I am passionate about promoting the benefits of the Chinese postpartum retreat (zuo yuezi) for new mothers. Yet I have noticed that my enthusiasm is not always shared by ‘Western’ mothers. In fact, I am finding that this is a suprisingly emotive issue — especially with women who whose children have already grown up.
I wonder why this is. It is rarely a true issue about money (although I acknowledge that some mothers genuinely have financial burdens). As I have argued previously, many ‘Western’ new parents routinely buy many tangible ‘things’ for the baby, yet seem relucant to invest in additional support and care for the mother. Of course, setting up a nursery is part of the mental preparation for the profound life changes to come. And modern marketing tells us that we really do need the change tables, diaper warmers, multiple prams and strollers, matching gender specific sheet sets etc etc for baby. ‘Us’ meaning the parents ; baby doesn’t really seem to notice anything beyond his/her next meal and having someone to comfort when he/she is crying.
Value judgements about how people spend money are not unique to having children, but they seem to take on a whole new level when it has to do with a new mother. Consider the following: if I said I planned to pay between US$180 to AU$330 a night to go on a luxury cruise for a few weeks, would you consider it self-centered and extravagant or would you just be envious? What about a month-long tour through Europe? Or what about time in a luxury health retreat, including day spa, massage and yoga classes? A traditional month long honeymoon including accommodation in five star hotels? A pre-baby babymoon overseas?
Obviously not everyone has money to pay for these experiences. There are a growing number of television programs, magazines, newspaper features, websites and blogs that testify to the growth in high-end tourism. Yet spending equivalent money on time in a luxury confinement center — an upper end option that is around the same cost — is often considered over the top, self-centered and extravagant in Western culture. I have noticed a growing fascination in the Western media with these places, usually centered on high-end ‘baby hotels’ in China. The underlying message seems to be: what a waste of money to allow a woman to just lie around and relax for a month while delegating care of her baby to others.
Not too long ago, it was normal for a women to have support after childbirth, either from her extended family, longer hospital stays and/or midwife support. Or even a cleaning lady. Some women are still lucky to have this help — and many cultures still retain this tradition — but many women in Western cultures go home after three days (or less) in hospital and have to figure things out themselves. Without much sleep, and often without much more than the brochure or DVD given on discharge from hospital to advise on how to care for their clinging, dependent new bundle.
These days I often encounter an almost moral judgement that women shouldn’t have it easy, and that they shouldn’t delegate care of their infant, as the hardship and fatigue is a rite of passage for proving entry into motherhood. One friend was appalled to find that her (Chinese) daughter-in-law had her parents live in to help her through the first few months after having a baby. “She doesn’t know what it’s really like to be a parent,” she told me afterwards. “I was up all day and night with my babies: that’s what being a mother is all about.”
There is a level of envy at play here. Many mothers indeed have a hard time managing when they came home from hospital. But they are also proud that they were strong enough to make it through. A mother can be fierce in her desire to care for her child. Often that means putting herself last, focusing instead on her child. You do what you need to do to get through.
That was certainly my experience with my first son. Born two months’ early, he had a touch and go first weeks while he cling onto life. I didn’t get much rest, and given the precariousness of his situation I was cranky with anyone who suggested I do anything but be by his humidicrib. A Taiwanese friend has one year old twins, and soon after they were born learnt that her mother-in-law (with whom she lived) had a terminal illness. Unsurprisingly she also did not have time to undergo zuo yuezi or get much rest, even though it is an important tradition in Taiwan.
Having coped with motherhood the hard way and survived, it is easy to write-off the benefits of zuo yuezi. Yes, women are resilient and mothers often even more so. But the toughest are often the ones most in need of nurturing. As my good friend and Chinese doctor Claire Shen told me while I was stressing about the health of my premature baby, you need to slow down and look after your own health and vitality because before too long that baby is going to be a toddler. And toddlers need a mother who has the energy to run around after them. Believe me, you will need every ounce of energy to deal with the Terrible Twos. I suspect mothers of teenagers need even more stamina.
I often think of the ‘oxygen mask’ analogy. The standard airplaine emergency SOP is that in the event of a contingency on an airplane, parents must affix their own oxygen mask before attending to their children. Yet somehow this does not always translate into real life after childbirth. My focus in writing about zuo yuezi is to change people’s perspective to help encourage nurturing.
I only partially followed Claire’s advice, and boy did I regret it a year later! But thankfully I had the opportunity to have another baby and improve my health by doing zuo yuezi the proper way. There are definite advantages to investing in your own health though a post baby moon.