Why I plan to go into confinement

Confinement. Such a quaint term that seems to belong to another era, where women wore long skirts with petticoats and corsets and childbirth (not to mention the activities that preceded it) were not openly spoken about. But postpartum confinement – the Chinese concept of ‘sitting through the month’ ( 坐月子, zuo yuezi) – remains popular in Chinese communities.  And in Taiwan it is an important rite for new mothers; in fact it is almost unheard of NOT to go into confinement for at least thirty days after birth, with many women going into confinement for 45 days.

I first heard about zuo yuezi when I was a student in Taiwan. My somewhat traditional homestay mother took me aside to tell me about how zuo yuezi was vitally important for women. I had just started dating Mr Taiwanxifu a few months beforehand, and hadn’t yet got to the point of contemplating marriage (let alone children). So it was a bit too much information at that point. But nonetheless, I gathered from our intimate chat that zuo yuezi was important in Chinese culture, a theme emphasized at length by virtually every Taiwanese woman I have met since becoming noticeably pregnant.

I didn’t practice zuo yuezi after I gave birth to my first son. I had thought about it, but living in Canberra, Australia there weren’t many resources available. Still I read some recipe books and Chinese friends gave me some advice. But then the baby came – over two months early. Any thoughts I had had of a leisurely recovery went out the window as we lurched from one frightful uncertainty to the next during our son’s first tenuous weeks.

During that tumultuous time, our focus was on the baby: not the mother. Although Mr Taiwanxifu made me restorative foods such as chicken soup and boiled up Chinese medicine, what was missing was the key ingredient: rest. In between spending as much time by the baby’s humidicrib as possible, expressing up to ten times a day, travelling from home and back to the hospital twice daily and entertaining interstate family while trying to look and act like a fashionable mother who was managing everything (just), rest seemed self-indulgent. At first I felt impatience with the nursing staff for taking up time focusing on me when my baby seemed to have a greater need, but after a month I nearly fizzled out from exhaustion. I had hit a wall, and unsurprisingly was also unable to produce enough milk for the baby.

My experience was extreme, but is not atypical of the sheer exhaustion mothers in ‘Western’ countries face. Gone are the days where we have leisurely stays of a week or more in hospital. Now you are lucky to get three days in a shared ward – with special programs encouraging early discharge hours after birth. New mothers are expected to do much of the caring for the infant at all hours, even in hospital.  And in today’s interconnected world, news of a new baby spreads like wildfire with many a new mother inundated with welcome and unwelcome guests intent on cuddling the baby. Once home, women usually get on with doing housework as usual with little support – while dealing with a baby that doesn’t always sleep when he/she should.  Is it any wonder that post-natal depression is so prevalent?

Consequently the practice of respecting a mother’s need for rest and recuperation after birth appeals to me.  But there are aspects that I, as a headstrong, ‘can-do’ woman, will likely struggle with. Like not being able to venture outside for a month, wash my hair or even take a shower. I will need to eat special foods, many based on offal, scoff down bitter Chinese medicine and drink lots of fluids – but no water, despite it being the height of summer.  No visitors can see me, not even close friends.  Unsurprisingly, there is some debate, generally hidden behind the louder voice of the lucrative zuo yuezi industry, about whether confinement is really essential in the era of modern, liberated women.

I have decided to keep an open mind about what may or may not happen during my zuo yuezi experience. I plan to blog about my experiences – both good and bad. Although technically new mothers are only supposed to rest during confinement — not even watch television — somehow I will still find a way to blog.  I hope that when the time comes you can follow my updates and perhaps lend some moral support. I may well need it.

