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.