While it’s strange to think of women such as Ivanka Trump, Lara Trump, and Meghan Markle slumming it after giving birth, one only needs to look at the postpartum practices across Asian countries to start to feel just a wee bit sorry for the uncoddled American mothers who are expected to return to fighting form almost immediately. According to Instagram, the public (and often judgmental) diary of modern motherhood, Lara Trump was back on a horse less than a month after giving birth to her daughter. (She even appeared downright ecstatic about this development.) In 2016, a little more than week after giving birth to her third child, Theodore, Ivanka Trump was back on the campaign trail stumping for her father at a Long Island rally. After the arrival of her first child, Arabella, she also only took a week off and seemed puzzled, according to a former employee, about the necessity and value of maternity leave. Even the well-heeled Americans who enlist 24-7 baby nurses to the tune of $350 to $400 a day are usually focused almost exclusively on the baby. In fact, it’s hardly uncommon for the mother to fuss over the dietary preferences of the hired help.
Contrast that with Asia, where many upper-crust women in posh neighborhoods check into postpartum hotels. These aren’t cutting-edge wellness establishments that promise a return of one’s pre-baby body in just a few short weeks. These post-natal centers provide luxurious services and accommodations, often under medical supervision, for women who want to observe some part of the rest period that is commonly practiced in Korea, Taiwan, China, Japan, and other parts of the region.
Though they vary by country, the core principles of East Asian postpartum maternal care are: stay in bed, eat certain types of food, stay very warm, avoid showering, and refrain from working, either professionally or domestically, for a period ranging up to a month. Since this is all about the mother and her recuperation and relaxation, the infants stay separately in a nursery that is staffed round the clock by nurses and other trained professionals.
What does all this special care and treatment mean for mothers? “Old women come over and squeeze your breasts to figure out how to get the milk out,” said Hallie Bradley, 35, recalling her experience at the Seoul-based Irene Postpartum Hotel, a chicly decorated center, or sanhujoriwon in Korean, that could, on first glance, be mistaken for a hip boutique hotel. Bradley, whose daughter is now four years old, paid around $1,500 for a weeklong stay—roughly the going rate for a bargain baby nurse in New York City—and was fed a steady diet of seaweed soup three times a day. “Seaweed, according to Korean lore and custom, is supposed to help women lactate,” said Bradley. (The algae-intensive diet, central to the 21-day rest period that Koreans call saamchilil, was punctuated by contraband cookies courtesy of her husband.)
The focus at many of these centers is firmly on rest and recuperation. At many centers, the babies are not usually allowed into the mother’s room; this is in order to keep the newborns in a sterile environment, away from germs. “Most moms don’t even begin feeding their babies until after they leave the care centers,” said Haley Lee, 30, who recently finished a weeklong stay at Bonne Maman, a new luxury postpartum center in Daegu, Korea, that cost $1,300. (This is perhaps not an eye-popping figure for parents who are buying, say, $600 Stokke cribs, but in 2018 the annual household per capita income in Korea was $16,567—so a three-week stay at a joriwon, about the average length, is a quarter of what most Korean families earn in a year.)
In fact, it’s hardly uncommon for the mother to fuss over the dietary preferences of the hired help.
“Some people balk at the price, but when you think about all the things that are included, it’s a good deal,” said Yourie Choe, 37, the head chef of a plant-based restaurant in Seoul, who stayed at the Dream Joriwon for three weeks earlier this year, for which she paid $3,600. While packages vary among postpartum centers, Choe’s came with seven massages, three meals and two snacks a day, traditional Korean herbal medicine, laundry service, and post-natal yoga. “It’s hard to describe how nice the experience was,” said Choe. “It was just so amazing to be able to focus on my body, get fed, and have the option for someone else to take care of the baby, especially at night.”
In case American women needed any more evidence to support the thesis that the postpartum care in the United States is subpar, Bradley said the postnatal hotel she stayed in was “mid-range” by Korean standards. In other words, she received a full-body massage only every other day, luxuriated in a full-service spa, and enjoyed 24-7 infant care. On a research trip for her food-and-lifestyle company, Heng Ou visited Care Bay, in Shanghai, which had marble flooring, security, and valet parking. “It was essentially a five-star hotel. Newborns even had their own pools,” recalled Ou. While Ou didn’t observe the traditional Chinese practice of zuoyuezi—”to sit a month”—her aunt, an acupuncturist, visited after Ou’s first pregnancy, cooked a freezer full of food, and sent Ou to rest for several weeks. “These rituals are important as preventative health care. The more secure and safe you feel after birth, the better postpartum experience you will have—this can help with headaches, depression, arthritis, joint issues, and reproductive issues,” said Ou, who authored The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother.
Too Much Babying?
But despite all this healing and restoring, the postpartum centers can seem a bit stifling and infantilizing—for the mother. “The United States and Korea operate on two opposite ends of the spectrum,” says Lee. “In Korea, there is the idea that women are very weak in their postpartum state, and it can be discouraging to be treated like you can’t do anything. Whereas in the United States mothers are seen as being able to do anything, even right after they give birth.” Lee, who is originally from Texas, found she had to push back against some cultural beliefs, especially the ones she found scientifically unfounded, such as when the nurses told her that she couldn’t drink water because it would dilute her breast milk. “I walked around the joriwon the whole time with a giant water bottle,” she said.
With the growing Asian diaspora community in the United States, postpartum services are popping up in major population centers. In 2011, My Asian Nanny was started to serve areas including Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley, in Southern California. Last year, Amy Chang used the service to hire a postpartum-specialist caretaker for one month, to the tune of around $4,500. Chang’s Taiwanese employee cooked all the meals for Chang and her husband. “Many of the interview candidates come with pictures of their food,” says Chang, a Los Angeles–based lifestyle writer. “Every culture has their own cuisine for the postpartum period. The Taiwanese way is focused on organ meats, like liver and kidneys.”
Chang’s husband is from Taiwan, but she was adopted from South Korea and was born and raised in the United States by Jewish parents. Still, Chang says, she didn’t subscribe to the Western mind-set of being back at the office and gym within mere moments of giving birth. “In Asian culture, that’s looked at like you aren’t taking care of yourself and therefore you aren’t taking care of your family,” said Chang. Differing cultural norms aside, comedienne Ali Wong put the postpartum period into a universal language when she described it as feeling like a “defeated sumo wrestler”—complete with a top bun, diaper, and bleeding nipples. Put another way? New parenthood is rough and tough, and new mothers can use all the guilt-free help they can get. And a few spa services certainly couldn’t hurt.
Hannah Seligson is a writer based in New York