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.
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.