My wife, Pim, was visiting her family in Surin when I got the news that would change my life forever. We were chatting on the phone in Thai but there was one word that I couldn’t understand. Pim was clearly excited about something but I didn’t know what. I guessed that it was probably related to food, but I really had no idea.
She just kept saying the same word again and again, but repetition wasn’t making any difference to the fact that it was a new word to me. She could have said it a million times and I still wouldn’t have known it. It reminded me of my high school French teacher recounting a trip to France where he had observed an English women getting increasingly irate because no matter how many times or how loudly she repeated the words “travel agency”, the French taxi driver still didn’t understand her.
Pim’s sister, Nid, was talking excitedly in the background and I got the impression that she was looking in a dictionary for a translation. It fell briefly silent, and then I heard it, and it would never be silent again.
“Pregnancy!” shouted Nid. “Pim is pregnancy!” No, no, no. She means “pregnant”, thought the English teacher inside me. “Pregnancy” is a noun but she needs an adjective. “Pim is pregnant. Repeat.”
It was fortunate that I was sitting down when the realisation finally sank its teeth in. It had taken some time to penetrate my natural defence mechanisms, but once it had found a chink in the armour, it hit me with all the stealth and might of a great white shark striking out of the blue. Pregnant? What? Oh.
Pim had been told by doctors when she was in her early 20s that she would never be able to have kids after an illegal abortion (there are no legal abortions in Thailand) that had been messy (I’m not sure they have clean ones either). Based on this knowledge, we had planned our futures together accepting that we would be childless and, although in Thailand this meant no-one to wipe the drool off our chins when we were old and decrepit, we had come to terms with this and built it into a positive and bright future.
For a start, I had initiated an investment fund that would allow me to retire at 50. This retirement nest egg was, in an instant, converted into a college fund and another 10 years were added to my working life.
But the doctors said…that…you… It was useless. Doctors sometimes get it wrong. I guess they hadn’t planned on Pim marrying a Yorkshire man.
I could feel Pim smiling down the phone and as the shock subsided, my emotions caught up with me. This was great news. It was, in retrospect, the greatest news that I have ever received.
Doctors get it wrong. Sometimes they just play with you but sometimes they really get it wrong. We had already experienced the latter and there would be more evidence to reinforce this taboo phenomenon. In Thai culture, doctors are in an elite group of professions that are blindly perceived by humble lay people never to be wrong. It is a perception that holds no water in our household.
Firstly, there was the miracle pregnancy. Then, as we began our monthly visits to the hospital for ultrasound scans and check ups, we heard from my good friend, Pat, about his English friend and Thai wife who had been told by their doctor after a scan that they were going to have a girl. They had proceeded to buy pink baby clothes and paraphernalia in anticipation. Subsequent scans had, apparently, revealed nothing to contradict the prognosis. Perhaps they had, but the doctor was by then too afraid of losing face to say anything, hoping, instead, that the problem would just disappear if he ignored it hard enough. In any case, when the baby was born, it sported an extra appendage that suggested pink would not be its favourite colour, at least not until it was old enough to make that kind of decision for itself.
It is not until the fifth month that doctors can predict, with relative confidence and accuracy, the sex of the baby from ultrasound scans, but we were taken on a few roller coaster rides before that stage. I will never forget the first scan. Our doctor had the air of a professorial vulture with half spectacles that rested permanently on the tip of his nose. These glasses seemed to form some ironic barrier to his vision, meaning that he had his chin constantly pressed against his chest so that he could peer at his patients over the top of them. It could be that his chin had been super-glued to his chest during a drunken med-school prank and he had never gotten around to having them separated, but I couldn’t be sure.
He certainly looked like the kind of person that would have been bullied if he had gone to my school, and perhaps that explained the way he toyed mercilessly with our feelings during that first scan. After years of being picked on at school, he was now in a position of power and it was payback time.
Of course, his behaviour could have been Thai culture, which dictates that doctors are above reproach and should never be questioned. Never force the issue with them. Accept whatever they say, even if it involves allowing them to insert shiny objects inside you when you have, in fact, simply accompanied a sick relative into their office.
It could have been the culture, but I suspect he just had been a bullied child who now had a boring job and he enjoyed the levity of playing with us. Think about it. Couples come in, all excited about their pregnancies and all he gets to do is stare at barely discernable shapes on a screen looking for a tiny penis. That’s got to have an effect on your sanity sooner or later.
