Giving birth in China was an adventure, but the time after delivery can be very challenging as well. Imagine not being allowed to go outside, have a shower or drink cold water for an entire month.
In China the first month after giving birth is known as ‘sitting the month’ 坐月子 zuo yuezi, a time seen as ‘cold phase’ according to traditional Chinese medicine. For Chinese women this time is very restrictive, full of rules and in some cases complete bed rest. For me, it meant my mother-in-law giving me hell for not following her advices and rules.
Most rules have been handed down since ancient times. ‘Sitting the month’ practises can vary slightly from province to province, but in general women are advised to stay in bed most of the time and no matter the time of the year, they should be properly wrapped from head to toe, with a hat and socks and blankets to keep the body warm. It is believed that doing so will keep women from falling sick with ailments like arthritis when they are old.
Even though I agree that the first month after delivery is an intense healing time for a new mother, I could not agree with most of the practises my mother-in-law tried to enforce on me. Here are the rules I broke (and don’t regret doing so):
Strict bed rest: If I would have listen to my mother-in-law (MIL) I would have spent most of the time lying in bed because the belief is that any exertion would slow the healing process and possibly cause future harm, like diminished eyesight as a result of reading or arthritis or weakened joints from picking up heavy objects during the postpartum period. MIL wouldn’t even allow me to pick up my own baby. During our stay in the hospital I had to fight to hold Sophie. Needless to say; as soon as we were at home I did not follow any bed rest rule, nor did I think holding my own baby would exhaust me… In my opinion a reason why so many women in China have problems breastfeeding is due to the lack of caring for their own baby, and having someone else look after the baby all night. This makes it very hard for the mothers to lactate…
Not holding the baby: As I mentioned before, I wasn’t encouraged to hold my own baby. Most of the time MIL would snatch her out of my hands and say something like “It’s not good to hold the baby in your arms too long. She will get used to it.” I should not cuddle the baby too much to not encourage dependency. Also it is believed that baby’s soft bones may not become as straight as they should be if I held her too long. Even breastfeeding the baby, should be done lying down, with the baby placed beside me, rather than sitting up and cradling her on my lap (this was even enforced by the nurses!). The days in the hospital were really exhausting, constantly having to fight to hold you baby, something that should be the most natural! I was glad when we finally went home and send MIL back to the village. I have been holding, cuddling and letting my baby sleep in my arms as much as I wanted!
No Shower: I broke this rule on the second day. Usually women are not permitted to take showers for the full 30 days. This also included not washing the hair or brushing the teeth for an entire month! After delivering a baby in the heat of the summer, I couldn’t imagine not showering for even a week! MIL was not pleased with me and kept on commenting how bad it is what I am doing to my body by showering (!). I simply ignored her and went on. And the funniest was, after I took a shower and MIL decided to take one herself!
No Cold Water: Strictly speaking during the month women are not only forbidden to drink anything cold, but are also discouraged from using cold water to wash their hands. I gave birth mid July when 35 degree meant it was a cool day. While in the hospital I gave in to my MIL and her provision of hot water with brown sugar, but believe me, I even had ice cream when I went back home.
No housework: Usually, when sitting the month, new mothers don’t do any work, no housework, no lifting, cooking or anything like that. Since I send my MIL back home and my husband went back to work quite soon after the birth, I had to do the household alone, and cook myself lunch. But I preferred it that way.
Not going outside: One month house arrest. I was supposed to stay indoors for the whole time with few if any visitors apart from my MIL. Somehow this rule was not only broken by me, but by husband’s family, because I remember, we had more visitors than my parents-in-law. Something I wasn’t pleased about. Would have preferred them to follow this rule! However, for myself leaving the house with the baby, I did so in week three. I would have gone out earlier, but it was so hot, it was unbearable for myself, let alone a newborn baby.
No reading: During the month women should not read, watch TV, play with their phones or iPads, or take calls. That means no books, newspapers, magazines… 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. Since I wasn’t following the bed rest rule, I needed something to do. Not using my phone was out of the question, and since baby was still small and sleeping a lot, it was a great time to catch up with some reading (of baby related literature of course).
Keeping warm: A women sitting the month should keep warm at all times, and this means wearing pyjamas or long-sleeved t-shirts and long trousers, thick socks(essential), and a hat, no matter if it’s summer or winter. 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. Unfortunately, some women (maybe forced by their MILs) have gone too far and even died of heat stroke while sitting the month. It really is not advisable to wear so much clothing during the summer heat. The only thing I did to avoid more fights with my MIL was to wear long sleeved t-shirt and pants when we left the hospital. That was the only time, and I have been in short dresses ever since (of course now with autumn slowly creeping by this has changed).
No air-conditioning: Of course in order to keep warm, air-conditioning or fans are strictly forbidden. Our AC was running non-stop as soon as we came back from the hospital. I would not have risked getting a heat stroke, and was also worried for my baby’s health.
These were the ones I couldn’t and wouldn’t follow. Some I see as harmful, if not physically (like overdressing in the heat) than psychologically damaging (like not being allowed to hold your baby and bond). But some rules if not taken to the extreme make sense. It is good and advisable to rest after just bringing a human life into this world (especially if the woman had a c-section).
I also agree with the special dietary requirements to help the woman to regain strength. Of course I did not follow the crazy custom of eating ten eggs a day as my MIL would have liked me to do. However, I did drink a lot of lactation-stimulating soups like fish soups and soups made with pork trotters. Since the postpartum is considered a “cold” condition due to the blood loss during labor, “hot” foods are required to rebuild the loss of blood. This would include – of course, hot water (preferably with brown sugar and dates), ginger, vinegar, pigs feet, chicken, walnuts and high protein meals (thus the belief here to eat lots of eggs). But this also meant I was forbidden “cold” foods like fruits, raw vegetables, wheat, millet, cucumber… so no salad! It was impossible for me to follow the ‘no fruits’ rule. I even had an entire cold (!) watermelon…
I am very lucky that as a foreigner I don’t have to do zuo yuezi. Most of my Chinese friends are not as lucky. There is a lot of pressure from their own mother and their MIL to follow the rules, and many simply do so to please their husband’s family. Many really strongly believe that if they don’t ‘sit the month’ correctly, they will suffer health problems in later years and who would want to take the chance?
I agree that having a new baby can be immensely tiring, and it would have been great to have some help with the household chores, and to have a week or two of quiet resting time to spend with my baby peacefully to bond and get breastfeeding well established. But the way zuo yuozi is practised here was not working for me. And MIL was not willing (or able) to have any compromises, so I could only do as I did and be the alone caretaker of my baby (including doing the entire household).
Have you heard of the zuo yuezi tradition? Would you follow the rules or follow your own version of ‘sitting the month’?
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