By Ms. V
A person changes from expectant parent to actual parent in a mere moment. It doesn’t seem possible that something that will change your world so much can happen so quickly, but it does. It also doesn’t seem that something that happened after 40+ weeks of waiting can be called “quick” but that is how it feels. One moment you are two, the next three.
After being pregnant for 42 weeks and laboring for 27 hours, I sure was ready for some rest. Funny thing about babies, though, they don’t much care about your needs. In the hours and first few days after my son’s birth I realized that all of the mothers who told me to spend my last weeks pregnant just resting (advice I sadly did not heed) really knew what they were talking about. I was exhausted and being far away from home and new to town had nobody besides my husband and our doula to offer help and support. My husband was incredible and our doulas were our rocks, but I couldn’t help but wonder what a different experience it would have been giving birth close to home. What would it be like to have friends dropping off casseroles and offering to hold the baby while I took a shower?
Here in Korea, as in other Asian cultures, women have the option of moving to a post-partum care centers, called sanhujori, before returning home. These are places where other women tend to the new mother and newborn baby for at least 21 days after birth. New mothers are fed specific foods, such as seaweed soup, and herbs that are meant to help the body heal after childbirth and are encouraged to do absolutely nothing but feed their babies. You may have heard tale that “nothing” includes not showering, washing your hair, or going outside. While this may seem absurd to the western mind it has everything to do with keeping the mother warm while she is still considered “open” (having just given birth and all) and not allowing any cold (which is considered damaging) into the body. I’ve heard that while these restrictions were a matter of course in the past they have been somewhat eased these days. Either way, the intent is to take care of the mother completely so that she can focus on breastfeeding, resting, and recuperating from birth. I heavily considered this option but in the end decided I wanted to be at home where my husband would have plenty of time for bonding with baby. I learned later that some post-partum care centers do have rooms for the father to stay as well, though I’m not sure how much time the fathers spend with mother and baby on a daily basis.
If, like me, you do go home immediately after birth and choose to leave the house before 30 days, be prepared for some opinions to be hurled your way. In fact, that’s just good advice in general for having a child in Korea. Opinions; everyone has them. I went outside with my son when he was 5 days old and was scolded by every Korean woman we encountered. My husband actually bore the brunt of the scolding as it was very clear that in their estimation we both should have been at home in bed and he should have been making this happen. In retrospect, I don’t disagree. There’s an odd pride that I sometimes hear in western women’s voices when they talk about being up and about mere days after giving birth or hitting the gym regularly at 6 weeks post-partum. As if giving birth was no big deal. While giving birth is a completely normal and natural thing that our bodies are meant to do, it is also hard work and really quite momentous. The first month flies by in a blur of sleeplessness, newfound joy, and intense love. Life will be waiting on the other side, so why rush it?
When you do leave your home, in addition to being prepared for opinions, you must also be prepared for hands. Lots of hands reaching for your baby. One of the most endearing things about Korean culture is the absolute love of children, especially babies. For many foreigners, this can also be one of the most infuriating things, as it can be very difficult to leave your home without being stopped, many times forcibly, so that others can coo over and cluck their tongue at your baby while poking their cheeks or touching their hands. It’s not just women and girls but men and boys as well. I was once breastfeeding my baby in Anguk station and had an older gentleman come over and move the blanket I was using to cover us so that he could sneak a peak. Not at my breast, at my baby. While I love that breastfeeding is considered completely normal and nothing to hide, I was a bit taken aback by this. I don’t think this experience should be considered usual, as it only happened the one time with a gentleman (many, many times with women) but it does give you some indication of how much interest there is in babies.