He began the scan and as he ran the reader across Pim’s belly, I stared excitedly at the monitor expecting to see whatever it was that the doctor was obviously seeing. I couldn’t. The bastard must be on acid. All I could see was what looked like a TV when the aerial is unplugged or the channel has closed down for the night. There was no white noise, but there was equally nothing to suggest that a human life was taking shape before our eyes.
White dots danced across a black background, or was it black dots on a white background? The doctor paused occasionally on certain shapes but he kept whatever he was seeing to himself. Both Pim and I looked at him for clues, but he stared impassively over his redundant spectacles at the screen.
Then the panic set in as he began making noises. Ohhhh. Oh hoh. Mmmmmm. Oooey. These were not good noises. They were the kind of noises you would make if you had the munchies and opened the fridge only to find that someone had eaten the last chocolate bar but there was still some mysterious object that looked like it could possibly be a piece of mouldy cheese.
“What? What?” I pleaded. Eventually, after he was sure he had wound us up tight enough to explode, he sadistically moved in to finish us off. “This is the first child, here,” he said pointing blandly at a mass of dots on the screen. He paused long enough to be sure that we had digested the word “first”. His face was emotionless, but inside he was pissing himself laughing at us. I am sure of it. He was fine-tuning the expression “pregnant pause” for his own sick pleasure.
First? First? What the … “And this is where the second child was,” he continued before pausing again. Was? Was? I understood the words but they weren’t making any sense. Finally, he turned ever so slightly to look at us, probably to gauge how much he had messed with our heads. Satisfied that we couldn’t take any more, he stopped his sadistic game.
“Yes, it seems that two eggs were fertilised but only one of them has developed,” he explained. From the excitement of seeing the first images of our unborn child, to the fear that something was wrong, to the belief that we were having twins, and finally back to where we started, the sick doctor had played us expertly. You can really have a lot of fun messing with people if you are a doctor.
By the fifth month, the doctor was pointing at what could to me have been a parallel galaxy on the screen and telling us it was our baby’s scrotum. We were going to have a boy. I was delighted. People had kept asking me what I wanted and I always lied that I didn’t care as long as it was healthy, but I wanted a boy. I wanted a boy so that I could play football with him, wrestle with him, go to the pub with him. It also meant that I had won a crate of beer in a bet with Nid, but that was a mere bonus to the joy of finding out that we were going to have a boy. That is as long as this twisted doctor wasn’t playing us again or looking under instead of over his glasses.
Pim was piling on the weight by this time, too. During the pregnancy she gained almost 20kg, nearly half her normal weight, but when our son, Tommy, was born, he weighed in at less than 2.8kg. Where was the rest of it?
I felt so sorry for Pim waddling around during the final months of the pregnancy like a badly drawn cartoon. It just didn’t look like she could possibly get any bigger, and she was relieved when Tommy made his bow one month early.
After years of living in Thailand, I should have known that appointments, schedules and deadlines mean nothing, but this usually results in things being late, so it was still a shock when Tommy entered the world a whole month early. We knew something wasn’t right, and we had already been to the hospital, kept in for a night and then released, only to return the next night. Pim’s waters had broken. Game on.
All through the pregnancy, friends had been asking me about it, but it was all so surreal. “Yeah, we’re gonna have a baby,” but it just felt like, “Yeah, we’re gonna get a new TV.” Excited? Obviously. Fully aware of the change in lifestyle that would ensue? Errm…
Everything came suddenly and sharply into focus now with the breaking of the waters. I had no idea what that meant but it sounded like a ceremony was being enacted by robed figures somewhere and they weren’t open to negotiation. Pim was going to have a baby. I mean, I knew she was pregnant, but she’s going to have a baby! WE are going to have a baby. Oh my God. What do I do?
Pim was taken to the delivery ward. She pushed and sweated, and she sweated and pushed. I held her hand and smiled. This wasn’t so difficult. The nurses made long droning noises for some reason. Perhaps it was part of the breaking of the waters ceremonial chanting. This was when it struck me that there was a major difference between the West and Thailand here. From friends and television, I knew that in the West there were pre-natal classes teaching parents how to breathe. Nobody had taught us how to breathe. We were just having to work it out as we went along. This must be what the nurses were doing. They were giving us a demonstration of how to breathe. I wasn’t buying it, and neither was Pim. She just kept sweating and pushing but the nurses insisted on their droning.
