When I look back on my first weeks as a new mother, I try to remember the beauty: quiet evenings with my husband as we cradled our new son together while he slept, the awe while watching the barely perceptible rise and fall of his gentle newborn breaths, the horrified hilarity of his first projectile poop during a diaper change.
But for a long time, my recollections were awash with tearful scenes and feelings of anger, resentment, loneliness and isolation from being trapped at home during the peak of summer. My baby journal (snippets of thoughts I wrote in my phone) was peppered with comments like:
“Wish we had more alone time.”
“So tired. Exhausted. And feeling sad, frustrated, irritable.”
“(Your daddy) gets to go out almost daily. Not fair.”
“Amazed, exhausted, emotional, dead tired, in awe, feeling like I'm just a milking cow, deliriously sleep deprived, super irritable (mostly with parents/in-laws), very happy when it’s just the three of us, stressed (again, parents/in-laws).”
“Had good cry-out session. I’ve been crying every day.”
I was blindsided by the emotional upheaval, and the memory of those feelings stayed with me for years. I now place much of the blame for my postpartum lows on the confinement I experienced during those early weeks after birth for the thousand-year-old Chinese tradition of zuo yue zi (坐月子), which literally translates into “sitting the month.”
There are similar variations practised across Asia and, even within Chinese culture, there are regional deviations, but the essence is the same: After giving birth, you stay indoors at home and rest for a month. Your mom or another female relative will take care of you and the baby by bringing you food and paying daily visits. Parents who live out of town or overseas often fly in and live with you for at least a month, if not more.
Consuming specially prepared homemade dishes and herbal broths that are aimed at reconditioning and repairing your body quickly and helping with breastmilk production are a typical part of the ritual. Dishes may vary, depending on your family background, but red dates and sesame oil are common ingredients, along with all things ginger.
Constant bed rest, a ban on electronic devices and TV, no raw food (including fruit), no bathing and hair washing for the first month (to minimize the risk of catching a cold and getting sick) are also part of the tradition, though many of my Chinese friends who followed the confinement ritual drew the line at these tech, diet and hygiene restrictions.
The origins of “sitting the month” were meant to protect both mother and child from outside perils, notably wind (so no fans allowed, even in the heat of summer!), cold (some say air conditioning is OK because there’s no direct wind, but it’s debatable) and diseases outside the home.
I had no plans to follow the practice myself, and I didn’t know any women in my extended family who observed it. But I slipped into it, nonetheless, out of what some might identify as a sense of Confucian filial piety, or respect, to my husband’s parents. I will comfortably butt heads and call out my own parents on issues where we disagree, but it’s different with in-laws.
I was never forced to stay home, but it was implicit in the tone of our conversations. I was too tired—being agreeable seemed so much easier—so I acquiesced to one thing, then another and then another. But I quickly reached a tipping point.
It started even before we left the hospital with my son, Hayden. My mother-in-law came by unexpectedly while we were waiting to be discharged. I was mildly annoyed by the intrusion—it was a beautiful and warm August Saturday morning, and I was looking forward to a leisurely family walk home, a mere 10 minutes away. It seemed like a perfect way to introduce the world to our baby. But the idea was met with reproachful surprise and concern over exposing him to the outdoors so soon. Not wanting to mar the occasion, we agreed to a three-minute drive instead. And so it began.
Even though my own parents placed no confinement expectations on me, there was a constant barrage of subtle admonishments and well intentioned yet sometimes hurtful counsel from both my mom and my mother-in-law on whether I was mothering correctly: You shouldn’t drink anything cold. You shouldn’t eat that; you should eat this instead. You shouldn’t coddle and hold the baby so much. You should put more layers on him. Didn’t he just nurse? Why is he taking so long? Are you sure you’re producing enough milk? How do you know he’s eating enough? He’s too skinny; you need to supplement.
I was also feeling unreasonably stressed by the amount of food piling up in our fridge and worrying about everything going to waste. I tried to eat the specially prepared sesame oil chicken but was choking it down by the 10th meal. I tried to drink the medicinal herbal broths (to shrink my uterus) and other restorative concoctions, brought all the way from Taiwan and painstakingly prepared by my mother-in-law, but there was so much of them, every day.
