Where New Mothers RelaxIt's 8 o'clock in the evening at the Sinsege Post-Pregnancy Center. Kim Ji-hae, a 32-year-old accountant and mother of two who recently gave birth to a daughter, is lying in a room with a heated floor and reading Gail Evan's "Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman."
Soon afterward, while she is preparing to go to the other room for a foot massage session, her cellular phone rings. Mrs. Kim's eldest son, who is at home with his father, asks her when she's coming back.
She explains to her 4-year-old son that his mother needs to rest for another two weeks and tells him not to skip his piano lessons while she's gone.
All this may sound bit odd for to those who took a cold shower the day after they gave birth to their first child but it is typical in Korea these days. Post-pregnancy centers adorned with fancy interior decor and high-tech facilities are attracting more and more new Korean mothers.
The staff at the centers plays soothing music all day and makes endless pots of miyeuk-kook, a seaweed soup, widely known as a curative for encouraging blood circulation in women who have just given birth.
Many women come here after they leave the hospital and stay up to three, or sometimes, four weeks. During their stay, they may take advantage of all the available facilities, such as foot massages, beauty care and homemade meals prepared by in-house nutritionists.
At a cursory glance, the place looks like a three-star hotel with approximately 30 private rooms, each containing a television, cabinets and a bathroom with an aromatherapy sauna booth. The soundproof walls ensure that the women can enjoy a good nights' sleep without having to wake up in the middle of the night to attend to their crying babies. There are professional nurses at the center who take care of the infants 24 hours a day.
In the living room, there is a huge space where yoga lessons are held every morning. Some choose just to hang out on the sofas and watch television or read magazines. In this way it's not very different from an ordinary house except that there are more people. Though mothers are always welcome to sleep with their newborn babies, it's not mandatory and very few women decide to do so right after the painful labor of giving birth.
"Mothers ask to sleep with their children for the first two or three days but after that, they just want to rest on their own until they leave this place," says Jo Su-hyun, the senior staff worker at the Sinsege Post-Pregnancy Center.
She says the changing color of a woman's face tells the difference in her physical state during her stay there.
"The entire internal physical state of a woman changes after she gives birth, and it's important that she takes good care of herself," she says. "Centers like this are taking on the traditional role of Korean mothers."
"It came out of necessity and demand from many women," says Ms. Jo, who is also a professional nurse. "Mothers in Korea are simply different from what they were 20 years ago. They feel the burden to look after their daughters."
In fact, just as Ms. Jo is completing this statement, the mother of a client comes into the guest room with three of her friends. Pulling out her daughter's favorite munchies from her bag and placing them on the table, she starts telling her daughter stories about what occurred at the golf club that day.
Many women who come here get support from their own mothers, according to Lee Jung-eun, the director of the M & B Post-Pregnancy Center, located in Apgujeong-dong. Tastefully appointed and situated in Seoul's most popular fashion district, this place is well-liked among young parents.
"I think daughters feel a burden too, when they see their mothers stuck in the kitchen cooking their son in-law's dinner. It's even worse if it's your mother in-law in the kitchen. Here, you don't have to worry about such things."
All this may sound very soothing, but it certainly doesn't come cheap. Depending on your choice of center, the luxurious stay usually costs around 600,000 won ($480) a week, and this goes up to 1,000,000 won.
There are also mixed opinions about the business-driven professionals who operate such places.
Some argue that the concept of post-pregnancy care is far too extreme in Korea. Choi Eun-jung, who had her first child while studying in Canada, says her post-pregnancy experience there was simple and recovery fast. Ms. Choi says she ate homemade meals and went back to school two weeks after the delivery.
But Ms. Jo naturally has a different viewpoint. She feels that it's a lack of understanding on the part of medical doctors in the west that leads them to view post-pregnancy care in Korea as some "bizarre ritual held in Third World countries."
"According to statistics, the average weight of Korean babies is about 0.4 kg more than that of Caucasian babies. Usually the infant's head is bigger, which is why Korean doctors recommend perineal section to the mothers. This makes the mothers' bodies much more vulnerable to outside pressure and various sorts of infections. You can't say one is better than the other."
She refers to the ancient post-pregnancy tradition in the east, where midwives and doctors didn't let mothers and their babies have any visitors for nearly 20 days. "Tradition is worth paying attention to," she notes.
The majority of women who visit post-pregnancy centers are happy with the results.
Some women say talking to other women in the house is a very good way to overcome postpartum depression, which many of them suffer from after their first pregnancy.
What about the cost? The centers are rather blunt about it.
"It's part of the service industry, and not a medical institution. It's about how much extra benefit you want. You should choose the center you visit depending on your budget," says Ms. Jo.
It has been alleged that these recovery places are merely an extravagance that takes the child away from its mother. The fact remains, say supporters of the centers, that these women have just gone through one of the toughest experiences of their life and deserve a rest before they embark on the lifelong commitment to ensuring their child's well-being.
by Park Soo-mee