The service projects we’ve been doing throughout our trip have taken many forms, and with each one of them we’ve learned something valuable. Most of the time we connect to a local organization and participate in something fitting the standard definition of “volunteer work.” However, while we were in Ethiopia our girls opened my mind a little when they made their own project by handing out lollipops in our neighborhood. Sometimes changing the world a little bit doesn’t have to be so formally orchestrated. For us “service work” has come to mean putting our time and effort toward helping a situation while learning something along the way.
This definition perfectly describes the assistance we began providing shortly after arriving in Koh Samui. This service project wasn’t about connecting with an established organization and contributing to a conventional volunteer program. This latest “way to change the world” was simply about letting go of our own personal opinions and helping our neighbors in need.
Our first day on the island we met the couple in the apartment next to ours. The conversation started out normal enough. She was English and he was Indian. Not yet legally married, they’d been struggling with visa issues in their efforts to be together in the same country. With the birth of their first child quickly approaching, they decided to come to Thailand since it was a country they could both enter with simple tourist visas.
“We were really hoping to stay in this building because it’s such a nice, clean apartment. Unfortunately, it’s booked for someone else next week,” she told us, rubbing her belly. “We haven’t been able to find another place that will work for the birth.”
I heard it, but thought she meant she wouldn’t want to bring the baby home to a rundown, dirty place, which is understandable. Then after a few minutes we got the full picture. “We’re telling the landlords when they ask us about the baby that we plan to go to the hospital for the birth. You know, so they won’t freak out. We’re actually going to have an unassisted birth in the apartment.”
Do you ever have those moments with a spouse or friend where something happens and it’s like the two of you are having a telepathic conversation because you know exactly what the other is thinking? Well, that’s what Brian and I were doing at this point. Natural childbirth? Yes, we totally get that. Did it myself a couple times. Having a home birth? You know, it wasn’t for us, but I can see the appeal it has for other people. But choosing to give birth in a foreign country without the assistance of a midwife or a trained medical provider? Ummmm….
I heard myself saying, “Oh, okay. Yeah…that’s cool.” Inside my head: Are you friggin’ crazy?!?!?
“We just want a natural experience, you know, and we don’t trust hospitals at all.”
“Uh-huh, sure. I can understand that.” Don’t do it! Don’t do it! Get a midwife! Get someone to help you!
“We had a midwife for a while, but she was so rigid and it had to be, like, her way or the highway, so we’ve decided to do it ourselves.”
“Mm-hmm,” head nodding, eyes getting bigger. Yeah, do it yourself. Great idea. Like putting in new tile.
“It’s been really difficult finding a new place. Plus, we only have a scooter, so getting around the island to see apartments hasn’t been fun when I’m this pregnant,” she laughed, gesturing to her belly.
I managed to casually laugh with her. “Haha! Oh yeah, that must be super uncomfortable.” You don’t have a car in case of emergency!!!!! You don’t have a place to live!!! Are you kidding me?! “So, when exactly are you due?”
“Just three days from now,” she said giddily. “We’re getting so excited.”
“Yeah, I bet you are!” Due in three days. Homeless in five. OMG, so exciting!
Brian and I both left that conversation a little stunned, to say the least. I really don’t want to judge other people’s decisions. It’s not my life. It’s none of my business. To each his own. Yet, I had a really hard time wrapping my head around this one. This is your child. This is Thailand. No one’s going to whiz up with an ambulance if things don’t go as planned. Over the next few days as we settled in on Koh Samui, I took note of the frequent power outages we had at our apartment and the fact that the nearest hospital was 30 minutes away – by car, not scooter. I kept thinking about them, the baby and the situation that could unfold. Brian and I talked about it a couple times and agreed it was a situation we were very concerned about being pulled into. So many things could go wrong.
Then right on schedule, three days later a little before midnight Brian and I both heard the cry of a newborn baby. We looked at each other with big eyes. Holy moly! They’d done it! A baby was just born next door. In a tiny apartment. In rural Thailand. I paced around for little while, half worried he would be banging on our door in a panic, telling us they needed us to drive them to the hospital.
