Saturday, April 23, 2022

Two Weeks in a Korean Luxury Postnatal Spa

I'm so glad we decided to partake in the Korean practice of postponing taking our baby directly home from the hospital and staying at a sanhu joriwon (산후조리원), or postnatal luxury spa, also known as a postpartum care center, instead. Many middle-class Korean women opt for these accommodations for 1-3 weeks after birth or they hire a postpartum domestic worker called a doumi (도우미) to come to their home. Korea places a big emphasis on the recovery of the mother after childbirth, so the focus of these services is to allow the mother to have a bit of a break and for her body to heal while the new parents are learning to care for the latest addition to their family.

We stayed at a joriwon called Versailles (베르사유 산후조리원) in Gangnam for two weeks. Most women seemed to leave their husbands at home (or perhaps their husbands weren't able to take the time off of work), but I was so grateful M was able to stay with me the whole time. As I was recovering, I needed his help for a lot of things and I was relieved to have his constant care. Our room at the joriwon was like a comfortable hotel room equipped with a few postpartum-specific additions including a bassinet, an endless supply of diapers and postpartum gowns, and a sitz bath machine in the bathroom. Someone came to clean the room every day, and we had a lovely springtime view outside to a promenade by a lake.

The food at the joriwon was delicious and came very frequently. My food, three meals and two snacks per day, was included in our booking cost and we just added Marwan's meals to our tab for 10,000 Korean won (less than $10) a pop. Thank goodness I love Korean food and especially miyeokguk (미역국), the iron-rich seaweed soup traditionally given to mothers who have just given birth. It was so nice not to have to worry about any cooking and cleaning for those first few weeks so I could focus on feeding our baby.

Anyone who knows me also knows how much I love massages, and the joriwon did not disappoint in that respect. All the women staying at my joriwon received daily breast massages to stimulate milk production and prevent clogged ducts and mastitis. There was also this awesome leg sauna device I could use whenever I wanted. (One of my friends back home said this photo made it look like I was about to launch into space!) In addition, my package included three full-body postnatal massages that felt absolutely divine. Labor, childbirth, and recovery are no joke and I appreciated the extra attention to my aches and pains in the early days of motherhood. It took all of my self-control not to splurge for one of the many extremely expensive additional massage packages. They also had some "slimming treatment" packages available, but I'm honestly not sure exactly what those entailed and whether they were safe because I wasn't interested. After everything my body had been through with pregnancy and birth, I can tell you getting my pre-pregnancy body back as fast as possible was the last thing on my mind.

As part of the photo package we already purchased that included maternity photos, the same studio also sent a photographer to the joriwon to take newborn photos of baby S. They said we'll get to see the final versions of those photos when we come to the studio for our 50-day-old photos next month. He was so cute during the photo shoot but also very confused about what was happening. I can't wait to see them! We grabbed a few photos on my phone as they were taking the professional ones, so the first photo of this post is one of those.

The joriwon also included twice weekly visits by a pediatrician to examine all the babies there. Every time, the pediatrician said our baby seemed healthy and (to my relief) gaining weight and eating well once I was able to start breastfeeding. I heard some complaints from expat women that they felt joriwons were not supportive of exclusive breastfeeding, but I had the opposite experience. The nurses called me every time S was hungry so I could feed him and let me know if he hadn't eaten enough so I could keep going. They also taught me plenty of techniques for ensuring a good latch and waking him up when he was too sleepy to eat. I felt a little envy in the beginning for the formula feeding moms who were sleeping through the night every night while the nurses fed their babies, but at the end of the day I'm so thankful that breastfeeding seems to be working well for us. I am also so appreciative of formula, which helped us in the beginning as my milk was delayed and which is truly a miracle of modern science.

Having a team of nurses on call for help was probably the single best part about the joriwon experience. They taught us how to change a diaper, how to swaddle properly, how to discern different types of cries, how to bathe our baby safely, and more. Whenever we needed a break or just a nap, we could send S back to the nursery knowing they would call us for the next feeding and take care of any dirty diapers and fussiness in between. Every day that we spent at the joriwon, my body felt a little bit better and less in pain, and I don't think I would have healed as quickly if we'd been thrust out into the world on our own right away.

I will say I don't think our stay at the joriwon would have been nearly as comfortable without any Korean language skills. Almost nobody spoke English at the hospital or at the joriwon, so after three weeks of communicating extensively in Korean my brain was very tired. The owner of the joriwon did speak English and I spoke to at least one expat couple who stayed at our joriwon and didn't speak any Korean, but I personally have a hard time imagining how that would work between all the little daily interactions with people who didn't speak English.

