Very superstitious: Evil eyes, birthmarks and blindness

Giving birth while living abroad can be a daunting prospect. The fourth instalment of the Local's series Motherhood in the Fatherland follows expectant mum Sabine Devins as she handles the cultural quirks of having a baby in Germany.

Very superstitious: Evil eyes, birthmarks and blindness
Photo: DPA

At 27 weeks pregnant, I’ve taken advantage of the final bits of energy in my second trimester to prepare for the arrival of Baby Devins. The pram has been ordered, furniture has been picked up, and some of it even assembled. But while checking off each item on the massive “to-do” checklist, the German in me can’t help the hesitation I feel about getting things done ahead of time. Am I jinxing things?

Here in the Fatherland, it’s bad luck to celebrate an event before it happens, especially a birth.

While North American mothers would begin receiving gifts a few weeks before their due date, German friends and family won’t bring presents until after the newborn arrives. I have yet to encounter a shop that offers gift registries for mothers-to-be planning a baby shower. It’s just not done here.

That’s why my Oma Eva was horrified when I told her my Vancouver family members wanted to host a little baby shower when we visited in July. “You can’t do that!” she yelled into the phone. “It’s bad luck!”

So far, so good, though. Nothing bad has happened in the seven weeks since the little party, though I admit that I knocked on wood.

Though they have a reputation for practicality, efficiency and solemnity, Germans are surprisingly susceptible to old wives’ tales (Altweibergeschwätze).

My Oma Gisela likes to tell me how she frequently ate apples while carrying my mother. She kept two on her night stand, enjoying them as midnight snacks. When my Mum was born with rosy red cheeks, everyone reportedly said: “Oh! An apple baby! Look at those cheeks.”

Now Oma Gisela always asks me if I’ve been eating apples, because heaven forbid Baby Devins is born without a natural blush.

When the baby finally makes the grand entrance, some Germans would have me believe he or she will have birthmarks, thanks to a recent moment of fright. A couple of weeks ago, I was in an U-Bahn metro station when a security dog barked at a friend’s terrier. I was startled, which Germans say can leave a mark on the foetus. Good thing there was no fire involved, or else I’d also be on the lookout for a bright red port-wine stain, à la Gorbachev, instead of those coveted apple-blushed cheeks.

I’ve also heard that the tell-tale bump appears sooner with second pregnancies. Or that if a pregnant woman is sad, she’ll have a sad baby. Or that women with narrow hips are more likely to have a breech birth.

Some of these tales may reflect old truths, but many of them, told in all seriousness, are just nonsense.

In some ways I’ve given in to the more mild superstitions, though. I’ve been careful to wear pants with the ever-so-flattering maternity belly band. Germans say trying to squeeze into those favourite jeans throughout a pregnancy can suffocate the baby. (Actually the elastic is just more comfortable.)

But my favourite German pregnancy myth could explain why it’s nearly impossible to find spicy foods here – it begins in the womb. Old Teutonic wives say that turning up the heat on meals is bad for developing babies because the spices that enter the amniotic fluid will burn their eyes, sometimes even causing blindness.

The truth is that at this point in development, my baby has more taste buds than it will ever have after birth, and the amniotic fluid, which it uses to practice breathing and swallowing, does take on flavours from food I’ve eaten. But the worst a dish of hot wings can do is give the baby hiccups, leaving me to watch my belly spasm.

Perhaps Germans have a low tolerance for spicy food because they never get the chance to develop the taste for it at the early stages of life.

The bland food may mirror the way other superstitions have affected traditions, particularly when it comes to not celebrating before the birth.

Oma Eva recently explained that four of her five children were baptised in the hospital chapel and the birth was celebrated shortly after.

“It was an awful tradition,” she said. “The fathers and families get to go celebrate and the mother lies in the hospital with the child. With the last one, I protested and we held the baptism later so I could celebrate with them too.”

This practise is common in predominantly Catholic regions such as Bavaria and parts of my family’s state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the speedy baptisms were initially conducted to ward off evil in times of higher infant mortality. The fear was that the newborn could be given the “evil eye.”

The tradition also dictates that if the baby does have to leave the house before the baptism, it must be hidden from view in a pram. The same goes for the newborn’s laundry, because apparently that could be hexed too.

In northern Germany, where attitudes toward religion are slightly more relaxed, new parents have it a bit easier. There they celebrate their new baby with a Babypinkeln or “Baby pee” party – though it is still always after the birth. Family and friends gather and imbibe in honour of the newborn, much like the old North American tradition of handing out cigars. Traditionally, mothers convalesced while fathers gathered with friends, family and neighbours to toast the newborn. But like Oma’s last child’s baptism, today’s Babypinkeln (a.k.a. Babybier or Pullerparty), is usually held once the mother and child are home to celebrate too.

With three months to go, I still plan to prepare ahead of time for Baby Devins’ birth, but since we’re in Germany, we’ll celebrate as Germans do. I’ll have to hold off on Schnapps until after the baby arrives, but I won’t be worrying about my next plate of hot wings.

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Immunisations and anal pharmacists

Motherhood in the Fatherland follows mum Sabine Devins as she navigates the cultural quirks of having a baby in Germany. In the latest instalment, she tackles immunisations and baby pharmaceuticals.

Immunisations and anal pharmacists
Photo: DPA

This month, my daughter reaches an important milestone: it’s her last round of immunizations until school age. It will be a relief for me to see her chubby little thighs bandage-free until she’s marching off to school with an overloaded Schultüte.

