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

by Guest Blogger on November 9, 2012

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 Japan In 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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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah November 9, 2012 at 11:58 am

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this subject. I had my first baby in May, and I felt blindsided by the post-partum experience. I’m a physician, so I felt fairly (okay, extremely) cocky about my OB and pediatric evidence-based knowledge and ability to put that knowledge to seemless use after my baby came. I didn’t want anyone else’s advice. Let’s call that catastrophic failure number 1. I’m also type-A, so I really wanted to have the house clean and the baby dressed in something super cute at all times for any visitors who came by (and stayed well past their welcome many a time). That would be catastrophic failure number 2. As soon as visitors were out the door, I was sobbing – from exhaustion, from hunger, from the feeling of utter failure as a wife and mommy, from postpartum pain, from pregnancy hormone detox, etc./you name it. I felt like no one had told me what it was actually going to be like, and let’s face it, I probably wouldn’t have listened if they had tried. Next baby, I am going to accept help when it is offered instead of trying to do everything myself. I am going to temporarily choose to look past the dishes in the sink and the laundry in the hamper and know that they don’t define my skills as a wife or a mother. I am going to take to my bed and allow the loving and willing hands of my husband to pull the covers up around me, bring the baby to me, bring me something to eat, etc. My first baby and postpartum experience taught me that sometimes it takes a stronger woman to graciously and thankfully accept help rather than to do everything herself.

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erica @ expatria, baby November 10, 2012 at 7:15 am

Oh, Sarah, so good to know that a fellow high-strung, type-A, me do it!, mama is is going to be relaxing in bed next time around. I understand that for many women there are obstacles in the way of properly recovering after birth (particularly financial obstacles) and that’s a major injustice. For those of us who have the option to rest, I don’t know why we don’t. I mean, it’s almost like we need a long-held, deeply ingrained cultural institution to keep us new mamas in bed!

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Kristen @ Motherese November 9, 2012 at 2:32 pm

I really enjoyed this, Erica, from both a maternal and an anthropological point of view. It’s fascinating how healthy, well-adjusted children are raised around the world with such different standards of the “right” way to do things. Kind of makes you realize the number of right ways of doing so many things there are.

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erica @ expatria, baby November 10, 2012 at 7:17 am

That. Exactly. Yes! One of the most important lesson this life abroad has taught me.

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nopinkhere November 9, 2012 at 2:48 pm

I ran across a fun book from the library that discusses worldwide differences in child-rearing. It’s interesting to hear that there’s a whole other world of “right’ ways to do things.
http://www.amazon.com/Eskimos-Keep-Their-Babies-Warm/dp/156512958X

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Carrie November 9, 2012 at 5:25 pm

Love this! I’ve long been interested in parenting practices around the world, and yes I believe that many traditional cultures have it right when they pamper new moms.

I’ve written about the many mistakes people make when they visit a postpartum mom – overstaying their welcome, expecting to be pampered instead of pampering, creating drama, etc. I believe that if postpartum women were truly supported during this time then PPD rates would be cut in half or better.

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erica @ expatria, baby November 10, 2012 at 7:21 am

Oh, yes, what would a culturally enforced recovery period do for women and the prevention of PPD! I’m sure it would be beneficial for many women.
I don’t know much about the subject of cross-cultural studies in PPD, but I do remember reading a study on Japanese women and PPD. Japanese women typically go home to their mothers’ house for 1-3 months after birth. But (if I remember correctly) they have the same (if not hight) rate of ppd as US women. This might be particular to the Japanese context, as women there have a lot of social and emotional demands placed on them, and they are super under-valued in society (current rank of 101st country in terms of equality).
I’m now inspired to go an do a little digging on how other women in other cultures do. Hmmm.

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Brittnie (A Joy Renewed) November 10, 2012 at 7:24 am

I really love this post. I think it is SO wise for moms to give themselves a break after delivery. I had my first child in May and while I did take it easy , looking back I do think I expected too much of myself, too soon. I think we have a lot to learn from other cultures and their practices.