As it turned out everything went just fine. We saw him the next day and he was beaming with joy over the birth of his daughter. He told us everything had gone perfectly. We congratulated him and offered to help them with anything they might need. I was there when he told the landlord that they’d had the baby in the apartment. She flipped out, with a capital F.
“WHAT YOU SAY!” she yelled. “Oh no! No no no no! I take you hospital! Oh no! Not good not good! Not good for baby!” I think she might have misunderstood at first and thought it hadn’t actually happened yet. As he calmly explained the baby and mother were both fine, she took heaving breaths and fluttered her hands around her chest. I thought I might watch this poor Thai woman hyperventilate and pass out on the spot.
While the birth had gone well, later that day it was clear the new parents were a little worried. When she saw me out on the patio she stopped me and asked about nursing, explaining the baby didn’t seem to be latching on well and wouldn’t stay awake to eat. I offered as much advice as I could, but I’m almost six years out of the newborn baby days. Things are a little blurry at this point. Then later that night we heard a knock on our door.
“Would you mind coming over to look at her breathing? I just don’t know if it’s normal,” she said with worried, pleading eyes.
This is the exact situation I didn’t want to be in. I’m not a medical professional! I didn’t feel qualified to be giving pediatric assessments to a mother who has for some incomprehensible reason refused to have her newborn baby examined by a trained practitioner!! Yet, I heard myself saying, “Yes, of course. I’ll come right over.”
As I followed her into their apartment and listened to her describing the gurgling sounds the baby had begun making that day, I felt a mixture of fear and anger. Fear that something could be seriously wrong with this child, and anger at their decisions for having created this situation. My head began to pound. Please let this baby be okay. Please let this baby be okay. I don’t want to be doing this!
I walked in and saw the tiny raven-haired girl in her father’s arms. She had that fine newborn baby fuzz covering her shoulders and little arms. At first she just lay there peacefully. Her coloring was nice and pink, and her breathing was steady. Then after a few minutes, the gurgling her mother had described began. It went on for a few moments until she let out a little cough. When I heard it I had an immediate flashback to when Alison was a newborn. She’d made the same noise periodically the day she was born, and even for a third-time mom it freaked me out. The nurse had said it was very common in the first day or so, just a little amniotic fluid that had settled somewhere and would make its way down.
The new parents watched me as I listened to their daughter’s breathing, their brows furrowed and tense as they waited to hear my very unprofessional diagnosis. What they were experiencing at that moment, that feeling of parental fear and uncertainty, that bargaining with God conversation… “please let this be nothing serious and I promise to [fill in the blank]”…. I knew that feeling. It had been a while since I’d been the new worried parent, but it all came rushing back.
And at that moment I stopped judging the situation. I stopped looking down my nose at them for their alternative childbirth and pediatric care choices. I stopped silently admonishing them and just started empathizing with them. They were doing what they believed to be best for their child. We might have different views on what that means, but we’re all parents with the goal of keeping our kids safe. I do it with hospital obstetrics and vaccinations, and they’re choosing a more alternative, natural lifestyle. Who am I to judge? It was time to let my own opinions go and just help this young family in any way I could.
“If you’re worried about anything, I’ll take you to the hospital right now so a doctor can look at her tonight.” I said. “Personally, I really think you should have a professional look her over to make sure everything’s okay.” I looked back at their little girl now sleeping peacefully with her pink, pudgy arms flung out to the sides like a little warrior. “But, I honestly think she’s fine. Her coloring is really good. Her breathing is normal. She just seems to have a little fluid caught in her throat. One of my girls made a noise like this for a while.”
The parents both visibly relaxed and smiled. The mom hugged and thanked me. The next day I drove them to the clinic on the other side of the island to have the baby checked over and her birth certificate drawn up. They convinced the landlord to set up a small studio apartment in some extra space in the building. Over the following weeks we picked things up for them at the store, particularly bulky items that wouldn’t fit on their scooter. We gave them rides when they had to work out passport and visa issues. We stored breastmilk when they didn’t yet have a fridge in their new place, and then Brian helped move one in for them. We offered our opinion-free assistance, and it seemed to alleviate some of the stress new parents go through those first sleepless weeks.
It felt good to help this family. It felt better to stop standing in judgment of their parental choices and just be their friends.