I became irritated by the frequent, disruptive and unannounced drop-ins. Our parents were only trying to take care of us, but I still felt burdened and obligated to play host. I resented having to share my new family. It didn’t take much to feel crowded in our tiny home, especially when the most comfortable nursing spot was our living room sofa and I was constantly breastfeeding. My dad or father-in-law would hang back awkwardly behind me, two feet away, at our small dining table. I stewed in silent anger while my mother-in-law hovered regularly, at length, inches away from my breast, watching her grandson nurse. I had nowhere to escape.
I watched life pass us by outside and yearned to feel the vibrant buzz of summer. Sure, Hayden still had his newborn doctor’s appointments and I would sneak out for a brief hour or two of respite a couple of times, but for the most part, I was holed up inside our tiny condo through the end of summer, my hormones all amok, a hair trigger away from my next bout of tears. My husband tried to be supportive, but his brief paternity leave ended after a couple of weeks and he was back at work. I felt even more alone.
And through it all, I also felt incredibly ungrateful. This is how Chinese families show their love and concern. They fuss with lectures and an overabundance of unsolicited help.
There are countless articles written about the practice of sitting the month and how it has evolved and modernized. Rather than rely on family, some women hire, or may be gifted with, a postpartum doula, or birth companion, to help cook and clean. In Asia, luxurious, spa-like residential postpartum centres are particularly popular, if you have $20,000 or so to spare. But at least two studies, from 2012 and 2014, indicate that the practice appears to have negative physical and emotional implications, including an increase in postpartum depression.
I’m not sure when I started wondering if I had postpartum blues or perhaps something more, but I was so unsettled by my emotions that I began to ask friends and family if they cried all the time in their first month. Nobody said yes, compounding the sense that the problem was me. Yet, I didn’t say anything to my doctor. Routine postpartum questions like “And how is mom doing?” were answered with a rote “I’m good! Just tired.” That was how I presented myself to the world.
Once, near the end of that first month, in our first big escape, I saw a friend who gave birth only days after I did. I asked her, “Have you been crying a lot? I think I’ve been crying almost every day.”
Her tired expression lifted. “Yes! You, too?!” I finally felt validated. After the visit, I began to accept the notion that sitting the month was a key factor in my postpartum misery. I felt so much lighter and happier escaping the confines of our condo—it was my first taste of how different the rest of my maternity leave would be.
Still, those few short weeks after the birth had a profound impact and carved an outsized place in my memories. The self-blame and doubt still seep through every so often, even years later. When I heard confinement stories from some of my more traditional friends, I felt like I was overly sensitive, not “Chinese enough” and certainly not hardy enough, as though I had failed a personal fortitude test.
I knew of at least two friends who didn’t bathe or wash their hair for the entire month. Others cheated with an initial shower at the hospital or simply bathed less. They all did it because it was expected of them or their mothers told them to.
“I was only allowed to wipe my face and body with warm ginger peel water that was cooled after boiling the ginger peel,” said one of my friends who did it twice, adding that, even though she wasn’t supposed to touch any water other than ginger water, she would secretly wash her hands with soap after going to the washroom.
“I mostly just ate ginger fried rice, ginger and pig feet with eggs, and chicken with red dates for the whole month as lunch and dinner,” she added. Her mother stayed with her for the month, and she enjoyed her confinement experience.
But for many of my other friends, as I later found out, the experience compounded the already difficult postpartum experience. “I was very emotional for the first month,” another friend told me. “I cried a lot, and I felt very alone. I didn’t feel like I had any support at the time. It wasn’t my choice, but I was in a lot of pain for the first couple of weeks because I had a C-section, so I couldn’t go out anyway.”
When my husband and I talk about it now, he wonders why I didn’t just ignore the noise and do my own thing. I ask myself the same. With the clarity of hindsight, I made certain that everyone understood there would be no confinement when my second child was born. We had moved to a bigger space by then and, while the unsolicited advice and unannounced drop-ins didn’t change, I had more privacy, room to escape and fresh air to breathe. There were no tears, and I didn’t experience the emotional whiplash of hormones and isolation.
That first month? I was happy.