It's wonderful to be home again, and thankfully S has adjusted well to the new environment so far. I'll miss having the team of nurses to call for help whenever I need them, but thanks to their training I feel much more prepared. They even gave us this awesome receiving blanket and rolled up cloth that we use multiple times a day to help make S more comfortable when he's feeding. We're so excited to start our new, real life on our own as a family of three now. I hope you enjoyed this little peek inside the joriwon experience!

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Best Advice I Got for First-Time Pregnancy

I made it through my first pregnancy, and so the next adventure begins! I wanted to take a step back and reflect and share some of the things going through my head now before too much time passes and I forget. Something I would've loved to see when I found out I was pregnant for the first time was a blog post like this from a trusted friend, so I thought I would share some of my experiences. Please take everything I say with a grain of salt, though, as I only have a sample size of one! So in no particular order, here's a list of great advice I appreciated as a first-time pregnant woman:

  1. Get used to unsolicited advice. I got so much unsolicited advice during pregnancy and a lot of criticism about what I thought were silly things. Here are some of the choices I made that people questioned to my face with language like "Are you sure that's good for the baby?" and "You shouldn't do that": drinking a cup of hot chocolate, having a macaron, wearing heels, exercising, the list goes on. I was especially surprised by how frequently these comments came from people who don't know me well at all. I've heard it only gets worse once the baby actually arrives, anyway. There's something about child-rearing that causes people to drop all their filters and social niceties and stick their noses in your business.
  2. Safe exercise during pregnancy is a gamechanger. You should talk to your medical provider before starting any new exercise routine, but most people who were active before pregnancy can continue exercising with a lot of mental and physical benefits. I was fortunate that exercise including prenatal yoga, pilates, and cardio felt great throughout my entire pregnancy. I found exercise helped stretch my muscles, relieve aches, and prepare my body for the physical exertion of labor and childbirth. I heard that back in the day they would tell women not to exercise at all during pregnancy and just lie down most of the time. That certainly did not work for me and is not recommended by doctors who have stayed up on the research (unless, of course, you have a condition or other issue requiring bed rest). My favorite prenatal exercise YouTube channel is called Pregnancy and Postpartum TV - I highly recommend it!
  3. The amount of information out there is overwhelming, so be selective and give yourself grace. There is a whole industry of books, movies, classes, and more designed to convince consumers they can have the ideal pregnancy and birth and parenting experience. I loved reading several books about the experience and biological processes of fertility and pregnancy and taking a birthing class and learning about mindfulness-based childbirth preparation. But if you don't have time to do those things, you and your baby will very likely be completely fine. I never got around to reading that original pregnancy blockbuster of a book: What to Expect When You're Expecting. And it was fine! There's no medal for acquiring a set amount of knowledge about having and raising your child; it's an ongoing, lifelong process. Even if having a baby is "natural" doesn't mean any of it is intuitive. I personally don't know how people got by before Google, as I found myself looking up the most random questions throughout the day and night whether it was about symptoms or recent research on infant safety or medical myths.
  4. Comparison is the thief of joy. I think comparing yourself to others, especially other pregnant people, can be discouraging. Every body and every pregnancy is so different that it's okay if you're bigger than someone who's farther along than you or if you have acne when their skin is glowing or have lower energy or whatever it is you're going through. Of course, I think bonding with other pregnant women and especially learning from experienced moms really helped me, but don't listen if someone says, "Oh, you haven't developed x symptom yet? That's a bad sign..." (unless that someone is your trusted medical provider).
  5. Eating for two is a myth. I was so disappointed to learn that "eating for two" isn't a real thing. I assumed I would be eating double the food throughout pregnancy, but in the beginning most barely have to consume anything more and even by the end you're not eating double what an adult would eat. (Now, sleeping for two was closer to my experience, especially during the first trimester. Some nights I slept 12 hours just because I was that exhausted from a normal day.)
  6. Only you know the right amount of advance preparation for you. If you're like me, you want to read plenty of books and listen to podcasts and watch documentaries about pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, parenting, and babies' development. Other expecting parents might get stressed out by all of that and prefer to figure it out as they go or rely on wisdom from their family and friends. One way isn't better or more right than the other; it just comes down to what will help you be the best you can be for your baby.
  7. Birth is one moment in the full life of parenting you have ahead of you. Sometimes, the pressure to conform to expectations for pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding is intense - especially for women in a society that often attributes our worth to traditional standards of motherhood. I have so many friends with birth or early parenting experiences that deviated wildly from what they had hoped for, but the good news is that those things are just a small cross-section of the life you will spend raising and empowering and caring for your child. This is not to minimize mistreatment of mothers by medical providers, family members, or other people who should be supporting them and their babies, including respecting their choices, but I found this idea relaxing when facing things over which we sometimes have so little control. Regardless of how you gave birth or fed your baby, you will make millions of other choices that can nurture and support your child and help them thrive and lead a fulfilling life.
  8. Know your rights, particularly if you are working. For example, do not let anyone pressure you to take less than the leave you want and are entitled to by law and policy. For me as a pregnant woman in the Foreign Service, this meant taking the sick leave I am entitled to in order to recover from birth in addition to the 12 weeks of paid parental leave I am guaranteed by law. If you want to pump after you return to the office, go check out the pumping room or whatever facility your employer provides and make sure they understand that you need time to pump throughout the day. If there are physical aspects to your job that become too difficult during pregnancy, advocate for your needs. Some people will be more familiar with the rights of pregnant people than others, but ignorance is no excuse for denying you required benefits or support.
  9. Ignore the career advice that doesn't work for you at this stage. Many people assume pregnant women want to take a step back from their careers, and for some that is truly their desire. But for others, you may feel completely fine going ahead at full speed. Everyone gets to make that decision for themselves. So if you want to take on a big project, travel (within safe limits recommended by your medical provider), apply for a competitive program, change gears, or accept a high-profile role then don't let others' expectations of you hold you back. Even before my baby was born I received some negative comments about my choice to bid on an intense staffer job given that I was pregnant. Simultaneously, I didn't put myself forward for certain professional development opportunities and work travel assignments because I knew it wasn't the right time for me. At the end of the day, though, those are my decisions and I know better than anybody else what's best for me and my family. (I also doubt men get this same level of scrutiny on their career choices when they have children.)
  10. Expect people to comment on your body all the time. I heard some pregnant friends had a lot of people touch their bellies, but I didn't experience that much (possibly because I was pregnant during a pandemic). What I did hear was a ton of comments on my body, not just from friends and family but total strangers! For folks who struggle with body image, this can be really harmful. I appreciated the nice comments (e.g., "you're glowing!") from friends because I certainly didn't feel like pregnancy was much of a glow-up personally, but the important thing is not how your body looks but all the amazing things your body can do. (I think this is true in life, not just in pregnancy. If you're interested in this topic, I highly recommend the book More Than A Body: Your Body Is an Instrument, Not an Ornament by Lexie Kite and Lindsay Kite.) When in doubt, especially with someone you don't know, I suggest refraining from commenting at all on someone's physical appearance. I've heard multiple horror stories of people asking others about their due date or commenting on their bump when they are postpartum or even never pregnant. Assumptions can be hurtful and embarrassing for everybody.

