“Sitting the Month”: a new mom’s experience in self-care and motherhood

Staff writer Cecilia Huang discusses the Chinese post-birth tradition in her life.

When a woman is pregnant, she is usually greeted with well wishes from friends and family, followed by questions about the due date and sex of the baby.

When I was pregnant (and presumably because I am Chinese), another question I often got asked was: “Are you going to practice ‘sitting the month’ after the baby is born?”

Sitting the month,” or zuo yue zi in Mandarin, is a traditional Chinese practice of postpartum recovery.

This 2000-year-old custom, also referred to as “postpartum confinement,” advises new mothers to stay indoors, so they can focus on healing and taking care of their baby. Mothers are also refrained from housework and contact with water, and follow a special diet.

mother cradling her baby's feet
Photo credit: Pexels/Kristina Paukshtite

“So you are not going to wash your hair and stay indoors for a whole month?” a colleague asked, trying to wrap her head around the rigid and seemingly odd custom.

I half-jokingly responded that since I was giving birth in the middle of winter, I probably wouldn’t want to go outside anyway. Plus, this would be a good time to try out those dry hair shampoo products that I’d been eying at Sephora.

Nowadays, though, many families have modified the old practice to fit the modern-day lifestyle, so some of the antiquated rules are not as closely followed.

Traditionally, the postpartum recovery is facilitated by the mother, in-laws, or a hired doula. However, if you can afford it, there are postpartum recovery centres or “hotels,” complete with a team of health professionals and amenities like laundry service and child-care classes.

Fortunately, the most cost-effective option was available to me: my mother.

Did I have any reservations about inviting my mother into my home? I have to admit, yes. However, the promise of endless home-cooked meals and fresh laundry seemed like a decent trade-off.

As an only child, I did not need to compete with anyone else for my mom’s time. Eager to meet her first grandchild, she was excited to play a key role in this momentous occasion.

Little did I know that her presence would mean so much more during this critical period of my life.

Postpartum Life

A month before my due date, my mom arrived like Mary Poppins with a stack of recipe books and baby books in hand. She sprinkled her magic on our home, tidying up the house and stocking the kitchen with goji berries, dates, ginger, and other Chinese herbal essentials.

a white mortar and pestle surrounded by various herbs
Photo credit: Pixabay/kerdkanno

Three weeks later, my family welcomed our sweet little baby girl into the world.

While my husband and I tackled our parental responsibilities, my mom got to work. She made nourishing broths for me as well as meals for the entire family. She also took care of all the laundry and cleaning, and even managed to help with the baby in between feedings so we could eat and rest.

Much like our newborn, I was suddenly launched into an unfamiliar world with an overwhelming amount of responsibilities bestowed upon me.

My husband and I were living in survival mode as we braved the uncharted territory of parenthood. Every day consisted of a continuous marathon of feeding, changing, and getting the baby to sleep, while squeezing in time whenever possible to fulfill our own basic needs of food, hygiene, and sleep.

Boy, did I ever underestimate the trials and tribulations that would come with having a child.

This was not the image of motherhood that I had, where I would be up and about in no time, master the baby routine, and enjoy my maternity “stay-cation.”

Instead, I was in bed recovering from my C-section with barely any energy to hold the baby. I was dealing with breastfeeding challenges. The midwives and doctor were also keeping a close eye on our daughter’s weight, so I was under a lot of stress.

I felt like I was on an endless emotional rollercoaster, a product of postpartum hormonal changes, and the stress that comes with a major life transition.

Postpartum Struggles

With the baby depending on me around the clock, I mourned the loss of my personal space and identity.

The downside to having my mother around 24/7 was that there was nowhere to hide and process my feelings. Instead, her constant reminders of what I should and should not do made me, a new mom, feel even more incapable and insecure.

Empty Xhinese bowl and spoon
Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Ayla87

Even with the best intentions, her perspective, as a mother raising a child in Asia in the ’80s, and mine, as a millennial parent living in North America, were bound to clash.

One day, after a doctor’s visit, I discovered that my daughter’s weight had dropped again. I felt like a total failure because I couldn’t fulfill even the most basic task of keeping her fed and healthy.

As my mom went on with her usual advice-giving, I broke down.

Taken aback at first, my mom said to me gently, “You know, you are doing a great job. You put so much effort into taking care of your daughter. You are a really good mom.”

Hearing those words from my mother instantly freed me of all my self-doubt and despair. It was exactly what I needed to hear — that I was doing okay. It meant so much more that it came from a mother, especially my own.

After that day, I adopted a different lens. What my mom did for me was more than just provide nourishing meals and advice. She was there to hold me and lift me up when I needed it the most. Her voice was a constant reminder to slow down and prioritize my own well-being.

mother holding her baby, from Pexels
Photo credit: Pexels/Kristina Paukshtite

Zuo yue zi may be a traditional practice with strict instructions, but it gives permission for mothers to indulge in self-care. In fact, this type of postpartum recovery practice exists in places around the globe, including India, the Middle East, Russia, and even in parts of the United States.

For thousands of years, communities throughout the world have come together to support the mother, emotionally and physically, so she can be the best mother to her baby.

Today, mothers feel pressured to do it all, to “bounce” back, and return to the hustle and bustle of life and work.

However, as mothers transition into this new season of life, it is ever so important to show ourselves grace, surrender responsibilities, and be open to receiving care.

Let us lean into that ancient wisdom so we can continue to raise happy, healthy children and mothers.

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