A Month of Seclusion from Your Baby Immediately After Childbirth? Inside a Fascinating Chinese Tradition
Giving birth has got to be one of the more demanding things a woman's body can go through. Granted, women are designed for the process, but they're also designed to menstruate, which isn’t exactly the most pleasant experience either. So it makes sense that many new moms fantasize about jumping into bed, neglecting all new responsibilities and staying there forever. Or maybe even just a month.
The Chinese have a tradition called zuo yue zi, or “sitting the month,” where new mothers spend a full 30 (or more) days recovering from childbirth. The process is sometimes called “Chinese postpartum confinement” but since that sounds a little medieval, cushier names like “pampered seclusion” have also been assigned to the practice. It’s thought to date back in Chinese literature thousands of years.
The logic is this: after birth, a woman’s body is vulnerable, and needs a period of rejuvenation, rehabilitation and recovery. What that means in practice is no exercise, no going outside, no cold foods (ice water included), no sex, no bathing, no washing hair and no brushing teeth. The ban on going outside and drinking cold water may seem excessive, but it’s based on the theory that follicles expand during childbirth, leaving the body vulnerable to cold. Participants worry that too much cold air could lead to rheumatism or arthritis.
Certain foods are also thought to help return the body to its natural balance. Journalist Amanda Dingyuan Hou tells me, “In China every different kind of food has a hot or neutral or cold nature. So for example, orange is hot, grapefruit is cold."
Some of the restrictions seem a little nutty, and that is where a lot of criticism stems from. A lot of women argue that taking a month off from motherhood is a terrible blow to the bond between mother and child. And there are also the women who say spending a month at home is equivalent to spending a month in prison.
But others believe their bodies benefit from the month of “confinement.” Some say their month off helped them produce more milk. Others insist they were able to lose the baby weight faster. And some just enjoy being waited on hand and foot.
Fertility specialist Emma Cannon, who updates the practice of zuo yue zi in her books about babies, explained to me in an email correspondence, “Many women are reluctant to change their lives even post-baby. However, this is a special time and you never get it back. At this time your health can take a turn for better or worse. So instead of thinking ‘I must get back to normal ASAP,’ start thinking ‘This is precious time for me and baby to recover our energies and get a really good start in life.’”
“Sitting The Month” Goes Corporate
The practice of sitting the month is still alive today, though it has undergone a bit of a facelift in recent years. Traditionally, new mothers are taken care of by family members, often their mothers-in-law. But for those whose who are estranged or far away from family, another alternative exists. Over the past 10 years, “Postpartum Recovery Centers” have started popping up. While they were first limited to the streets of Shanghai, they’ve since entered the American circuit.
According to Hou, there are about 10 professional postpartum recovery centers operating in Flushing and Bayside Queens in New York City—many of which are run out of the owners' apartments. The services go for around $3,000-$4,800.
Granted, these facilities don’t exactly span the same distance their Chinese counterparts can. One Shanghai-based company, Care Bay provides clients with a team of maternity matrons, obstetricians, pediatricians, psychologists, gynecologists, nutritionists and healthcare experts. To ensure that the new moms get a full night’s sleep, maternity matrons stand by to nurse the babies at night. They also enjoy access to a professional chef, specialty shampoos and footbaths. The package deal can cost upwards of $60,000.
All in all, it seems like a pretty solid tradition—a month of relaxation, rehabilitation and recovery.
But a seedier practice has been known to take place under the guise of zuo yue zi: maternity tourism. It works like this: After paying tens of thousands of dollars, pregnant Chinese women are brought to the United States, often armed with the proper travel documents and tourist visas. They deliver their babies in the United States, making the infants automatic American citizens. These children are often referred to as “anchor babies.” It’s not uncommon for the families to then return to China, but they continue to hold the citizenship as a sort of insurance. When the children turn 21, they may petition the United States government to grant their parents permanent residence status. So should things get bad in China, the families have an easy out.
The activity was brought to light in 2011 after officials shut down a “recovery center” in San Gabriel, Calif. that was being used for maternity tourism. The center took the form of a small row of connected townhouses. Neighbors had complained about noise and a stream of pregnant women coming and going. City inspector Clayton Anderson told the New York Times, “These were not women living in squalor—it was a well taken care of place and clean, but there were a lot of women and babies… I have never seen anything like this before. We really couldn’t determine the exact number of people living there.”
The Future of Sitting the Month
The appeal behind zuo yue zi is obvious. Take some time for yourself to recover after childbirth. But the idea of taking it easy for a month doesn’t exactly mesh with the way we live our lives today.
When asked how younger Chinese Americans look at zuo yue zi, Hou tells me, “Its just a different ideology. Like for me, if one day I get pregnant and go through childbirth I don’t think I would strictly follow the practice, but a lot of it I do think has some scientific base, it's just not according to Western medicine.
"Like the whole ideology of cold and hot, ying and yang, that’s something that we grew up with. It’s so ingrained in our mind, you grew up with your mom telling you that."