I’d seen them before on South Korean films from a couple of decades ago: giant baby rooms, filled with row upon row of newborns watched through the glass by curious parents.
“Isn’t that one ours?” They’d point. “Number 47?”
“No, it’s number 48.”
In a popular film trope, absent-minded nurses would switch two babies by mistake, condemning them both to a lifetime with the wrong parents.
I call these rooms “babariums,” because they make me think of baby-filled aquariums, without the water.
I had always assumed babariums were the kind of thing South Korean democracy activists of the 1980s had fought to abolish. Weren’t newborn babies supposed to bond with their parents right from their crucial first moments? Surely babariums must be a thing of the dark, dictatorial past, like midnight curfews and regulated haircuts.
So when my wife and I started looking for a maternity hospital, in southwestern South Korea, it never occurred to me that we would come up against a real-life babarium, surviving defiantly into the 21st century.
In anticipation of our child’s impending birth, we found an excellent hospital in North Jeolla Province: recommended by friends, run by a respected local obstetrician, committed to natural birth (in a country with one of the world’s highest Caesarian section rates). It had a sanhu joriwon, or postnatal recovery center, attached, for mothers to spend time recuperating while being looked after by professionals. My wife took prenatal yoga classes there; we went for talks on breathing to manage labor contractions; we enjoyed the plot-spoiling pleasures of 3D ultrasound.
I felt cynical when I first heard of postnatal recovery centers. Few people seemed to stay at one in my home country, where medical care is largely provided by the state. Even in South Korea, postnatal recovery centers have only been popular since 1997, the rising demand for them coinciding with a falling birthrate. Naturally, maternity clinics needed to find another source of income. Puffed up with a dose of ignorrogance (a combination of ignorance and arrogance displayed by some expats in South Korea), I suspected it was partly a ruse by local maternity hospitals to make more money in a capitalist medical system.
But when I mentioned it to my mum, mother of three kids, on the phone, she said, “That sounds like a really good idea.” Which put me in my place and made me feel like a miserly misogynist. While some postnatal recovery centers definitely target the luxury consumer segment – with prices to match – that doesn’t mean their basic services are unnecessary.
On the other hand, I was still doubtful about some of my Korean friends’ arguments about the need for recovery centers. These included: “It’s really bad for women to go outside at all for a few weeks after giving birth, in case ‘the wind gets into their bodies’” and, “Your joints become looser when you give birth. If you don’t rest completely, without the strain of holding your baby, they never heal.”
What about European women who went home to rest a day or two after giving birth, and seemed to be fine?
“Korean women are physically different.”
All right, I thought, so what about previous generations of South Korean women? The fertility rate here in 1960 was an average of 6.2 children per woman. By this logic, South Korea’s middle-aged and elderly women who didn’t use postnatal recovery centers should be in terrible shape, staggering around like perpetual postnatal zombies and shedding limbs at every step. But they’re not: Go hiking or swimming here and you’ll soon realize many of them are much fitter than their European counterparts.
Lest anyone take this as some kind of misogynist rant: Of course I know mothers need plenty of rest, care, medical supervision and proper nutrition after giving birth. And of course I wanted to do all I could to make sure my wife received it.
But why should it mean separating her from baby in violation of one of nature’s most fundamental pairings? This is what happens at South Korean postnatal recovery centers. What really grated with me was the notion that relieving a mother of the burden of her baby after birth was best for her: It went against everything I’d heard about the importance of bonding.
A couple of weeks before the due date, my wife mentioned that our child would indeed be in a babarium while she recuperated. Fair enough, I thought. I’ll ask the nurses to bring him out whenever I want to hold him.
A few days later, she mentioned something else: During a prenatal checkup, the nurse had told her that fathers were only allowed to spend time with their babies once a week while mothers were in the postnatal center.
I then had what’s medically known as a What the Fuck Moment. All sorts of angry and confused thoughts ran through my head.
Why was the hospital, which generally seemed like decent place, operating a system like something Saddam Hussein might have devised when he was in a bad mood? Who the hell was going to stop me holding my own son?
I asked a relative-in-law who was an obstetrician in the same province.
“Yeah, a lot of foreigners do ask for special postnatal rooms where their babies can stay with them,” she said.
“But isn’t it important for all babies to bond with their parents from early on?” I pressed.
“Well, I suppose that would be better from a bonding point of view,” she said, in a tone that suggested it wasn’t really that important.
Well, she’s the obstetrician, I thought. What do I know? Maybe bonding can wait a couple of weeks. As long as he doesn’t turn into an emotionally maladjusted ABBA-listening serial killer.
Sure enough, our son turned up not long before his due date. We had grown to like and trust the hospital director during months of prenatal checkups. He delivered our son; the natural next step was for my wife to stay at the same hospital and, a few days later, its postnatal center.
Postnatal centers are reluctant to accept mothers and babies from other hospitals, because of the risk of transmitting disease. (Indeed, this has happened several times in the past.) Belatedly moving to a postnatal center that did offer moja dongsil (rooms for mothers to share with babies) was not an option.
So there we were: My wife and I in a shared ward, then a private room; our son behind glass in a babarium. My wife would would head down to the breastfeeding room several times a day when he “called” her via the nurses by waking up and screaming.
Meanwhile, babarium viewing times were 10am to noon, and 6pm to 8pm. At these times, a nurse would raise a screen beyond the glass to reveal the rows of swaddled babes, like white larvae in the brood chamber of a beehive but all laid by different queens. When we buzzed on an intercom, she would wheel our progeny over for a viewing through the glass. It was lame.
But here’s the thing: Our son always looked totally content. Usually asleep, occasionally with his still-unseeing eyes open, he lay there serene and self-contained, not longing for anyone or anything as far as we could see. The nurses looking after him were both warm and competent. We quickly grew to like and respect them.
My wife received outstanding care, with regular medical check-ups, massages, nutritious meals, advice on breastfeeding. I held our six-day-old son once, during the much-awaited weekly dad session (after being sprayed with disinfectant and made to put on a mask), but he slept through the whole thing anyway.
Two weeks passed.
And then our boy was out. We’ve spent the last month bonding our socks off with him at home and we now have a whole life to spend together. It’s the first time I’ve enjoyed the feeling of responsibility.
My wife has made a fast and strong recovery, thanks, in some part at least, to the postnatal care center.
Though it’s still too early to tell, our son’s experience in the babarium doesn’t seem to have done him any emotional harm. But if I ever catch him listening to ABBA, I’ll go apeshit.
Cover Image: The author with his wife and newborn child (Credit: Ben Jackson)