I have always been a keen reader, and in the sleepy haze of my first baby’s earliest weeks, I was delighted to discover that I could get plenty of reading done during our long breastfeeding sessions. I found my tastes had changed a bit, though; I really struggled to enjoy almost any fiction, as I felt so overwhelmed by the characters’ emotions that I couldn’t bear to read on. So instead I ploughed through every book about parenting, parents, children or babies that I could get my hands on, and developed a particular interest in the rituals and traditions around childbearing in different places around the world. In this article I wanted to share some of the recurring themes in the ways that different communities expect to behave in the first weeks of a baby’s life.
A fixed period of time
Mayan culture restricts mother and baby to the house for at least seven days, and the mother’s activities remain limited until she receives a special massage on day twenty. The Chinese name for the postpartum period translates as “doing the month”; Malaysian women are forbidden from cooking and cleaning for 40 days. This forty-day period crops up again and again, from India to Mexico to Palestine, although a Korean mother describes how “at least 21 days is good; 30 days is even better; even up to 100 days if possible”. My own grandmother, growing up in rural England, remembers women of her community being “churched” at a private service in the parish Church, six weeks after giving birth, as a marker of their re-entry into the community after a period of seclusion.
Stepping out of normal roles
One almost universal aspect of postpartum traditions is that the new mother must rest. Some are more specific in their instructions: a Chinese mother should not read, cry, or wash her hair, while Indonesian mothers are told that they are susceptible to evil spirits for as long as they are bleeding after birth, so they must stay inside the house. In Guatemala, the midwife will do the laundry during her daily home visits, so that the mother has one less chore to do. Old Testament practices labelled a woman as “unclean” when she had recently given birth, meaning that any food, clothing or furniture that she had touched were also ritually unclean and could contaminate others who touched them. While the label sounds harsh, it was a very effective way of making sure the new mother was exempted from doing any kind of cooking, laundry or housework. My friend’s Indian mother-in-law stayed with the family for several weeks to cook and clean and help out, as well as getting to know her new grandson; she explained that if the mother were tired or hungry or unhappy, it would reflect very badly on her as a grandmother, because it was her responsibility to take care of everything.
Support from others, usually women
Many cultures specify exactly who should perform the mother’s everyday duties in her place, and who should take care of her and her baby. In every example I have found, it is women, whether the baby’s grandmothers, the mother’s sisters or cousins, older women of the community or young women who do not yet have their own children but will learn from their experience of caring for a new mother. The Kija Aboriginal people of Australia have a ritual in which experienced mothers take the new mother to a sacred space to pass on their accumulated wisdom about breastfeeding and childcare. There may be expectations about the father’s role – for example, gathering firewood so that the mother can wash in hot water – but they are almost never about him taking direct care of the mother.
A wonderful range of foods is prescribed for new mothers, depending who you ask: Korean women should eat seaweed soup two or three times a day for three weeks, Yakut women in Siberia drink melted fat; new mothers are given cherries in Switzerland, and goat’s milk in Sudan. While the recipes and ingredients vary, the traditions all place a high value on fresh, nourishing foods that will support both the mother’s healing after birth and her ability to feed her infant. There is a great deal of emphasis on liquids, whether hot drinks or soups, as they are easy to digest and provide the hydration that a breastfeeding mother needs.
Many cultures are very concerned with keeping the new mother warm after her baby is born: some insist on frequent hot baths, while others forbid her to get into water and instead believe she must be warmly dressed or sit beside a fire, or even crouch over hot stones. Massage is a common part of the prescription, and in many traditions – among the Tausog people in the Philippines or Inuit mothers in the Arctic, for example – the mother’s abdomen or hips are tightly wrapped in strips of cloth to promote healing and good posture.
Focus on supporting the mother
What interests me most about these traditions of postpartum care is their focus on the mother. Although globally there are many customs and taboos surrounding newborn babies, there is very little about how to care for them, while the care of the mother is often specified in detail. The assumption is that if the mother is physically taken care of and emotionally supported, she will naturally focus on the baby and take excellent care of it herself. Although other members of the community have a duty to provide support, they are all tasked with caring for the mother so that she can focus on breastfeeding and bonding with her baby.
What could we take from these traditions?
If you are expecting a baby, you may already have heard the suggestion of taking a “babymoon”, a period of time for you to recover from the pregnancy and birth and get to know your baby. You may be fortunate enough to have family or close friends who would be willing to support you in some way during this time, whether taking it in turns to bring meals, taking your older children to the playground, walking your dog when they walk their own, or even doing housework or laundry when they visit. Many women in the UK, however, find that even if their partner is lucky enough to be able to take some time off work, after a couple of weeks they are caring for a new baby alone. If this is the case, there are some ways in which you can create the support for yourself: online grocery shopping, paying for a cleaner or a nappy laundry service, or spending the final weeks of pregnancy filling your freezer with soups and stews. There is also a question of attitude: resting and spending time with your baby now doesn’t mean that you will never “get back to normal” ever again, but this is not a time for having high expectations or for being hard on yourself if you can’t keep up the standards of your normal life, like a tidy house or getting work done. The experience of mothers around the world and across history teaches us that setting the early weeks aside as a special time, and treating a new mother gently, will help her to recover and to take the best possible care of her baby.
Written by Emma Taylor, LLL Colchester, and originally published in Breastfeeding Matters issue 220.