Every second of every day, babies are born all over the world. Where those babies are birthed and raised has an enormous impact on who they become. Location also has a huge impact on how parents actually parent.  Over the next few months, we will explore what parenting looks like outside of North America with mothers living in Bahrain, Australia, Nairobi, Argentina, India, and Austria. This series will discuss some of the rituals around sleep, food, family, tradition, gender, parenting roles, maternity leave, and childcare in other countries. The mothers profiled will share what surprised and enraged them, what motherhood struggles they endured, what they miss about North America, as well as what wisdom they have gleaned by moving far from home.

When Canadian-born Jill Gamberg sojourned around the world in 2001 at the age of 26, she didn’t expect her travels to land her permanently in Australia. But after two years on the road, Gamberg had so fallen in love with Australia that she moved to Sydney in 2003 to start medical school. 

“Medical school is hard under the best of circumstances,” she said. “But I was alone in a new country with no friends or family, and I was 10 years older than almost everyone in my class.” In 2007 she met her husband, York, and by 2010, she was pregnant and navigating the complex medical system. 

Australia has a public and semi-private medical system. In the public system, a pregnant woman has two free choices for her prenatal needs: midwife-centered care, or a mix of shared care between her general practitioner (GP) and midwives. In the first scenario, midwives take care of the prenatal appointments in the hospital, as well as labor and delivery. In the second option, her GP takes care of a lot of the prenatal needs outside of the hospital, but the birth takes place in-hospital with a midwife and doctor. In both scenarios, the midwife is the primary support for the birth, staying with the laboring woman for the duration of her shift. (Gamberg works as a city GP, which means she takes care of pregnant women, but doesn’t perform deliveries. In rural areas, GPs perform deliveries.) 

In the private system—which is only used by wealthy families—a woman opts to pay for a private obstetrician, a cost that is split between medicare, private insurance, and the patient. The personal cost can be anywhere between $5-10K AUD, which includes all prenatal care, labor, delivery and hospital fees.  

Gamberg chose a private obstetrician, a colleague who didn’t charge her. “When my first daughter was born, I was allowed to labor in the bath in my room at the hospital with no pain relief, while a midwife and doctor checked in periodically,” she said. “When it was time to push, the midwife took pictures with our camera, and my obstetrician asked my husband to help her deliver our daughter. It was very special.”  

While Australia has terrific annual leave—most people get four weeks a year, and many companies offer an additional three months paid leave after 10 years of loyalty—maternity leave is relatively new. So new, in fact, that Gamberg didn’t get any government subsidized leave when she was off with her first daughter, Téa, nine years ago. Since she was working as a junior doctor in a hospital, she took five months off, unpaid.

When her second daughter, Alyssa, was born two years later, the government had started offering 18 weeks of paid maternity leave at the national minimum wage, which is equivalent to about $13.50/hour and also applies to parents who’ve adopted. Women who have been employed at their companies for at least 12 months also get a “top-up” (an added financial bonus) from their employers, which can be anywhere from 5 percent to 100 percent of their salary. Women’s jobs are also safeguarded (unpaid) for at least a year, and sometimes two, upon request. 

Other than the first six months she spent at home with each of her girls, Gamberg’s family has always employed au pairs. The most cost efficient choice for working parents in Sydney, Gamberg said, adding that child care is “exorbitant.” The average daycare in Sydney costs $150 AUD a day ($2,100 American/month), although families do get a government issued rebate of $7,500 AUD. A nanny costs $30-35 AUD/hour, plus 9 percent for pension and sick leave. An au pair is, by all accounts, a deal: a family offers room and board, and $300-400 AUD in weekly spending money ($210-280 US). 

Over the last decade, Gamberg’s family has hosted over a dozen young women from all over the world, including the US, Canada, Germany, Italy, France, and Estonia. These au pairs are not technically employees, which is why the cost of employing them is so low. “It’s considered an experience for a foreign-born person to live with a family,” Gamberg explained. In the best case scenario, the women become part of the family: getting the kids ready for school, packing lunches, schlepping them to and from activities. In Gamberg’s family this relationship is vital; York works unusual hours in finance, she works full-time as a general practitioner, and they have no family nearby. Since the au pairs are usually on one-year visas, when a beloved one leaves, it can be devastating for her children.

“The kids cope well with the turnover,” Gamberg said, “but the ones that are part of the family? The girls ball their eyes out.” The family does, however, make a point of visiting these women on their travels whenever they can.

Since it’s warm three-quarters of the year, Australians live an outdoorsy, “sports mad” lifestyle, and the beach is a big part of their lives. Gamberg’s daughters swim, practice soccer, netball, sprint training, artistic gymnastics, ballet, jazz, and tennis—partially because they love sports, but also because the government has severely cut funding to physical education. Primary school kids—Gamberg’s kids are in second and fourth grade—are offered P.E. only once a week, which means that families with means make up for that time after school. The help of an au pair can be critical to a family with many extracurricular activities.

There are few downsides to living in Australia, but one is its infamous drinking culture. “People get drunk around children, which I don’t like,” Gamberg said. “I am not saying we shouldn’t enjoy a drink with friends, but I see no need to get hammered in front of children.”

The other, larger difficulty is being so far from family.  “Every moment of my life I think about living so far away. I don’t miss anything particular about Canada, but I miss my father getting older,” she said. “I miss seeing my three sisters and their children grow up. I miss the time I could have had with my mother.” 

The sudden death of Gamberg’s mother three years ago was just deeper proof of how difficult it can be to make a life far from where one grew up. Twenty-four hours after the whole family flew back to Sydney from her sister’s wedding in Montreal—a 25-hour trip—Gamberg learned that her mother had passed away unexpectedly. “I had to go back to the airport alone in Sydney and fly back to Canada,” she said. “It seemed unfair to make two little children fly back another 25 hours the following day after we had already flown 25 hours. This part of being an expat is awful.”

Usually Gamberg is able to return once a year, but because she doesn’t want to miss anything important, that sometimes means additional trips. This year alone she came back three times—for the birth of her two nieces and for her aunt’s funeral. 

She wouldn’t have it any other way, though. “Living life outside is such a freeing experience,” she said. “We are happy here.”

STRAY OBSERVATIONS:

  • A pregnant employee can take “unpaid special maternity leave” if she has a pregnancy-related illness, or the pregnancy ends after 12 weeks.
  • All pregnant employees—including part-time workers—are entitled to move to a safe job if their pregnancy makes their particular workload unsafe. These women will be entitled to the same rate, hours, and benefits. She can stay at this job until it becomes safe for her to return to her usual job or until she gives birth. 
  • The cost of housing in big cities in Australia is not affordable for many families and certainly for families on a single income. (A small house in Sydney can run around $2 million AUD, which is $1.4 million US)  
  • In primary schools—which are free—every assembly begins with an acknowledgement of the original Aboriginal owners of the land. The kids learn to recite this speech and more and more Indigenous and Aboriginal history is being taught in school.  

Abigail Rasminsky  has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Cut, Epicurious, Longreads, O: The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, and Dance Magazine, among other publications. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Writing Program and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.