Confessions of a non-Korean mama

I have so many dear friends expecting babies this year. Come October, I’m expecting a veritable traffic jam of storks in the sky.

It’s reminding me of the joy of bringing our own little dumplings home. Our first experience in doing so is forever illuminated for me…

January 2008

As we are leaving the hospital with our dumpling, our pastor and his wife from the Korean church call Loverpants. They say they are on their way over to our house. There is no asking and there is no refusing. I mean, my belly has just been on the butcher block and I am having volcanic eruptions of hot hormone lava and we have a new family member that we just met, but no bigs!

mom goes home
Going home from the hospital

Our pastor and his wife meet us at home. They march through the apartment toward the kitchen where they dutifully stock our refrigerator with noodle dishes and potatoes and bread and seaweed soup P.S. GOOD FOR BREASTMILK. And then pastor offers a prayer in Korean and his wife looks askance at me trying to breastfeed.

The following week, the pastor and his wife are back for a second go-round. This time, with friends! And more seaweed soup. Ahjoomah General’s warning: Contents may make breasts explode with ample milk supply. After several hymns and prayers in Korean, all of which may have been pleas to the Almighty to make our next child an heir, the church elders begin to leave. But not before several of the ahjoomahs (Korean elder women) compress my abdomen, exclaiming “Aygoh!” I believed at one time that Aygoh! meant “Hot dog! She’s still a postnatal fatty!” in Korean.

But after reading a thing or two about samchilil, I know why they are squeezing me. Samchilil, which means 21 days, is the Korean practice of letting a woman who has just given birth to rest. Doesn’t that sound amazing? If mama rests then she will regain strength and be able to take care of those around her. But my impression is that it is a fear-based rest. The postnatal mama is resting to avoid her bones going soft and all of her teeth falling out. True fear. The mother is to stay indoors, drink miyuk-kuk (seaweed soup), avoid cold (even drinking an iced beverage), and sometimes she even wears a girdle. Not kidding, players, an honest-to-goodness girdle. Hence why the ahjoomahs are squeezing the place where a baby used to be. Aygoh!

Exit: Team Ahjoomah, stage left.

daddy time

Irritated and exhausted, I walk to the kitchen to see the spoils of the meals on wheels. I open the refrigerator and there it is: the familiar pots and pans, the kimchee and the burnt rice. The potluck ministry had come to love on me today.

I’m told no matter the denomination, it’s the same scene at any Korean-American church. The potluck is the thing. I’ll never be able to consume the topographic mounds of rice that my church sisters manage to wolf down, but I always enjoy it. Is there really no such thing as a free lunch? Have I paid for my meal ticket through every awkward encounter at K-church? Perhaps. But I’ve never been asked to contribute to the potluck. For the most part, I’ve been a taker. For me, this is God’s grace come to life in a silver pot. We’ve done nothing to deserve it and done everything wrong to be denied it, but He lavishes it on us like a smiling Korean ahjoomah whose delight derives entirely on its acceptance.

a family portrait
ur first time at church as a famiLee

The Korean church loved me through my twenties. The ahjoomahs loved me in a way that I found peculiar, in ways that I never would have chosen to be loved. But there’s no menu at a buffet. Only a bounty of the interesting and colorful, the flavorful, sweet, sour, and spicy.

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4 pairs of Converse high-tops

We bought four pairs. You came into the world with four pairs of Converse hightop shoes. Daddy bought unisex colors: two sets of aqua (unisex? debatable) and two sets of black, because we didn’t know if you were a boy or girl. But we were prepared with hightops, sizes 3, 5, 7, 9.


We didn’t know how this would work, you joining us, no other family member for 1000 miles, Mama in grad school, Daddy working 3 jobs. When the nurses handed you to me, I couldn’t tell if it was just the anesthesia making me shiver or if the great and profound weight of this new life in my care was making me quake. I was holding 8 lb. 1 oz. of beautiful you but the pull of gravity at that moment was much greater. Like a Mac truck had backed into my hospital bed and dropped a heap-ton of work and sleeplessness into my lap. Somehow–and I can’t explain it because I think you have to experience it firsthand–a feeling washed over me that you were the only one thing in my life that I couldn’t get out of, and yet we were going to be ok, you and I and Daddy, and that we were going to be so, so happy together.

