Pregnant Expat in an Unwelcoming City
Memoirs of (Not) Just Another Mom in Berlin
by Valentina Cabrera
I’m trying to find the words to tell you the whole story — as I’m sitting in my bed, and I can feel my now 28-week-old daughter inside me kicking. This is my second pregnancy. This week while I’m writing this article, is a year since I found out that I was pregnant for the first time — and, a year since I lost that first baby.
I had been living in Berlin for under a year by that point, without having spoken a drop of German, nor having been interested in doing so. In my country, I was a journalist with an ascending career in PR. Here, I was working as a full time babysitter in Prenzlauer Berg — the cool, upper-class, young families’ neighbourhood. I loved my boyfriend, but didn’t want to stay in a society that I perceived to be so blunt and aggressive. I didn’t want to live in a culture so proud of its welfare system — created after the falling of the Wall — and that treats outsiders as a problem, like parasites. I just wanted to leave and get my career back, and they were not doing me any favors.
When the miscarriage symptoms had started we were completely clueless about what to do, and had no one to turn to. The only person that tried to help us was the young Turkish woman who worked at the drugstore where I had purchased the same pregnancy test that had confirmed my suspicions days before. She had said that it was normal to feel pain, and to bleed at the beginning of the pregnancy, and that there was nothing to be worried about. Little did I know — I was having a miscarriage in the same moment she was explaining why I should not be worried. I miscarried at home, with my boyfriend beside me.
No doctor wanted to accept me into their offices. We had tried to see several doctors, that immediately had refused me when they’d found out that I was a non EU citizen, without an EU health ID. I must have tried to book an appointment to at least five doctors. Out of despair, two days after the miscarriage, we just went to another private practice recommended by a friend. The receptionist refused to take us in, even when my boyfriend — speaking in German — begged, and said that he would pay whatever was necessary. I was sobbing out of frustration and pain. I remember how the old German receptionist handed back my passport like it was a dirty thing, saying that this was not a valid ID.
This is when I found out that the travel Life Insurance that I got in Chile didn’t cover anything related to pregnancy or sexual health, even if it was an emergency that puts your life at risk.
After that, I was sure I couldn’t stay in Berlin forever.
Fast forward, to Monday, the 18th of March. I was still living in Berlin. When I saw the result of the pregnancy test that morning, I felt both happy and crumbling — falling apart, but in a good way. Just a month along in utero, but I knew already that nothing would ever be the same.
The German female doctor that I went to later that day — a private practitioner — had congratulated me with big bright eyes and a smile. After finding out that I was Chilean, and that I was in Germany with a Working Holiday Visa, covered by Mawista health insurance (a health insurance in Germany that can be used by temporary residents) — the doctor changed her tune.
“You’re crazy,” she declared. “Do you have any idea how expensive it is to have a baby in Germany? You don’t even have proper insurance. At least do you know who the father is? Your poor kid that will have you as a mother.” With disdain she lectured me, as if I was a child had done something shameful — not a 27-year-old professional woman asking for a routine pregnancy blood test.
I tried to stop her ranting by reminding her that all I wanted was a simple blood test to confirm my pregnancy so that I could see a proper Gynecologist, but it was no use. “If you think that because you’re in Germany, that the State will pay for your pregnancy, then you are wrong.”
I did my best, all the while, to keep my head up and remember that I had nothing to be ashamed of, (or did I)? “I know this situation is far from ideal,” I explained to her. “I’m paying for this blood test because I need it; I already had one miscarriage here in Berlin. I don’t want to go through that again.”
Since it was clear that my right to a procedure wasn’t enough to merit a blood test, I told her that the father of the baby — my boyfriend — was French, and that we were planning to get married. I told her that he had a steady job in Berlin with good health insurance, and that we lived together. Her demeanor softened. I could see that I wasn’t just The Latina Woman in her office. Now I was the soon-to-be-wife of a French citizen. She was finally swayed. “You will look lovely with a white wedding dress, problem solved.” She sent an intern to take my blood sample.
You might wonder, why did I put up with this treatment? Why didn’t I just leave the private practice? Why on Earth would a woman in the 21st century allow herself to be spoken to in this way, by a racist female doctor?
Because I feared for the life of my baby and my own. Because I didn’t know of any other choice, and I knew what it was like to have a miscarriage without any medical help. I had to be thankful, because at least that doctor took me in. Because I wanted my baby to live.
If it weren’t for the help of Agathe and her friend, Katrin — a German social worker who lived in her building — the story of my current pregnancy would perhaps be different, maybe even similar to the first one. When I told Agathe about my current situation, she told Katrin that I was pregnant and that the two insurances that I had (Mawista and the Chilean) didn’t cover pregnancy. They helped with their know-how and empathy, as they both had become mothers recently in Berlin.
