So I thought I’d do a little pregnancy update! I’m a week away from entering the third trimester and can hardly believe it. In some ways, it’s gone by quickly, and in others, it feels like it’s been dragging on.
I’ve never been pregnant anywhere else, but I can definitely explain what it’s like being pregnant (as a foreigner) here in Korea.
First of all, trying to get pregnant took longer than I expected. As SOON as a woman gets married in Korea, everyone starts asking when she’ll have a baby. I got asked all the time, by my mother-in-law, sisters-in-law, friends, co-workers, etc. The birth rate in South Korea is really low and the government is really concerned that it will cause a crisis in the future when there are too many elderly people and not enough young people to keep the economy going. However, Korea is also really densely populated and competition for schools and jobs is high, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing for now??
I knew I didn’t want to have kids immediately after getting married. I wanted to enjoy being a newlywed. We also wanted to save money, pay off the loan we took out to rent our apartment, and I wanted to travel. Thankfully, all that went really smoothly and we were able to become debt-free. I knew that after my trip to Europe in 2018, I wanted to start trying.
Unfortunately, I had no idea how complicated it could be getting off hormonal birth control. It takes a while sometimes for your cycle to go back to normal (and I didn’t even remember what my normal cycle length was!). It was stressful not knowing what to do and knowing that it takes some couples 6-12 months to conceive. Some of my friends shared with me their stories and made me feel better that I wasn’t the only one feeling impatient.
Thankfully, we got pregnant in March of 2019, but before that, I got a lot of “advice” that I really didn’t want to hear. Some people told me, “Just stop trying!” or “Stop thinking about it!” and it really irked me. They’d all been dying to know when I wanted to have kids, and now that I was trying, they told me to stop??? It made no sense. Lots of Korean people told me that it’s all in your head and if you want it too badly, you’ll get stressed and it will be impossible to get pregnant.
Most of my friends who had kids didn’t even know what an ovulation test was – they’d just gotten pregnant and didn’t understand what it was like for someone like me. I know they were trying to be encouraging but it had the opposite affect. I felt like the only one on the planet who wasn’t pregnant. Lots of my husband’s friends got pregnant on accident and walked down the aisle before their bumps got too big. I was bombarded with baby stuff on social media and had to stay away from it for a while.
Eventually, I was 6 weeks along and we went to my OB/GYN for my first appointment. Everything looked good but it was still too early to tell people, so we kept it a secret for a few more weeks. I had another appointment at 8 weeks on my birthday where I had to get a blood test done and I also got two booster vaccines. At my 12 week appointment, the baby actually looked like a human and looked really healthy, so we announced it to our friends and family!
After my first or second appointment, I got a stamped form that confirmed my pregnancy. I took it to the health center (보건소) and did another blood test that checked for my vitamin levels, etc. They also gave me free folic acid supplements and information about renting breast pumps, etc. They also gave me a pink pregnancy badge that says, “Pregnant women first” in Korean (임산부 먼저) and I display it on my purse or tote bag when I ride the bus or subway so that people will (hopefully) let me have a seat.
There are designated pregnancy seats on subways and buses now, but from experience I know that men sometimes sit there and ignore actual pregnant women, and the badge helps me prove to them I need to sit down. In many cases, it works, and people will kindly give their seat to me once they see my badge or belly.
Also, pregnant women who live in Korea and are on the National Health Insurance plan receive a debit card with about $600 on it to use when paying for ultrasounds, blood tests, etc. at the doctor’s office. It can also be used to buy baby products or to get discounts on other baby-related things. I got mine right away – I took the form that confirmed my pregnancy that my doctor gave me to a bank and filled out a few forms and boom! It was in the mail a few days later. I am really thankful Korea has so many government programs like this to aid pregnant women – I’ve hardly used any of my own money for doctor’s appointments. Korean hospital visits are way cheaper than they are in the States, anyway, but it’s awesome getting free money!
I’m also free to go the the hospital whenever I want. I know in the States some people have to wait a really long time to see an OB for the first time and I’ve heard it’s also hard to just walk-in to an OB in the U.S. and be seen, but regardless if I make an appointment or not, I usually get in to see the doctor right away.
When I was just 4 weeks along – as in, I had just found out a few days before – we went to Junkyu’s friend’s baby’s first birthday party. Called a Dol or Doljanchi, the first birthday is the most important in Korean culture. Technically, Koreans believe that babies born are already a year old and that they don’t age on their birthdays but on Lunar New Year (usually in February). However, they also celebrate the baby’s 100th day and their first birthday (on their birth date) and everyone is invited to watch the baby choose an object that will symbolize their future. The parents will hold up a tray of objects: yarn, money, a gavel, a microphone, a pencil, etc. and then the baby will choose one. If the baby chooses the microphone, for example, they’ll become an entertainer. If they choose the pencil, they’ll be good in school, etc. etc.
Well during the doljanchi we attended, they asked the audience questions and gave out prizes. Prizes usually go to the person who had to travel the farthest to attend, to the person who can correctly guess the baby’s birth weight, etc. One of the questions they also frequently ask is, “Who has the youngest baby or who is pregnant with the youngest baby?” I was really excited to pop my hand up because I was only 4 weeks along and basically that’s the first you can even detect it on a pregnancy test. No one was going to beat me. Another girl was pregnant, too, but was was about 14 weeks along. I won the prize! We also surprised a lot of his friends who were there but told them not to spread the news around too much.