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About taiwanxifu

‘Taiwanxifu’ (pronounced ‘shee foo’) means ‘Taiwan daughter-in-law’ in Chinese and has been my nickname ever since I married my Taiwanese husband, Sam. I love sampling Taiwanese food, even local specialties such as stinky tofu, pigs blood cake and Taipei beef noodle soup with offal. But there are many other options on the menu. Promise!
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18 Responses to Why I plan to go into confinement

  1. Stephen C says:

    I’ve heard about 坐月子 several times from my students, but I still can’t wrap my 21st Century Western culture mind around it. Not that I’m exclusively high-tech—my own children were born at home with the help of a midwife.

    The rest-for-the-mother part sounds very necessary. You wrote “New mothers are expected to do much of the caring for the infant at all hours, even in hospital,” and that was my own daughter’s experience when she had her baby in March (in the US). She and her husband (who was working 2 jobs at the time) were expected to be essentially the sole caregivers from birth. They had hoped to get some rest at least for the 2 days that she was in the hospital, but it wasn’t to be.

    I understand the perceived benefit of certain confinement-dictated foods; howerver, the 坐月子 directives of no hair washing and showers, no drinking water, and no visitors seem totally unnecessary and outdated in our modern age of room heaters, easily accessible drinking water, and disease-preventative practices.

    Anyway, I wish you the very best for your upcoming birth, and I’m looking forward to reading your Taiwanese confinement experience.

  2. channamasala says:

    Is it just me or is it just plain weird that my comment on this post is showing up on Facebook, but not here, when I didn’t reach it through Facebook? Huh?

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Channamasala, I will check it out. I have tried to install a new plugin to integrate FB better with my blog, but I don’t think it is working vey well. I have seen this comment so at least something is working!

  3. taiwanxifu says:

    Stephen C, thanks for your comments. Yes, some of the zuo yuezi practices do seem outdated. Not washing your hair etc probably made sense in a cold climate where there was no heating. And I suspect some of it was also meant to keep husbands away for a while! Even here in Taiwan where the practices are generally still followed there is some debate as to whether all of this is necessary, and I have heard that in confinement centres they often do have beauticians come to wash hair using hair dryers. An article in the Taipei Times Bilingual Times a few months ago even quotes the diretor of gynecology at Greater Taichung’s Lin Shin Hospital saying that advances in technology mean (hairdryers and heaters) mean there is not much risk of catching a cold if the postpartum mother dries her hair immediately after showering and stays warm (http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/lang/archives/2012/05/02/2003531745).

    The Ayi that my husband has organised to look after me is quite traditional, and does not believe in washing during confinement. But apparently she will boil up certain herbs in rice wine, which are then used to wash down new mothers. She assumes me that the end result smells fantastic and is nothing to be scared about (I will wait and see).

    Congratulations on the birth of your grandchild. It sounds like your daughter had a busy time with the baby; hope things have calmed down a bit.

    • Stephen C says:

      Thanks for providing the link to the article. Granddaughter and family are doing fine.

      I’m going to forward your blog article to my daughter, who I’m sure will gasp in disbelief. Although her mom had home births without any kind of drugs, my daughter was having none of that! She delighted in the fact that her epidural allowed her to continue texting and posting on Facebook throughout her labor.

  4. I’m years away from starting a family, but I’m also intrigued by the concept of 坐月子 and, like you, have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I think it is a great that there is a cultural practice in place that allows women to recuperate from childbirth. I am personally worried about the risk of post-partum depression, and, honestly, I would be much, much more enthusiastic about having a baby if I knew that I would have helpers who would at least do their best to guarantee me adequate sleep. On the other hand, some of the traditions seem very sexist, if not downright draconian: not being able to shampoo as if women are delicate flowers who will wilt as soon as they touch water, being forbidden from seeing friends. It sounds like something out of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Are there “modernized” 坐月子 programs in Taipei that allow new mothers to rest while skipping some of the more outmoded measures?

