Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Korean Childbirth: Pain, Exhaustion, Funny Hand Gestures

Around 3 a.m. on the morning of June 16th, the light came on in the room where I slept. It had been turned on by my wife Catherine, who told me that the labor pains had begun three days early. My first response was the same as any I’m likely to give when awoken at the time of night, which is to utter a word commonly classified by it’s four-letter constitution.

But rather than groaning and rolling over as I normally would, I sprung upward, looking for articles of clothing appropriate for covering the legs, torso and feet and putting on the first three such items, regardless of color scheme or whether they were, technically speaking, mine.

I was still straightening, tightening and loosening them as I made my way toward the car minutes later, and my wife was still packing the belongings we required in between her periodic need to sink to her knees and scream.

It would’ve been a tumultuous occasion under most any circumstance, but it was further complicated by my wife’s decision to go to Seoul on the 14th to retrieve some useful articles from her mother’s house and bring them back to our home in Chuncheon, which is two hours away. It was even more convoluted by her decision to stay in Seoul through the 16th, even though our hospital remained two hours away in Chuncheon.

So, rather than having to run two or three red lights between our apartment and the hospital, I had to disregard dozens of crimson traffic regulation devices stretched out over the highway between our home and my mother-in-law’s. Furthermore, this is a route I still don’t know perfectly well, and was rather fearful that my wife might say, “Okay, turn left overrraAAAAARGH!”, causing me to miss the exit completely.

Fortunately, her contractions did not precisely coincide with any important exits, and we made it to Hallym University Medical Center in good time. Once we reached the emergency room my wife, a nurse at said hospital, was greeted by numerous effervescent-looking nurses, all of whom recognized her and greeted her in a manner that seemed altogether too cheerful for the occasion.

Having watched Catherine grow throughout the previous nine months while carrying a half-foreign baby, her coworkers were clearly waiting for this day with no small amount of anticipation.

“Is the baby coming?” I heard them ask in Korean.

“YeeaAAAAARGH!” my wife answered, using a phrase commonly recognized by speakers of both languages.

Soon she was in a hospital bed and I was sitting beside it, offering a hand to squeeze every time she felt a contraction. Now, many of you may be wondering what the process of childbirth is like in Korea. Having not been through said process in any other country, but having lived here nearly four years, I’m guessing it’s like every other experience for the Western expatriate in this country: It’s like what you’d find at home, only there’s a language barrier and some clothes that are too small.

While I sat beside her bed in a robe and slippers, both of which were required by the hospital and both of which were designed for someone significantly shorter than 6’3, the non-English speaking nurses would occasionally need to tell me something.

To anyone who may experience the same thing, I’d recommend watching the non-verbal cues. For example, the nurse who appears to be imitating a goldfish probably wants you to encourage correct breathing habits; the one making a scissors-like motion with her fingers probably is asking you if you’ll cut the umbilical cord.

Others among you may be wondering what this experience is like from the soon-to-be father’s perspective. Okay, you’re probably not; pretty much every male with a pregnant wife quickly learns that nobody really cares about his perspective, but I’m going to tell you anyway.

Picture al-Qaeda taking one of your relatives captive and having 18 hours worth of activities planned for him or her. Now imagine that the awareness that such activities are underway weren’t enough; you are in fact there to see them. Then, imagine that you, thanks to the gender you were born into, are actually responsible for the torture taking place.

It didn’t take more than a couple of hours for me to regret having put my wife in this position. By hour six I was sorry for all women who’ve had to bear a child. By hour 12 I regretted ever having used a lavatory while standing up. Near the end, I was wondering if it were possible for me to be reborn as a snail or some other creature in which both parents lay the eggs.

After three-quarters of a day had passed, the doctors eventually decided that not enough progress was being made and that the baby would need to be removed via c-section. When the decision was finalized, my wife cried a final time, and I don’t think it was from pain. I think she was honestly disappointed in herself because she, a five-foot-two Korean woman, couldn’t pass a nearly eight-pound, 23-inch object through her lower extremities naturally.

I don’t understand why that would be a source of shame, but by then I was too busy thinking about snails to figure it out.

I do know that the operation itself was a success and my son, Daniel James was born a little after 8 p.m. Soon my wife was released from the operating room and we were united: a newborn baby unable to do anything but cry; a highly sedated new mother unable to do anything but mutter in Korean, and an emotionally shattered new father muttering about the mating habits of gastropods.

Not the best start for a new family, but I guess there have been worse.

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