After a couple of hours, the doctor announced that the baby wasn’t making any progress. Well leave him in there then, I thought. He’s a month early anyway. Let’s come back in four weeks and have another go, but it didn’t work like that, apparently. Once the waters have broken, there’s no stopping the inevitable. I just wish he’d make his mind up. First he wants to come out early, and then he wants to stay in there.
Again, relying on my preferred sources of information (friends and TV), I knew that mothers could be in labour for several hours before giving birth. I also knew (this time from Internet research) that Thai hospitals are overly keen to perform caesarean section births because they are easier and they can charge a lot more money for them. That may sound mercenary, but the private hospitals of Thailand have to make a profit. This explains why every time I leave the hospital, I have a new bag of pills. The cynic in me thought the doctor was just setting us up to have a caesarean birth. I was probably right because after only two hours, that was what was suggested. I wasn’t keen on the idea, but Pim looked at me through begging eyes that said that she couldn’t go on with a normal delivery. She pleaded to have a caesarean. As much as I didn’t want that, I felt that it had to be Pim’s choice and so off we went to surgery.
I wasn’t allowed into the operating theatre and had to make do with waiting outside. After an eternity, the doors burst open and a trolley was wheeled out with a little bundle of flesh curled up inside. He was taken to the maternity ward, and I stared at him speechless as I walked alongside. When we arrived, he was placed in an incubator. I sat outside and burst into silent tears. I didn’t think that it would be possible to feel happier than at that moment, but my son is always putting in a new personal best in that respect – his first smile, his first steps, his first words, his first goal for Leeds United.
I now truly know the meaning of love. Sure, I love my family and Pim, but this is different. Without a second’s thought, I would give up my life for him. For the first time in my life, I am no longer the most important person in the world. In fact, I now rank a distant third behind Tommy and Pim. If you have never had kids, you can’t possibly know this feeling. I could certainly never have imagined it. Now, all I have to do is convince Pim that we should have a second child but the very mention of it sends her into traumatic flashback mode.
There may be no pre- or post-natal classes and care in Thailand, but the hospitals take care of all the paperwork for the baby’s registration, although I also took the option to get this translated and have his birth registered at the British embassy, which was very easy and cost just over 10,000 baht.
Because Tommy was premature, he spent the first 10 days in a hospital incubator, and when he finally came home, there was a nice expensive new cot waiting for him. I told my Australian friend, Andy, and he just laughed and said that the cot would make a good storage space for blankets and duvets. Andy and his Thai wife, Nan, have a young son and they had gone through the same thing. I insisted that Tommy would sleep in the cot, but my opinion counts for little in our house these days. I think that Tommy spent perhaps a total of two weeks sleeping in his cot and the rest of his early years sharing a bed with Pim and me, bonding Thai-style.
When I first came to Thailand, I had heard all about how Thais paid great respect to elderly people, but the same can definitely be said of children. A one-legged old granny with her week’s shopping will give up her seat on the bus so that a healthy five-year-old boy can sit down. I have asked Thais about this many times and they just think that we farangs are very rude because we don’t do this. I am all for respecting and embracing cultural differences, but this one just doesn’t make sense to me. I have even seen someone give up their seat on the sky-train for a little boy, who then stood on the seat so that he could look out of the window. The boy’s mother didn’t see anything wrong with this even though the carriage was full of tired and seat-less commuters.
On the flip side, it’s great that Thais love kids so much, especially when Pim and I go shopping or to a restaurant. When my niece and her boyfriend were in Thailand, they came through to Bangkok for a couple of days. I took them shopping and we first stopped in a restaurant in the mall for lunch. Tommy was about 14 months old and as soon as we sat down, the waitresses were all over him and he was whisked away out of sight. Pim and I were glad of the respite and hoped we might get a chance to eat in peace, but my niece was shocked and even worried about Tommy. If this were in England, who knows what could have happened to him, but here in Thailand he has thirty million aunties looking out for him. When he was returned, he had some new toys to play with, and after a quick bite to eat, he was off playing with another aunty at a nearby food stall.
Do you have an experience of having children in Thailand? Share it in readers’ comments below.