I hope this post is helpful for someone else out there who might be expecting or trying to conceive! Congratulations and good luck to all the readers out there on their own journeys.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Our Family of Two Is Now Three!

Our precious baby is finally here, out in the real world. That's right - we have a baby boy: S. Funny enough, I felt that he would be a boy very early on in my pregnancy before we could possibly know for sure because I had vivid dreams of having a boy. Even though we kept the sex of our baby a secret, most of our family and friends guessed that we would have a boy, too. Weird, huh?

I had a... let's just say intense experience delivering at a Korean hospital, and I am so happy I decided to stay at post to have our baby. I cannot say enough kind things about all the doctors and nurses in labor and delivery at Kangbuk Samsung Hospital. Soon, we'll be checking into our joriwon (산후조리원), the postnatal luxury spa where the three of us will stay for two weeks. (I'll make sure to blog about that later, too, but all I can say for now is: why don't we have those in the United States?)

You might wonder why we're not posting our baby's face all over the blog. After all, he is very adorable (you'll have to take my word for it). But we decided to leave our son's face off our blog and social media pages when he's young for a few reasons. First of all, M and I were lucky enough to grow up at a time where we could decide how we wanted to put ourselves out there on the Internet. Although we can't guarantee total privacy in an age with facial recognition and other technology, we wanted to give our child a chance to make those decisions when he's old enough, too. He's too young to know about our social media profiles, let alone express an opinion about whether he wants us to put his face there or not. This isn't the only option out there, but it was the right one for us.

I also don't want this blog to become a mostly mommy blog or family blog. I started this blog to share some information and life updates with folks back home, of course, but I also hope it can stay a resource for people who are interested in the U.S. Foreign Service and a career in diplomacy. There are plenty of fantastic parenting and cooking and lifestyle blogs out there, and I just don't see that type of content as part of the purpose of ours.

So with that quick update, I'm signing off to catch some precious shut eye and make the most of my recovery time. I plan to do future posts on the best advice I received as a first-time pregnant woman working and living overseas as well as maternity leave in the Foreign Service, but I have a feeling I may be posting at some weird hours for the next few months. It's all part of the adventure!