At the end of March, we welcomed a little baby girl, Ingrid Xun Young. Ingrid is an unusual name, but we love the meaning which means beauty and fertility, Xun ‘珣’ means precious gem, which quite rightly sums up what we have for her.
Giving birth this time in the Chinese city of Hong Kong was a completely different experience to the UK. Throughout my pregnancy, I had navigated largely in the public system as I wanted a VBAC (as few private doctors are not keen on this). The system here reminded me of an age bygone: the doctors and nurses I saw spoke little and had very poor communication skills especially when delivering ‘bad news’ for at-risk pregnancies.
I had to go through a very poorly executed counselling session where the nurses started the whole conversation about the problems of having a Downs syndrome baby. It made me wonder how far we have gone from those paternalistic medic-centred days but many other health systems around the world may still be far behind.
In the end, Ingrid was breeched and in an unstable lie, so we switched to private care at 36 weeks. Thanks to comprehensive family insurance offered by Jeff’s company, all of our costs were covered. So at 38 weeks and 5 days, Ingrid was born at 6lb 10oz. I know it was considered a full term and there is no standard average weight, society (especially Chinese) is full of rather unsolicited opinion on how much an infant should weigh (think birth announcements!) – there are practical concerns to check if a baby is feeding well and healthy – but a child’s weight and body shape seem to be an obsession for lots of bystanders.
This also projects to the mother’s too. I remember picking up Audrey when Ingrid turned one month, her teacher mentioned how I still carry a lot of my baby weight. These comments are meant to be just passing, but reflects how much we think a woman’s body should just bounce back to ‘normal’ as soon as she pops.
I wanted to remember as much as I could this time round leading up to the birth and postpartum. I switched off my phone for a few days which helped to focus on my new bundle of joy but as birth announcement goes, you occasionally get the unwanted self-invitation of a relation. It was just as important to know how to say ‘no’.
I spent a week following Ingrid’s birth at the hospital. The care was round the clock and hospital food was especially designed for my recovery. I could not really eat on my first day as the anaesthetics were so strong. Then as this subsided, I regained strength the second day and managed to eat and even walk around a little. All my meals were served warm. I could pre-select my ‘confinement’ menu (or Western menu) prior.
In the past couple of years, hiring postpartum nannies has been quite popular in cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore. Postpartum nannies are women who are trained to help the new mother take care of her newborn, and care for her needs, executing a personalised menu and cooking sometimes elaborate meals for the mother. This is usually in addition to having a live-in domestic helper, and sometimes help from the extended family. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child.
We no longer live in village clusters but the idea is to create a large network of physically and emotional support for the woman following childbirth. This is loosely termed as ‘Zuo yuezi’ (sitting the month) which informs my PhD study.
My mother for one is adamant I follow Zuo yuezi rigorously this time round. She had pinpointed some of my recent ailments, including having cold hands and feet, to the way I did not ‘do it (postpartum) well’ after I had Audrey. She thinks I ate too many ‘cold’ foods, such as ice-cream and sashimi, and drank too much alcohol (which I obviously don’t).
In line with Chinese traditional health beliefs, my mother thinks that eating too many of these foods suppresses the heat in the body which may create issues for the female reproductive system. This is underpinned by the idea that blood flow is slowed down due to an overpowering ‘coldness’ in the body.
It may sound like a parallel universe, but these beliefs are very strongly held by even the younger and well educated generation in Chinese communities. A large part of this, I have come to realise, is not about following these unknowingly, but the attention and care given during the postpartum phase appears to help women to cope and adapt with their new role as mothers.
My mum had suggested I stay with her so that she could take good care of me this time round, mostly because of practical reasons to limit our commute time for work and school for Audrey. This is so that I could be fed and get the necessary rest.
It was a gruesome month. Don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful for the help and food which was prepared for me, but being asked to stay in a small flat for a month which was not our own space was quite debilitating. In particular, I enjoy my space and time in the kitchen, but this was largely replaced by my mum’s instructions and her helper’s ideas and execution.
I tried to stay as connected as I can especially as a freelancer, I did not want to put a formal stop to my work. But still I had a lot of time on my hands despite trying to rest as much as I can. I had found myself navigating between the sitting room, bathroom and bedroom, as the tradition was not to leave the flat until one month after birth.
To be honest, even if I could, I wouldn’t be too up for it. Most days I found myself in a ‘tent’ feeding on demand. I could remain active behind my phone and screen, but I wasn’t quite ready to socialise with the outside world. Following some emotional rollercoaster rides in the first two to three weeks being especially concerned with Ingrid’s weight gain and my milk blister, I had found myself only slightly up and ready again after three to four weeks.
The buildup was obvious in the household for Ingrid’s one month ‘party’. We did not host a whole village, but it was the day which marked my freedom. My mum had prepared a big pot of ginger and pork knuckles vinegar stew and red eggs (cooked with a red natural dye) to celebrate the arrival of Ingrid. This stew is considered particularly good for the women’s recovery due to its warming and nourishing properties. Red eggs symbolise new life.
Importantly, although some of these foods can be bought from shops, there remains tremendous ritualistic value to mark new beginnings for a newborn. Now that I reflect on all these food offerings during postpartum, it is the symbolic meaning which offers emotional comfort in times of change. It is in this spirit that postpartum traditions can be useful to adjust to new parenting roles, and we shall see how these may continuously adapt as businesses take hold of part of these rituals practised by new parents.