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Saturday, December 31st, 2011

Postpartum in China—Confinement or Luxury?

postpartum in China- the moon month/ © HuiTuan

My partner, Guo Jian, has been priming me for the “moon month” or zuo yuezi 坐月子.

When my in-laws were here a couple of weeks ago (the precursor to their more permanent visit before the baby’s arrival) and we were downstairs helping to unload the car, a perfect stranger noticed my advanced pregnant shape, the presence of parental figures and Guo Jian and I helping them with their things. This stranger very confidently turned to Guo Jian and half-asked and half-stated, “Your parents have come to help you through the moon month?” To this woman, there could be nothing more obvious. Guo Jian just smiled and nodded. His parents glowed with pride.

In Chinese culture, the moon month, also translated as “sitting out the month,” “lying in” or “confinement in childbirth,” is a month-long sojourn in the home for postpartum women. It means that following childbirth, the mother and child are to remain indoors, mostly horizontal on the bed, well insulated and fully catered to by extended family. All cooking and cleaning is provided while the new mother’s exclusive job is to bond with the infant, breastfeed and recover from the trauma of childbirth.

In China, a portion of the service industry is specifically designed to uphold this tradition—a person can hire a live-in maid/attendant who will cook, clean and provide breastfeeding instruction and/or infant care for the first thirty days after childbirth. It’s expensive (between $1000 and $1500 CAD) but a thriving industry in China. It’s specifically for those whose families are too far away to offer the service directly.

Sounds great, right?

Well, part of this tradition requires that women not bathe during the moon month. Some tell me that this is due to the fear of illness or disease, especially back in the days when there was fear regarding water-borne pathogens. I’ve heard others say that it’s also about preserving a mother’s scent and the infant’s connection to that scent—a connection that is especially important in the first month of life.

A whole month of not bathing? I’m not sure I can do it. I’m not sure I want to! No, it’s… not going to happen…. ick!
The chance to rest, though, sounds appealing. I’m happy to lie around with the baby, recovering, not worrying about cooking and cleaning. I may go a bit stir crazy, but perhaps I’ll be too tired to notice? Perhaps it will pass by quicker than I ever imagined?

Guo Jian’s mother has prepared time off work to provide these services to us. I’m relieved that no one is insisting we have a stranger come into the house just to argue with me and my Western ways, try to cook me meat-based soups (part of the moon month traditional cuisine) and generally create an awkward, unknown presence. His mother at least knows me well enough to know that all food must be vegetarian! And, since it’s important to them that I carry out this tradition, I certainly can’t deny them the right to render the service.

And funny enough, when I expressed some misgivings about the tradition, my father-in-law told me that I certainly can bathe, I don’t have to remain in bed 24/7, and I can even go out a bit with the baby, as long as it’s not far or strenuous exercise. A short walk, for instance.

When I later conveyed this to my partner, he said, “My father doesn’t understand. He was raised in a time when all traditional culture was rejected. He doesn’t get it.”

In fact, Guo Jian claims there is evidence that if a woman does not honour the full moon month, she will be more susceptible to disease and illness later in life. When he makes these comments, his entire community (including our very wise tai chi teacher) nods in agreement, a huge cultural backdrop staged ominously all around me. “How can you argue with five thousand years of history?” their eyes ask. “And why would you put yourself at risk now that a child will depend on you?” I shrink at the collective potency.

My modern, dreadlocked, musician partner is showing me his traditional, conservative side.

Well, Enter My Culture

My parents are scheduled to arrive in late January for nearly a month, with part of the time spent with me, in our home. It coincides with an important two-week tour to New Zealand that Guo Jian is taking with his band. The tour’s timing was infuriating and so discouraging, given that the baby will have just arrived. But my parents scheduled their visit to overlap with his absence, which made me feel better and less panicked. At least I won’t be alone with just my in-laws and the baby! I already know that I’ll really want my own mother nearby when Little Spark is so tiny.

When they arrive, however, considering that the baby will hopefully have been born a few weeks before, I don’t want to be holed up in bed, unwashed and kept back from hosting them. I can smell a conflict coming! Perhaps the first week can be low key, but afterwards, I’m going to want some movement, freedom with my parents, motherly advice in English, a few dinners out… generally some respite from the confinement.

But if the baby is delivered later than the due date, as the hospital predicts, I am gearing myself up for some conflict regarding the moon month. Guo Jian’s absence will quite possibly be my release from the jailer but that doesn’t necessarily get me off the hook with my in-laws. Let’s hope they are indeed more lenient than Guo Jian and do not suddenly descend into absolutism. As long as my mother-in-law isn’t here with my parents, it will all work out fine. Yikes!

