Sunday, November 8, 2009

Forty Days and Forty Nights

Home from the hospital



My "HOPE" baby, Truth


Dad and daughter

By the end of 30 days, I had gotten pretty good at handling twins. (Notice the leg action involved.)

In Taiwan, and even throughout much of Eastern Asia, women rest for a month or more after giving birth. During this time, they eat special foods, bond with their babies, receive visitors, and are governed by a whole raft of traditions. When we were in school, Teacher had discussed these confinements with us as we had had Chinese friends who had gone into confinement after giving birth. Teacher said that China was a poor agrarian country for most of its history. The average woman did not have access to a nutritious diet or prenatal vitamins during pregnancy. The period of confinement with its requirements for calcium-rich foods gave women a chance to replace the nutrients that had been leached from their bodies during pregnancy. It was also one of the few times women were allowed to rest before old age. Teacher noted that she personally knew women who had not been able to go into confinement due to the wars in China in the first half of the twentieth century. Many of these women had lost their teeth, and a large number had developed joint and bone problems in their thirties. Centuries of tradition taught Chinese women that failing to properly handle the month after pregnancy could cause arthritis and osteoporosis.

I agreed with Teacher’s assessment that the confinement tradition most probably came about due to food shortages. When a woman is in confinement with a new baby, all the friends, relatives, and neighbors come to see the new baby and to give gifts of nutritious foods for the mother. In this way, a family that might not have been able to give its pregnant women the best nutrition due to limited resources had a better chance of replenishing the nutrients leached out during pregnancy with the greater resources of the community at large. Of course, I had been taking horse-sized prenatal vitamins, so I was not sure that this applied to me. I noticed that most of my well-nourished Chinese friends went into their first confinement skinny and came out quite heavy. I was not sure I wanted to follow suit.

The tradition varies slightly from region to region in China. Each region, each family even, has its own special confinement rituals and foods. In general, for 30 to 40 days after a new baby is born, the mother and child stay in a tightly-closed room. No windows are allowed to be open. No fans can blow on them, even in the height of summer. The mother, in particular, wears long-sleeved pajamas. In the summer, the fabric can be light-weight, but the clothes need to be gathered at wrists and ankles, so no air can blow on the woman’s joints. Some traditions say the woman should not even sit up in bed for long periods of time but must lie flat on a board bed to protect her lower back.
Food is brought to her. Most families in Taiwan believe the woman should eat one entire chicken per day. It is served to her in soup. My husband’s Hakka family’s recipe called for chicken and rice wine soup. No water or vegetables could sully the broth. The recipe went pretty much like this: boil together one whole chicken, two bottles of rice wine, and several different herbs from the Chinese apothecary. We had attended several “Full Month” parties when Yuni’s cousins and their babies were allowed to come out of their rooms into society again at the end of confinement. The prime delicacy at those parties is chicken and rice wine soup. I could not stomach the stuff.

Fortunately for me, the doctor told my mother-in-law that I should not have alcohol or my incision might bleed. I was also supposed to drink lots of water and eat vegetables because my intestines had been moved during the operation. We needed to promote intestinal health, or my intestines would stick together and I would need more surgery. So my mother-in-law and I began to negotiate about what I would and would not eat during my confinement. My mother-in-law was all set to serve me a chicken a day in various types of soups. I told her that I would not be able to stomach that much chicken, and that I could eat a variety of calcium-rich foods with the same effect. So we decided that I would have a rotation of chicken and shitake mushroom soup, chicken and ginseng soup with jizi (a Chinese herb), pork bone and seaweed soup, and of course, plenty of melted ice cream. I would also get rice and plates of steamed vegetables because the old wives’ tales said that too much grease gives breast-fed babies the runs.

Next, we began to negotiate about the “lying in bed for a month” part of things. I really did NOT want to do that, and my mother-in-law had a bad knee from a run in with a delivery truck in her early thirties, so she was not keen on carting large bowls of soup up three flights of stairs several times a day. The doctor also told her that I needed to walk around to promote healing of the incision. So we decided that I would run down to the first floor and eat in a draft-free corner of the room. The babies had been born in early spring before it was too hot, so I felt fine about wearing a light jacket or sweat shirt when I came out of my room. I nixed the idea of wearing a turban, although I was told I would suffer from migraines in middle age for it. My in-laws would lose face if I went back to work too early or if I went outside the home. So we agreed that I would have free run of the interior of the house and that I would take frequent naps when feeding the babies had tired me out.

The final item of the confinement was NOT negotiable. Both the doctor and my mother-in-law insisted that I bathe in boiled water for the entire month. The doctor was worried about the incision; my mother-in-law was worried about her traditions. My mother-in-law went to a Chinese apothecary and bought copious supplies of mugwort stalks. I did not just bathe in boiled water; I bathed in brownish boiled mugwort tea. It smelled awful. But this was the price of not being closed up in my bedroom for 40 days. We compromised on the other part of the bathing restrictions. Women are not supposed to wash their hair for the full month, either. I agreed to only wash my hair once on the Sunday afternoon just before I had to return to the hospital for my post-surgical checkup. I would wear a warm sweatsuit and a coat, and one of my sisters-in-law, who had worked in a beauty salon, would wash my hair in the kitchen sink. Then she would immediately blow my hair totally dry.

