Sunday, July 12, 2009
The Upside of Korean Mothers-in-Law
One thing he should never complain about is how tired he feels. Another is how busy he is. Other things he should definitely avoid talking about include minor bodily aches, not to mention how stressed he feels.
Okay, let’s start over: When his wife is carrying their first child, it’s not a good idea for a man to complain – within earshot of those who are already mothers – about anything. It doesn’t matter how petty, legitimate, unique or commonplace his complaint may be, the already-mothers demographic knows a simple truth that he isn’t aware of: The suffering hasn’t even begun.
He doesn’t know anything about being tired because his baby isn’t yet crying at 12, 2, 2:30, 3:45 and 6 in the morning, every morning. He can’t complain about pain because he isn’t the one who carried the baby to term, nor is he the one who had it force itself out of him.
And busyness … ha! He doesn’t know anything about busyness, nor will he until its time to change diapers, prepare and provide baby formula, not to mention bathe a baby multiple times daily while holding down a job.
Now that weeks have passed since my son was born, I can say definitively that, yes, all these mothers who have or have had newborns to care for were right about what they told me before: I didn’t know what it was like to feed, clean or bathe a baby on top of maintaining my regular work schedule.
In fact, I’m still behind the curve in that regard, and may never fully figure it out, because my mother-in-law does most of it for us.
Living in Korea, I can now see that this is one of the most different (in a good way!) variations between their style of parenting and what we do in America. After the birth of the baby, the grandmother typically comes to stay with the new parents and assist them with the things they don’t yet know (I’ve never stopped to wonder how my mother-in-law could know these things if her mother had to help her a generation ago; if I tried to figure it out I’d probably blow my own mind).
This saves a lot of confusion for the neophyte parents, adds an extra pair of hands around the house, and let’s new fathers who remember what it was like to have valid grievances dismissed and mocked respond to their dismissers/mockers with the following well-reasoned, well-thought out reply:
That’s not to say there aren’t downsides to this arrangement, and most of them stem from cultural differences between my mother-in-law and I. A woman who has devoted the majority of her waking hours during the past few decades to cleaning things tends to view untidiness as a personal affront, and will attack the task at hand in the most vocal manner possible.
She also has a clear mandate to prepare at least two meals a day, and demands prompt attendance at the dinner table. These meals also tend to lack from a perspective of variety, in that practically all of them involved rice, green vegetables and some kind of hot pepper paste, with fish or beef serving as variables.
I’m unable to secure much in the way of variation as I get very little unimpeded access into my own kitchen. Of course, as I have 30 years experience being a guy I wouldn’t really know what to do in there anyway.
Child care also represents an area of compromise, as my exposure to my son is often limited to watching him and holding him after his needs have been met. Whenever he makes a vocal noise of a certain frequency, my mother-in-law springs into action, enquiring as to whether he needs feeding, a diaper change or a bath.
I usually stare back at her blankly, not because I don’t understand the Korean words she’s using, but because I can’t explain the problem in any language. All I usually know is that the baby was fine, now he isn’t, and my standard technique of patting him on the stomach, saying “It’s okay, it’s okay!” isn’t getting him anywhere closer to “okay” status again.
Soon, she’s upon him, and just by a glance at his expression and a quick listen to his pitch, she somehow knows the issue at hand and it’s solution. It’s a relief to know that somebody has some idea of how to address the problem, but also leaves this parent with the feeling of being a spectator in his own child’s rearing.
But these are, I suppose, the tradeoffs. She does the laundry and cooks, and I have to give up the right to cleaning my own clothes and the option of attempting to prepare my own meals. She offers her expertise in dealing with babies, and I lose out on the right to change diapers.
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