Tae-gyo: Postpartum Care in Non-western Societies

I was Melody’s doula for her daughter’s birth. Abigail was my 415th baby to be a doula for. But I have known Melody’s mom since I was 17, so she is a special doula client for sure. I heard her talk about the Korean traditions she was involved in being married to a Korean man. I loved hearing of the story of Tae-gyo. I asked her to share the story in this guest blog!

“Be sure to be careful,” my mother-in-law said over the phone. “Think good thoughts, be peaceful.” Those few words were merely a hint at what I would learn over the next year – that Koreans treat pregnancy and birth differently from Americans.

A few weeks later my father-in-law e-mailed me information about Tae-gyo. Tae-gyo is a Korean word that literally means prenatal education. Koreans, you see, believe that everything that the mother does affects how the baby will turn out later in life. Thinking peaceful thoughts leads to a peaceful child. Studying a foreign language while pregnant leads to the child excelling at languages in school. My in-laws were thrilled that I was tutoring chemistry and calculus through my pregnancy. “That’s good Tae-gyo,” they said. “The baby will be smart because you do this.”

Everything, it seemed, boiled down to “Good Tae-gyo” and “Bad Tae-gyo” – eating whatever I was craving was good Tae-gyo; eating inferior food was bad Tae-gyo. My mother-in-law made sure that I only ate the most beautiful food. She would cut an apple for the family to eat, and pick out the most perfect slices to serve me. Once, when the family was eating cookies, I reached for half of a cookie because I wasn’t hungry enough to eat a whole one. But my mother-in-law reached out her hand to stop me. “No! You cannot eat a broken cookie! That’s bad Tae-gyo.”  Eating broken food would mean that the baby would be broken. In a similar manner, eating duck is discouraged (lest the baby have webbed feet), as well as chicken skin (baby’s skin won’t be smooth) and tofu (too likely to fall apart). I was also discouraged from watching any violence on TV. The family’s main focus over the nine months of pregnancy was to ensure a peaceful, happy, stimulating environment for me. I felt like a queen.

This attitude didn’t end with the birth of my daughter. Naturally, some of the focus shifted from me to her, but I was amazed at the attention Koreans pay to the mother during the postpartum period. In Korea, it is said that if a woman does not rest properly during the postpartum period, she will have a range of health problems when she is old, and so every care is given to see that the mother has a peaceful period of recovery. My mother-in-law stayed with us to help me with housework and baby care for the first three weeks. She encouraged me to do nothing more strenuous than wringing out a wash cloth, and she frequently told me that my only job was to rest, eat seaweed soup and hot soy milk, and nurse my daughter. I was encouraged to wear long sleeves to keep me warm, even though it was a hot Atlanta summer, and to not exert myself for at least 21 days. My mother-in-law frequently offered to take my daughter for an hour or two so I could rest.

The postpartum food of choice in Korea is seaweed soup. Koreans believe this soup encourages milk production, as well as helping the mother heal after labor. My mother-in-law fed me nothing but seaweed soup for the first week, and after that at least once a day for the rest of the time she stayed with us. She also served me hot soy milk (cold drinks are thought to be bad for a new mother’s health) and fresh fruit at most meals. I was served breakfast in bed for at least two weeks.

My mother-in-law was only able to stay with us for three weeks. But one hundred days after my daughter’s birth, my in-laws travelled back to our house for the traditional celebration called Baek-Il, which literally means 100 days. My father-in-law says that Koreans celebrate a baby’s one hundredth day because it marks one year after the baby’s conception. In Korea, that year in the womb is counted towards a person’s age, and so the hundred day celebration is like a first birthday party. And it was at this point that I noticed the change. For one full year, I had been treated like a queen because I carried and birthed their granddaughter. Now, the attention was shifted (as it should be) to her.

Most Americans are aware of the respect Asians show to the elderly, but I don’t think many are aware of the respect this culture pays to women during one of the most special times in their lives. I feel very lucky to have married into this wonderful culture, where pregnancy and childbirth are treated with such care.