My confinement nanny, Mrs Yang, is a creative cook. But that’s not all she does.
Before I was due to give birth, a few people noted with suprise that I was doing postpartum confinement (坐月子 zuo yuezi) at home. These days, unless a new mother is being looked after by her mother-in-law, it is more usual to go into a luxury postpartum confinement center. But instead, we organised for the competent Mrs Yang — a confinement nanny (月婆, yuepo) — to come and look after us at home.
Mr Taiwanxifu found Mrs Yang through the local park network. When we first arrived in Taiwan, he used to take our eldest son to the park nearly every day. At first, the carers who regularly went to the park thought he was a male nanny rather than a stay at home Dad, which is not yet so common in Taiwan. With time he got became friends with some of the carers and through them heard about confinement nannies. So when we found out I was pregnant with Taiwanxifu Baby, he called in his playground contacts straight away to arrange a yuepo. And lucky he acted quickly — 2012 is a dragon year, and most confinement nannies are solidly booked out, especially the good ones.
One of the main duties of a confinement nanny is cooking special zuo yuezi foods for the new mother. But Mrs Yang also cooks for other members of the household, and has even created several dishes that have won over even my fussy toddler. Mr Taiwanxifu has also been pampered, with Mrs Yang cooking several of his favourite meals. Every morning, Mrs Yang goes to her local wet market and stocks up on fresh produce for the day. The almost constant threat of typhoons this summer has made sourcing green vegetables and seafood difficult, but she excels at finding the freshest and the best even in adversary.
But Mrs Yang is much more than a cook. In a sense, she is really more like a postpartum doula, providing support and advice to a new mother. Mrs Yang is ready to help burp the baby, put him to sleep, watch over him while I have a nap and sterilise bottles. She also prepares special ginger water for my daily bath, and advises what I should or should not do during confinement (although I have found she is thankfully comparatively liberal). Plus she has been a wonderful support as I have battled with breastfeeding issues, notably attachment problems. Having someone to help and give reassurance while you are confronted with a screeching baby who refuses to feed has saved my sanity.
And over the last few days, Mrs Yang has also been helping me combat painful breast engorgement through massage treatment. Many other new mothers I know back in Australia gave up breastfeeding because of painful mastitis or engorgement, which can be alleviated through frequent feeding combined with massage to clear blocked ducts. Mrs Yang has helped more than one mother deal with severe engorgement, enabling them to continue feeding their bub. While it is painful treatment (and also a bit confronting to have a stranger that intimately acquainted with your breasts) it is much better than having to take antibiotics — or at worst, undergoing an operation to clear the blocked duct.
Having Mrs Yang around is like having an authoritative hospital matron on hand to give you parenting and feeding advice — and support. Yet she is not too autocratic. During her first few days with us I was resistant to accepting some of her advice. I am, after all, a Western woman who has read lots of parenting how-to books and already raised one baby — surely I knew it all? After a week or so I began to realise that Mrs Yang’s gentle suggestions, based on her experience of looking after 100 babies and their mothers, was usually spot on. And I especially appreciated her not overdressing or overfeeding baby, something that some well-meaning Taiwanese carers can do. (Being big and chubby, Baby Taiwanxifu gets overheated easily so we try not to subject him to too many layers). Now we often defer to her for advice about whether baby’s irritability is because he is hungry, needing a burp or just bored. And we really notice her absence when she has her day off on Sundays.
Having a yuepo has allowed me to remain at home and to close to family, especially important as I also have a toddler. But having a yuepo may not be for everyone. You must be willing to allow someone to have the full run of your kitchen; I cringed slightly when Mrs Yang reorganised my freezer to make way for more food. We also had an initial period of adjustment as Mrs Yang learnt to gradually reduce the amount she cooked to avoid waste. I eat a lot, but not quite that much! And not all yuepos espouse modern day childcare advice that a Western parent will relate to, so it is important to chose someone who you trust and are comfortable with.
The cost of hiring a full-time yuepo is cheaper than staying in a luxury confinement center, yet generally more expensive than organising home delivered confinement foods. Apart from the daily staff-hire rate (roughly around NT$2,000 or more, depending on agency fees etc), you must factor in the cost of food and Chinese herbs (essential for cooking many zuo yuezi food and beverages). And it is wise to communicate in advance any expectations to avoid misunderstanding.