Saturday, September 18, 2010

Access Denied

Twenty minutes after my son was born, I was finally able to take my first picture of him... through the glass partition of the 'Baby Center'. But that was more than my wife, who despite being awake wasn't able to see him again until 4pm Sunday afternoon - eleven hours after the birth.

I said a mistake was made in those precious few seconds after his birth, and it was that my wife handed our baby back to the impatient staff at their beckoning, and not to me. I would have liked to have held him. But they wanted to take him away and clean him up. It didn't seem unreasonable and I didn't think it was going to have the consequences it did.

Holding the Baby

My only question after taking that first photo was when could I hold my son. The answer wasn't clear, but it certainly became clear over the next 24-hours. I couldn't. The staff were determined in their inflexibility, and I was completely mystified. I couldn't really conceptualise the notion that the staff could refuse me access to my child when both I and my wife wanted me to have that moment. Even though living here has conditioned me to live with the sometimes bizarre cultural mores such as fan death, which people doggedly believe in despite any rational argument to the contrary, this was probably the most surprising cultural difference I'd ever encountered.

When my wife felt better she tackled the staff about the subject. When could I hold my baby for the first time? "In two weeks when you go home." was the rather curt response. And there you have it. The first physical contact I will have with my son won't be for another ten days.

Five Days, 30 Minutes

The visiting times don't help. There are two one-hour visiting sessions and one which lasts 30 minutes at the 'Baby Center'. But that doesn't tell the whole story. What happens is you go, and they place your baby in a crib behind the glass partition, often for around two to three minutes. So five days after the birth I've spent less than half-an-hour with my baby, and of course what I have had has been through that glass partition. Before the birth I didn't know how I'd feel about becoming a father. And now I still don't know, because I don't really feel like one.

Germs and Hygiene

Their reasoning is germs. Fathers are not allowed access to their babies because of germs. I thought this was a little hypocritical of the hospital judging from what I saw of their hygiene standards when my son was born. It didn't really seem to stand up to much rational scrutiny either. Medical staff and mothers were coming in and out of the 'Baby Center' all the time, and they had to put on a gown and wash their hands. I didn't understand why fathers couldn't do the same.

It's also hard to take quite so seriously when you consider that until a few months ago - after we'd chosen this hospital - babies were allowed to stay in the rooms where mothers recuperate for two-to-four weeks after the birth, often with their husbands who stayed with them.

Bubble Boy

If my baby's isolation is rather questionable, mine seems more real. I'm unable to express anything beyond simple concepts in Korean so I have no ability to explain exactly how I feel to any of the medical staff. I know in reality I have no hope of convincing them to change their mind - whatever I have to say about Attachment Theory, my emotional position or basic human rights - but it would at least be a comfort if I could register that intellectual disapproval. I can't and that just adds to my sense of powerlessness.

The truth is that much of my life in Korea comes down to battling the sense of worthlessness which can easily arise from people constantly discussing issues concerning me, and sometimes in front of me, without my input. To an extent that's an inevitable consequence created by the language barrier, but it doesn't make me feel any better. It seems that being dismissed as a non-participant is also the modus operandi at the hospital, except it amplifies my existing sense of living apart from the society I'm supposed to be participating in. The glass wall which divides my son and I serves as a metaphor for my wider experience in Korea.

I feel I've missed out on something important because those first few hours and days are gone now. So to my mind the hospital have taken something from me which I'll never get back. And if anything were to happen without me ever having any physical contact with him I think it would be even more difficult to deal with.

That said, I think I'm getting to a point now where I've gone through disbelief and anger and am arriving at apathy. I'm resigned to not having any real contact with my son until the end of the month. What else can I do? The increasing sense of apathy is better for me than the anger I had before, but I do wonder what a psychologist would make of it - it may not be a healthy emotional start to the bonding process.


When we signed up this wasn't how the hospital operated and they never said "by the way, we've changed the deal". Once my wife had given birth, and realised they'd changed the way they operated. it wasn't a realistic option to change hospitals so we were stuck with it. I suppose you could argue that it's a breach of contract, but this being Korea there's little to be done about it; consumer rights are comparatively weak here and the law certainly gives the impression of favouring its corporate paymasters. Welcome to Chaebol Country.

If I could go back in time I'd do it differently. So my advice to anyone who finds themselves potentially heading towards the same situation as me here is to think very carefully about what you want out of the experience, and how it's likely to unfold. I wish I'd held my son after he was born and I lost that chance for two weeks. But ultimately it's about more than that. Visiting times are extremely short, my wife doesn't see her baby except when she feeds him which I don't think is emotionally healthy, there may be a worrying lack of emergency backup, and hygiene standards seem questionable at best.

Not all Korean hospitals are going to operate the same way or be the same. Next time - if there is a next time - things have to be different.


Lee Farrand said...

