Every person I have spoken to at my job (including the parents in my parents’ class), when told that we would be returning to the U.S. shortly after the baby is born, has asked me the following question: “Will your husband be going with you?” The first few times I was a little put off, because surely, what kind of man lets his wife and newborn son travel back to the U.S. to fend for themselves while remaining at a temporary teaching job in a foreign country? But then, as they usually do, cultural nuances began to make themselves more clear to my Western brain.
The first big tip-off that the question was a normal one to ask was when my in-laws offered to put me up in a birth hotel for a few weeks to recover from the birth, or, alternatively, to house Joo-Young to keep him out of my hair. We were both a little miffed, (though looking back, it was an incredibly generous offer made with only the best of intentions)and stated in no uncertain terms that if Joo-Young was kept away from me and the baby, we would both be very upset. Why would the sweetest people on earth offer a situation that separated mother and new baby from the father? Simple. Because in traditional Korean society, this is just how it’s done. Unlike the Western-style birthing traditions, which tend to focus more on the parents bonding with the baby, Korean (and many other Eastern societies’) traditions focus more on the well-being of the mother. Here are a few that I’ve been told about:
Korean Postpartum Traditions
(I’m going to put a star next to the ones that got cries of disapproval from various people when I told them I would not be participating in them.)
Staying inside for at least 21 days after the baby is born * (this is to protect both the mother and the new baby, and can be done at a birth hotel or at home, to be cared for by either of the new Grandmothers)
Not showering or washing hair for 21 days after the baby is born (this one appears to be on the way out, but has something to do with the mother’s weakened physical state and the need to keep her warm)
Avoiding cold foods and drinks (it is thought that a new mother is highly susceptible to cold and that it will settle into her joints and cause arthritis if she is not careful)
Not turning on the air conditioning (even in the middle of August– see above for explanation) *****
Wearing sweaters and thick socks (again, even in the middle of August)*
Eating dog soup (to help the mother regain her strength. This not super popular, but is still around)
Eating miyeokguk–seaweed soup ( to help the mother’s milk supply)
Avoiding hard or crunchy foods (thought to be bad for the mother’s teeth gums)
There are many others, but one of my favorites (and one that we’ll be doing) is keeping the first shirt the baby wears for his whole life, and tucking it under his pillow from time to time when he grows up the night before an important event (big test etc.). Joo-Young’s family even got us a little baby blouse embroidered by a local artisan so our baby’s first shirt is a pretty fancy one.
What does all this have to do with Joo-Young remaining in Korea while the baby and I return to the U.S., you might be wondering. Here is the answer. Think back to the 1950s in the U.S., how did the traditional family unit function? The father worked to make money for his family, while the wife took care of the home and raised the children. I’m not saying modern-day Korea and mid-twentieth century America have identical models of family life, far from it, I am however saying that it is still generally thought of as the man’s job to make the money, and the woman’s job to raise the children (at least when they are still babies). Enter the 기러기 아빠(gireogi appa), or “goose dad”.
When you combine the importance Korea places on education with a more traditional family dynamic, you might get the goose dad; a man who remains in Korea to make money, while sending his kids (and often wife as well) off to English speaking countries for a year to improve their English skills, thus presumably giving them a leg-up in Korea’s highly competitive society. The goose dad might “migrate” once a year or so to visit his family, but otherwise his primary job is to feather the nest by sending cash. The New York Times had an article a million years ago about it, but the practice is still alive and well today.
So… when people ask if Joo-Young is staying behind, they are in fact asking a perfectly normal question by Korean standards; “Will he continue to provide for you financially while you recover with your parents?” Or, in other words, “Will your husband sacrifice himself to make your life better?”