The Importance of Mothering the New Mother

Chinese call it Zou Yue.
Mexicans call it la cuarentena.
Greeks call it sarántisma.
Indians (Hindi) call it Jaappa.

Regardless of what it’s called or how long it is observed–be it 30 or 40 days–the goal is the same.  Taking care of the mother, so she can take care of her baby and get adequate sleep to recover from childbirth.

Many other countries in Asia, the Middle East, South America, and Africa observe a traditional mothering the new mother period.  40 seems to be a magical number, a number that has survived through the centuries and therefore has special significance….no doubt it has something to do with the fact that 40 days is the average length of time for a new mother’s body to recover from childbirth and return to a pre-pregnant state.  That is also why your OB/GYN will say to you once you’ve given birth that he will see you in 6 weeks.

The May 11th NY Times Well section included an article How to Mother a Mother by Tara Parker-Pope.  In it she talks about Claudia Kolker’s new book, The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn From Newcomers to America About Health, Happiness and Hope and how practices such as la cuarantena can help Americans (if they are willing to learn from immigrants) to achieve–just as the title says–health, happiness and hope.

Cuarentena sounds like how the word sounds in English for quarantine, or a period of isolation for illness.  The term refers to the first 40 days after childbirth in which the female family members and friends of the new mother surround her and provide her and her baby with care, so that the new mother’s only focus is on getting rest and bonding with/feeding her baby. They also help around the house and prepare meals.  Certain rituals are observed that are similar to those observed by the Chinese Zou Yue, such as the preparation of certain foods, like chicken soup, to help keep her body/system warm, as chicken is viewed as a warm food.  Foods that are considered cold, like cucumbers, are avoided.  She is to be protected from feeling overwhelmed; hence, visitors are kept away (or kept at a very minimum) during this time (this is probably how the term la cuarantena was derived).  She is told to avoid bathing for fear of catching cold.  All these rituals have the mother’s well-being in mind.  I am rather surprised to see such similarities between the Mexican and Chinese customs….after all, the countries are nowhere near each other!  In terms of breastfeeding, female family members are on hand to teach her how to do it. In these other cultures, there is no expectation that the new mother know how to breastfeed instinctively and easily.  There is a reason behind the phrase It takes a village.

Since I blogged previously about the importance of social support and how through the years we seem to have lost perspective on things when it comes to the community coming together to help a new mother who has just had a baby, I won’t repeat myself here.  What I will say is–because we can’t emphasize it enough nowadays–that getting adequate social support–comprised of both emotional support (e.g., shoulder to cry on, listening non-judgmentally) and practical support (e.g., help with breastfeeding, cleaning, errands, laundry, taking care of the baby for a few hours so mom can take a nap or shower) IS CRITICAL FOR NEW MOMS.  Having enough support during the first 4-6 weeks–until your body recovers from childbirth and your hormone levels return to their pre-pregnancy state–can help keep anxiety levels down, help you get the rest you need from all the changes your body has gone through with childbirth, and minimize risk for postpartum depression.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help or accept help from your significant other, family members and/or friends.  Before baby’s arrival, you should try to line up 4-6 weeks’ worth of live-in help from a family member (mother, mother-in-law, sister) or at minimum help with night-time feedings those first few weeks is critical in allowing you to get adequate rest.  If you don’t have any family members nearby and/or willing or able to help, you may want to consider hiring a postpartum doula, if finances allow.  The presence of a doula that is experienced in infant care can help keep anxiety levels and concerns about infant care to a minimum, and provide comfort in knowing that both you and your baby are in good hands.  Click here to learn more about postpartum doulas and how to find one near you.

I devote a chapter in my book to the importance of social support, what social support entails, how to go about ensuring you get adequate support in your first postpartum weeks, postpartum rituals in various countries, and postpartum support services in this country (including support groups like Santa Barbara Postpartum Education for Parents, as well as doulas)–and unfortunate lack thereof and the trend of having postpartum doulas fill the void in support for new mothers.  I have Sally Placksin’s book Mothering the New Mother to thank for educating and inspiring me to write about social support in my own book and every chance I can get.

I started writing this blog post on Monday (late at night after my daughter went to bed), lost gas quickly and stopped.  I started it up again on Tuesday (late at night, again after my daughter went to bed) and lost gas quickly (the result of a combination of a long, stressful day and aging).  On Wednesday, I had a lovely time catching up with a good friend over dinner so I didn’t get a chance to write at all.  Just today, I happened to stumble across a website/blog named Mother Love Postpartum Doula Services that just recently linked up to me by way of its blogroll.  Thank you, Liz, for linking to my blog!    She happens to touch on the postpartum rituals I touch on in this post.  What fortuitous timing, as I just needed to finalize the post…and voila, I’m hitting the Publish button….now!

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