That sounds very annoying. I've been here 4 years now, and have similarly developed a sense of apathy to frustrating Korean mindsets.

Koreans: the cause-of and solution-to all of life's problems (if you're living in Korea)

Mike said...

When I face these barriers I'm often reminded of the quote "Never try to teach a pig to sing - it wastes your time and annoys the pig".

Actually, through extensive research and scientific analysis I've identified the common factor in the problems I have dealing with Koreans. It's me :-)

Jan said...

Well we have a lot to complain about with our health system, but we have a hell of a lot to be grateful for too. Whilst people moan about Equalities and Diversity, you've got to admit that many of our public services do try for interpreters wherever possible, which would at least given you the option of explaining how you felt. It seems whichever country you go to though, when you get involved with health services, you simply become a patient, which by default implies that you leave all notions of individuality and emotion at the door as you enter. Health culture transcends national cultures.

Mike said...

The risk in employing a small army of interpreters though is that it implicitly encourages people not to integrate. I'm not sure I'd want to see Korea going down the same road.

Anonymous said...

All I want to say is that 2 months ago we had a daughter in Seoul at a regular, small maternity hospital and had none of the problems you mentioned (minus the absent doc until the last minute.) We paid the 50,000 won extra for the family delivery room...

Next time you'll likely have a better time, though as I understand it, my wife did a ton of research on area hospitals beforehand.

Bon chance.

Mike said...

Thanks and congratulations on your daughter. The hospital we chose only appeared to have two small delivery rooms. We didn't get a choice as to room size but I admit I didn't think about it beforehand; the building seems purpose built and I didn't quite imagine us all crammed in the way we were. We've learned from the experience and if there's a next time I expect we'll try to make sure some of these details are better.

Anonymous said...

Congrats on the birth of your son. I am so sorry about this. I say, go and take him and go home. Would this be illegal? Also - how can your wife feed him (sorry if that's too nosy a question, but isn't baby contact necessary for milk production?) I find your situation quite heartbreaking.

Mike said...

Thanks. I'm sure we could bring him home but my wife wanted two weeks recovery time in the hospital, and while that's around two weeks longer than British women get it's a cultural difference I'm not really entitled to impose on her. At this point her needs far outweigh mine. We've also paid around $1,000 for the two weeks and if refunds were questionable I wouldn't have liked to have gifted the hospital so much free money under the circumstances.

My wife is called down to the 'Baby Center' from her room by phone when required to feed our baby and that's how that works. That's the sum total of the time she gets with him.

Being English I find the situation as extraordinary as it is unfathomable but as with so many things in Korea, my understanding is not required.

daeguowl said...

There is a thread on AFEK dealing with this and I encourage you to check it out. Also, congrats on becoming a father. I would encourage you to kick up a fuss to gain access to your son, providing that is not going to stress your wife out...they can't kidnap him like that

Mike said...

Thanks Daeguowl. I don't really read AFEK much these days so perhaps I missed it. I ran a search and found a thread from six months ago which is perhaps the one you were referring to. It certainly seems very interesting so it's a shame I didn't see it beforehand but that's the way it goes.

My mother used to be a nurse so I know how back in England some of the nurses would find ways of getting back at patients they didn't like. Perhaps Korean nurses are above that sort of thing but is it worth putting it to the test? I'm also not sure it's worth - as you say - stressing my wife out about it.

I'm not happy about the situation but after my initial anger I could also see how I'd made the mistake of assuming I'd have access to my child, because it didn't occur to me that a hospital in the modern world would have it any other way. I'm not excusing the Korean medical staff for being so professionally irresponsible that they designed a system which doesn't act in the best interest of baby and parents, but I also feel at fault for my assumption that common sense would play a major part in this experience.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on becoming a father, I'm sure you'll feel like one as soon as you hold your son for the first time. Just try to think positively for his sake, babies are sensitive to feelings.

Mike said...

Thank you. Yes, I intend to put in an Oscar-worthy performance over the next few years to bring up my child in a positive environment where all seems well with the world. Gradually of course, he'll learn otherwise as he gets older.

adele said...

Congratulations Mike! And thank you for sharing that experience.

As many commented before me, the fact that both mother and baby are fine is the most important thing. I keep saying to myself that, were we able to speak Korean to a decent level, our life would be so much easier and we may even succeed in raising awareness on certain issues to the benefit of the other foreigners living in this country, and not only them. Over the next few months, with the prospect of having a baby in the near future, I will endeavor to learn as much Korean as I possibly can; I've always felt I had to, but after reading your latest couple of posts it has become a conditio sine qua non. So thank you, congratulations again and hope to meet you sometime in Busan!

Mike said...

Thanks Adele. I actually saw a pregnant foreign woman (possibly Vietnamese) in our hospital getting a check up a few months ago, and she was really struggling to understand what to do. I can only imagine the language barrier gets tougher the closer the birth becomes.

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