On Breastfeeding and Being a New Mom in Korea

Guest Post Written by Cyndie Miniscloux

I recently became a mother and moved (back) to Korea when my baby was 2 months old.  Since then I have made observations on the mother’s experience here in Korea.  The following are just my perceptions, but perhaps there are others out there who see and feel it as I do. 

One of the topics that my professor talked about quite a bit when I was studying Korean society at SNU was Korea’s low fertility.  When I look at it now, I think, “No wonder.” It’s just hard being a mother in Korea, especially if you’re a working or single mom.  If you want to raise a kid, well don’t expect much help from the rest of society.  This is also why Korea still has so many “orphans”, kids who in most cases are not orphans at all but children of unwed parents financially unable to care for them. 

I have thought about going back to work (my last job before pregnancy was a contract job in Korea, so that means I need to find a new job).  But I’m breastfeeding and my baby will not take formula.  The thought of pumping enough milk so that she can have enough everyday if I have to drop her off at daycare is overwhelming as it is.  But would a potential Korean employer even allow me pumping breaks?  Of course it’s common to take smoking breaks.  I mean if it’s so you can go pollute the air and screw up your lungs, go ahead take a quick smoking break.  But pumping?  Woman, if you’re gonna need time for that baby stuff, to produce the healthiest thing your baby can have, stay at home and be a mom. 
Caption: Johnathan Wenske & Kris Haro's poster campaign raises awareness about public breastfeeding, read more here.
I have a friend from middle school who lives in Florida and literally we both got unexpectedly pregnant at the same time. Our baby girls were born 5 days apart.   Neither of us were married at the time we got pregnant and neither of us were really prepared to have a child.  Yet she not only got maternity leave from her job (which was not a contract job) for 2 months, but when she came back, she had daycare available on-site.  Not only did her company allow her pumping breaks, but also she could go see her daughter during lunch time to feed her and see her, so the child doesn’t go the whole day without seeing her mother.  And I envy this friend.  That kind of situation would be perfect for me.  I could still give my baby what she needs to be healthy and earn the money we need to support our family.   But go and find such a job in Korea.

And then there is the whole ordeal of going anywhere at all with a breastfed infant.  I once decided to go visit some people who were literally 40 km away.  I had to basically cut through all of Seoul from one part of Gyeonggi-do to another.  So basically I figured the subway ride alone, stop to stop would be one hour long.  Now, I commend Korea for its nursing rooms in many subway stations.  Those are awesome.  However, when the subway ride alone is one-hour long, chances are a 3 month old will want to feed during the ride itself.  So I came on the train with my nursing pillow and nursing cover and got nice and comfortable in the seats reserved for the elderly, disabled and mothers of yet to be born or young children.  But in Korea, it’s been my understanding that nursing in public is taboo even with a cover, as if I was doing something nasty under that cover.  People are not even used to the idea of a nursing cover; they just don’t really use them.  So when this lady got on the train and sat next to me, she was all excited that I had a baby, and without asking starting to lift up the cover to see underneath.  She didn’t realize that I was nursing.  She thought, apparently, that the cover was just to help the baby sleep.  I was embarrassed when she lifted the cover because across from us were some older men.  I tried to whisper to her to stop, because I was nursing and when she finally understood she seemed uncomfortable. 

Another not-so-pleasant experience was when my husband, daughter and I went to a reunion dinner with my husband’s elementary school friends and their 6th grade [male] teacher.  We had brought pumped breastmilk and some juice, but the baby drank all of that and after a while became fussy and demanded more.  I told my husband, “Perhaps I should breastfeed her.”  My husband whispered back, “Not right now, it’s not polite to do it in front of Seonsaengnim.”  Although it’s beyond my understanding why it’s rude to feed my crying baby in front of this man, I had no choice but to accept the situation.  It so happened also that the restaurant we were at, despite being high end, did not have one of these nursing rooms.  But I am still angry thinking about how my baby had to go hungry because of these social norms.  Why, oh Korean people, is it rude to breastfeed my child with a cover in front of a well-respected older man?

I guess these are the changes I’d love to see.  I get it.  Women’s breasts have been messed up by our society to be a sex object and no one wants to see an exposed breast.  But my baby needs to eat.  And she needs to eat when I leave home too.  Although I believe that breasts were designed by God to feed infants and not as sex objects, and that therefore women should be able to openly breastfeed, in the name of cultural understanding, I will meet you halfway and cover up when I breastfeed.  But please don’t look at me funny when I’m sitting in the subway feeding my baby. 

I’d also like to see more companies with daycare on site or in the same building.  I know every business cannot afford to do that.  But don’t tell me that those big daegieop can’t afford it.  I’d like to see a society where it’s normal for a mom to pump at work, and that companies wouldn’t have this attitude of “What dare you ask?? Breaks to pump?!” I’d like to see decent hours for workers with young children so people have at least a bit of time to spend with their children.  Overall, I’d just like to see a change in attitude towards mothers, so that having a child would be considered a contribution to society rather than something only women with well-off, higher salary husbands are allowed to do.  Think about it.  If Korea has no children, there will be no one to support the older generation (aka our generation) in the future.  Sometimes it feels that lawmakers are so near-sighted.  Think of the future too.

Also I’d be nice if the state could do more to help young/unwed parents in a difficult financial situation.  It’s true that assistance programs can be quite costly.  But what I don’t understand is that it’s probably so much more costly for the state to run orphanages and fully support the children whose parents are forced to give them up, than to partly support  those families through various programs and/or subsidies.  

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