Luisa and her counterparts in North America and the UK are lucky to count going to the doctor as a fact of life. When a baby is born in Germany, he gets presented with a Babypass. Like my Mutterpass, the little book is a transportable medical file that mothers can take from doctor to doctor with her medical history. It also tracks baby’s development.

All of the check-ups, or Untersuchungen, are abbreviated to U1, U2, U3, etc. Luisa’s appointments are labelled on the front of her Kinderpass with what dates they should fall between, going all the way to April 2016. Each Untersuchung has a page for the doctor to fill out. It also leaves me with a handy little guide to how much Luisa has grown over the last year (it’s a lot!).

Most of the exams so far have been simple physicals. Making sure Luisa is growing properly and all her little parts with it. At the U3, there is an ultrasound to look for hip dysplasia — something that I find Germans to be disproportionately concerned with. As there is some hip joint issues in Luisa’s family medical history, she received an ultrasound at her U2, then again three weeks later, then with a specialist, and then again at the U3. The conclusion: “Her hips are just fine, we just like to be very careful when it comes to hip dysplasia,” said our doctor.

According to the International Hip Dysplasia Institute, hips that require treatment only occur in two to three children per 1,000.

What I do like about Germany’s scheduled medical care for babies is that they do immunizations a little later than in the English-speaking world. While Luisa’s friends in the US, the UK, and Canada all had their first round of shots at two months, Luisa didn’t get her first Impfungen until she was nearly four months. The first round is done in conjunction with the U4 check up, when Luisa is between two and four months old. Since her appointment was booked closer to the end of the fourth, that was simply when she got her first round.

As for the immunizations themselves, they are very much the same as what children in North America and the UK are given. Right now, Luisa has fighting power against tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis or whooping cough, polio, pneumococcus and hepatitis B. On the advice of my paediatrician, I skipped the Rotavirus immunisation and many German parents also leave out the Hepatitis B. After her last round, Luisa will also be armed against measles, mumps, and rubella.

Overall, there isn’t much difference between the care Luisa would get here versus there. But what is different in Germany is the at-home care and what Mamas keep in their at-home medical kit.

I’ve written before on the various uses of breast milk to cure these things, but that does come to an end and now those ailments lead me to the medicine cabinet.

For stuffed noses, we have saline solution. It’s hated by our little one and therefore seldom used. As Germany is the birthplace of homoeopathy, I can find all sorts of natural remedies. My favourite is called Osanit and they’re little pearls I use for teething pain. It’s main medicinal ingredient is chamomile. Whenever those gums start causing problems, babes are dosed with a few little pearls that they can roll around in their mouth and it seems to work. Life goes on. American mom Laurie has a similar product in her cabinet called Dentinox-Gel N, which also contains chamomile but in a gel format.

For those fevers, we use paracetamol, but its application is what makes our stash “very German”. The favoured method of dosing your child by the Mamas is Zäpfchen, or suppositories.

I wasn’t sure what to make the first time I realised what my doctor had prescribed after Luisa’s first round of immunizations in case of fever. But she was hot and miserable and so it happened and it was awful for everyone, but it did make her feel better. The next day I went to the pharmacy and asked for liquid paracetamol to give her instead.

The pharmacist was confused by my request. “But with the suppositories, you know she’s getting the right amount. You don’t have to worry about getting her to swallow it and once it’s done, it’s done,” she said, very pragmatically.

With the next fever, I took out a spoon and tried to get Luisa to swallow her medicine. It didn’t work. Her mouth clamped shut, she shook her head and sticky, orange-flavoured syrup got all over the floor. The practical German in me took over and we went back to the Zäpfchen. I’m now a convert.

I’m not the only one. British mum Tori told me she thinks they’re brilliant. “I would have never used them if I were raising Max [in England], but my husband, who is a doctor, was the one who stocked up the medicine shelf and at first I wasn’t so sure, but now they’re all I use.”

But others aren’t convinced.

When Laurie’s son has a fever, she uses liquid ibuprofen, which her pharmacist told her not to use until he was six months old. Before that, she had infant’s Advil and Triminic sent from the US. She also keeps American-bought Neosporin on hand. She also wishes that children’s acetaminophen were more available in the Fatherland.

English mum Susannah won’t touch the Zäpfchen. “Sticking things up a baby’s bum is not an idea I’d ever considered until I became a parent here. I would have no idea how to go about it, and would worry I was hurting her.”

Instead, she stocked up on the beloved English cure-all Calpol on her last trip home. “It’s poured liberally down English children’s throats from a very young age, whereas Germany seems less into plying babies with drugs,” she explained. “By extension, the German equivalents seemed less trustworthy in my mind: Irrational but true.”

She also has Calpol saline nose spray, as an assistant at her local pharmacy “raised her voice and eyebrows at my request for — what she called — a brutal product. She pretty much accused me of wanting to shoot drugs into my innocent child’s brain tissue.” But Susannah felt the German saline drops weren’t working and was delighted when she read “Suitable from birth” emblazoned on the English saline spray.

These days, we more readily turn to Google than our mothers to answer the million times we need to know: “Is this normal?” However, when it comes to comforts and cures, we turn back to what we know from childhood, whether it’s Laurie who goes for Neosporin to treat her son’s scrapes or Susannah who trusts one name to cure it all. Even if similar products are available in the German Apotheke, it’s just not the same as what we know.

And just because I use the Zäpfchen, doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be grateful for your tips on getting your babes to swallow their medicine.