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Berta November 10, 2012 at 10:11 am

When I first heard about “zuo yuezi,” it sounded like jail to me. But after living in Taiwan for a number of years, I came to see the benefits. Way back in the day, it was the only time a woman could rest – it was everyone else’s responsibility to take over the cleaning & cooking! And after a friend told me that after properly doing the “sit month,” that she was slimmer than before she had children, I was converted. I decided to give it a try with my first because it couldn’t hurt.

I actually went to a postpartum center, which I called my postpartum retreat. Delicious, healthy meals served to me every day, fresh changes of clothes, and a nursery staffed by professional nurses whenever I needed a mental/emotional break. I had unexpected breastfeeding difficulties (my son was unable to latch for the first several weeks of his life). I credit staying at a center with enabling us to develop and maintain a breastfeeding relationship because I was able to focus on him and me, and not worry about anything else. When there were times when I lost it and cried, there was always a neutral, sympathetic nurse willing to listen.

Another benefit was the center had set visiting hours, and guests could only enter the reception area, so these rules helped avoid having visitors stay past their welcome.

After my experience, I really don’t know how moms in the West make it through. I never experienced hemorrhoids, never needed to take laxatives or stool softeners, and generally felt energized and refreshed. Although there’s a rule not to drink plain water, my meals were full of nourishing soups (including dessert soups, my favorite!), steamed and/or braised dishes, and herbal teas. While my friend was served toast as her first meal in the hospital after giving birth in Scotland, my first meal was a lovely chicken noodle soup with fresh pea sprouts and a boiled egg.

Oh, and I also did a more modernized version. I washed my hair, but limited it to once a week, and went to a nearby salon for a wash and blowout (the belief being if you blow-dry right away, it’s ok to wash your hair). Not a bad compromise in my book. :)

A expat friend of mine (also in Taiwan) has chronicled her confinement experience at her blog: http://taiwanxifu.com/baby/

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erica @ expatria, baby November 11, 2012 at 7:11 am

Oh, wow, that’s so cool Berta. Thanks for posting that link. I’ll check it out.
I am a convert to the idea of confinement (or at least proper, good postpartum rest.)
Here in Indonesia the confinement practices are somewhat different than they are in the Chinese speaking world, but you can bet that I’ll be doing an Indo-style confinement. Not only will I get a proper recovery period, I’ll also get a deeper insight into cultural practices.

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Kate November 11, 2012 at 12:38 am

With my first baby, I had someone around for a month. My mom, my mother-in-law, my husband (who traveled then some). Not 24/7, but every day. By the end, I wanted my space, but the support was so very important.

With my second baby, things were different. My husband was working out of town all week, every week. My mother just had surgery. My mother-in-law was working full time. I was largely on my own. With two. But, friends brought three meals a week for a full month. I never had to cook.

With my third, thing were more even chaotic. But letting go of what’s non-essential was so important.

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Taiwanxifu November 12, 2012 at 12:07 am

I appreciated the honesty in this post. There are always things we can learn and do better next time. And there are then new challenges because no baby is the same.

I recently gave birth to my second child in Taipei (reference to my blog posts at http://www.taiwanxifu.com/baby are above). After birth I had a nanny take care of me for over a month while I underwent zuo yuezi – Chinese postpartum confinement. There were times when it was difficult, such as eating my daily serving of liver or kidney, not being able to escape a week of jack hammering on the floor above, and I got lonely from not having many visitors. But boy did it make a difference to my recovery and my baby’s development.

Like Berta, baby could not latch on for several weeks. He was a nine pound baby with an appetite to match, and dealing with our ‘Angry Bird’ struggling to feed was no fun. Having someone to provide emotional and pragmatic support was priceless. Baby is now such a fat, happy, Buddha and everyone remarks on how contented and settled he is.

And my own recovery has been smooth. I lost 13kg after childbirth, but more importantly have lots of energy – despite still feeding baby during the night. My experience with my elder son was much different – I was exhausted for months afterwards..

