From the other room, I heard my husband, John, telling Ummoni, the formal name for “mother” in Korean, how to take a cab from the airport to our place in the city. I braced myself for her arrival.
Happy as I was to see my mother-in-law, I was a protective tigress toward my 2-week-old cub. I just wanted to snuggle my newborn daughter and not have to share her. Fortunately, I was breastfeeding and my cub ate often, so I stole away for hours in her tiny nursery, where I was at peace.
However, Ummoni did not appear to understand my new-mom modus operandi. John told me she wanted to be sure that my milk was coming in all right and that my breasts got a massage.
It wasn’t until years later, when I read about samchilil, an age-old tradition of postpartum care practiced in my mother-in-law’s native South Korea, that I realized Ummoni wasn’t just being a weirdo with no boundaries. This massage was a legitimate ritual of caretaking for the postpartum mother.
John and I are among the 11 million Americans who are in an interracial or interethnic marriage, according to a Pew Research Center report. Since my own birth in 1980, the number of infants born to interracial couples has tripled ― 14% of those are like my own children, with one white parent and one Asian. Yet, the literature and resources for navigating the oftentimes wide cultural chasm for simply bringing a newborn baby from the hospital to a multiethnic home ― never mind raising the child ― are still relatively sparse.
I had known my in-laws for years before I became pregnant with their first grandchild. However, I was still ill-prepared for the distinct cultural attitudes and opinions they held toward my pregnancy and specifically toward my postpartum care. It seems that attitudes toward parenthood in just about every other country on Earth are different than the messaging and support available to American mothers and fathers. This can be an exceptionally hard dichotomy to navigate, particularly when there are cultural and language barriers ― as there are with my in-laws and me.
For instance, I had an emergency C-section to bring my daughter into the world. To prevent blood clotting, my doctor told me to take a daily walk outside. My in-laws, however, frowned upon this plan. Korean mothers don’t leave the house with the baby until 100 days have passed, they explained. They feared that I would get a cold in my bones that I would pass on to the baby. I was familiar with this 100-day ritual, drawn from a time when babies in an unindustrialized Korea rarely lived to be 100 days old. But, since I am not Korean, I had hoped there would be some reprieve for me from this tradition. I’m the daughter of a mother who brought my brother home from the hospital and was walking him outside in a papooselike contraption the next week.
Still, I didn’t want to be ungrateful for the time and support my mother-in-law offered in the weeks that followed my daughter’s arrival. But it was all so different than what I felt I needed.
Ummoni prepared rice and seaweed soup several times a day. The serving of miyuk-gook, the seaweed and broth believed to be good for breastmilk production, as well as the fastidious tending of a postpartum mother for the first 21 days of her baby’s life, are part of samchilil, the Korean tradition of caretaking that dates back to the Chosun dynasty. Seaweed soup, though, has a way of flushing right through a person’s system that is patently inconvenient when one is already full of liquids. I slurped my green broth obediently and then snuck back to my room with the baby where we both apparently loved to cry.
What more could I have done to bridge the ideological divide between my in-laws and me while my nether parts and my sanity all seemed to be held in place by a gauzy netting? I had become a mother for the first time. They were new to grandparenthood, as well. We were all experiencing a whole new dimension of parenthood, and with that comes a freight train of emotions, regardless of one’s native tongue or culture. It was a collision of expectations and feelings and fulfilled dreams all wrapped up in a cloth diaper.
According to an article published by the American Counseling Association about stressors faced by intercultural families, it may be helpful when there is cultural dissonance to identify one’s outsider status as akin to culture shock. Just as a traveler experiences a shock to his or her system, intercultural couples experience this, except that “these experiences are reactions to the culture of an intimate partner.” Although I was in my own home, I was encountering culture shock. As with most kinds of shock, it was difficult to integrate all the senses and thoughts right away.
In time, I have learned to give the culture shock different names and mental files. I identified the situation and the attendant feeling, and then I decided whether it was helpful or harmful. “This public health bulletin from my mother-in-law goes in the imaginary ‘No Longer Medically Acceptable’ bucket,” may be one way of categorizing something that was once shocking (e.g. putting Vicks VapoRub on my newborn’s chest). When my son was born two years later and my mother-in-law walked in the door and immediately began washing my baseboards, the culture shock eventually faded and my ecstasy over her kindness took over.
In my experience, learning to listen to my body and what it needed, rather than bending to a tradition for fear of someone else’s disapproval, was also helpful for surviving the wildly unpredictable postpartum recovery period ― as well as a solid habit to develop for life in general.
But it took me some gumption to get there. With John back to work during the day, he couldn’t translate or run interference with his parents. I felt judged every time I turned on the television as Ummoni would take the baby and scooch out of the way of the screen. (She said she thought the TV would hurt the baby’s brain.) I remember John finally convinced his parents that it was doctor’s orders that I walk outside each day.
On that first furlough, I walked straight to a bakery and ordered the biggest cupcake they sold. I wasn’t used to being challenged on my everyday choices and having to defend them. I am sure my in-laws weren’t used to questioning people in this way either, but this was all new terrain for all of us. We walked the road to new parenthood and new grandparenthood by paving it with patience (and for me, sneaking cupcakes and episodes of “Ellen” whenever I could).
The morning before Ummoni departed from Camp Post-Natal, she rocked my daughter in our living room. She told me how she remembered the prayers that she prayed while she was nursing John as a newborn. As she looked off in the distance, she told me, “I prayed that God would just take care of my son. Life was so hard. We had such a hard time. But my son never got hurt. No sick, no hospital.”
Milk and hormones kept gushing out of me like an open fire hydrant. My initiation into motherhood was best symbolized by a pouring out ― an erratic but unceasing pouring out of fluids and feelings from every orifice. As Ummoni spoke, I realized that she had been pouring herself out, that she had been laying her body and her heart out in sacrifice for her children since my husband was the age that my daughter was right in that moment. And now she was pouring that out for me and for her new granddaughter.
The tears started to well up in my eyes; I didn’t stop them from streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t know what I was going to do when Ummoni left. Fortunately, she had left enough seaweed soup for an entire maternity ward.
Kendra Stanton Lee is a professor of humanities and a freelance writer in Boston. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post’s “On Parenting,” The Boston Globe, Slate.com and others. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
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