My Expat Postpartum Experience (and why next time I’ll take notes from the locals)

Today’s post is brought to you by guest writer Erica Knecht of Expatria, Baby. If you missed Erica’s post last week, you can click here to read about her experience parenting a toddler in Asia.

mom with newborn in hospital, having a baby in JapanIn late summer of 2009, my husband and I moved from China to Japan. That same week, I got pregnant. Nauseous, awash in hormonal crazysauce, and suffering from a raging case of culture shock, let’s just say that I was less than open to unsolicited advice regarding my prenatal care. 

Here! Eat these bite-sized, dried, whole fish, heads and all! Remember, keep your ankles warm, otherwise you’ll hurt the baby! Also, wrap your tummy, lest your precious fetus catch a cold!

Nope, I thought, feeling more than a little superior. I’ll take a large helping of medicalized, evidence-based, North American standard care, thankyouverymuch.

Nine months later, I was not any more receptive to non-Western suggestions on how to transition into parenthood. My midwives advised that I stay in the hospital for a week after a normal delivery. They insisted that I bind my midsection with a tangle of 13 feet of fabric. No showers, but baths were okay. And upon return home, I was to take to my bed, and stay inside the house for at least two weeks.

My initial reaction to this advice was, admittedly, not very noble. “What a lot of superstitious nonsense,” I thought. “These winging, whining ladies! They’re wimps! Us strong, scientifically-minded North American women, we just get on with life! We are therefore stronger, morally superior, and generally just way more awesome!!”

Humph.

So, to demonstrate my greater all-around awesomeness, I got up, and put on make-up. I took long walks my seven-day-old. I cleaned, ironed, cooked, and nursed, but didn’t sleep.

And what did I get for my efforts? Mastitis. Hemorrhoids. A random eye infection. A cold. Extremely hurty lady-parts that required painkillers (suppository painkillers!!!) every time I needed to empty my bladder. Oy.

mom with newborn in the park, having a baby in Japan

this would be me, in the park, with a seven-day-old baby

Now, newly landed in Indonesia, I’m contemplating Maybe Baby Number Two, and MBNT’s eventual postpartum period. This time around, you can bet your dried fish heads that I’m going to be doing this the Asian way. 

As I’ve investigated post-birth rituals in this part of the world, I’ve found that a prolonged stretch of rest after the arrival of a new baby is the norm. Most well-known is the Chinese confinement practice of zuo yuezi, or sitting the month.

New mothers spend thirty days in bed. They bundle up, avoid cold and draughts, even in the height of a steamy Asian summer. They eat nourishing soups and drink murky herbal brews. Black chicken, pork trotters, red dates, wood ear mushrooms, woolfberreis, dried longan, and ginger feature on the confinement menu. For thirty days women are not permitted to shower, or wash their hair (gah!) Instead, they feed their babies, rest, eat, and sleep (yay!).

It’s not only in China were women are granted a lengthy respite after birth. Korean mothers undergo a similar confinement period wherein they rest and eat plenty of  miyuk, or seaweed soup. Indian women stay indoors for 40 days, indulging in herbal baths, avoiding “cold” foods and getting plenty of rest. Malay women spend their 30-day recovery period drinking herbal jamus and receiving daily massages. (Let’s just say that I briefly considered the feasibility of delivering MBNT in Kuala Lumpur. I’d do just about anything for a month of massages.)

The more I became aware of the prevalence (and consistency — 30 to 40 days, Asia-wide, and PS, don’t let yourself get cold) of a postpartum confinement period, the more I realized that I was a gigantic jerk for dismissing postpartum folk wisdom out of hand.

Pass the pork trotters and wood ear mushrooms, please.

While some of the requirements of a traditional confinement period are neither practical nor desirable in a North American context (who’s going to cook those trotters and take care of the older kids, and OMG 30 days of dirty hair!) what can we glean from these practices to make the passage into new parenthood a happier one?

Here are just a few ideas I’ve taken from what I’ve learned and plan to incorporate into my next postpartum experience as much as I can:

A Grace Period

In most parts of Asia, women are expected to do nothing more than rest after delivering their child. True, North America women can’t stay in bed for a month, but we can give ourselves 30 days grace. Thirty days of full sinks, full hampers, and floors full of crumbs. Thirty days where we don’t bother too much about unwashed hair (hey! at least we can shower!) Thirty days where we lower our standards, whatever they may be.

A Babymoon

Perhaps in North America we have it backwards: instead of taking a babymoon before the baby arrives, we might be better served by a stay-cation after, resting at home for as long as is feasible, taking no calls and no visitors. If you have older children, maybe your partner can take some time off (even if just a couple of days!); or maybe you can just be okay with Dora playing on repeat. For a month.

Eat Hot Food

In the three months leading up to the babe’s arrival, consider stocking your freezer with hearty, re-heatable fare. While pork trotters and black chicken may not be everyone’s cup of (soup?) rich stews and soups are simple and easy to make, freeze well, and are nourishing. Then, during the recovery period, boil up some ginger tea or add a dollop of miso paste to hot water if you’re feeling particularly Asian.

Consider Hiring Help

Hiring a postpartum doula is obviously not within reach of the average North American family, but are there creative ways to pay for extra help? Can a neighbourhood tween play with the older kids for a few hours (and only a few bucks) while you sleep? Can you skimp on cute overalls and sweet dresses and splurge on a couple of hours of cleaning service? Or maybe at your baby shower, you can request gifts of cleaning coupons, cooked food, or babysitting. After all, one child only needs so many stuffed animals, right?

After my experiences with postpartum recovery in Japan, you can be certain that upon the potential, eventual, perhaps one day arrival of MBNT, I’ll be soaking up every bit of advice that comes my way.

With the distance of a couple of years, and a whole lot of hindsight, I can see now that I ignored a whole lot of helpful advice simply because I had a blind faith in the superiority of the Western Way.

Not next time. I’ll be open to all sorts of different approaches to postpartum care. I’ll drink whatever strange brews are hoisted upon me. I’ll bundle up. I’ll stay in bed. I’ll sleep for a month, and let my typing fingers atrophy.

I do draw the line, however, at dried fish heads.

What was your postpartum experience like? Have you experienced the period in another culture – either yourself or through foreign family or friends? I’d love to hear what other customs are out there!

 

Erica Knecht is a mother, writer, blogger, and professional nomad, currently based in Jakarta, Indonesia. When not gallivanting across the globe with her two-year-old, she writes about the lighter side of tri-cultural parenting on her blog Expatria, Baby.

Look for more thoughts from Erica on cross-cultural parenting and happiness on The Happiest Mom next week!

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