enough for Americans to say. It’s kind of like, Breckt! Just like Americans say don’t say e-ch-o - they say echo. The ch is the same, I reason! But. . . truly, the Dutch way of saying it, Brecht - with a push of air between e and the ch - is like a breath of fresh air. It’s beautiful and calming. There’s no rushing it, and it’s basically everything I feel about living overseas - and hope for my new baby. Vinny and I had also visited Cafe Brecht in Amsterdam the previous December (named after the famous German writer, Bertold Brecht) and found it eclectic, fun, and relaxing. It is the perfect name.
Once we have the name, His name - I feel more connected to him. I love being pregnant overseas. My biggest complaints about being pregnant in America - the nosy people, the eyebrow raises at my size vs. my due date (hello, I’m 5 feet tall!), and the unrelenting Texas heat - are non-issues in Europe. I walk the streets of Leiden not only inspired by the beauty around me, but also without comment or question of my growing body. I am so thankful. And I walk. I walk and walk and walk. Pushing a double stroller, biking my kids around town - I do it all, with baby in belly. I am proud and strong. I can do this.
“You know - they don’t have private recovery rooms,” Holden’s preschool teacher warns me one day as I pick him up from school. Record. Scratch. “I’m sorry?” I say. I had registered at the hospital within walking distance to my house. I figured it would be fine. With this newfound information, I send an SOS to my expat friends to confirm.
“She’s right! - I was in a room with another woman who left her screaming baby in his crib while she went outside to have a smoke!” one friend tells me.
Another one said she had called her husband in the middle of the night on the second night, begging him to pick her up. “I was in a room with three other women and their screaming babies, it was awful!” she says.
I start to panic. My wheels start turning over the birthing tidbits I had learned over the years - most Dutch women give birth at home, and even those who give normal birth stay in the hospital for less than 48-hours. The two or four-woman recovery room was standard practice. I am planning a C-section and know I will be in recovery for at least three days. I’ve accepted a lot of cultural differences, but sharing my pain and space with others is not something I am interested in. I switch hospitals mid-pregnancy for one with private recovery rooms. “I mean - if my kids come up to visit, I don’t want them bothering anyone else” - I reason. Plus, in the new hospital, Vinny can spend the night. In the other hospital - with three other women and newborns - it wasn’t an option.
Vinny and I take a tour of the new hospital. It seems similar to my old one in Dallas. The staff is nice and attentive. After looking at the rooms, I ask “Where is the nursery?”. They look at me with questions behind their eyes. “You know. . . the nursery - where the babies sleep? In their beds?” more blank stares. “Like, where are the babies? There must be a window where I can see the newborns. . .” and I trail off. They point to a dark closet. And then it dawns on us all at the same time.
“Oh no - the babies stay in the rooms with the mothers. If there’s a problem or something, we can help and we take them back to our office - but no. Usually they always stay with the mothers.” This is new. Okay. I nod. Duly noted.
It’s the day of the birth. I go from the prep room to the surgery room - just like In Dallas. The air is tense as they put the epidural in and I decided (as if there was any doubt) that I NEVER want to do this again. Three times is plenty. They ask me if it’s a boy or girl and I tell them it’s a boy and his name is Brecht. “Oh no!!!! They shout - it’s bad luck to say the baby’s name before he is born. We’re minutes away from the birth, and I’ve been living in this country almost three years, but I’m still doing things wrong. They go about their prep but I start to panic. Where is the curtain that separates my eyes from. . . everything else? “Please don’t let the curtain be a cultural difference. Please don’t let the curtain be a cultural difference.” I chant in my head. But eventually - it’s up and things are progressing at a pace and procedure I’m accustomed to. I’d never seen my other two children before they were cleaned up and wrapped up all pretty. I’m an ex-CPA for a reason. . . I’m feeling a few more things than usual - the Dutch are light on pain meds, and all of a sudden - there he is - in all his purple gooey-ness! And I freak out from surprise - a culmination of a lot of stress and anticipation.
They clean him up and put him by my head. The hospital insisted that I didn’t wear contacts (which I complied with) or make-up (which I did not comply with). He’s adorable and cute and I’m so thankful that everything went safely and successfully. I’m having trouble seeing him through my awkward glasses and I’m distracted by the tugging.
“Um, I had anti-nausea medicine in Texas,” I say to the guy at my head.
“Oh. Ja? Would you like some?” More tugging. Damn those Dutch and their I’m-So-Tough-Going-Light-On-Pain-Meds. . .
“Yes. I believe I would.”
The night of my surgery, the doctor gave me encouragement to ask for something stronger if needed. The nurse came in later and asked my pain scale, “I’m an 8” I said.
“An 8?” she said with an eye roll.
I prop myself on my elbows as determined as I could be. “Yes! I’m an 8. My entire stomach feels like it’s on fire. This is the most pain I’ve been in, in my entire life - please give me something stronger than paracetamol!” (Tylenol) She comes back with a syringe of morphine. “Can’t you just put it into the IV?!?!?” I plead.
“Oh no - this will work much faster, “ she says. I have the bruise where she put in into my leg for six months afterwards.
The third night after the baby is born, I’m in my hospital room. Alone. Vinny decides to stay at home with the other two children that night. It’s been a hectic week. My Dad flew in from Texas to help with both Holden and Cosette, but it’s a big job. Vinny is exhausted going back and forth between the hospital and me and the baby and keeping things going at home. The baby has been pretty peaceful, but tonight he isn’t doing well. He keeps waking up, and I - in my C-sectioned recovery state - am having trouble getting him in and out of his bassinet by my bed. I call the nurse multiple times - in, out, in, out. Every time I ask the nurse to put him back in his crib he wakes up. I call her again to take him out. Brecht is crying - I can’t get him to calm down - I call the nurse for the seventeenth time that night. He’s crying. I’m crying. She takes pity. “I’ll take him for a bit, yes?” she says to me. It’s nearly 2:00 a.m. I am The Special Case. I tell her okay. I don’t know where she’s going to take him. I guess to her office in this nursery-less hospital. I feel alone, helpless, and inadequate. I close my eyes and go to sleep.
A couple hours later she comes back in. The baby is crying. “He needs his mother,” she smiles at me. She lays him on my chest, pops up the sides of my bed, turns down the light and leaves. The baby, my Baby Brecht sleeps. We sleep and sleep and sleep. I awake with him still on my chest, in my arms. After the most stressful, lonely evening of my life, I awake to this angel snuggling on top of me. I don’t know if this would ever happen in America - I feel like anti-liability rules would trump a simple humane solution. I hold my Brecht and think there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be. I am grateful for giving birth in a Dutch hospital. At that moment - thousands of miles away from my homeland, and a few miles from the rest of my family, the grace of these Dutch nurses gave me the answer my son needed - just me. I fell madly in love.
Note: Vinny’s mother passed away before our wedding, but we held true to the mother-son dance. I danced with him and we invited all other mothers in attendance to dance with their sons. The song we chose was More, by Frank Sinatra.
More than you'll ever know, my arms long to hold you so,
My life will be in your keeping, waking, sleeping, laughing, weeping,
Longer than always is a long long time, but far beyond forever you're gonna be mine.
I know I've never lived before and my heart is very sure,
No one else could love you more.