During my thirty plus days of Chinese postpartum confinement (坐月子 zuo yuezi), I was mostly obedient. Mostly. I stayed indoors and did not venture out (much). I did not wash my hair, nor did I shower. And I meekly drank Chinese herbal tea and soups instead of ordinary water, and ate up my daily serving of offal. But I did stray from following some confinement rules.
Chinese postpartum confinement is part Chinese traditional medicine, part superstition. Most ‘rules’ are based on the premise that a woman’s body needs time to recover and heal after childbirth. However, some practices seem almost mired in the dark ages. Being a Westerner, and doing confinement at home with a paid nanny rather than a mother-in-law or at a confinement center (aka baby hotel), I had the space to choose which rules I wished to follow … or not. This is what I chose to toss out the window.
- The mommy wrap. Many women wrap their stomachs, tight sarong style, with a long piece of muslin. The aim is to help assist their stomachs to return to their previous slim form. I forgot to buy muslin and in fact only remembered this rule over a week into confinement. But my confinement nanny assured me it wasn’t essential. And she said you should never wrap yourself up when you are sleeping. Since I was taking constant cat-naps during the day (baby down, mother down), wrapping and unwrapping myself seemed much more trouble than it was worth.
- Washing hands with warm water. During confinement, a woman should avoid doing things that will make her feel cold. Washing her hands with cold water is verboten; you should always use warm water. I gave birth in late July so was in confinement during the height of summer. The tap water was almost luke warm rather than icy, so I couldn’t see how the water was cool enough to give me a chill. Plus, I often washed my hands just before feeding my hungry, screaming baby and I could not bear the fact of having to wait several minutes for the hot water tap to heat up. So I ditched this rule.
- Don’t read. During confinement, women are not supposed to read anything — not books, newspapers, magazines, Facebook or the computer screen. The Chinese Traditional Medicine reason is that a woman’s liver energy is weak after childbirth; the eyes and the liver are linked so one’s eyesight is also weak at this time. I decided even before confinement that there was no way I would be able to get through confinement without access to the computer. I was determined to blog about my experience, and to do so I needed to be able to blog as things happened. I also found it was an important way to keep in contact with the outside world to ensure my sanity. (What do most women do during confinement if they can’t go out and they can’t read? How much sleeping and feeding can you do?) I did, however, experience eye strain (and sometimes headaches) if I sat in front of the computer for more than thirty minutes at a stretch. I hate to admit it, but I think there is actually some truth to the rule that you should avoid reading during the first month after childbirth.
- And don’t cry. Like reading, crying affects your eyes that are weakened after childbirth. But it is also believed that negative emotions adversely affect your breast milk. Unlike with my first child, I did not get any period of recognisable ‘post baby blues’. I will ‘fess up though and say that there were a few tense moments during confinement with Mr Taiwanxifu (okay, very tense moments), usually when we were both sleep deprived and exhausted from dealing with a crying baby. After one of these incidents, baby fed for two hours. Since I have excess breast milk, I am not sure why he needed to feed for so long but perhaps my upset somehow transferred to him and he needed extra reassurance. Or food.
- No visitors. I mostly followed the ‘no visitors’ rule, and we politely but firmly declined any offers to visit us in hospital. Just as well, as baby went through an ‘angry bird’ crying phase that lasted several weeks. Feeding did not really come together until baby was one month (coincidentally the end of confinement), so I was glad of the space to deal with this. But part of me craved company. I wanted to show off my cuddly, cute baby and feel like I had friends out there. It was strange to have such exciting news but yet to have such a muted response from people around you (most friends and family knew I planned to go into confinement and would not be receiving visitors). In the end, we did have some visitors, just not very many.
- Bed rest. During zuo yuezi, a woman is supposed to spend all her time resting in bed. Although she can do some exercises, she should mainly just rest, often under several layers of thick blankets (even in summer.) Some people also believe you should only feed your baby in bed rather than in a sitting up position. In addition, some ‘baby hotels’ believe the concept of rest is so important that they willingly look after baby all night so Mum can get some rest — a practice that actually makes it harder for women to lactate. Being restless and an overachiver, I found it impossible to laze about in bed all of the time. I did spend a lot of time resting, especially during the first few weeks, but enjoyed being able to pad around the house at will. It was also nice to eat at the table with the rest of the family, sneak into the kitchen for a snack and read books with my toddler. And to do things around the house; although I hired someone to do things, the Australian egalitarian woman in me found it difficult to be waited on. But I suspect my body would have recovered even better had I allowed myself to indulge in more rest.
- Long sleeves and long socks. In order to avoid getting a chill, most women are encouraged to wear long sleeved clothes, long trousers and long socks. Some even wear a hat. Even in summer. Even if there is no air conditioning at home. In part this is to avoid the body getting a chill. And sweating is believed to be good during zuo yuezi to encourage the shedding of excess fluid retained during pregnancy. But warm clothes in the middle of summer?? I originally planned to wear long sleeved clothes, but I quickly abandoned this when I realised how uncomfortable it was (even in climate controlled air conditioning). Plus I wanted to engage in skin-to-skin contact with baby as much as possible to establish feeding. This is next to impossible when you are rugged up in multiple layers.
So despite being virtuous and gung-ho in following some aspects of zuo yuezi, I was not perfect. Not by a long shot. But from talking to people who have experienced zuo yuezi, I gather that very few people are perfect. It often comes down to the mode of caring and how traditional the mother and the carer are. I would love to hear more about real life experiences. What zuo yuezi rules did you break, and why?