In less than an hour, Katrin was able to get me an appointment at the Zentrum für sexuelle Gesundheit und Familienplanung (In English, Center for Sexual Health and Family Planning). She had looked at me kindly, not as someone to pity, but with respect. She fixed a cup of herbal tea for me, and did this while her husband took care of their baby, it was his day off from work. She used her family time to help me, and I appreciate it so much.
This Zentrums are financed by the State of Berlin and take any person who doesn’t have insurance, and needs health care. I remember that first time sitting in the waiting room: A mix of many nationalities — we were all together there waiting for our turn. We all bleed the same. We all want the best for our babies.
Here is a MAJOR problem, because if there is a support network that helps people without an insurance, why didn’t any of the previous doctors that I had called or gone to said this to me? Why did I end up finding out about this by fate? Doctors take an oath to protect lives — if they are not able to do it (because health insurance gets in the way) — why didn’t they show me the direction to where I could find help? Why did they hide this information when it is vital?
What I can infer from this is that clearly some lives are more valuable than others, more worthy of receiving health care. Some babies and their mothers are more worthy of help. I did some research, and I found out that statistically speaking, Germany is enjoying an unusually prolonged growth cycle for the past nine years. But on closer inspection, the births of German citizens represents only 3% — a figure far outstripped by the 25% of births stemming from citizens of other countries, according to Reuters in 2018.
I realized that I was a migrant, and that the situation was beyond my boyfriend’s comprehension — even when he was trying, and was deeply concerned. I felt alone and pregnant in a country where I was closer to the last link of the chain than ever. I was alone, with all the other mothers that went to that same waiting room.
I had to swallow all my White Privileged Woman Pride (WPWP) cultivated in my home country, where I had access to the best education and health care, because my family and I could afford it. The Chilean public health system is bad and inhumane, woman die or are brutalized by doctors, but I never had to turn to it.
When the doctor at this new practice called my name I was preparing to hear again something along the lines of, “how I was daring to even consider that their city would spend the money of honest citizens on me, a migrant woman trying to take advantage of the situation”. Instead, I was introduced to a female Gynecologist that spoke sweetly to us in perfect English. She made me feel welcome, heard everything from the first miscarriage to this new baby, and for the first time — a health practitioner in Germany treated me with respect and allowed me to feel happy about my baby. She didn’t judge me or treat us like a problem. I felt safe and in good hands. I felt that my baby had a chance and that I had all the right in the world to be a mom.
What caused the first miscarriage — we discovered — was my thyroid disease, and if it wasn’t for the accuracy of this doctor, I would have lost this baby too. The first three months were difficult. The doctor scheduled monitoring appointments every two weeks. By the beginning of the fifth month we weren't at risk anymore.
She regularly called me on the phone to check how I was doing, and to follow up on my doses of the thyroid medication, and sent me to a specialist to take a detailed ultrasound of the baby, twice. The nurses from this facility only spoke in German, but held onto the few words that they knew in English to make me feel comfortable and calm. They reassured me that I could be a good mom, helping me take care of myself and my baby. And yes, they were all German.
So now I have to plan the birth of our daughter. My boyfriend is now my husband, so now I’m part of his health care — which is why now I can’t keep seeing the doctor from the Zentrum. She helped us find a new doctor, and recommended us to one she trusts. When I asked her about how she thought this other doctor might react, recalling the past experiences I had endured, she looked at me surprised, and said “I don’t know anybody who would treat another person like that”.
Unfortunately, I do.
How do I feel? Like playing Russian roulette. I was never afraid of giving birth; I’m not afraid of the pain of the contractions or about how will my body respond, because I trust in the process. I’m afraid of the medical staff, I’m afraid of the nurses, I’m afraid of the system in which I had a miscarriage and a system that would have let me die. I’m afraid that my daughter’s first moments in this world might be ones where she is not treated with respect, delicacy, or tenderness — and that I will be a bad mother for not being able to protect her. I’m afraid of not knowing what they might do to my body in labor, and that some German doctor might decide arbitrarily to butcher my body or act brutally. I’m afraid of not being respected as a human being capable of making my own decisions. Because I have already learnt this lesson the hard way.
What comforts me today? To know that in this city I’m with my husband, and this is our place to make our lives happen, that we are on the same page, and love each other. Regarding the health system: I’m trying to give it the benefit of the doubt. I reserve a small shred of hope that maybe the staff present in my birth will be respectful — like the doctor and nurses from the Zentrum, that maybe they are kind like Katrin, and that not all Germans are the same.
Valentina Cabrera is a journalist, and writer. Chilean soon-to-be mom, based in Berlin. Art enthusiast. I practice yoga, but I'm not part of the cult. I love hearing and telling stories. I'm always up for good conversations, about life, love, friendship, and the imperfect things that makes us feel alive and who we are. Art and photography enthusiast. Coffee? Yes please, black. If you have a story to share you can find me on instagram @valevalec91.
Image titled, “Sophia Li”, Copyright Petra Erikkson via Petra Eriksson.