I had to talk my mother-in-law out of managing all the cooking and hosting while my parents are here! For her, it goes without saying that it will be them hosting my parents, even if my mom and dad are staying in our home, not theirs. After all, they are the same generation. She was actually planning to show up every day to cook each meal, clean up after them and do their laundry. Can you imagine?!

After some careful wagering of tactics, I explained to my mother-in-law that my parents want to help me recover from childbirth too. I explained that they really like the moon month tradition and want to help me honor it. I added that I’d hate to have two powerful mothers competing to cook and clean for us.

(Am I a terrible, manipulative person?)

She immediately agreed to give space to my mother when she’s here and was so happy to hear that they intend to take care of me.

No. Small. Victory.

The truth is that my parents are Western and, like Western people everywhere, they will arrive in my home as helpful parents, but still as our guests. They know about the moon month but, unless they read this blog, they don’t really understand it. Our apartment won’t become their space, even temporarily, and I have no expectation for that. I’ll want to be up and making food, etc. My mother isn’t intending to come here to clean and reorganize my house or cook every meal for me. Like all Western families, we’ll likely share in the cooking, order pizza and make sandwiches. I can’t be confined to the moon month bed while they’re here because having them wait on me would just be too weird.

Anyway, it’s all an adventure, right? The moon month will be impossible for me to fully honor, but a partial acknowledgement of its cultural importance while also recognizing what’s important to me, culturally (like bathing!), is part of the dance that makes this intercultural partnership the production that it is. I can definitely take it easy and do lots of resting. I can also host my parents. It’s all possible without stress.

As I experienced when we got married in 2009, the collision of parents will once again be both comical and exhausting. Eventually, maybe they’ll learn to communicate with each other without me as the conduit, but until then, I also have the translator’s golden tools in place: adjustment, omission, editing, selective listening and re-contextualizing as I did with the moon month. Maybe in all family situations this is common, but in cross-cultural families where two different languages and customs are featured, this may be the golden key to harmony!

And I hold it.

(Wish me luck because I’m going to need it!)

© 2011 – 2013, Ember Swift. All rights reserved.

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Ember Swift is a Canadian living in Beijing who gave birth to her first child in January 2012. She is also a professional musician and writer who has released 11 albums independently, toured internationally and writes for several international publications in addition to keeping three distinct blog series active. Her official website is located at

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsAmanda   |  Monday, 02 January 2012 at 1:30 pm

    What a very interesting article!! In Moroccan culture there is something similar to this and I recall my mother in laws words about bathing and making sure to always wear pants so that I wouldn’t get a cold “in there”. I couldn’t do it and luckily we lived far away but there certainly are times when I think – gosh a full month of being taken care of? Sure sounds nice!

  2. CommentsAisha G(of Hartlyn Kids)   |  Tuesday, 03 January 2012 at 11:06 am

    So interesting. I pretty much feel like I didn’t bathe for a month anyway with the rare fast showers and constant baby puke lol

  3. CommentsAmber @ Au Coeur   |  Sunday, 08 January 2012 at 7:11 pm

    I’m not sure how I could have gone a month without bathing. The first shower just two after her birth was heavenly, and later it was one of the few ways I was able to relax. Hot water can also do wonders for engorged breasts.

    You may be surprised by your mother. My mother came for a week after my daughters birth and besides helping with the baby and buying a ton of things, she also cooked, cleaned, and got crazy doing things like planting flowers in my flower beds and putting shelf liner in my cabinets. I never expected it, but she was all about taking care of me.

  4. CommentsSoumya   |  Wednesday, 11 January 2012 at 11:27 am

    We have something similar onthe Indian side.. we have no name for it.. but the mother is expected to just rest and bond with the baby. Believe me i was more than happy to get rest. IT was soo exhausting just taking care of the baby that the last thing i wanted to do was cook,clean..anything..and I was sooooooo glad that my mother came to take care of me and my baby.

    Regarding the no bathing part, I was not allowed to bath for 1st 10 days.. after that it was once every 2 days was ok..though not soo bad…

  5. CommentsEmma   |  Thursday, 22 March 2012 at 3:15 pm

    I certainly would have appreciated the moon month (bar the not bathing), when my family arrived after the birth of my daughter last year I found their attempts to be helpful required more effort on my part than if they hadn’t visited. I was quite glad to see the back of them. My husband’s parents on the other hand were fantastic help with cooking and a colicky baby but I still found their presence a bit tiring!

  6. CommentsInCultureParent | How My Chinese Mother-in-Law Replaced my Husband   |  Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 8:09 pm

    […] Want to read more of Ember’s cross-cultural parenting adventures? Then check out Why I don’t Buy Made in China for My Baby and Postpartum in China—Confinement or Luxury? […]

  7. CommentsInCultureParent | China Bumps & Triumphs: What Ties This Expat to China   |  Monday, 27 May 2013 at 6:43 pm

    […] Postpartum in China: Confinement or Luxury? […]

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