At the age of 44, ex-pats Kim Stanway-Kok and her husband Rene Kok (47) had long since given up any hope of extending their family. Having made a life for themselves in Holland and already blessed with two sons, Kyle (27) and Keegan (17), the couple had always secretly felt their family was incomplete. However, after two miscarriages seven years ago and the removal of uterine tumours, her gynaecologist had given Kim a less than 0.05% chance of conceiving again.
After Kyle married and left home two years ago, the couple coped with their “empty nest” feelings by adding two Labrador furbabies (Bella and Kaya) to the family, which already included their Norwegian bush cats, Nala and Skyla. But life has a funny way of throwing a spanner into the works, and Kim unexpectedly became pregnant in 2018. She shares her story with us all the way from Holland.
Kim and Rene were high school sweethearts in South Africa and have been together ever since. The two moved to the Netherlands in 1998 and both have successful careers, Kim as an HR manager in a large international corporation and Rene in the motor vehicle industry. With two boys, two cats and, later on, two labbies, their lives were full… but there was still a niggling feeling that something was missing.
After having undergone IVF to conceive their youngest son, Kim struggled to conceive another baby so the couple were happy to focus on the blessings they already had. That is, until she returned from a business trip to the USA last year.
The best kind of surprise
Kim had felt ill the whole time she was away and came down with pneumonia upon her return home. After several doctor’s visits, she was sent to hospital to see a specialist who ran a few tests – including a standard pregnancy test, which came back positive. Alone at the hospital, a shocked Kim was sent for an echo (foetal echocardiogram, which is similar to an ultrasound).
“It was a surreal experience seeing our little baby for the first time, the heart beating really fast,” she says. “I heard the technician say that everything looked good and I was on track for 11 weeks, but that I would need a few more tests.”
At that moment, Kim snapped out of her daze and looked around her in total disbelief and shock. The technician gave her a hug and they sat and talked, which helped calm Kim down before she walked out of the hospital. She sat in her car for what felt like hours clutching the picture of the echo that she had been given… a baby… their baby!
In all that confusion she hadn’t contacted Rene yet so she texted him and sent him the picture, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to get the words out. He’d been waiting anxiously to hear how the appointment had gone as there is a history of lung cancer in Kim’s family. His response was a quick and confused “whose baby is this?” thinking they were about to become grandparents.
Kim’s reply of “ours” resulted in a flurry of texts and realising her husband was panicking, she called him rather than speculate the hows and whys via text messages. “My dreams of an early retirement and fabulous cruises flew by the wayside, replaced with thoughts of nappies, sleepless nights and a family of five,” she adds.
Later that evening, they debated the risks and discussed the sheer magnitude of the news, but decided that this baby was their little miracle and more than welcome! “Yes, we walked around like zombies for the following couple of months absorbing the fact, but we couldn’t contain our excitement any longer when we found out we were having a little girl!”
Sharing the news
Having sailed through both pregnancies with her sons, Kim suffered pregnancy symptoms such as morning sickness, headaches and heartburn to high blood pressure and swollen feet. She ascribes this difference to hormones and the fact that this time she was having a girl, rather than her age.
“My dreams of an early retirement and fabulous cruises flew by the wayside, replaced with thoughts of nappies, sleepless nights and a family of five.”
With her health ups and downs during the pregnancy, as well as simply taking the time to let the shock sink in, the couple was very selective as to who they shared their happy news with, keeping it to family and very close friends who saw them regularly.
“You often hear of pregnancies over the age of 35 being referred to as ‘geriatric’ pregnancies (which I honestly find rather insulting, regardless of it being medical terminology).” Kim shares, “Some of the early reactions we got were less than complimentary and very intrusive, from being asked if we would keep the baby and if it was healthy.”
“It wasn’t as if we hadn’t run through every scenario and turned to Google to explore every statistic and outcome ourselves. Looking back, we know there was no ill intent meant by the invasive questions and these people have been a great support now that Haylee is here,” she adds.
“I have spoken to a few of them, reminding them that their reference point for a healthy pregnancy is based on what they have been told or have seen. In years gone by, women over the age of 50 were having babies and while the risks will always be there, modern technology has solutions to these complications. I also reminded them gently not to stand in judgement of others, but rather respect them and acknowledge that anyone in this situation will have thought through this decision very carefully.”
According to Kim, most women in Holland have home births with a midwife, unless they are older than 35 or considered high risk. In her case, she had to be under the care of a gynaecologist as well as a midwife, and she had about eight echoes in addition to the standard three. “My blood pressure was high and I had placenta previa (both age-related complications), so I was monitored daily and had to take additional medication and vitamins, and have further blood tests,” she explains.
