Since I cannot get my mind off this HUGE Chinese tradition around what to do during the first post-natal month, and its big ripple effect in my little family, I thought I’ll just post a blog. I believe this could easily be one of the biggest cultural differences/shocks in play in any sino-foreign family.
This tradition is called 坐月子in Chinese, which if literally translated means ‘sit through the first month’ – a weird name though because according to the ‘real’ tradition, it should have been called ‘SLEEP through the first month’.
The tradition basically governs what a Chinese woman SHOULD do and SHOULD NOT do during the first month after delivery, in all possible aspects that you would think of, and beyond. Some are real eye-openers (to put it mildly) to Nicolas, my French husband who is not new to Chinese culture. A few of the rules that stand out are:
– she should not take shower nor wash hair for a month (‘ca pue !!’ (‘it stinks!!) Nicolas’ reaction)
– she should not brush the teeth
– she should lie on bed all the time except strict necessities (such as going to toilet). Breastfeeding is done on her bed. Holding baby while standing is not recommended.
– she and the baby should not go outside
– she should not touch cold water nor drink cold water
– she should avoid fruits and vegetables, but eat/drink lots of fluid-based food such as congee, brown sugar water, chicken soup, fish soup etc. Food is an important part, and the list of dos and don’ts can go on and on.
– She should not cry
– she should not start breast-feeding until 24 hours after birth
– … much more …
Chinese believe that these measures help the women to fully recover from labour and otherwise will have disastrous result even into their elder years. Many of these rules came from a time when hygiene could be a real concern and nutrition & food variety were not readily available. However in the modern society most of us fortunately live in, a lot of them are no longer relevant to say the least, if not against the best interest of the young mother’s recovery and young baby’s development. As more and more people in China including doctors start to argue the scientific (or rather non-scientific) value of these traditions, some young mothers would no longer follow strictly what the tradition says. However, many still do. In fact, from what I gathered on internet, an amazing vast majority still do, even to an extent more than I would have imagined.
Another interesting fact is that although many people (esp. young parents) have very vague idea about what 坐月子precisely means – indeed you can choose to follow from 100% to just 1% of the strict tradition – everyone subscribes to the prevailing idea – 坐月子 IS VITAL. Listen to your mom.
As a result, the young mother basically becomes ‘immobile’ – synonym of ‘useless’ – during that month. So traditionally the young-mother’s mother or mother-in-law will live with the family during the first month to take care of everything (the young mother, the new-born, and household chores). Some may stay much longer – that’s another story altogether.The modern interpretation is to hire a specialised helper (called 月嫂 or ‘first-month-auntie’) or to stay in a specialized resort/care center (月子中心 or ‘first-month-centre’) during the month.
That who is around during 坐月子becomes such an integral part of the tradition itself that nobody seems to ask the question ‘Do I really need some extra help apart from just me and my husband?’. It’s commonly neglected as a question worth asking. And this is something that Nicolas has to come to terms with. Me too.
With no exception, during the conversation with my Chinese friends, one inevitable comment comes up: ‘your mom is coming, isn’t she?!‘
My mom lives in China, 12-hour flight away. Her entire family except me lives in China. She knows nobody else but me in Sydney. She speaks no English. She eats no non-Chinese food. She has never taken a long-haul flight on her own. She would be comfortable that I do not take shower for a month. She may have very different idea about bringing up a baby.
But none of the above matters. It’s decided that she’s coming. No discussion is solicited. Suitcase is being packed.
And that got me to think. Is that what I want? Is that what Nicolas wants? Is that what our young growing family wants? And equally importantly, is it what my mom wants?
Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the idea of being taken care of and doing as little house chore as possible, esp after a possibly stressful labour. And I LOVE the fact that my mom gets to spend time with her grand-daughter. But to what extent am I willing to trade/comprise/battle through potentially vast different opinion among my mom, Nicolas and myself? And how would it impact the dynamics of the family that’s already going through dramatic change with a new-born baby? And how much influence my mom will have on my following or not following some of the traditions?
I’m still looking for answer. I’m trying to find out each other’s expectation. I’m trying to understand where each of us stands for. I’m trying to figure out what each of us is willing to comprise, and what not. I’m trying to start a conversation that no one expects.
坐月子 is indeed a blur yet extremely powerful concept! It keeps me awake at night. I have four more months of such nights to reflect upon the subject before my 坐月子 period starts for real.
A Chinese-german artist illustrates the cultural differene betweens Chinese and the Westerners by graphics. Here are two about ‘child’ and ‘senior person’s life’.