"For 30 days after I gave birth to my son, I was kept away from all housework, and everyone treated me like a queen—an old, incapacitated queen," says Yan Zhang, a 32-year-old new mom in Beijing. Like all women in China, following delivery, Yan was required to zuo yuezi, an age-old tradition which loosely translates as "sitting the month."
The logic behind yuezi is that the female body is fragile after giving birth and requires special care, rest, and nutrition. Present in Chinese culture for thousands of years—it is rumored to be mentioned in the 2000-year-old divination text known as the I-Ching, or Book of Changes—yuezi is a practice that is still staunchly enforced by elders and widely practiced across China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Traditionally, mothers-in-law are tasked with enforcing the rules of yuezi, which in their most draconian form require that postpartum moms refrain from bathing, washing their hair, brushing their teeth, or going outdoors for a period of 30 days. Instead, they must stay in bed covered from head to toe—socks and a hat, regardless of the season—and eat six meals a day. These meals should consist primarily of eggs, soup, pork trotters (pig's feet), chicken, or carp, and food should be warm (forget ice cream), cooked (not even raw fruit), and prepared without salt.
Yan reports that despite the limitations on what she could eat or do, yuezi for her was "quite a happy time," as she was the center of her family's attention. She had given birth to a son—still largely the prized gender in China—and she was reassured to learn that for her husband, her healthy recovery was just as important as celebrating the arrival of the new heir. "My main tasks were to eat, rest, and produce milk," she says, "everything else was taken care of."
Unlike most new moms in China, Yan was fortunate to have her own mother oversee her yuezi, which is less common but considered largely preferable to going through the process with a mother-in-law, who may or may not show mercy and be willing to bend the rules. When Yan's mother gave birth to Yan, for instance, her mother-in-law required that she wait weeks before brushing her teeth or bathing. Yan, in contrast, brushed as usual, and she had her first shower after eight days—the time it took for the incision from her C-section to be reasonably healed. As she gave birth in January, Yan explains that it was less of a challenge to hold off bathing or to keep warm from head to toe, though she suspects (and her mother agrees) that these rules were more important to follow in the times when most households in China didn't have access to hot water, heat, or hair dryers.
In a sign that some yuezi traditions are being modified to incorporate modern comforts, some hospitals now even turn on the air conditioning for moms who give birth in the summer—in China, the ideal temperature for a newborn baby is said to be between 26 and 28 degrees Celsius (about 79 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit)—but these changes have not been uniform, and strict adherence to tradition has resulted in at least a few tragic outcomes. This past August, a woman in Shanghai died of heatstroke after being wrapped tightly in a thick quilt following labor, and several months prior, another new mom died of pulmonary artery thrombosis due to restricted movement during yuezi.
The rules of yuezi, in their most draconian form, require that postpartum moms refrain from bathing, brushing their teeth, or going outdoors for 30 days.
Still, many women in China continue to respect some form of yuezi, which is so deeply ingrained in Chinese culture that it is even present in the diaspora—there are "yuezi centers" in Queens and Los Angeles where women abroad can respect postpartum traditions just as if they were in China. If a new mom prefers to observe yuezi in her own home, there are even US-based companies, like Jing Mommy and Meal4Mom, that prepare meals with yuezi staples such as pork liver, red dates, sesame oil, and rice wine, which can be prepared and delivered daily for upwards of $2,000 per month.
Chinese women respect yuezi because their families expect them to, but also because they fear that doing otherwise might be harmful to their health in the future. (Seeing Kate Middleton radiant in heels and makeup just hours after giving birth to Princess Charlotte made huge, controversial waves on Chinese social media). It is widely believed, for instance, that failing to stay warm after birth might cause a woman to experience rheumatism, arthritis, and other ailments later on in life because joints become very loose in the weeks following delivery, making it easier for cold air to drill through the body. Although Yan personally has yet to see any real evidence that this might be true—after all, it's impossible for a woman to know if the aches she has at age 50 or 60 are linked back to something she did wrong during yuezi—she still prefers to err on the side of caution. In addition to staying bundled up, she only ate cooked foods; even the fruit had to be warm. "I ate boiled apples, oranges, papaya, and pears," she says. "Strange, but not very bad."