For a new mother, all this touching can be very frightening, terrified of germs as we are. The first bit of advice I can offer is this: relax. Exposure to germs is a good thing, as it helps to build their immunity, so there’s no need to worry every time someone touches your baby. Obviously, though, you don’t want every single person you encounter sharing their germs. A great way to make it a bit more difficult is to wear your baby rather than push them in a stroller. I am a huge fan of baby wearing and have multiple baby wearing devices. I can personally recommend The Moby Wrap for the first six months, The Ergobaby from six months and beyond, and the Maya Wrap for 10 months and beyond. It should be noted that you do not need three different baby wearing options. (If I had to pick just one I’d go with the Ergo) Any one of these will suffice. Baby wearing will not solve the problem, but it will help a bit. I was given the advice to tell people when they approached that he was sick, though I never could quite remember the phrase. I will admit that there were many times that I got very frustrated by all the touching and I spent many hours nervously observing my baby after we’d gone out and some ajumma with a nasty cough had poked his cheeks, looking for any sign of impending illness. After a year on the job, though, I have relaxed quite a bit. For one thing, he’s still alive! All the touching didn’t hurt him. He actually very rarely got sick as an infant and I got very good at positioning myself in such a way that it became more difficult to reach him. In the end, though, I’ve made my peace with it. It really comes from a good place and a desire to share in the joy of a new life.
Something I have yet to make my peace with, however, is the onslaught of opinion. Given the status of women in Korean society and the expectation to defer to one’s elders, it is no surprise that young mothers are subject to a lot of unsolicited opinions and advice. According to many of the ajummas we’ve encountered the past year, my son has been too cold, too hot, underdressed, overdressed, hungry, tired, fed the wrong things the wrong way, too young for some things, too old for other things… the list goes on and on. One thing I have found particularly infuriating is when I am approached by a person who removes from my son’s mouth whatever I have given him to chew on to relieve his teething pain while they tell me he’s chewing on something as if I hadn’t realized. In fact, there have been many days when I didn’t even want to leave the house because I couldn’t deal with what feels like a lot of criticism.
Most days I try to focus on the intent behind it, which I choose to believe is an attempt to be helpful. The ajumma can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I have learned to take advantage of their eagerness to interfere and get their hands on my baby. For example, when you go out to eat, the ladies in the kitchen are usually quite happy to hold your baby for you while you eat. Or while you are out and about on your own, there are usually several pairs of willing hands to keep your little one entertained while you go to the bathroom. And if your baby ever has a meltdown… correction, when your baby has a meltdown in public, just know that many people will do whatever they can to help you distract your baby from his misery. I was once on a crowded subway car at rush hour with a screaming tired baby and was very grateful for the woman who pulled up videos of her own daughter on her phone and stood in a very uncomfortable position, arm outstretched at an odd angle, so that my little guy could see. It worked and I was incredibly grateful. It was much preferred to the stares and looks of “why can’t you shut your kid up?” that I would have expected in the U.S.
Being a new parent is hard anywhere, even with lots of friends and family around. It is likely the most vulnerable you will ever feel in your life as you wrestle with doubts about whether you’re doing it “right” or if you know what you’re doing at all. The good news is that while the learning curve is steep, it is surmountable. And the better news is that babies may not care too much about your need for rest, but they are incredibly forgiving and adaptable little teachers. After a few months you’ll be an expert, ready to head out and explore all that Seoul has to offer the little ones.
Stick around for the next and final installment in this series: The Perks of Raising a Child in a Country with a Low Birthrate; or Please Please Please Reproduce! We’ll Give You Anything You Want!
Ms. V lives in Seoul, South Korea with her spouse, their son, and three ferocious felines. She is a yoga teacher and a co-founder of Samdhana-Karana Yoga: A Healing Arts Center, a non-profit yoga studio in Tacoma, WA. While not marveling at her beautiful baby or doing yoga, she enjoys, writing, reading, and has dreams of one day sleeping again.
Ms. V keeps in touch with her students back in the States via the blog Body, Mind, Seoul and with perfect strangers via the blog I Don’t Know, where she ponders everything she doesn’t have an answer to – so a lot! She is also a contributing writer for World Moms Blog.