I mean, for starters, at least we had shoes.


The first time I saw your Daddy walking up the hill of Schultz lawn, he was wearing Converse. They were red Chucks, the only appropriate choice for the man who captured my young heart.

Whenever we would go to visit your grandparents in Ann Arbor, we would visit Sam’s to buy ourselves a new pair of Cons.


It’s terribly naive to think that we should make this bulk investment in Converse for a girl who would not walk for another 13 months, but I suppose the shoes symbolize our naivete and our induction of you into our Converse club.




You put the last pair on today, the bookends on this shoe collection, and you complained that they were pinching your toes. It felt unfair, that you had outgrown these shoes that had once seemed so impossibly big without our even noticing it.

This, too, is a symbol of the invisible ache that your own growth causes the people who love you most in this world, and also of the wonderful shoes you have yet to fill that you do not yet own, in sizes we cannot yet fathom.

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Where all the bologna about fertility stops.


When someone raises the topic of fertility, my reflex is to either figuratively or literally cup my hands over my ears and say in an obnoxious sing-songy way, “LALA LALALA CANNOT HEAR YOU, HAVE NO INTEREST, LALALALA CHECK PLEASE.” Because talking turkey about fertility, with anyone, at any time, generally falls into two buckets.

The first is the Hyper-Vigilant Bucket. Fertility talk in this bucket is usually about timing and regulating and monitoring and waking up to check temperatures and peeing on PH sticks and charting and doing all manner of things that make me nervous. I’m nervous talking about this vigilance about fertility because it seems competitive. Like a biology lab report on which one is trying to get an A. Yet, I understand that many, many men and women are forced to become hyper-vigilant about fertility because leaving it to chance has not netted the desired results. I get this and I am sensitive to it. But I wonder if all of our resources, online and otherwise, have not created a more vigilant than necessary monitoring of fertility and ovulation and ultimately serves to make us more nervous than we ought to be. By nature I am not a list maker, an organizer, someone who knows where to find a ruler, someone who refers to charts or maintains them unless forced to do so. Hyper-vigilant Fertility talk gives me agita because it is anathema to the way I choose to do things.

The second is the Hocus Pocus Bucket. Fertility talk in this bucket is based on nonsense. Old wives tales. Research conducted before electricity, before birth control pills. Fertility talk herein is treated as something that one can control by avoiding certain maladies, like sitting on a cold bench or floor, or eating too much cheese.

Young and Pregnant

The day I turned 26, I cried the entire day. There were brief interludes where I stopped crying. I spent the day in fetal position convinced that I was going to have a very difficult road to getting pregnant.

The pathetic truth about my 26th birthday is that I had not even tried to get pregnant. I was just convinced, based on my health history, and based on the ninnies at church who looked askance at me, married for a whole year and not yet pregnant, that I was going to be an epic fertility fail.

Six months later I was pregnant. I do not wax boastfully about my fertility or good fortune. If anything, I grieve continuously with those whose fertility journeys have been challenged or anguished by very real struggles. I know the private pain they carry is often too heavy to bear, to face the cruelty of another day. Conception and pregnancy have not been complicated ordeals for me, except in my own head. I was convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that I would be cursed. Based on what the Fertility Buckets had poured into me.

Suprise Yr Pregnant


I have grappled with the nuances of Fertility Talk on my own until I read this article in this month’s Atlantic Monthly. Absolutely everyone who is poised to have a baby or have a conversation about having a baby should read this article. The author goes to the raw source of data that has informed much of our fertility knowledge in the industrialized world. The data will astound you. After discussing the article with a friend who is in in her early thirties, she said, she felt so relieved and so much more peaceful about the future. And oddly, so did I. Even though my fertility journey feels over. At least for now. I felt more peaceful because of the truth of the article and because of the lack of competition it fostered. Fertility is not a sport or a magic trick. It is a blessing from which many more blessings may flow, and possibly for many more years than was once thought.

Warning:  Pregnant Woman

If you read the article, what did you think?

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