Monday, August 18, 2008

The minimalist mom's guide to baby shopping

Life doesn't always go the way that we plan. On our third date, Mystery asked me how many children I wanted, and I said "I want to have one, and then maybe one more, what about you?" He told me that he had it all figured out. He wanted to have two really close together, so they could be best friends, and then wait a long time, until he missed having a baby, and then have one more. I laughed and pointed out that if he was serious about that plan, then he had better look for another woman, since at my age (I had just turned 31), I'd be too old for that third baby by the time we got around to it.

There are several things that are noteworthy about that anecdote. First is that we knew very early on in our romantic relationship that we were going to be together, and that we wanted children to be a part of our future. Second is the fact that I was undoubtedly the worst third date ever. Pointing out your aging ovaries to your new boyfriend is always bad form, but when that boyfriend is nine years younger than you (yes, I was a cradle robber, but I swear, he was a very mature 22), it could almost be seen as an act of willful self-sabotage. Nonetheless, Mystery stuck around, and has put up with me ever since. Mystery is a good egg.

After a couple of years, we decided to move back to the US and to get married there. Then the USCIS (formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS) got to have its fun with us. It took one year and about $4000 to get everything sorted out with his visa and flights, and about another $1500 to get his green card once we were married. I was in graduate school at the time, and therefore a bit financially challenged, but we managed, and were happy.

Then infertility struck. We were luckier than some, in that our insurance (which came with my post-graduate job) covered 50% of diagnosis of infertility, and 50% of some treatments, but we still spent several thousand dollars on tests and treatments. Unfortunately, our insurance specifically excluded IVF, so at the end of it all, we were still childless, sadder and poorer.

Things started to turn around when we moved to Korea. Rather than facing a $15,000 bill for an IVF cycle that had only about a 35% chance of resulting in a viable pregnancy at my age, we were looking at $3000/cycle. Not trivial, in fact rather painful, but given that it would likely take 2-3 rounds to work, manageable. So we went for it. And it worked.

And $10,000 later (with all of the fees for prenatal care, the fun fun trip to Singapore for amnio, and then the copay for the delivery), there was Eggbert.

She was worth every penny and more. However, that didn't change the fact that we had a lot less in the bank than we might have liked, especially given that we have been a one-income family since arriving in Korea (Mystery can't legally work here).

I had long ago abandoned as irrelevant any dreams that I had about decorating a nursery or shopping for baby clothes, or what have you. Infertility had made it clear that such things are just the wrapping on the present. Throughout the early stages of pregnancy, I didn't even think about shopping for baby things. It was so hard to believe that after everything, I could end up with a take-home baby. I contented myself with enjoying the journey as much as I could. However, eventually it became clear that some preparations would need to be made. At that point I realized that I had two problems:

1) a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a very expensive city

2) all of the baby items that I had been taught were indispensable cost $1 million each, or weren't available in Korea at all

Problem number 1 could have been solved by moving to another neighborhood. However, we love our neighborhood, and it's so central and convenient that we can walk everywhere, including the grocery, hospital, and my work. Moving would not only result in higher rent (assuming that we moved to get a larger apartment), but would also probably mean that we needed to buy a car. And then drive that car. In Seoul. Which would solve all of our problems by making me die of fear.

So we decided to stay put and just manage, which meant that we didn't have to decorate a nursery, because we weren't going to have a nursery.

That meant that we had to fit all of the baby's things (purchased for the low low price of only $1 million each) into our tiny apartment. That process has given me a real education on the difference between need and want. It turns out that while there are a bewildering variety of almost-irresistible baby items for sale, you really don't NEED much at all to take care of a baby. In fact, I think that the average first-world family spends enough on completely unnecessary baby products in the first two years to fund at least one round of IVF at US prices.

Here are the things that I actually needed in Eggbert's first nine months:

-a car seat (we don't have a car, but do take taxis from time to time)
-about six outfits of each size (plus extra onesies when she was a newborn)
-swaddling blankets (when she was a newborn) and a few other blankets
-a breast pump and bottles (only necessary because I had to go back to work)
-baby wipes
-diapers (well, I suppose that I could have gone diaper free, and substituted some additional outfits instead, to make up for the greater frequency of laundrering)
-a baby carrier (I use a baby bjorn)
-a blender (we make our own baby food)
-a small spoon
-some towels and rags
-baby nail clippers (a nail file also worked when she was a newborn, but now she's far too impatient)
-baby tylenol (I felt like we needed this although we actually never used it)
-baby soap/shampoo

I think that's it. We do HAVE more stuff, some of which we use, but I think we could have managed without any of it if we had to. For example, we have a crib, but since we cosleep, we just use it for naps, and as a safe place to put her when we need to do something without her underfoot. We also have a stroller, which I LOVE, but don't strictly speaking need (although I do think it would be hard to manage with no stroller and no car-my back is only so strong). We have approximately a billion toys, all of which were given to her, but honestly, she's as happy playing with an empty plastic bottle or my (cheap waterproof) watch as she is with the fanciest toy. We also have some lovely books, which I'd hate to do without.

And about a zillion adorable outfits that she outgrew before she ever wore, all gifts.

When I was thinking about Eggbert's material possessions, it occurred to me that the most noteworthy things were those that didn't make the list. For example, Eggbert doesn't have a high chair, or a bumbo chair, or any other kind of chair. She did have a baby tub, but she mostly bathed in the sink as a newborn, and now in the shower (Mystery is very clever in developing age-appropriate bathing techniques). She doesn't have a diaper genie (just a normal garbage pail with a lid), or an exersaucer, or a pack-n-play. And it's fine.

It will be interesting to see what happens when we move back to the US (probably in about another year). Will I go crazy buying her things just because I can, or will I be able to stick to just getting things that actually make a difference in her quality of life (or ours)? I don't even know what to hope for. On the one hand, I must admit that I am dying to get a room ready for her (assuming that I ever get her out of my bed!) On the other hand, I kind of like having a minimal amount of stuff. It works for us.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Another interesting moment on the subway

The Korean obsession with appearances is a frequent discussion in mixed (Korean and foreign) groups here. Aesthetics are considered very important in every arena of human activity, from the obvious (art, design, architecture) to the astonishing (beautifully gift-wrapped juice boxes), but nowhere is the focus more intense than on personal beauty. South Korea has one of the highest rates of plastic surgery in the world. I've seen at least three people with the bandages indicative of a recent nose job in the last month, and apparently eye surgery (to add a fold and make the eyes look rounder) is even more common. People of all ages are generally neat and well-dressed any time that they appear in public; I look quite the slob by comparison.

I mostly don't bat an eye anymore when I get into a mirrored elevator (it's very common for all four walls to be mirrors) and see everybody taking opportunity to shamelessly preen during the 30-second journey. In fact, it's quite liberating to know that nobody will look down on me for checking myself out (although rather less pleasant to realize how badly I will fare if I ever have a run-in with the Seoul fashion police).

I thought I was used to all of this, but today I saw something today that stopped me in my tracks. In a subway station, there was a vendor selling undergarments--mostly bras, but also some other items--all lacy, but also sturdy and serviceable, probably targeting women in their 50's. Bras here seem to be padded about 90% of the time, so everything was holding its shape quite well, but there was one shape that looked a little off. Upon closer inspection, I realized that I wasn't actually looking at a bra at all. It was a pair of heavily reinforced biking-short-like underwear, complete with two full round pads right where the arse should be: padded control-top underwear for women that find themselves having a crisis of gluteal inadequacy on the subway.

Now I've seen everything.