‘born free’

This morning I had my 32-week appointment with the midwives who’ll be attending the birth of my first baby. They’re in a private practice, which my employer-subsidized medical insurance pays for. My appointment was at the private Genesis Clinic, nicknamed the “birthing hotel” due to its luxurious facilities, however for the birth I’m booked into Park Lane Hospital, which also boasts a private maternity ward that you couldn’t be faulted for mistaking with an upscale hotel.

On my way home from the appointment I stopped into Woolworths, South Africa’s high-end grocery store modeled on Marks & Spencer in the UK. The only necessity I had to buy was toilet paper, the rest was middle-class frivolity: cranberry juice, brie, Diet Coke, a single-serving bag of chips, a bar of Cadbury chocolate.

I was debating whether to buy the 18- (slightly cheaper per roll) or 9-roll pack of toilet paper (easier to carry to the car) when an African man tapped me on the shoulder. He wanted to know whether the box of baby cereal (labelled for babies six months and older) and a bottle of full-cream cow’s milk would be okay for his two-month-old child, because the infant formula was too expensive.

I tried to use, simple, sympathetic language to compare the prices, pointing out that when it came to price per gram, the (age-appropriate) infant formula really wasn’t much more expensive than the (inappropriate) baby cereal. I talked about babies’ sensitive tummies, and how the wrong food might make its tummy sore and cause it to cry even more. I asked if he had any way to get to Makro (South African Costco/Wal-Mart), where there would be more brands available in cheaper, bulk quantities (he didn’t).

Now, why wasn’t his wife breastfeeding? I didn’t ask, but I can guess. Maybe she has HIV/AIDS. Maybe she struggled to make breastfeeding work, and had no guidance on how to do it or support to keep at it. Maybe she had to go back to work, probably as a maid in a private home, shortly after the baby was born, so isn’t available to feed the baby, can’t afford pumping supplies and/or has no education on how to use them.

In the end I couldn’t persuade him – and really, maybe it wasn’t a question of persuasion. Maybe there was no way he could afford the R146 ($12) infant formula over the R30 ($2.50) baby cereal and he just wanted assurance that he wouldn’t kill the baby (a question he asked me repeatedly).

South Africans optimistically refer to the ‘born free’ generation, children born after 1994 who’ve never known the oppression of apartheid. Nelson Mandela was a huge advocate for children’s rights, and famously declared, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Yet 20+ years after the first round of ‘born free’ babies came screaming into the world, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and this is especially evident in models of maternity care and childbirth.

A few months ago the Guardian published an article that confirmed what I’d gleaned anecdotally: inequality starts even before the moment of birth, in the very means by which South African babies emerge into the world. Babies born in the private healthcare system (which consumes 60% of total health spend yet serves only 15% of the population) are overwhelmingly more likely to be born by c-section, many of which are elective.

From the moment I found out I was pregnant, I’ve planned for a minimal-intervention birth. My fantastic obstetrician is a renowned champion of natural birth, and I’ve hired the midwives in order to have low-intervention advocates with me during the birthing process. Whether I’ll be able to deliver naturally remains to be seen, but I’ve been amazed by what’s felt like the need to defend my preference, both informally and in terms of literally building a medical team I can trust. The South African (private) obstetric community seems so ready to encourage women to ‘simply book in for a caesar,’ how do you find the line where your doctor’s medical expertise ends and profit-hunting begins?

It’s easy to feel self-righteous and skeptically alert to the ‘business of childbirth’ as I thumb through my imported copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy Edition, or enjoy a workout in my immaculate, brand-new gym, or buy calcium supplements without looking at the price, or tip the Zimbabwean painters who’re doing up the baby’s room (in the house that I own, in an affluent neighborhood, on a quiet street).

The truth is, I’m so privileged. I can choose to have a low-intervention birth. I have access to whatever medical care might be necessary to facilitate that birth. And if it all goes pear-shaped, I can have an epidural and a c-section and a private room to recover in at a moment’s notice, without a thought for how much it’s going to cost.

I’ve spent the whole afternoon thinking about the two-month-old baby who’ll be fed cereal and cow’s milk tonight, and wishing I’d just given the man R100 to buy the infant formula. That baby will have so many more obstacles in its life, I wish I’d had the presence of mind to give it a little bit of a head start.

Instead I’m reminded to check my privilege, to be grateful, to see my house/work/traffic stresses as great luxuries. My baby will be born into the South Africa with world-class medical care, spacious homes and brand-name strollers. I won’t sacrifice to keep it fed, I won’t worry about access to clean water, I won’t have to choose between a tin of formula and taxi fare for a trip to the doctor. I’m on the right side of this hopelessly imbalanced scale, and for that I’m unbelievably, undeservedly lucky.

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jozi: one month on

Today marks four weeks since I left the UK and the time has absolutely flown. I still feel as green as a new shoot as I navigate my new country of residence, but I’m slowly getting to grips with the commute, the vocabulary, and the way of life down here at the bottom of a continent.

Every day it seems I make a mental note to pass on one or other funny expat observation and then utterly fail to do so, so I’ll try to encapsulate a few of my favorites.

–       This may be a side effect of living without a television for six years in the UK, but our new house came with a satellite subscription and 200+ channels of pure awesome. We get TLC from the US, BBC from the UK, and selectively-bought series from HBO and Showtime like True Blood and Ray Donovan. The airing schedule is a couple of weeks behind the US, but who cares? I can finally watch Eric Northman in flat-screen HD glory rather than a fuzzy download from a Chinese website!