One common aspect of yuezi that Yan elected not to observe was the part when an up to 12-meter long band of cotton is wrapped tightly around a woman's middle following delivery. A form of "stomach binding," it's intended to help new moms recover their figures and minimize the organ shifting that naturally occurs during pregnancy. Yan looked into several options, including a few more modern and vaguely dominatrix-inspired Velcro-laden imports from Japan, but decided they were all too constricting. She tried using one of the special cotton toothbrushes made for the postpartum period but didn't find them very effective, and soon switched back to normal nylon bristles.
Despite passing on the special pastel-colored postpartum hats and slippers advertised to new mommies on the popular e-commerce giant, Taobao.com, Yan did indulge in what is quickly becoming the ultimate luxury in the yuezi experience—a live-in yuesao, or essentially, a postpartum doula. On call 24 hours a day, a yuesao takes care of everything related to the newborn baby—bathing, burping, changing, swaddling—but she is also responsible for the mother. Providing massages to relieve soreness and stimulate milk production, assisting in postpartum recovery, planning and cooking all meals, yuesao also miraculously tend to most housework.
"We hired one mainly because nobody in my family was confident enough to take care of a tiny baby," says Yan. "My mother said that her mother did everything for her when I was born, so she didn't even know how to properly bathe a baby."
Yan's yuesao came at a price of 13,800 RMB ($2,150 USD) for the month, which is more than four times the average Chinese salary. Although the profession has only come to exist in recent years and is still only accessibly to middle and upper classes, the demand for yuesao has risen sharply. This is likely in response to a combination of factors, including increased disposable income but also the continued (albeit somewhat relaxed) existence of the one-child policy, which makes giving birth an exceptionally monumental affair; parents generally only get one shot at raising a healthy baby.
My mother said that her mother did everything for her when I was born, so she didn't even know how to properly bathe a baby.
Though specially trained to tend to newborns and their mothers, yuesao are most often middle-aged professionals who may have previously had an unrelated career and are looking to pick up a bit of extra money for retirement, or to help buy property for their sons. "My yuesao was in her 50s and previously owned a restaurant with her husband," explains Summer Zhang, a 29-year-old new mother who lives in Beijing but is originally from the northeastern province of Liaoning. For Summer and her husband Ben—who is originally from the UK—having a yuesao was a lifesaver because neither of their parents lived close enough to lend a hand when their daughter Dora was born in June.
"My mom did help, but she gets lonely without my father," explains Summer, noting that her parents' big contribution to her recovery came in the form of 200 fresh eggs, which they purchased directly from a farmer and encouraged their daughter to consume on a daily basis throughout her yuezi. For everything else, she relied on the help of her yuesao to see her through postpartum recovery.
"We really knew nothing," says Summer, explaining that it was a huge relief to know that no matter what happened, her very experienced yuesao would be able to save the day.
Although confident that her yuesao knew how to take care of a baby, Summer quickly realized that her live-in helper had no actual medical knowledge. While she knew how to treat many things like gas, diaper rash, and runny stool, she little idea what caused any of it. Her answer was usually, "Babies always have that."
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As for treating Summer, the yuesao proved tremendously helpful in treating her lower back pains by burning a type of grass known in Chinese as aizhu and using it as a form of TCM (traditional Chinese medicine). Because her yuesao had also helped out following the birth of her own grandchild—who has a German mother—Summer believes that her yuesao was also more open-minded and flexible with how strictly the rules of traditional yuezi should be enforced. Like Yan, Summer was able to take her first shower as soon as the incision from her C-section seemed dry, and she brushed her teeth as usual. She also even left the house before the 30 days of yuezi were up to have brunch with a group of friends, as her husband recalls.