“Even though the NIPT (non-invasive prenatal testing) and neck measurements indicated a healthy baby, it wasn’t until the moment Haylee was born and she was handed to me so we could see her for ourselves that we really believed it. (Tip: Google is not your friend in these circumstances!)”
As for a birth plan, Kim admits to being a planner by nature, usually with a few back-ups for any event. “However, after I learnt I had placenta previa I had to let go of my plans and go with the flow. I’m happy I took that approach otherwise I would’ve been very disappointed and sad that I didn’t have the candlelight and water birth with my birthing partner.”
“Age is just a number. Personally, I was happy and a pregnancy/baby was welcome.”
Being an experienced mother, Kim understood the importance of antenatal preparation, so she attended maternity yoga and Rene joined her for the breathing exercises. It turned out that these exercises still came in use due to the ‘gentle C-section’ technique that Kim underwent under local anaesthesia, which mimics a natural birth by involving the parents as much as possible, including the bonding process. She delivered at 37 weeks and the birth was quick and while Rene was the only family with her at the delivery, there were 11 hospital staff members in attendance while her sons waited in the maternity wing.
As for preparing for a baby 17 years after her last child was born, Kim laughs and says that nothing much has changed – except for the prams and gadgets!
She says confidently, “This time round we are more than prepared. Age and experience bring a wealth of enjoyment and calmness that is ensuring a fabulous bonding process!”
Rights, rituals and tradition
“In the Netherlands,” explains Kim, “pregnant women get 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, of which they are allowed six weeks (with a minimum of four weeks) before the birth. You are also entitled to 26 weeks’ unpaid parental leave. I also have vacation leave saved up so I’ll only return to work when Haylee is seven months old. Men get five days optional paternity leave.”
When it came to choosing a name for our little girl, Rene took the helm. Haylee is a combination of my aunt and my brother’s names. Her second and third names, Alexandra Lyn, are after my sister and mother respectively. “Coming up with a name that goes with the surname and that can be pronounced here in Holland was not an easy task!” she says with a chuckle.
Rituals are very different in Holland to South Africa. Kim explains, “It has only recently become a trend in Holland to have baby showers or gender reveal parties. Here, after a baby is born the exterior of the home is decorated with a stork and a wreath to announce the birth. Birth announcement cards are sent to family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. In our neighbourhood (South Holland) people come from everywhere to celebrate the birth, bringing gifts. The parents supply Dutch rusks and “muisjes” (sugar-coated aniseeds) in pink for a girl and blue for a boy – or both if the trend is to be gender-neutral.”
Babies have to be registered within three working days and usually take the father’s surname. The same applies if he has legally acknowledged paternity and is not be married to the mother. The mother can request that the baby also shares her surname and, in that case, the surname will be double-barrel.
Living in a pink cloud
The boys are besotted with her, Kim says with delight! “They sit and stare at her (well, apart from at 4am when she wakes Keegan up!). As for the labbies, Bella has a strong mothering instinct and sits near Haylee all day. Kaya is more cautious – she loves the milky smell, but keeps a respectful distance.
Interestingly, after she came home from the hospital, both of the dogs would sit calmly by Kim’s feet while she recovered from the surgery. Now they come for their normal loves and attention, but know that they have to share mommy.
In terms of support, Kim says they have friends in Holland but other family is strewn across the world, so it’s just them. It helps being a close-knit family.
Having had two ‘normal births’ and now the C-section, Kim doesn’t understand why one would opt for an elective caesarean. “Recovery takes longer and it’s painful. That said, I was determined to get out of bed quickly (within 12 hours) and not to dose myself with too many painkillers. I took a painkiller for my ‘maiden voyage’ out of bed but thereafter it was paracetamol and determination, within limits of course as it’s still major abdominal surgery.”
Feeding has been a bit of challenge as well, as Kim contracted an infection in hospital and had to mainly pump breast milk. She had to relactate (resuming breastfeeding after a period of little or no breastfeeding) a few times, which meant trying to feed every hour but, fortunately for Kim, little Haylee is an easy baby and loves to snuggle in her parents’ arms.
When asked what advice she would give any other woman in a similar situation, Kim says, “Age is just a number. Personally, I was happy and a pregnancy/baby was welcome. At any age a surprise pregnancy is just that – a surprise. Where it’s within your control, the decision to see a pregnancy through to term is yours and yours alone.”
She concludes, “The risks at any age are real and should not be underestimated. I can only say that for us, as I sit here with my baby girl on my knee, I’m exhausted, exhilarated, enchanted and blessed. Having a girl after two boys makes my family complete. I am surrounded by the proverbial pink cloud that everyone talks about and cannot imagine that we ever existed without our amazing baby girl!”