As I outlined in a recent blog, I plan to try the practice of Chinese postpartum confinement (坐月子 — zuo yuezi) after my baby is born. In many Chinese-speaking communities, zuo yuezi is widely practiced and consequently has evolved into a lucrative commercial industry. And no-where is this more so than Taiwan, where people often fork out large sums of money to ensure that new mothers receive the best possible care. In my favourite soap opera, Inborn Pair, the heroine’s mother and mother-in-law actually squabbled at length over the type of care the expectant mother would receive, with each trying to outdo each other. An extreme case, but it shows the social pressure to look after new mothers as much as possible.
In this blog, I outline four main ways women practice zuo yuezi. Of course, everyone makes theirs own choices and everyone’s experience is different. Some women also use a combination of different types of care. And within each category there are variations. In overseas Chinese communities such as Australia, the main caregiver for example might be a close friend or even the husband himself.
- Under care of a family member. Traditionally, a woman’s mother-in-law is the main caregiver during the 30 to 45 days of confinement. Chinese women ‘marry into’ their husband’s family, and especially if they marry the elder son, are expected to live with their in-laws. In Taiwan, a daughter-in-law usually addresses her mother-in-law as ‘Mum’ (Ma), and is expected to treat her with even more deference then her own mother. Obviously, the quality of the relationship between the mother and daughter-in-law is key to the new mother’s overall enjoyment of the experience and her ability to relax. For some women, it is not much fun being locked inside with their mother-in-law for a month, especially if the mother-in-law is overbearing. And since Taiwanese are marrying and having children at a later age, mother-in-laws themselves are often older and might not have the physical energy (or up-to-date knowledge) necessary to care for mother and infant. Still, it is simplistic to suggest that mother-in-laws make bad carers. Most mother-in-laws are committed to providing good quality care for their daughter-in-law during zuo yuezi, and will dote on their new grandchild in a way that a paid carer never will. And in many cases, mother-in-law and daughter-in-laws enjoy caring and non-judgemental relationships, with new parents appreciating the extra help during the busy time.
- Postpartum Recovery Centers (坐月子中心 — zuo yuezi zhongxin). Postpartum confinement is big business in Chinese cultures, especially in Taiwan. In recent years, luxurious postpartum recovery centers (PRCs) have sprung up throughout Taiwan to provide dedicated care for new mothers and their babies. Mothers can be pampered in hotel-like settings, with gourmet meals, regular check-ups, and scheduled activities such as exercise classes and beauty appointments. Oh, and someone to mind the baby anytime of day so Mum can get all the sleep she needs. Being secluded away in a PRC means that it is an easy way to exclude any well-meaning visitors who insist on just dropping by to see the new baby. PRCs are just like a top end health retreat, only with a new baby.
- A nanny or carer (到府坐月子服務~月婆). Despite the popularity of PRCs, not everyone wants to be away from the familiar environment of home for a long period. It can also be especially difficult for people with other young children at home. For others, the atmosphere may be too artificial and stifling. So many chose to invite a dedicated zuo yuezi carer (yuepo), who has qualifications in basic hygiene, caring for infants and cooking special zuo yuezi foods. Because it is a paid relationship, the nature of care is usually less autocratic than that of a family member. But some carers can still be bossy, especially with first time mothers. And not everyone likes having a stranger in their house, taking over the kitchen and running of the household. Most carers are hired on an individual contract basis so it is important to check references and ask the right questions. How long has she their provided zuo yuezi care, and does she have testimonials from previous families? Usually carers only work during the day time and have at least one day off, so unlike a PRC you won’t have the luxury of a night-time babysitter (although special nannies for this purpose can also be arranged).
- Meal delivery service (坐月子餐外送). Many busy parents find it difficult to find the time to cook nutritious meals when so much time of their time is devoted to caring for a newborn baby. This is where a meal delivery service specialising in zuo yuezi food comes in handy. You can chose want you want, including vegetarian options, and have ready-made meals delivered to your home. This gives new parents freedom to enjoy the culinary advantages for zuo yuezi without necessarily having to sign-up for all the traditions and taboos. The disadvantage is that the only thing you are getting is food; not help with house-hold chores, advice on caring for infants or someone to look after the baby. But at least it is one less task to prepare, and many new Dads have devoured zuo yuezi foods just as eagerly as new mothers.
For us, we have arranged to have a live-in carer come to us for six days a week for a month. Mr Taiwanxifu arranged this as soon as we found out our happy news (although he was a bit scared to tell me at first in case I might object!) Our nanny comes highly recommended, but I have a feeling she will be a bit strict. I am half interested in visiting a PRC as well, but as 2012 is a dragon year, word is that many of the PRCs are already booked out until the end of the year … especially the top-end ones.