When It Comes To Giving Birth, What Can Money Buy You?
A visit to two newcomers in the make-birth-better industry.
From the ninth floor of the five-star Langham Hotel in Manhattan, I can see: a Pret a Manger wrapped in scaffolding, a Yankees Clubhouse selling licensed apparel, arched windows on a limestone building, Corinthian columns, scrawny trees in large white pots, the top of an M2 bus. Traffic flows smoothly down Fifth Avenue. Inside, enveloping me, is the largest suite I’ve ever seen. There is cherry wood paneling and dove-gray carpet. There are two couches and a Frank Gehry coffee table book. There are gauze curtains with a subtle white stripe. There is a feeling of spaciousness and tranquility. The only way to check in here is to give birth.
The room is one of 16 on a floor occupied by Boram, “a postnatal retreat for moms and newborn babies” that opened around Mother’s Day. Among its many offerings, Boram boasts a round-the-clock nursery for newborns, chef-prepared meals delivered to your room, and lactation assistance. The rooms feature Swedish Duxiana beds, objects so rarified that I just learned of their existence. A stay costs $1,450 to $1,950 a night, and guests check in with or without partners for three, five, or seven nights. Sometimes more.
Showing me around on a Thursday afternoon, the founder and namesake, Boram Nam, explains that postnatal hotels are a well-known concept in Korea, where she’s from. Guests stay a minimum of 14 days. “The baby's well taken care of 24/7,” she says. She wears a green silk shirt dress and white leather mules. A gold B hangs from her neck on a chunky gold chain. “You have three nutritious meals and meet other moms going through the same stage.”
I follow her into a standard corner room, then the mother’s lounge, and the nursery with its row of empty bassinets, each equipped with its own security camera. She scouted the bassinets — warm wood with many cunning compartments — from Lenox Hill Hospital. The shirts Boram provides for their “baby guests” are organic cotton, ordered from Korea, stamped with the minimalist logo, a small, tan dot followed by a “b.” The seams of the shirt are on the outside, rather than the inside, so they don’t irritate the babies’ skin.
Though postnatal hotels are common in Asia, Nam tells me the facility is the only one of its kind in the U.S. Knowing what I know about this country, I’d expect a booming luxury postpartum industry. For a certain price, you should be able to recover on a dedicated floor of the Four Seasons in any major city, at a Goop-affiliated hotel in Malibu, in the Marvel birthing wing at Walt Disney World for $5,000 a night. That no such options exist underscores something obvious to anyone paying attention: new parents are not valued here, even as consumers.
Nam aspires to compensate for the “village that’s not there.” She is referring to the lack of support for new mothers, our national identity of going it alone. Nam’s friends in Korea all benefited from places like Boram, while Nam had her second child via a C-section in the U.S. and resumed working on her laptop an hour later. Almost eight years later, she founded Boram.
At Boram, a care associate will give you a foot rub. The lounge has snacks from Daily Harvest, a small library, a soft-looking rug. The palette is muted: oatmeal, gray, beige. I try to guess the name of the color of the retro Smeg refrigerator and the word “cashmere” floats across my mind. But then when I look it up, it is just called “cream.”
Director of operations Sarah Mallin, a former NICU nurse in a lab coat, tells me the company is launching a post-stay support program. They already have inquiries from people who won’t deliver until January or February.
In the room where they disinfect the breast pumps, Nam shows me the Upang-brand UV LED sterilizers, another Korean export. They are a foot and a half tall with cheerful, rounded edges, and sit on a counter. Squinting into the red light beaming from their insides, I know the parts of my own breast pump have never been as clean as an Upang could make them. Everywhere, in fact, I see reminders of my own birth and recovery experiences. Not due to similarity, but due to contrast.
The births of my two children were not luxurious, though they came at enormous cost. After I delivered my first daughter in 2015, a few miles up Fifth Avenue at Mount Sinai Hospital, I shared a room with a woman who had seven children. A partition, in the form of a floral sheet, separated our beds. Her children came and went, ate fast food, listened to music, occupied our bathroom.
Standing on shaky legs, I had to ask two teens to vacate so I could pee for the first time after giving birth, a scary moment w/r/t what was numb, what hurt, what had been sewn back together, and what I was convinced would fall out of my body (everything from the brain on down). They did so with much eye-rolling. Later, as my baby slept, they watched the Caitlyn Jenner documentary series. My husband departed at 8 o’clock, but the kids stayed until 11, flouting the rules. I was left with my baby. She blinked up at me with eyes that were canny and silver in the non-dark of the New York City night. I was psychedelically tired and afraid. On the other side of the curtain, I Am Cait played a second time.
It is hard for me to imagine having the means to go to a place like Boram. It’s hard for me to imagine the quiet. Our baby’s first home was a tiny apartment in Brooklyn across the street from a Rite Aid. Deliveries arrived at 3 a.m. In the middle of the street, there was a loose manhole cover that made a sound like a gunshot when cars hit it. A lot of cars hit it. My husband had two weeks of paid leave and I had zero. I took 12 anyway and we bought groceries and diapers with credit cards. He helped with child care, but he was not there during the day, and so he didn’t comprehend the full scope of the work, its ceaselessness, my solitude. I don’t look back with regret, but it was not serene and it makes Boram, this oasis of serenity hovering above Fifth Avenue, seem far-fetched, the product of subconscious yearning. The way, crossing a desert, half-dead already, you might hallucinate a stream.
Because my second daughter is 11 months old and still breastfeeding, I need to pump after the tour. I tell the staff this in advance and they prepare a suite for me, the one with the resplendent view of the Yankees store. Nam urges me to keep the sheet mask in the suite and Mallin congratulates me on breastfeeding for so long. She is the first and only person to ever congratulate me on this across two babies.