    Aside from that… I wish you a healthy birth and I will be online to entertain you and offer my support! Feel free to message me anytime. :-)

  5. taiwanxifu says:

    Catherine, interestingly many people who support the zuo yuezi practice claim that it lessons the incidence of post-partum depression. They point to lower instances recorded in Taiwan than in Western countries. But I do wonder whether instances of post-natal depression have been properly documented, as I gather that in Taiwan mental health issues are not always acknowledged and/or treated. (Mind you, they aren’t always treated especially well in Australia, either, due to chronic lack of funding. But that’s another story.)

    While I am not an expert, I think that sleep deprivation and lack of support must be a huge factor in post-natal depression. But I also wonder whether the practice of confining a new mother for a month after having a baby, especially where the main carer is mother-in-law and the relatonship is not especially rosy, is beneficial for anyone’s sanity. I have noticed that few Taiwanese women tend to join play groups or other social activities with other young mothers, something that local governments in Australia go out of their way to encourage. Most women usually only take 56 days off work, and after confinement for a month there isn’t much time for bonding with other mothers.

    I gather that the level of strictness in zuo yuezi varies from individual to individual. From FB and other comments, some people have said they basically did away with certain aspects of confinement and chose to get on with their life. And some confinement centres are more like luxury hotels with lots of classes and beauty sessions for new mothers. I guess like anything it comes down to the individual and how you want to approach it. And of course, not everything always goes to plan!

  6. channamasala says:

    Let’s see if it works this time:

    I’ve heard from expecting students that few people follow the “no showering and hair washing” rule anymore – some do, but the majority go maybe two weeks before giving in and taking a nice, hot shower and having a good scrub of hair and body.

    I’ve also heard that the common alcoholic chicken soup that used to be popular is falling out of favor, as the idea that alcohol is not something to be consumed in great quantity while expressing gains (or rather regains) popularity in Taiwan, and that it’s now more normal for mothers in that month (I call it “the rest month” rather than “confinement”) to drink warm water, though of course not all do.

    TV and such is now fairly common during that month, too – a lot of the “坐月子” centers (which are like fancy hotels for mothers in this month) offer TVs and Internet. I don’t know about visitation rules, though.

  7. Claire says:

    坐月子,最重要的就是讓母體可以經由為期30天到45天的時間,趕緊恢復到最好的狀態.

    傳統上做月子的要求:
    1.不洗髮、不洗澡:因為怕孕婦受涼感冒.有些體質比較敏感的婦人,甚至在月經期間洗頭會導致月經停止.我個人認為,在確保浴室的溫度適中,洗完澡馬上穿好衣服,洗完頭在浴室內就把頭皮吹乾,洗頭洗澡並沒有問題.
    2.不爬樓梯:主要是怕影響到子宮的修復,爬樓梯用到小腹的力量,產後子宮需要時間回復到正常大小.
    3.不碰冷水:產後全身關節大開,冷水容易始寒氣進入人體,老了以後容易得風濕病.或者是天氣變化大時關節會疼痛.
    4.不看書,不哭:生產期間母體耗盡力氣,產後需要保護「氣」,肝臟開竅於眼,過度使用眼睛相對影響到肝氣運行,肝氣一但淤節對氣的運行不好.加上產婦也需要把握時間多休息.
    5.禁性行為:懷孕生產都需要「腎氣」的滋養,性行為是使用「腎氣」之一,產後應該要讓身體處於「靜謐」的狀態,好讓全身的氣血儘早恢復.
    6.不可吹風:怕之後容易偏頭痛,頭痛(風為風邪)
    7.不可縫紉:也是怕傷眼睛,理由同4

    飲食方面,不是不可以喝水,而是要喝「米酒煮後酒精已經揮發後的水」.米酒的功用是溫補,可以幫助產婦排出懷孕期間在身體內滯留的水分(所以有些孕婦會水腫,就是因為水分滯留).最好的方法是烹飪時一律用米酒煮後的水來料裡(所以不應該有太濃的酒味).另外就是多用姜來料裡食物,原因是因為姜也是溫補食材之一,產後氣血大失,為了避免過多寒氣侵入母體,用姜來散寒氣.冰冷的東西本來就不應該吃,產前產後都一樣.另外有老一派說法是,坐月子期間食物均以「麻油,米酒」最基本方來料裡,麻油可以補腎,米酒溫補身體.可以吃鹽,但是盡量少鹽為主.

