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I had babies in Germany 10 years apart. This is what I learned about healthcare, motherhood and race | Pregnancy

Of the mothers in my circle, I thought I was the most “one and done”. I became pregnant with my first child at the age of 29, shortly after marrying my husband, and a year after I’d moved to Berlin following Boris Johnson’s election as mayor of London. I felt he would damage my home city, taking it further along the road to unaffordability and unfettered capitalism. The rise in the cost of everything in London meant the life I had assumed I would have as a third-generation Londoner wasn’t possible.

It was a childhood dream to open a bookshop and to have a family of my own, and Berlin made both those things possible. I was lucky to have a smooth pregnancy, and the public healthcare insurance scheme in Germany cost me the same as I would pay in national insurance contributions in the UK. Included in my plan was a monthly scan with my gynaecologist, as well as two deep scans and one 4D scan, so when my child arrived I knew everything about him. The care from my doctor was stern and medicalised – when my six-week scan showed two eggs, she told me not to get excited as one egg could vanish, which was alarming and upsetting. I chose to also get a midwife, paid for by my health insurance, who had a more holistic approach. My son was two weeks late, and she suggested that I insert a tampon soaked in olive oil and cloves, sit on a toilet filled with lavender and hay, and drink camomile tea. The doctor suggested that I be induced. I did both, and the latter brought me my son.

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The hospital was wonderful. For an extra €500, my private room felt more like a boutique hotel – my husband could stay, and there was a buffet laid on for the non-birthing parent each morning. The nurses showed us how to care for our son, and took him for periods so I could nap. After five days, the time all birthing parents are encouraged to stay, we went home confident and relaxed, ready to embark on our life as a family of three.

When our son was ready to start primary school, we moved back to the UK to reconnect with family and enhance our careers. It was wonderful to be home in south London and to raise our child in the streets and parks where I had played; there was comfort in familiarity. What was less comfortable was coming back to discussions about the EU referendum and seeing the levels of inequality in London. There was so much talk about multiculturalism, yet so many companies lacked diversity, as did many schools and friendship groups. Every aspect of society seemed to be divided, and it was disheartening.

At this time, Black women I knew started to discuss their struggles with fertility and getting adequate medical care. I had first-hand experience of not being heard over a medical issue that should have been routine; because I didn’t fit into a box, it took too long to get the correct diagnosis for my symptoms, and that had left me feeling afraid of having to rely on the NHS.

By 2020 we were in the Brexit transition period, and my family and I moved back to Berlin to secure our EU status and again escape Boris’s reign, this time as PM. Living here, I am a privileged immigrant. While the city has many issues with race, being British and speaking German means I am not treated differently in the healthcare system. This is double edged: medical professionals simply don’t look at the factors that could be racial or draw on data from studies of Black bodies – there are so few of us here that they don’t consider it. This is complicated and conflicting, but as a Black British person I face far fewer race-related issues than people of colour who have grown up in Berlin, people from Turkish backgrounds or those living with refugee status trying to navigate the system.

Sharmaine Lovegrove standing in front of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, wearing a black dress and heavily pregnant
‘The hospital was grim, totally different from the first experience,’ says Sharmaine Lovegrove. Photograph: Briony Ridley/The Guardian

Despite this, Berlin is my family’s home and, when I turned 39, knowing I would get better care here, we decided to try for another baby. To my gleeful surprise, I quickly became pregnant with twins. The only thing I did differently this time was to have a doula. I wanted a woman of colour, and I wanted to be indulged and to lean in to my pregnancy, to ease out of being a workaholic, and to have massages and self-care moments. None of this materialised as my doula was flaky, and despite the money I’d paid didn’t contact me for the entirety of my second trimester. It was a blow, but I knew from experiences of close friends how fragile pregnancy is and how random it was to conceive and deliver healthy babies, so I focused on the positives of my experience and set the date for a caesarean section for my twins’ birth.

The birth went smoothly, but although we had a private room, the hospital was grim, totally different from the first experience. Our 10-year-old son came to see us and meet his sisters, and then two days later had a false-positive Covid test at school. We mentioned it to the nurse to see if he could get a PCR test at the hospital, and unbeknown to us they shut down our room: we didn’t see or hear from anyone until they came with full protective gear and full-face masks to measure and weigh the babies. We were told that the firstborn twin had lost a lot of weight, and my husband had to finger-feed her with a pipette and syringe; it was frustrating, as they had both latched on perfectly and we had mastered tandem breastfeeding. From there, everything went downhill, and although all our PCR tests came back negative, no one talked to us about what would happen should the babies get Covid. It was all so upsetting. Having planned to stay for five days, we went home on the fourth, pushing my post-surgery body to get approval to leave.

As they were doing our paperwork, the hospital realised they had got twin one and two mixed up, and there had been no need to give one of the babies formula as both were the correct weight. By this point I needed to get out and get my babies home; I was so angry I knew if I spoke I would scream. Even so, eight months on, I am relieved that race wasn’t the factor I know it would have been in the UK. Services were stretched, and the fear of the pandemic in the hospital meant mistakes were made and suboptimal care given, but this was because of the unusual circumstances, not because of my protected characteristics.

On the flip side, there are tremendous benefits to us being in Berlin. Recently I got my first bill for our twins’ childcare: €46 a month for them both to attend full-time nursery, versus roughly £3,000 for the equivalent in London. I am so pleased we remained.

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