The Chinese consider the month after a woman gives birth to be the most vulnerable period of her life. “Sitting the month”, or “zuo yue zi” in Mandarin, is a traditional Chinese postpartum recovery practice that many New Zealand women still follow. Wei Shao finds out why some families are willing to pay up to $380 a day to observe this 2,000-year-old ritual.
It is forbidden to leave the house, as well as to eat cold food and drink cold water. Drinking gallons of herbal tea and soup is encouraged to help flush out the body and increase breast milk production.
These are the rules to follow if a mother is willing to practice “sit the month,” or “zuo yue zi” in Mandarin, an age-old Chinese postpartum recovery ritual.
Postpartum confinement is believed to help new mothers restore the balance of yin (cold) and yang (hot) in their bodies after childbirth.
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According to traditional Chinese medicine, the blood carries chi, the “life force”, which powers all the functions of the body. When the mother loses blood during childbirth, her body loses chi and enters a yin (cold) state, thus unbalancing her body and causing physical disorders.
In New Zealand, many mothers and their families, especially from East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, still observe the tradition of sitting the month.
Some have hired a postpartum nanny, known as yuesao in Mandarin, to look after the mother and newborn for a month after delivery.
Some would go to a center that combines medical facilities, similar to those of a hospital or convalescent home, with those of a hotel.
Due to the pandemic, the demand for yuesao has increased, with an average cost of hiring around $380 per day.
Takako Kishimoto, a Japanese immigrant living in Christchurch, was “in shock” when she heard about the tradition five years ago.
“It’s not a thing in Japan, and certainly not in New Zealand where I’ve spent more than half my life,” Kishimoto said.
She was introduced to the tradition of a period of ‘lockdown’ and hiring a postnatal nanny by her sister-in-law when she had her baby.
“Since I suffered from postnatal depression after my firstborn, we decided to give it a try,” Kishimoto said.
Her partner, Lawrence Teo, a Chinese from Singapore, found an experienced nanny from Malaysia, who came to New Zealand and looked after the family for four weeks in 2018.
They paid him around $3,000 for his four-week stay.
“It was amazing,” Kishimoto said.
“I got along very well with the lady, despite all our differences and the challenges we had.
“She took care of me, my daughter and my son. The house was full of his songs and his laughter. She was such a caring and loving woman. »
Far from family support, Sylvia Wang from Taiwan decided to “spend the month” in her Christchurch home, but on her own terms.
She and her Italian partner Alessio Musa are expecting their first child in September.
“We Taiwanese really believe that zuo yue zi’ is essential for a woman’s health,” Wang said.
“When my mother learned that I was pregnant, she begged me to respect Chinese tradition and follow the rules of confinement.”
Wang’s mother is a veteran of the session of the month – she has three children and has done it with every child.
She asked Wang not to wash her hair for the first month after giving birth, fearing it would introduce “cold” into her daughter’s recovering body.
Wang said she would “go crazy” if she had to follow this rule.
“I will definitely not follow this rule. I will wash my hair every day.
When it came to food, however, she was a believer.
“The herbs and special foods eaten in the first month, such as sesame oil chicken, red dates, and ginger, are mostly yang (hot) in nature and will save me from a future of gaining weight, premature aging and body aches.
“I will take the special herbal prescription, shen-hua tang (‘birth and dissolve’ soup), which is helpful in dissolving blood clots, replenishing blood and energy,” Wang said.
Wang’s parents in Taipei were unable to come to New Zealand due to the pandemic, but they would send her herbal mixtures to make a special soup, she said.
The soup would be “stinky”, and it would be up to his partner to prepare it in September.
“I really need to teach him from now on. That’s our biggest challenge.
Catherine Chen and her husband, a Chinese-New Zealander, had their first child in January.
Born in Nanjing, China, Chen has lived in New Zealand for over 16 years.
She paid $16,000 to hire a nanny for 42 days and $5,000 to have a month of special postpartum meals delivered to her home in Auckland.
“It was definitely worth it. I had nothing to do but feed my baby,” she said.
The nanny guided her to feed, rest and exercise, took care of all the laundry and cleaning and made her nutritious broths. She woke up at night to help with the baby between feedings, so Chen could rest.
“Without this type of specialist care, I would never have been able to recover.”
Finding a nanny during a pandemic has been difficult, Chen said.
She started looking six months before her baby’s due date, but no one was available.
She was “very lucky” after a woman decided to return to China in January and canceled her booking.
“Because of the pandemic, our parents cannot come to New Zealand,” she said.
“We are new parents and need a lot of help.”
Companies such as Anxingang Maternal and Child Health have recruited nannies and prepared meals for postpartum mothers.
In 2017, Jeffrey Qin and his business partner Damon Li launched their business in Auckland. They searched for certified nannies from Taiwan and mainland China and brought them to work in New Zealand.
It is not only new immigrants from East Asian and Southeast Asian countries willing to pay up to $200 a day for freshly prepared meals, but also affluent second-generation Asians, who want a postnatal diet rooted in Chinese medicine that they can design themselves.
Qin’s cooks start preparing meals at 5 a.m. every morning in a professional kitchen, which are delivered to families by 11 a.m.
“We used to have around 40 nannies each year before Covid, but now we only have 20 local nannies. They are in high demand,” he said.
In 2012, a center for women to “sit the month” opened in Albany, Auckland, but closed soon after.
“Most Kiwis live in big houses rather than small apartments, while the latter is common in China,” Qin said.
“Why would they choose to stay in a center where it’s not as spacious as their own home?”
In China, such centers are booming, thanks to increasing affordability, the expansion of the middle class and the relaxation of its decades-old one-child policy.
In major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, fees for a four-week stay in a moderate center range from NZD 13,800 to $23,000.
Xinghua Teng, from Qingdao, China, worked as yuesao in Auckland for over four years. She describes her work as “rewarding, but very challenging”.
“It’s hard work,” said Teng, 65.
“Especially the first week after delivery, I have to wake up every two hours to help feed the baby and put him to sleep, so that the mother can get some quality rest.”
For Teng, being a good yuesao It was not just about cleaning and feeding the family, but about providing strong physical and mental support to the mother to help her fully recover.
“New mothers always feel isolated, exhausted and depressed,” she said.
“We need to support them and make sure they embrace their new role as moms happily.”
Dr Hong Lim Lee, a specialist obstetrician and gynecologist in Christchurch, said parts of the tradition could pose a health risk to mothers.
“Some rules like staying in bed for the whole month and not taking a shower are not very practical,” he said.
Postpartum mothers are 20 times more likely to develop a clot in their legs and lungs compared to non-pregnant themselves.
“Your blood is thicker and more likely to clot,” Lee said.
Malaysian-born Lee said he was aware of the popularity of Sit Month in Asia, but would rather cook for his partner himself when they have a baby.
“I love to cook and would like to cook ginger chicken and red date tea for my wife if she is happy to have it.
“After all, don’t push yourself too hard. Be kind to yourself before being kind to your baby.