Currently, there are 9,327 books about pregnancy and childbirth on Amazon. That’s nearly 10,000 possible resources to guide the expecting woman through the process of growing a baby and bringing that baby out into the world. Whether she's hoping for a home birth or has planned a scheduled cesarean she won't be without information and community.
But what support does a mother have once her baby arrives?
That’s the period of time that gets me most excited. For the past six years I've been obsessed with the new mother’s experience. I’ve had three of my own postpartum periods—all different, all illuminating—and have been helping new mothers across Los Angeles by delivering homemade, nutrient-dense foods and drinks right to their doorstep. The soups, stews, and smoothies are inspired by the tenets of Chinese Medicine, each designed to support brand new mothers during this exhausting, draining (exciting! exhilarating!) time.
Often I would leave the food on the mother’s doorstep, slipping away quietly so as not to disturb the few moments of slumber she may have found while her little one was napping. But sometimes she would hear my delivery and invite me in. I’d follow her into the kitchen, her arms full of baby, her t-shirt crusted with milk stains, her eyes sunken and dark. I’d warm her a bowl of soup and then offer to rock her baby for a few moments while she ate. Relief would roll through her—for the first time since the baby arrived she was the one being fed — and then she’d tell me what I’d go on to hear from pretty much every new mother I would meet: “I didn’t know it would be this hard.”
...and then she’d tell me what I’d go on to hear from pretty much every new mother I would meet: “I didn’t know it would be this hard.”
I understood just how hard it could be. After the births of my two younger children, India and Jude, I barreled my way through postpartum, working non-stop to keep my business going, taking care of my other kids, and running a household. I made no time to integrate the physical and emotional changes that a woman is hit with after birth. I couldn’t find a way to slow down and give my focus to recovering from birth and connecting with this brand new member of my family. I ended up run down and depressed.
These challenging postpartum experiences were in stark contrast to how I felt after the birth of my first daughter, Khefri. Soon after she was born, my septuagenarian Auntie Ou took the bus from Oakland and arrived at my Los Angeles home armed with the supplies of zuo yuezi, which means “sitting the month” or “confinement.” As she popped a warm hat on my head, unpacked her satchel of unusual ingredients (think: chicken feet and goji berries) and directed me back to bed with my infant, she explained that the month-long regimen of healing foods, focused rest, and seclusion was essential for ensuring an easy recovery from childbirth, abundant breast milk for the baby, and my ongoing reproductive health.
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Smiling, she pointed to her still-black hair and nearly wrinkle-free face and bragged that the zou yuezi she experienced after she had my cousin Wendy also contributed to her unwavering youthful looks. Who was I to argue? I turned my cell phone to silent, and dedicated my days and nights to sipping my auntie’s soups, resting, and feeding tiny Khefri. A few weeks later I felt rejuvenated and strong. I had a good handle on this breastfeeding thing and was ready to venture out into the world as a mother.
Of course, taking 40 days of dedicated rest and recovery is a luxury not every new mother will have. But it is possible to integrate the overarching philosophy of zou yuezi into your postpartum experience. Even if you do nothing more than arrange a system of help for those early weeks with baby, getting a few people to help you do laundry, take your older children to school, or cook a few simple meals (tip: ask for help before baby arrives, when you are still semi-coherent) or if you simply take the time to acknowledge the significance of pregnancy and birth, by sharing your birth story with a trusted friend or asking someone to watch the baby so you can take a soothing hot shower, you are giving yourself a more easeful, gentle, supported transition into motherhood — and every mother deserves that.
Heng Ou is co-author of The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother (Abrams) available at Amazon.