While Yan slept in the same room as her baby and her yuesao (her husband was relegated to the spare bedroom so he wouldn't be awakened by crying), Summer stayed in her bedroom with her husband while the yuesao and her daughter slept in another room. "The yuesao would just come into our room in the middle of the night and take Summer every time the baby needed feeding," recalls Summer's husband. "Summer would go into the other room, feed the baby, and then the yuesao would drop her back off in bed when she was done," he explains. "At first it was weird having this woman coming into our bedroom and taking my wife away, but eventually I just slept through it."
Though overall a very positive experience, there was one small yuesao hiccup that Summer and Ben now recall with a giggle. As it's very uncommon for babies in China to wear diapers—they generally go commando and wear only a pair of pants with a slit in the back—the yuesao was attempting to very prematurely potty-train baby Dora. She did this by straddling the baby's legs over the living room floor and whistling, trying to make Dora understand that when she heard a whistle, it was OK to pee. Seeing a yellow stream appear on the floor below his daughter's dangling legs, Ben kindly asked the yuesao—who had every intention of eventually cleaning up the puddle, but saw nothing wrong with first letting the baby take a leak on the living room floor—to abandon her potty-training mission. "I often whistle around the house," he says. "Imagine if my daughter were trained to pee every time I whistle."
Ultimately, the rules of yuezi are like ghosts. They only mean something if you believe in them.
Because Ben and Summer had hired their yuesao, they could easily ask her to modify her behavior—a luxury which, new mom Curr Shi notes, is virtually non-existent when a mother-in-law is in charge. Her family did not want to incur the expense of a yuesao, so her husband's mother moved in to oversee Curr's yuezi. After having gone through the experience, Curr notes that it was far more pleasant for her husband—who seemed happy to be able to regularly enjoy his mom's cooking again—but quite stressful for her.
"After giving birth, I was tired, in pain, and very hormonal," she explains, "so it was difficult to have to be respectful and follow the rules of the woman who had suddenly taken charge of our house." Things became especially dicey when Curr's mom also moved in and offered to lend an extra hand. (There are four grandparents for most children in China, and they tend to be very involved in the child-rearing process from day one). Polarizing disputes between the moms ensued, with Curr often stepping in to defend her mother, as much to her dismay, her husband would take his own mother's side. She recalls one particularly thorny and recurring row in which her mother-in-law would insist that the newborn sleep on a hard pillow so that his still very malleable head would be flat in the back, a look that is considered aesthetically pleasing by some elders in China. Curr did not want her baby to have a flat head, and fought repeatedly to allow him to develop as nature intended. "I bought books on parenting and early-childhood development, and when she wouldn't read them, I would read them aloud to her," says Curr, but her mother-in-law was not easy to win over. She would even criticize Curr's parenting skills in front of visitors, attempting to shame her into obedience.
Following the birth of my son, my life was turned upside down, but my husband's remained largely the same.
Regrettably, Curr's husband was not much help. "He stayed out of it," she recalls. "Given the way traditional yuezi is set up—putting all of the responsibility for care squarely in the hands of women—Chinese men are not prepared or educated to participate in early childhood rearing," she says, referring to the high-end yuezi centers in Beijing and Shanghai that offer platinum golf packages for dads while new moms convalesce. "Following the birth of my son, my life was turned upside down, but my husband's remained largely the same," Curr says, a realization that came as a heavy blow as she navigated the joys and stresses of being a new mom. Although there are some fathers in China who seek a more pro-active child-rearing role, Curr suspects this is far from the norm because many elements of Chinese culture haven't fully actualized with the modern world, where new luxuries like yuesao—an extravagance, even by Western standards—coexist with 2,000-year-old postpartum traditions that prohibit bathing.
"Ultimately, the rules of yuezi are like ghosts. They only mean something if you believe in them," says Yan, who notes that although her husband was originally the family's "driver and errand boy," he has since taken on a more hands-on parenting role. As for Yan, after several months at home with her baby, she is preparing to return to work. Her teeth are still firmly aligned in their sockets, and if her organs are indeed already jumbled, at least, to her knowledge, they're still inside her.