And on the seventh day, the girls and I were discharged from the hospital. We took the babies home for their month in the bedroom with me. I am glad that I had the month off work. Even though GES did not officially pay me, the owners came with a red envelope containing a gift of a month’s salary. This was a common practice in Taiwanese companies at the time. I continued to receive my salary from the university, but I had to pay Lynne for taking my classes, so I did not make anything there. All my fellow teachers and friends from church in Chungli came to visit. More of Yuni’s myriad relatives came to see the “American babies.” Everyone who visited brought gifts of formula, diapers, foods for me, and sometimes a red envelope of cash and gold baby rings. The neighbors all came bearing gifts, too. Some days I had so many visitors that I actually got tired and would have rather rested more.

The entire family celebrated the babies. Their dad began coaching them on how they were going to compete against each other in the Miss World beauty pageant, one representing Taiwan and the other representing the USA. Their aunts and uncle came up to hold and play with them, whenever they had a chance. Except in the middle of the night or when they had dirty diapers or were screaming with colic, I had almost no chance to hold my own kids. It was really amazing, and I am not quite sure how to describe it. It seemed to me that scores and scores of people were in my social circle, and all of them were celebrating and actively participating in welcoming, blessing, and nurturing these babies. And it was not because the babies were half American; this was the way that rural Chinese culture celebrates the continuance of life and the next generation. I suspect this attitude stems from the people's centuries of ancestor worship and their focus on family and clan. A large part of their social fabric lies in continuing the family line and in ensuring the quality of the next generation. I think this is why Asians around the world put such an emphasis on educating and nurturing their children. As a new mother of twins, I was at the center of their celebration of life. It was overwhelming but also quite gratifying. I was so glad that my children were the recipients of such love and care.


Cloudia said...

This post touched me, Theresa.
I emailed it to my friend who is home with her first child (born around 2 weeks ago).

Thanks for bringing me down to Earth, and up to Heaven.

Ni Hao & Aloha, Friend!

Comfort Spiral

Teresa said...

Hi Cloudia,

I am glad the post struck a chord; I hope it helps your friend.

Having the first month at home with the baby and having all your friends and relatives come to welcome the child to the world is really an amazing experience. I always felt a little sorry for some of the American English teachers in Taiwan who were not members of Chinese families and who went back to work after a week or so. The Chinese were convinced the women were destrying their health and that the children would grow up "bad" for lack of proper nurture. They may be onto something there...

Barbara Martin said...

This post was very interesting on the aspects of motherhood after birth. I can certainly see where it would benefit the mother to stay home with the child the first forty days.

I had to laugh about the 'mugwort'. Who would have thought to use it?

Teresa said...

Hi Barbara,

I do not know what mugwort looks like in the wild. I've only seen the dried version from the Chinese apothecary. Mugwort is a common herb in Chinese medicine and rituals. It is supposed to purify, cleanse, and repel insects. So the next time you see it "on the hoof," as Cloudia calls it, do not despise the lowly mugwort. Thousands of generations of Chinese mothers have bathed in it and thrived.

murat11 said...

Teresa: Yours continues to be a fascinating story of the intersections and collisions between cultures, and the resulting negotiations. I'm struck, as always, by the centuries of (one might even say) micro-managed customs, but I had also heard for many years that the Chinese as a people are eminently pragmatic, too, which would seem to show in the willingness to have a dialogue with this western woman.

It was interesting to see parallel "bits and pieces" in our American culture - the whole bringing meals to families just after birth, though we as Americans tend to trail off after a week or so: more "hospitality," it seems, than actually caring for and replenishing the mother's body.

I was thinking, too, how "confinement" rooms might echo the mother's womb for transitioning babes.

Teresa said...

I think that in America we do not live so close to all our relatives. All the different cousins who wanted to come visit needed a whole month to arrange their work schedules since many had odd days off and things. So we had a steady trickle. Of course, some days more people came and other days we might not get so many.

In America, our families are so scattered that there is no way for all the cousins to visit after a new baby. The best we can do is send gifts.

I also think that the Chinese have a greater obsession with food, possibly because they have been hungry in recent collective memory. My husband can remember not having enough to eat. My grandmother told me that my family did not really go hungry even in the Great Depression; they just had to have more meatless meals. I think that last people in my family who remember hunger were my great-great-grandparents who left Ireland during the potato famine. So we are not so worried about feeding the mother and baby.

I had a friend in Taiwan, an older gentleman, who told me the story of his older sister's child. The baby was born as they were fleeing South from the Japanese army in the Sino-Japanese War. He was about 12 at the time. His sister was unable to fulfill her confinement. They frequently went hungry along the way, and his sister's milk dried up. The baby died while he was carrying it on his back and walking among the flood of refugees going south. That friend joined the KMT army when he was 15 and eventually came to Taiwan. Even though he never married, he came to visit every time I had a baby to be sure we were all healthy. He did not have much money on his soldier's pension, but he would bring a can of baby formula and then carve a fancy chop for the new baby as an end of confinement gift. Most single American males do not visit new mothers with presents for their babies.

Sepiru Chris said...

I used to think that I understood a lot about Taiwan; the more I read, the less I know I knew.

Engrossing, as always, and so revealing; your posts always confound parts of me, in great ways.

Teresa said...

Dear Chris,

I think that you do understand a lot about Taiwan, the Taiwan that you can contact in Taipei and the other cities, the Taiwan of the urban and the educated. I stumbled into a time warp and fell in with the marginalized, the illiterate, and the peasants. And I had the good fortune of becoming one of them. If I had not, I would never have learned these things. These people are like shy fawns or unicorns, who shy away from strangers, especially intimidating "rich" ones. But I was one of them.

And it is one reason I make time every week to write another episode of the story. Otherwise, I fear these things will never be told to the outside world.