We also went to a baby fair, which is an event held by the city for companies to showcase their products and services for new parents. There were tons of booths, some selling bottles or clothes, some advertising for their house cleaning services, etc. We talked to a few different postpartum care centers, which are popular in Korea. They are usually attached to hospitals and women stay there for about one or two weeks after giving birth to recover. The centers have staff who watch the babies while the moms are sleeping and they cook meals, give massages, teach moms how to breastfeed, etc. We also talked to a representative for the government agency that employs postpartum “helpers” (도우미) who come to your house and clean, cook, and watch the baby when mom naps. Both can be great options for new parents.
We decided not to use a 도우미 / doumi or a postpartum care center and instead we’ll just go home after my few days’ hospital stay. My mom and grandma are planning to come pretty soon after my due date to help out for a few weeks, so that will be nice. I didn’t want a stranger in my house because I’d feel awkward and on edge that way, and I didn’t want to stay in a center because most of the food they make is all Korean food – every meal is basically rice, seaweed soup, kimchi, some other veggies, fish, etc. I can barely eat any of that now and I definitely don’t want to feel like those are my only options. Also, some postpartum care centers have strict rules about guests and most of them don’t let you leave, not even to get a coffee or something. I’d miss my cats and my own home too much to stay there, although I really considered it before my mom assured me she’d visit.
Also at the baby fair, they had strollers, car seats, slings, bathtubs, etc. It was mostly just fun looking around and I noticed what brands I liked and what brands I didn’t. We also saw a photo studio company’s booth and I gravitated towards it. They explained that they do photoshoot packages where you can pay for maternity photos, newborn photos, 50- and 100-day photos of the baby, etc. The studio looked great and we ended up signing a deal with them and setting up my maternity photoshoot dates for September!
Koreans are very excited about pregnancy and there are definitely a few things that I get asked here that I’d never be asked in the U.S. For example, everyone we told asked me, “What’s the baby’s nickname (or taemyeong 태명)?” and that was confusing. I was like “Uhh… I didn’t know I had to make up one.” Apparently all pregnant women come up with something to call their baby while in utero, but it was just odd to me that everyone needed to know what my baby’s nickname was. Junkyu and I bounced around some ideas but neither of us really cared to give the baby a nickname, so that kind of fell out of conversation. We were mostly concerned what names we’d pick, so we focused on choosing a name.
My Korean friends also asked me, “Are you doing 태교 / taegyo?” Again, I had no idea what they were talking about, but I got asked it again and again so I finally asked my husband what it was. When I found out, I was dumbfounded. Taegyo is “prenatal education” and it refers to anything the pregnant mom does to “enhance” her baby’s learning. For example, some women take sewing classes. Others listen to classical music. I had a friend tell me that her friend studied math during her pregnancy because she was convinced it’d make her baby smarter. This just goes to show how obsessed Koreans are with education – even in the womb, babies are expected to learn!
At first, I’d just start telling people who asked that Americans don’t have to concept of “prenatal education” and we don’t think the baby will come out any smarter because we study new things while pregnant. However, lots of people stood by their belief that staying calm and learning things while pregnant are uber-important. I lead an English book club and one of the books we read was about Nazi Germany, and one of the members told me, “I don’t think this is good for your baby – you shouldn’t read books like this when you’re pregnant!” She was dead serious. I know stress is bad for pregnant moms and it’s good to keep it to a minimum, but seriously – I wasn’t allowed to read books unless they were peaceful??
Eventually, I started jokingly telling people that I am doing taegyo. I tell them my taegyo is knitting or crocheting, or that I’m learning guitar from my husband and that counts. My husband agrees with me that Koreans are a little silly when it comes to the whole prenatal education thing, so sometimes we will be watching a TV show about musicians or cooking and he’ll be like, “Hey – this counts! Maybe if you watch it, our baby will be a musician or good at cooking!” So now we just joke about it.
In Korean culture, once you find out you’re pregnant, you’re also expected to find out what your “pregnancy dream” (태몽) was. This can be a dream that the pregnant woman herself had before finding out, or another family member (usually female) will have a dream around the time of the baby’s conception and once the pregnancy is made known, they can “give” you their dream. For example, my husband said his mom dreamt of ginseng when she was pregnant with him. Some other symbols I’ve heard are a tiger or a flower.
I always have really weird dreams, but I don’t recall anything specific right before I found out, so we asked Junkyu’s family members and both his mom and older sister had dreams they thought were strange and prophetic. His older sister had a dream of a gold ring, which was the same dream she’d had with her son, and his mom had a dream about catching a snake. Gold rings and snakes are common pregnancy dreams, so we “got” them from his family. These dreams often have meanings about the baby’s personality or future, and apparently snakes foretell fame and gold jewelry foretell fortune and intelligence.
I have a ton of other stuff I can talk about, but I’ll leave it there for now! Let me know if you want to know about a certain aspect of pregnancy in Korea or just in general and I’ll answer it in the next post.