–       Joburg natives are some of the nicest people you could hope to meet… until they get in their cars. I’m losing track of how many social events we’ve been invited to by people we barely know (including the woman who completed the insurance survey and suggested we go out with her friends about five minutes after we opened the front door). In the shops and on the streets people smile and joke and look you in the eye and apologize if they bump into you. But if you need someone to let you into a lane during rush hour? Forget it! Even though very little seems to start on time here, every driver seems to be in an urgent hurry and is unafraid of using the horn to let you know. I still find it hard not to get stressed by the impatience of other drivers, but I’m gradually learning to attribute it to ubiquitous haste and not a reflection on my driving abilities. Check back in three months when I’m bitching about slow drivers hogging the fast lane!

–       Living in an upscale neighborhood, going to nice restaurants and a brand-new gym, and mingling almost exclusively with fellow high-achieving professionals in what is arguably Africa’s most developed city makes it easy to forget that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world. I’ve never been comfortable with the humiliating spectacle X-Factor and American Idol make of poorly auditioning contestants (to quote Extras, “we wheel out the bewildered to be sniggered at by multi-millionaires”), but Idols SA – the local incarnation of the franchise – brings a new severity. In the US we laugh at fat contestants with no self-awareness, in the UK we laugh at immigrant contestants singing in broken English, and in Idols SA we laugh even when the contestant’s hometown displayed on the bottom of the screen reveals they’re from an incredibly deprived, crime-ridden, opportunity-barren township. Yeah, maybe they suck at singing, but there’s something pretty sinister about people tucked cozily in front of their TVs ridiculing someone who may very well be headed home to sleep on a packed-dirt floor.

–       Yesterday I saw a city bus that pretty much summed up my experience thus far. The digital readout on the front of the bus, meant to display the destination, instead repeated in scrolling neon: “??????????????” And after four weeks in Joburg, that’s how I feel most of the time – not really sure where I’m going, but happily strapping in for a wild ride.

In non-expat news, it’s less than two weeks until The Striker’s Chance releases from Carina Press! It’s already gotten its first review and I couldn’t be more chuffed. I’ve added pre-order links for ARe and Barnes & Noble so feel free to buy multiple copies for multiple devices. 😉 I’ve got a lot of guest posts all around the blogosphere in the pipeline, so keep your eyes peeled!

three zero

Hello world! I’m a Kansan living in London and brand-new romance author, and as today is my birthday, it seemed like as good a time as any to kick off my shiny new blog. As I’ve now entered a new decade that means my age begins with the number three, I thought it was worth taking a look back at some of the highlights from the last ten years. 

22: After months of listening to my fellow college seniors sign six-figure contracts with investment banks as early as Christmas, having my Fulbright application rejected, and lying awake at night fretting that I’d have to leave New York City and move back to Kansas indefinitely, my year of interning for $10/day paid off and I was offered a full-time editorial job at WW Norton & Co, starting just two weeks after graduation. I lived the first six months in constant fear of being fired, but by the end of the year I was breezily returning proofs, executing contracts, and drunkenly hugging people at the office Christmas party.

24: On paper, I had it all: great job, amazing apartment, solid circle of friends, and a long-term boyfriend who was probably on his way to proposing. But I couldn’t shake an underpinning sense of dissatisfaction, and I chucked it all in: quit my job, gave notice on my apartment, broke up with my boyfriend, and moved to London to do my MA at UCL. It was terrifying and exhilarating, and one of my best decisions ever.

25: Just eight weeks into my first post-MA editorial job, I realized that a career in publishing, though hard-won (see 22), was not what I wanted. I took a complete leap of faith based on nothing more than a general interest in people and a friend’s insistence that I deserved a higher salary, and completely changed industries, starting over from scratch in the small but fast-paced world of executive search and talent consulting. Four years, two firms, and what feels like several million candidate analyses later, I’ve never been happier in my job and can’t see myself ever being tempted out of the professional services sector.

29: My twenties decided to save the best for last, evidently, as 29 was pretty much wall-to-wall awesome! I went on an amazing two-week holiday to South Africa’s Western Cape; I traveled to Dublin to see my favorite crazy Afrikaans rappers, Die Antwoord; I pushed (and triumphed over!) my physical limits at the three-day BG Energy Challenge in Dartmoor, at the Survival of the Fittest obstacle-laden 5K in Battersea, and by completing my first half-marathon in Greenwich; I sold my debut contemporary romance novel to Carina Press; and I got engaged to my very own hero, almost nine years to the day from when we first met.

Personally, I’ve always believed that anxiety about getting older results from a youth-worshipping societal construct that not only pressures women to achieve certain false markers of achievement (marriage, kids) according to an artificial timeline, it implies that being younger is unequivocally better than being older. Feminist rage aside (ahem), I just don’t buy it. There’s not enough money in the world to pay me to be 21 again and to re-experience all of that uncertainty, personal discovery, and constant self-analysis a second time. My 30th year promises to be full of upheaval: I’ll be leaving my life in London behind and starting over in Johannesburg, changing jobs, buying a car and potentially a house, and getting married somewhere in between. Yet I’m looking forward to it more than I’m stressing about it, because everything else in my life – my relationship, my self-confidence, and my faith that things always work themselves out – is pretty much nailed down. That wouldn’t have been the case nine or eight or even three years ago. I’m secure in myself, I know what I do and don’t want, and I still get carded regularly, so all in all, a little agedness hasn’t hurt me one bit!

The last decade was great, but I’m ready to see it off. Sayonara, 29 – and roll on 30!