    坐月子並不是要把產婦關在家裡關出病,在保護好自己不受涼,不過累得情況下,偶爾出門呼吸新鮮空氣是好的,可以選天氣晴朗的中午出門晒曬太陽,但是切忌一定不能吹風.

    還有,坐月子期間盡量穿襪子,讓雙腳飽暖(腎氣所在),要是家裡有開冷氣,產婦應該穿著薄長袖長褲,目的也是為了怕吹到風,

    說穿了,重點就是不要著涼,不要吹風,多休息.因為照顧新生兒已經夠累,如果有人可以在產後一個月幫忙作一些其他的家事,讓媽媽可以多花時間養好自己的身體(懷孕期間身體變化非常大,只花一個月讓身體恢復到懷孕前的狀態,其實都還很趕!),對媽媽本身或小孩以後都有好處.

    目前我能想到的只有這樣,之後有想到新的再補充!

    • Stephen C says:

      Thanks for that additional information, Claire.

      重點就是不要著涼,不要吹風

      I agree that it’s important to stay healthy and not catch a cold; however, I still maintain that today’s lifestyle and modern gadgets make the “no hair washing/no showers” method obsolete. And disgusting (just my opinion).

      重點就是…多休息. 因為照顧新生兒已經夠累,如果有人可以在產後一個月幫忙作一些其他的家事,讓媽媽可以多花時間養好自己的身體(懷孕期間身體變化非常大,只花一個月讓身體恢復到懷孕前的狀態,其實都還很趕!),對媽媽本身或小孩以後都有好處.

      I wholeheartedly agree with this! I’d venture to say not a few Western women wish they had gotten this much attention to resting and rebuilding their bodies during the first month postpartum.

      Let’s hope Taiwanxifu is able to get along with the 阿姨 her husband is sending over so she can get both physical and mental rest ☺

  8. taiwanxifu says:

    I finally found some time to translate the thoughtful comments from Claire. Stephen C, you are way quicker at reader Chinese than I am! I should add that Claire is a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, who has a strong interest in women’s health. She was also my Chinese doctor when I lived in Australia … I miss not having her here!

    Hopefully I haven’t missed anything in the translation … but please let me know if something is not right.

    ******************

    With zuo yuezi¸the most important thing is for new mothers to quickly return to their best condition within 30 to 45 days.

    The traditional zuo yuezi stipulations are:

    1. No washing your hair and no bathing. The reason for this is to prevent new mothers from catching a cold. Some women have a particularly sensitive constitution, and can’t even wash their hair during their menstrual cycles (or else their periods will stop). I believe so long as you ensure that the bathroom temperature is okay, you get dressed as soon as you finish bathing, and blow-dry your hair thoroughly while you are still in the bathroom, then bathing and washing your hair is not really a problem.

    2. No climbing stairs. The main reason is a fear that this might prevent recovery of the uterus. You use the lower abdomen when climbing stairs, and after birth your uterus needs time to return to its normal size.

    3. No touching cold water. The joints in your body expand after birth. Cold water makes it easy for cold ‘qi’ to enter your system, and when you are old you will be more susceptible to rheumatism, or experience joint pain during significant climatic changes.

    4. No reading, no crying. During birth, the mother exhausts her energy, so after birth, she must conserve her ‘qi’. The liver is related to the eyes, and if you overstrain your eyes there will be a corresponding impact on your liver qi function. If your liver qi becomes blocked then it will not function well. And in addition, new mothers must take the time to rest as much as possible.

    5. No sexual activities. During pregnancy and after child birth it is important to nourish the kidneys. For one thing, sexual activities use ‘kidney qi’, and for another after birth you should put your body in a ‘quiet’ state and let your body’s blood supply recover as soon as possible.

