I think I’ve been a bit of an arrogant asshole. My initial feelings of being the only person who knew how to take care of a baby conditioned me to believe that everything Koreans were saying were silly superstitions.
I have since changed the word superstition to tradition.
Especially regarding the recovering mother, if these traditions are important to her then they should be honored. Even if they are placebos, the relieve a Korean mother’s stress and aid in recovery. I have decided to only step in an contradict if I feel a practice would do more harm than good or if they directly conflict with my belief systems–as in, no one’s taking away Jian’s binky.
The new helper ajumma is here right now, and I’m hearing EJ laugh for the first time since giving birth. I haven’t talked to her yet about how she feels about this one, but she seems to know what to do better than the other one. She immediately heated a pad and gave EJ a proper breast massage. I assume it was proper because EJ was howling in the type of pain people get when going through Thai massages. She now coaching her on breastfeeding, and she’s showing techniques that I saw on You Tube how-to videos. So, so far, so good.
Here’s where I could use some help, and I’d like to make this post an ongoing conversation and a resource for other fathers with Korean wives. I’ve looked on the internet, and there’s not much out there that’s definitive, so let’s collect what we know into one place.
There’s a frequently quoted article by Yeoun Soo Kim-Godwin, Ph. D., MPH, RN, about non-Western beliefs and traditions about post-partum care (PDF here). It’s a good starting point, especially when she talks about her personal experiences giving birth in the U.S.
This is a concept I believe we should adopt as Americans. It’s not American bashing, which I get accused of sometimes for pointing out areas where we can improve. What I think is one of America’s strengths is its ability to adapt and improve itself based on the influences of its diverse cultures. And this is something that I think new mothers would love to become the norm.
Compared to a lot of South American and Eastern cultures, Americans put way more emphasis on the baby than on the recovering mother after childbirth. Where these cultures stress that a mother take up to a month to recover, American culture believes that a new mother can be “up-and-at-em” within a week–back to driving, carrying groceries and doing regular tasks that even modern science has discouraged.
In Korea, there are 21 days, samil-il, where a mother’s job is to just eat and rest. Her body is weak and broken. If she doesn’t recover fully she can have chronic issues in the future. Whether or not you believe this, it is the tradition. And it does make sense.
What I want to do here is collect the Korean traditional post-partum beliefs. I don’t want to judge them and label them as to how practical I think they are. But I will categorize them in whether they are current beliefs or have fallen out of favor in modern Korean society or are just questionable sources.
Current Modern Korean Traditions
- 21-42 days of recovery for the mother
- Eating Miyeok-guk (Seaweed Soup) at least three times a day
- Belief: it cleans the blood and contracts the uterus
- Considering the number of slim in-shape young mothers I have seen in Korea, who knows if this might actually have some truth to it?
- Don’t eat hard or crunchy foods
- Medical science shows that new mothers’ gums are tender after birth, so there is some truth to this
- Mothers should stay warm
- This is an old humors belief in hot and cold common in east Asia and other cultures. The blood is hot, and mothers lose this in childbirth, so they must always be kept excessively warm to recover this lost humor.
- This includes not drinking cold liquids. They must be hot or at room temperature. And no ice cream!
- Avoid cold drafts. The belief is that a woman’s bones are loose, and a draft can enter the joints and cause rheumatism or arthritis in old age.
- Always wear socks and blankets
- Mothers have a special caretaker
- This is either an elder female in the family, a person hired to help or some time in a post-partum clinic, known as a sanhujoriwon
- Mothers’ primary jobs are to eat and rest
- No house chores
- No driving
- Don’t leave the house
- This is another one that has some backing in medical studies
- Proper breast massages
- I don’t think this is strictly a Korean belief
- Hot pads and hot towels on the breasts also help–and are also not strictly Korean practices
Outdated or Questionable Korean Traditions
- People other than the parents can’t see the newborn for 100 days.
- Korea used to have a high infant mortality rate, so babies were kept secret from the public until they reached 100 days old and had better survival chances. That’s the basis for the baekil 100-day ceremony.
- Mothers should not take showers or wash their hair
- It’s believed that this will make them cold, but this is starting to fall out of favor