They bring me a squat, cylindrical box of Agni cookies for hormone imbalance containing ashwagandha, flax, and pumpkin seeds and an Evian in a glass bottle, and then leave me alone. I eat two of the cookies, which are as delicious as something flax-based can be. I do not see any babies during my visit to Boram, but while I am pumping, I hear one. A single, solitary wail. When I am done, I deposit my pump parts on a stainless-steel tray marked with the room number and a care associate in black scrubs returns to collect them.
It’s a sales pitch, sure. But I am sold. I want to be addressed by these women in hushed voices. I want to take my shoes off and walk around on the rug in the mother’s lounge and be healed by Epsom salts and drink ameliorative beverages while looking out the window at a Pret a Manger. I want to be cared for. Who doesn’t?
Oula, a “modern maternity center” in Brooklyn Heights, is another option in what I will inelegantly refer to as the luxury or luxury-adjacent birth startup space. Oula was founded by chief executive officer Adrianne Nickerson, chief operating officer Elaine Purcell, chief experience officer Joanne Schneider, and medical director Dr. Ila Dayananda, M.D., M.P.H. They envision a warmer birth experience, “modern medicine meets human intuition.” The cost is comparable to what you’d pay for regular prenatal care, but the office is staffed with midwives alongside OBs. Delivery is at a hospital (incidentally, another branch of Mount Sinai, home of the floral curtain and heavily-trafficked recovery room), under the care of Oula’s medical team unless you need surgery.
I visit their Brooklyn Heights clinic on a Wednesday. The Montague Street facade is pale yellow and terracotta with huge picture windows and a clean, contemporary font. I visit at lunchtime and the founders have locked the door, so there is no one here but three of them and myself, plus the receptionist and a tech. They wear cropped jeans, nice tops, big smiles. Three of the four founding members were pregnant at the same time in 2020, and the idea is to create the experience they would have wanted. They say the clinic was fully booked within three months of opening.
Oula offers virtual visits, classes, and postpartum checkups one week after delivery, as opposed to the recommended three. But part of their vision is also related to material comfort. The vibe. The design is tactile and velvet-forward. The colors are burnt sienna, mustard, tan. A framed Matisse cutout hangs on the wall. You know the one — the blue lady with the bent knee. The bathroom is a streaky shade of lapis. Baskets hold complementary diapers, nursing pads, postpartum underwear, and prenatal vitamins.
A library features Emily Oster’s Cribsheet, Natalia Hailes and Ash Spivak’s Why Did No One Tell Me This? I can’t help but notice the hardbacks have been stripped of their jackets and the bare books compliment the color scheme. Purcell says another journalist described the look as The Wing meets Joshua Tree. I would describe it more as The Wing meets The Wing. Later, she clarifies, as if it wasn’t obvious, that their intended customer is the millennial mom. The girlboss isn’t dead, she’s in Brooklyn, procreating.
I once again have to wonder why facilities like Oula are a rarity. Are these ideas so radical? A cozy waiting room? Some free vitamins? A human touch? Why does Oula have the feel of a luxury experience, when its core mission — prenatal care and delivery by midwife — are evidence-backed and cost-effective?
On the anecdotal level, too, there is something to be said for the midwife approach. A midwife named Amy delivered my second baby in Poughkeepsie, New York, and in a lot of ways, it was better than my first. The OB at my first delivery motivated me with a threat: “I’m going to give you an episiotomy if you don’t get her out on this push.”
Amy had a gentler touch. She asked if she could break my water, for instance, instead of just shoving a hook up there. My baby was born fast, in two pushes, after eight hours of contractions, and Amy was excited that this resulted in a perfectly round head. The whole process was so pleasant that I let her show me something interesting about the placenta (the beginnings of a second lobe) and was able to muster polite fascination. “Wow,” I said, about an organ that had recently been in my body.
So yes, a midwife. Maybe a doula too, I don’t know. I didn’t have one, but I’m sure they also improve the experience. These things always come down to expense for me. We couldn’t afford anything above the baseline, which was $4,000 for each of our babies with insurance, and I’m sure legions of others can’t either. I do know that, midwife or OB, the fear in the days that followed was the same: boundless. Fear that the baby would die, that we’d become a SIDS statistic, that in my exhaustion I’d make a fatal mistake. Rarely have I seen that fear articulated. The awe tends to eclipse it, which is understandable. The awe is gargantuan. It blocks out the sun.
After the tour, I find myself once again sitting across a coffee table from a group of polished women. It’s two days before Roe falls; everyone knows it’s coming and there is a pall. They tell me they want to provide a middle ground between crunchy and sterile. They tell me they take insurance and also Medicaid, which many midwives don’t, making them “something of an anomaly.” Their mission checks all the equity and inclusion boxes; their website pledges anti-racism. This is all commendable, but their storefront is in Brooklyn Heights, not Brownsville, and a second location is opening in Soho in September. The implicit proposal here, and at Boram too, is a trickle-down revolution in maternal care: first the rich and then everyone else.
During our interview, I face the big picture windows that look out onto the street. At one point, someone in a red, white, and blue eagle mascot costume complete with oversized orange feet walks past in the company of a man in regular clothes. They appear to be chatting. It is an absurd image and distracts me from what Nickerson is saying about “whole person care.” I remember: life is chaos.
Maybe you can choose the color scheme, maybe you can pay someone to run a bath for you, but you can’t control much else about the birth of your child. What happens during delivery and in its aftermath is inevitably chaotic. It will be wild, unpredictable, painful. Heartbreak is possible. Devastation. There will be fluids, tearing, stitches. You might die! It is typical to feel some joy. If all goes well enough, at the end you get a baby, and that’s when the real chaos begins.