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Nina November 13, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Like yourself, I wanted to prove that life could be normal even with a new baby and having just given birth. Thankfully I never developed any physical ailments, but I wasn’t happy. I didn’t really take the opportunity to nap throughout the day, I wanted to entertain visitors, and I took those walks that only made me and my baby more miserable.

This time around, I plan to rest as much as I could, treat visitors as help instead of feeling pressured to entertain (they can fawn over the baby perfectly fine alone while I nap!) and not put so much pressure to maintain my previous lifestyle for the first few weeks and months.

I think I had a difficult time accepting just how different it is with a baby and thus tried to have the same cleanliness in our home, the same routines, etc, now I know that it’ll all eventually fall back into a new normal and that the best thing I could do for everyone is to heal and rest.

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Deanne November 14, 2012 at 9:56 pm

My delivery with my little one was not the greatest. I had pre-eclampsia and had to have an emergency C-section. My post-partum experience on the other hand was fantastic. Both my parents came and stayed with my husband and me for 7 weeks! They cooked, cleaned and took morning duty with the little one while I rested and waited for my blood pressure to go back down. I am very fortunate to have parents that are so wonderful. I hope that I have as good of an experience with number 2.

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Jennifer G November 18, 2012 at 3:51 pm

I am about to have our 2nd baby (tomorrow). My hubby only has a few days off with me, he will be caring for our 5 yr old son while I am in the hospital. My mom & maybe my sister will be coming to help out for a few days the following week. But after that it will just be me and my son at home with his new little brother. So I think we might be watching a LOT of TV and resting a lot too. My older son is so excited that I will be housebound for 6 weeks after my c-section. He really likes to stay at home. I have a ton of freezer meals prepared to make dinner time easier. I had not thought about lunches and snacks. I think I will have to make a list and send hubby to the grocery store :)

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Amy @ Frugal Mama November 18, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Hi Erica,

I loved reading this post. I loved the humor and the humility in your voice, and I also identified with your experience. In Italy, and probably in most of Europe, the post-partum period is similarly sacred. When I gave birth (twice) in Milan, my mother-in-law took care of me for 40 days, although, like you, I didn’t think I needed it.

This is a wonderful perspective that you are sharing with our scientifically-minded awesome selves. We could use a different kind of awesome sometimes.

Amy

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Leah November 19, 2012 at 2:29 am

I really wish I had found your blog sooner! I am the mother of a 7 month old who I delivered and am raising in Mexico. As an RN I was also incredibly cocky about all the “ridiculousness” that was being fed to me by my husbands relatives. (e.g. Wear a piece of metal on your pants to protect your baby from a cleft lip should any random lunar eclipses occur, that decaf tea you’re drinking is going to kill your baby, yes it’s 100 degrees outside but that doesn’t mean the baby doesn’t require 4 blankets, you need to wear a girdle for a year, etc) I realize now that my life would have been a lot easier if I could have just relaxed and gone along with the harmless bits of wisdom (will not be pressing on my infants palate any time soon in an effort to pop out his depressed fontanelle!) It is refreshing to see that I am not the only one dealing with–and being frustrated by–cultural differences. It is also interesting to see that a lot of the things you mentioned are common here in the Mexican culture as well so perhaps there actually is some benefit to them. Before my next pregnancy I plan to work on my humility! Thanks for sharing.

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MangoTreeMama November 29, 2012 at 11:53 pm

I am SO glad to see that some women are less hardheaded than me! That resting postpartum is SOOOOO important in so many ways- it affects way more than its usually given credit for!
I, too, was “cocky” & “too tough” to need the 6 weeks rest my midwife prescribed (2 weeks IN bed, 2 weeks ON the bed, 2 weeks NEAR the bed). It took me 8 babies to finally realize: it’s not about being tough, it’s about being smart!
And don’t dismiss those girdles or swaths of fabric- that’s a great way to prevent or heal a diastasis recti, which is what I’m working on now. (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diastasis_recti#_)

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