    6. No exposure to wind. The reason is to avoid being more susceptible to headaches and migraines later on. (The wind will cause ‘wind evil’, i.e. lead to sickness caused by getting cold.)

    7. No sewing. This is also due to a fear of damaging your eyes, the same as number 4 above.

    In terms of nutrition, it is not that you can’t drink water, but that you should drink evaporated rice wine (i.e. rice wine that has been boiled so that the alcohol has evaporated). Rice wine is used because it is warming, and it can assist post birth to detox excess fluids retained by the body during pregnancy. (Some women retain fluids due to edema swelling during pregnancy.) The best method is to use the evaporated rice wine when cooking (this ensures the alcohol taste is not too strong). Alternatively, you can use lots of ginger derived foods as ginger is also a warming ingredient. Women lose a great deal of blood during birth. You can use ginger foods to avoid too much cold air entering into a women’s body. You should also avoid eating cold foods both before and after birth. Another old school theory is that during zuo yuezi the most essential ingredients are sesame oil and rice wine. Sesame oil can help restore the kidneys, while rice wine can help to warm the body. You can consume salt, but not in large amounts.

    Zuo yuezi is not about locking women up at home because they are sick, but about protecting them to avoid getting ‘cold’. But if you are fed up of being at home, occasionally it is okay to go out and get a breath of fresh air. You could chose to go out on a clear day to soak up some sun, but you should most definitely avoid exposure to wind.

    Also, during zuo yuezi you should wear socks as much as possible to keep both feet warm (this is where the kidney qi is). If you have the air conditioner on at home, you should wear long trousers to avoid exposure from wind.

    The main reason for wearing these things is to avoid catching a cold, and to ensure rest as much as possible. Caring for an infant is already tiring enough. If a new mother can get someone to help do some household chores for the month after giving birth, she can have more time to look after her own health (during pregnancy, your body undergoes major changes. So even allocating a month to allow your body to recover back to normal is not really long enough.) This is very beneficial later on for both the mother herself and her child.

    This is all I can think of at the moment. If I think of anything else, I will add later!

    • Stephen C says:

      It’s awesome that the Internet allows you to still consult with a trusted professional such as Claire, despite the miles between you. Thanks for translating the entire message into English. Now my daughter can read it; I’m very curious as to what she will think.

      Stephen C, you are way quicker at reader Chinese than I am!

      You give me way too much credit! Although I’m better now than when I first arrived, I don’t have the patience for anything longer than two sentences and so I still rely on online translators. As I said earlier, the Internet is awesome!

  9. taiwanxifu says:

    Channamasala, thank you so much for reposting and sorry about the confusion caused by my low-level technical skills.

    No bathing or washing your hair. I think opinion differs on this one (see some of the comments above). I suspect that the A-yi my husband has organised falls within the very traditional, thou shalt not wash camp. I have also heard that some women head straight for the shower the moment they go into labour because they figure they should wash while they can. Living in a sub-tropical climate, and having access to modern amenities like heating/cooling/hair dryers must also make a difference. But ultimately whether this practice is followed or not comes back to how strict the caregiver is and how obedient/liberated the new mother is.

    I *think* rice wine is still popular. It went out of favour for a while because, post Taiwan’s accession to the WTO, rice wine used for cooking had salt added to it. But one of President Ma’s achievements was enabling cooking rice wine to be sold without salt. I had also heard ancedoteally about Benedictine liquor being considered to be a good tonic. Any alcohol consumed by new mothers should, howeve, be boiled to remove the alcohol. Otherwise the infant will get mighty tipsy on the breast milk!

    If there is no reading, no TV, no going out, few if any visitors and someone to look after your baby — what else is there left to do? Surely you can’t spend a whole month in bed sleeping? I can see that TV must be a necessary diversion in the absence of any other mind-stimulating activities.

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