Three years ago, I didn’t know what zuo yuezi was when my brother was preparing ginger and chicken soup for his Chinese postpartum wife. My mom informed me of the specific rules:
- Mother and baby couldn’t leave the house.
- No visitors allowed.
- No photography of the baby on social media.
- Mother can’t bathe.
What the what?! We have some pretty interesting superstitions and customs from our Filipino upbringing, but this was something else!
During my last trimester, I was anxious about the arrival of my baby girl, but felt even more anxious for the zuo yuezi period. I, too, married a second generation Chinese American, whose family and culture recommended this post-baby tradition. After hearing about my sister in-law’s postpartum experience, I felt like I needed to research every bit of information I could find on it before diving into it myself.
What is Zuo Yuezi?
If you Google zuo yuezi, you will find that the word “confinement” pops up. Zuo yuezi, which translates to “sitting the month,” is an integral time for a postpartum mother. It’s a transitional time known as the sacred fourth trimester. The mother’s body is undergoing a major change from pregnancy to postpartum, which lasts (at a minimum) for 30 days. Thankfully, one very informative resource I found to prepare for my fourth trimester was The First Forty Days. Heng Ou, a Chinese American mother, shares with western mothers her own zuo yuezi experience. The book serves as a guide of tried-and-true postpartum recovery recipes and traditions from cultures and generations past.
A Time for Recovery and Rest
After a baby’s birth, the mother’s yin and yang need adjusting. The “yang,” or heat, from pregnancy is expelled at birth and the new mother is now “yin,” cold. This is where the “no bathing” comes in. The idea is that the mother’s body is susceptible to all things cold, including water. Experiencing a chill after a bath can affect the mother’s already-weakened state and immune system. However, I imagine this comes from a time when exposure to the elements before and after a bath was a real threat to a new mother.
The focus of zuo yuezi is to allow the body to recover from the hard work of 40 weeks of physical change, as well as the hours of labor endured to birth a baby. There is no “bouncing back” to your pre-baby body. Strictly prohibited activities include exercise, chores, and even stepping out of the home. In some places, there are zuo yuezi nannies that will come to your home to care for you and baby. Compounds of luxury suites designed specifically for postpartum recovery exist in some Chinese communities, both here in California and abroad. Either way, the goal is for someone to help care for mother and baby.
Warmth and Nourishment
There are no “push-presents” of jewelry, designer handbags or whatever people might receive after having a baby. Instead, the gift of jujube date or goji tea and warm chicken with ginger soup are received. Zuo yuezi includes daily meals that are designed for a specific postpartum purpose. Immediately, a new mother’s lost fluid and “yang” should be replenished with warm, nourishing, iron-rich meals. This is followed-up by meals to increase milk production. Finally, there are meals to help re-energize the new mother and give her the strength for the marathon of motherhood.
Nesting and Preparation
I spent the last few weeks of my pregnancy flagging recipes and notes from The First Forty Days, filling mason jars with tea infusions, freezing homemade lactation cookie dough, and stocking my kitchen with the tools needed. Despite all the completed tasks and grocery lists, I still came home from the birth feeling unprepared!
Birth and a New Life
The first forty days were definitely sacred for me. The exhausting work from labor and the euphoria of oxytocin made the zuo yuezi experience less about the stress of following rules and more about focusing inward. Confining ourselves at home wasn’t about avoiding fresh air and sunshine (because we broke that rule to experience the tail-end of summer from right outside our door), but rather about enjoying the tender moments bonding together, recovering from the hardest work my body has ever done, and learning to find the rhythm of our new life as a family. Though I may not have followed all of the Chinese customs to a tee, I’m grateful for the introspection of transition. Not only was our baby born, but the mother in me was born, as well.