Just before a Chinese colleague was due to give birth to her first child, we sat down and compared pregnancy and childbirth practices in Canada and China. I was very excited to have the opportunity to do so, as since arriving in China last year I have been very curious about local customs regarding babies.
Ding (who has since given birth to a beautiful little girl) was happy to share her experience so far. She told me about how she had managed to find a doctor who would reveal the sex of her baby (pretty uncommon in China, due to the favouring of boys under the one-child policy), how she kept her diet pretty bland while pregnant to help promote the health of her baby, and how she was not even considering pain medication during labour: “Chinese women are strong; we can handle the pain” she explained.
Ok, I thought, not a whole lot of difference in our two cultures after all.
And then Ding told me about the traditional practice of zuo yue zi.
In Canada, and I imagine in many parts of the western world, very shortly after giving birth (for me, it was a mere 6 hours!) new mothers are patched up and sent home with a new baby, and (with dad’s help), left to it. Sure, family and friends often help out, but between trying to get the hang of breastfeeding, to dealing with meconium and umbilical stumps, to managing the mounds of laundry (OMG the laundry!), nevermind having to recover from some of the greatest trauma our bodies will ever endure, many new moms end up anxious and overwhelmed.
The Chinese custom of zuo yue zi （坐月子）which literally means something like ‘sitting for a moon’, addresses this overwhelming burden by decreeing that new mothers must spend one month in bed.
At first, I must admit I was completely envious. Can you imagine having an entire month to rest, relax, and recuperate after giving birth? Can you imagine saying to your hubby, “sorry dear, you’ll have to cook dinner and do laundry and take care of that explosive poop disaster- I’m still on zuo yue zi”?
But as I learned more from Ding about zuo yue zi, I realized that the practice was actually a whole lot less about relaxing, and a whole lot more about regulating a new mother’s diet and activity to ensure that she fully recuperates and avoids future health issues.
Zuo yue zi comes with a very long list of rules:
- No bathing, brushing teeth, or washing hair
- No reading; no watching television
- No housework
- No air conditioning
- No cold food, sour food, or seafood
- No water, tea, fruits, or vegetables
- Keep your belly tightly wrapped in a bandage at all times
- Always wear a hat
- Keep your hands and feet covered at all times
- Only breastfeed lying down
- Eat an abundance of pig trotters
- Drink a lot of hot chocolate and fermented rice milk
- No sex
- And a zillion more!
Ding told me that a friend of hers had complained, “I don’t care about the pain of delivery, but zuo yue zi… it’s too much!”
Despite the hardship, many Chinese women boast about the long-term health benefits of zuo yue zi that make it worth the effort. The practice reportedly helps women to avoid a host of health problems down the road, including arthritis, backaches, and gynecological issues.
While some Chinese women brush off zuo yue zi as a troublesome superstition, I’ve been told that the majority of new moms in China do follow the custom, though often to a much lesser extent than tradition dictates.
In the traditional form, zuo yue zi does seem a bit extreme. While I would’ve loved a few lazy weeks in bed after the birth of my daughter, I also remember how much I enjoyed my first glass of wine, followed by a big bowl of ice cream, after the birth. And I remember how, after a few days of being cooped up in our apartment, I jumped at the chance to do a diaper run just so I could leave the house for 20 minutes.
Maybe we need to find some happy medium between our two cultures. In an ideal world, after the birth of a baby, dads would be given a couple weeks off work, postpartum doulas would be easily available and affordable, and family would clearly see the line between helpfulness and being in the way. And, moms could take the time they need to recuperate and take care of themselves, and to adjust to their new role as mom.
How did you survive the early days of motherhood? What tips would you share with mothers-to-be?
Photo credit to Easa Shamih (eEko) | P.h.o.t.o.g.r.a.p.h.y