parents

The women who don't leave the house for a full month after giving birth.

This writer thought it was crazy. Until she saw it up close.

New mothers will tell you that having a baby brings an endless stream of well-meaning, yet unsolicited advice. Yet nothing quite prepared me for the barrage that mothers face in China. Imagine not being able to wash your hair, or go outside for a month after giving birth! To me, this sounded like an outrage.

Confinement is an ancient tradition dating back 2000 years, but it is still widely practiced throughout Asia today. Zouyuzei literally means “sitting out the month.” During the first 30 days, mothers are expected to remain indoors and follow a complex set of rules to care for themselves. One of the most extreme rules is not touching cold water.

confinement after birth
16.87 million babies were born in China last year. Image via Aela Callan.

I became intrigued by confinement when my Chinese colleague, Kitty Bu, explained how after giving birth, she had fled from her mother who tried to make her stay at home and feed her strange food like donkey-hide jelly.

Pregnant with her third daughter during our film, Kitty described why most Chinese women have a deep-seated belief that something bad will happen to them in later life if they don’t follow the confinement rules.

“Back pain, early menopause, headaches. My mother swears that all of these things can be attributed to cutting corners during confinement,” Kitty said.

Other Chinese friends confirmed this. Even western-educated Asian women told me they wouldn’t dream of leaving the house, or wearing light clothing in the delicate month after childbirth.

confinement after birth
Nurses care for newborns at Cheerful Post Natal Care Centre. Image via Aela Callan.
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To them, it was logical to invest thousands of dollars in special confinement food and advice from so-called “experts.” Some even gushed about rich friends who had spent tens of thousands of US dollars on fancy confinement hotels where they could take home the towels and baby’s changing table.

I was aghast at how confinement appeared to be so popular, and even something of a status symbol in China. “But western women don’t do confinement and nothing bad happens to them!” I protested several times, only to be met with “tut-tuts” and the shaking of heads, along with vague assertions that western women are helped by higher protein diets.

Incredulous, I set out to make a film proving to Chinese women that this draconian tradition is medically and scientifically unnecessary.

confinement after birth
Zhang Shasha is in the 28th day of her confinement. Image via Aela Callan

But that is not quite what happened.

In less than two weeks, I became a confinement convert. Not because of all the (admittedly quirky) rules, but I soon realised confinement takes a lot of pressure away from new mothers.

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When having a baby in Australia, you hunker down for several months of hard slog, no sleep and forget about having any time to yourself. Chinese mothers expect a month-long rest.

“Of course someone else has to do the cooking, washing and waking up to the baby in the night,” new mother, Zhang Shasha told me. “After all, I’ve just given birth.”

Shasha was spending the equivalent of her entire monthly salary to hire a 24-hour live-in “confinement woman” to do all the hard work. In the past, her mother-in-law would’ve moved in, but Shasha and her husband wanted to keep their independence. Apart from breastfeeding during the day and pumping milk before going to sleep at night, Shasha’s main job was to keep warm and well rested behind closed doors. She opted not to wash her hair for the first ten days, believing that it would upset her “chi” or energy balance, and might make her catch a chill.

sitting in china
Wen Xao Wei is a confinement woman. Image via Aela Callan.

Her confinement woman, Wen Xao Wei, buzzed around the tiny Beijing flat cooking elaborate meals, changing the baby, washing dishes in distilled water (tap water being considered too dirty) and giving Shasha sponge baths.

As “too perfect” post-natal pictures of Kate Middleton flooded my social media timeline, I imagined that some women might even relish in the idea of staying inside for a month after childbirth, being taken care of and not having to deal with visitors. They might even be willing to give up a few showers for the privilege.

I, for one, am keeping Ms Wen’s number handy in my phone. And yes, she has a passport and will travel.

Aela’s story will be on Dateline tonight, 9:30pm on SBS.

What do you think about the practice of ‘sitting in’ after childbirth? 

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