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Mothering The Mother: What Happens After Giving Birth In China

Updated on December 5, 2016

Sitting The Month Begins

A woman watches a nanny care for her newborn baby as she continues her 30 day bed-rest during Sitting The Month
A woman watches a nanny care for her newborn baby as she continues her 30 day bed-rest during Sitting The Month

Sitting The Month - Zuo Yue Zi

Sitting the Month is a common, normal and expected practice in China.

It takes place in the month immediately following the birth, and (like almost everything here) its meaning is pretty straightforward.

The new mother must stay in bed for thirty days. This means no leaving the house; in fact sometimes, no leaving the bedroom. Her family, or perhaps a maid, (more about that below) will provide everything she needs.

Consequently all she's expected to do is rest, then rest again and after she's done that, probably rest some more.

Each region offers its own local food designed to assist the woman's strength and recovery. Dishes include herbal soups and animal parts such as pork liver. The woman is attended to by her female relatives and, of course, her husband.

On the whole, Sitting The Month seems to be a gentle introduction to the new phase of caring for another life in addition to your own.

It's seen as the best antidote to pregnancy, labour and childbirth.

Statistics Say That China Has An Ageing Population

Babies are everywhere in China.

Literally and with no exaggeration. In fact I had never seen so many babies and toddlers in one place until I came here.

How statistics say that the population is ageing is beyond me.

Have the data experts not been out and about? Do they spend all their time behind closed doors manipulating figures in order to predict a possible future outcome? All they have to do is raise their heads and look beyond their barred windows then they'd see what I see; ridiculously cute children, babies and toddlers replicated many many times over.

In fact, during 2015 alone, over 16 million babies were born in China. To give this figure some perspective, my city Shenzhen, is the fourth largest with a population of 15 million. This means that there were more children born across China than there are people living and working right here in this part of South China.

Daling, Ava and Summer
Daling, Ava and Summer | Source

Adding To The Statistics

Very recently, my wonderful friend, Daling (pronounced Dar-leen) added to this wondrous segment of society with the safe delivery of a baby girl. I'm so happy for her.

I also bet that she was having a boy, but what do I know?!

She's now following Chinese traditions which means we won't see her for a month and she probably won't go back to work until her child is at school, if at all.

During 2015 there were 16 million babies born in China but experts say the birth rate is currently too low to make up for an increasingly older population.
During 2015 there were 16 million babies born in China but experts say the birth rate is currently too low to make up for an increasingly older population.

Compared To The UK

This, of course, is very different to the UK where shortly after the birth the new mother will bring her son or daughter into her former workplace so the ladies can ooh and aah over it's brand-new-adorableness and the men can look uncomfortable before making excuses to escape.

In China, there are no workplace collections to buy gifts for the mother to be. No baby shower, no card of congratulations signed by all the colleagues. It's not something that's been overlooked, it's just not the custom. Maybe this type of celebration is done among the family.

Back in the UK, after six to nine months many mothers look for ways to return to work and various childcare options are explored, including relying on family members and using government or private nurseries.

While In China

Here it's usual for both male and female grandparents to be the primary childcare source regardless of whether or not the mother returns to work.

When children are older many of them will attend government or private Kindergartens. Many of them will also stay at home, again under the watchful care of doting grands, or 'the olds' as I've heard them referred to. Still can't make up my mind whether calling Senior Citizens 'the olds' is quite sweet or insulting!

The older generation expect to have a baby to look after and, as I've mentioned elsewhere, the pressure on adult children to marry and procreate can be relentless.

In the case of another friend of mine, finding a husband and continuing the family line is a way for her mother to save face among her friends who show-off and care for their beautiful grandchildren on a daily basis.

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Positive Pervasive Effects of Sitting The Month

Sitting The Month is believed to have far-reaching consequences beyond being an initial respite for the new mother.

Many female problems can be alleviated by adhering to the rules of confinement. Conditions such as early menopause, back pain and headaches are all thought to be worse for women who eschewed the Sitting The Month tradition. This is despite the fact that symptoms such as early menopause may not appear until the new born is actually an adult.

But still, however you look at it, a whole month to lie in bed with everything taken care of seems like a priceless luxury. Compare this to the harshness of today's medical system in the UK where my family member was recently discharged from hospital two hours after giving birth! Why would they do this? Had an endless line formed of women holding their babies in until my relative obliged them by getting up and going home?

Apparently and sadly in my opinion, such (unseemly) haste is becoming the norm in the West.

Wealthy Women Go All Out

Sitting The Month is a tradition unaffected by China's socio-economic strata, however we can ackowledge that wealthy women often have a more extravagant practice.

For those who are part of the middle class or lower, parents, spouses or other family members become the main carers for the women and her baby. Some of them, wanting to avoid over-bearing parents, may spend up to a month's salary on hiring a professional wet-nurse to care exclusively for the baby.

However those in society's upper levels are unafraid to splash the cash.

They may give birth aboard in a western country such as America, the UK or Germany, booking a suite in a private hospital with individual 24 hour care for mother and baby.

A nurse cares for baby while her mother is Sitting The Month
A nurse cares for baby while her mother is Sitting The Month

Some women pay up to 40 or 50,000RMB (GBP4-5,000, USD6500-7500) to remain in a Chinese confinement centre. My Chinese friend, Alex, opened one a year ago in prosperous Shenzhen, South China to meet such demand. His car park is full of luxury brand cars belonging to the new mothers and their husbands.

As well as comprehensive medical care before, during and after birth, his estalishment offers the following facilities; fresh food, fruit and liquids. Gentle yoga and other exercises. Large screen TV's and internet access in all of the private en-suite rooms and communal areas. There are also beautifully landscaped gardens for women to wander through when bed-rest becomes too monotonous.

He was a little coy on how much the women pay for this high-level treatment, but he drives a brand new Jaguar and owns apartments in mainland China and Hong Kong, so I'm guessing his business is doing well and that his services don't come cheap.

Nurses in a confinement centre catering for new mothers as they sit the month, over 120 staff care for them and their new borns.
Nurses in a confinement centre catering for new mothers as they sit the month, over 120 staff care for them and their new borns.

The Downsides Of Sitting The Month

From a western perspective the idea of spending a month in bed seems like idleness, not withstanding the fact that your body has just been through 9 months of stress and several hours of the trauma of childbirth.

Added to this is the emphasis on remaining in bed, (some women do not shower, they only have sponge baths), and not washing their hair. No TV, no eating of raw vegetables and no drinking cold water.

Women are supposed to stay wrapped up constantly which can pose a real problem during China's long, hot summer when some women will not use air-conditiong for fear of lowering their body temperature. Sometimes common sense in this area is over-ridden as recently a Shanghai women died due to these very reasons.

Talking to my Chinese female friends, those in their 20's said they'd be happy for a month of rest, but it's doubtful that they'd spend every second of it in bed. They also said that towards the end of the month they'd be out and about, perhaps at the local shops. All of them admitted that they'd use the air conditioning if they were too hot. No-one would take Sitting The Month to a life-threatening extreme or an unhygenic one.

Final Thoughts

So what about you? If you're a mother and you could have your time again would you insist on a glorious month long rest, or is this too extravagant?

How much of the Chinese tradition would you adhere to?

Even among modern Chinese women who enjoy advantages their parents never even dreamed of including travel and higher education, it would seem that the ages old tradition of Zhuo Yue Zi is here to stay in one form or another.

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