Last night, Mr Taiwanxifu stayed up late cuddling baby so I could sleep before the next late night feed. Mr Taiwanxifu is an incredibly hands on and involved Dad. But not all Taiwanese fathers are, and not all zuo yuezi rituals are father friendly.
Chinese postpartum confinement (坐月子 zuo yuezi) is an important time for women in Chinese cultures. The belief is that there are three times in her life when a woman’s health is fragile and needs special care: when she first begins to menstruate, after the birth of a child, and when she is old. Many of the zuo yuezi traditions are passed from mother-in-law (or increasingly, by one’s mother) to daughter-in-law. Zuo yuezi is more than just rest and good food, encompassing also childcare and breastfeeding knowledge with a pinch of folklore and superstition.
But what about fathers?
One of my Western male friends who has a Taiwanese wife has complained to me that zuo yuezi excludes fathers. He considers it is all about the mother, and that fathers have pretty much no role to play. He and his wife share parenting of their sons, so he wanted to be actively involved when they were newborn babies. (His wife, incidentally, chose not to do zuo yuezi.)
Meanwhile, in intra-cultural relationships some Western fathers actively opposed to zuo yuezi. Before I went on maternity leave, I spoke to some Americans at a work function. They mentioned they had heard of several cases in Chinese-American marriages, where the woman wanted to do zuo yuezi but the husband would not allow it. From a Western perspective, the almost secretive zuo yuezi practice can appear either as a form of laziness or (given the increasing consumerism of the practice) an unnecessary extravagance. Or perhaps an excuse for a mother to exert too much influence on her daughter and grandchild.
In Taiwan, most Chinese postpartum confinement centers (坐月子中心, zuo yuezi zhongxin) are set up only to cater for the mother. But usually the bed in the hotel-like room is large enough to allow fathers to stay if they want to. Although meals are only provided for the new mother, some centers have a small kitchenette were fathers can reheat food. And some confinement centers run parenting classes for both mothers and fathers.
Taiwanese work some of the longest hours in the developed world, on the job around twenty per cent longer on average than in Japan or the United States. Fathers are entitled to three days’ paternity leave. But after that, they generally rush back to work to perform the breadwinner role. Some confinement centers have installed equipment that allows fathers to log-in online remotely to view their baby as it lies in its crib in the nursery.
Where women are cared for at home during zuo yuezi it is usually by her mother-in-law (although in some cases by her mother). The usual expectation is that the mother will return to work after 56 days of leave, then handing over the baby to her mother-in-law or mother to be cared. Or perhaps place the child with a carer (保姆 baomu) — one person I know of even placed their infant into 24 hour care at their baomu’s home. So where this modal is the case, a mother herself does not have much opportunity to bond with her newborn, let alone the father.
In our case, I am currently the career professional (albeit on maternity leave) and my husband — as the trailing spouse — is a stay at home dad. The role may or may not reverse when we return to Australia but for now this is our reality. Mr Taiwanxifu does a much better job looking after our toddler than I do (and Taiwanxifu Toddler just adores him), and I am blessed to have such a supportive husband. Still, we have found that Taiwanese society still has not quite come to terms with the stay at home dad. Mr Taiwanxifu is constantly being asked what work he does in social situations, and people don’t always know quite how to respond when he says that he looks after the children. That said, we have met a few other male ‘milk dads’ (奶爸 – nai ba) — they are around, although they do not always readily admit to their child rearing role.
Oh, and Mr Taiwanxifu asked me to add this comment: he said he has put on heaps of weight since I have been doing zuo yuezi. I think part of this is because our confinement nanny has been looking after him so well by cooking some of his favourite foods. In our case, zuo yuezi has been about both of us being taken care of.