Lisa von Ortenburg discovers the tradition of ‘sitting the month’ and discovers it can be a great way, maybe even a luxurious way, to spend your first weeks as a new mum.
Sitting The Month
In China, there exists a tradition for women who just gave birth to adhere to strict enclosure for four weeks. Known as ‘sitting the month’ or ‘zue yue zi‘, this ancient practice is sacrosanct. According to popular belief, the dramatic physical strain and loss of blood during birth weaken a woman’s health. So in order to restore it, she must stay indoors.
The tradition started 2,000 years ago and Chinese women all over the world deeply believe in it and fear that that by ignoring it, they will contract many diseases later in life, such us rheumatism or arthritis.
When Kate, the Duchess of Windsor, gave birth and only hours later proudly presented her daughter to the photographers, looking as stunning and glamorous as ever, she set off an avalanche of comments in China. While Western mums mainly discussed how unrealistically polished and perfect she looked, Chinese mothers concentrated on the fact that she had already stepped outside to make a public appearance. “How could she? What’s wrong with her?” ranted and raved the mother bloggers from Beijing to Shanghai.
Learn more about confinement here
How It’s Done
The month is long and tough, and full of rules. Ideally, a new mother shouldn’t wash her hair, shower, brush her teeth, exercise, use the air conditioning, or lift any heavy weights, and she should avoid cold as well as negative emotions. And to be 100 per cent sure that she doesn’t make any mistakes in that labyrinth of instructions, her mum or a special “confinement lady” moves in, looks after her and the baby, and cooks dietary meals with lots of ginger. In a Hong Kong based Facebook group post, one mum wrote: “I didn’t think I’d survive it, but to be honest if I survived a natural childbirth without an epidural, I think I can survive anything!”
Sitting In Style
For Chinese families for whom money is no object, there are more pleasant ways to do it nowadays. In Taiwan and on the mainland, the more affluent mothers-to-be prefer spending their month in a specialised clinic, with five-star comfort. Care Bay is one of the most famous postpartum clinics in Shanghai, where grand trees stand a the front of the building and the atmosphere inside is dignified and the light is dimmed. The centre of the lobby is dominated by a neo-classical marble statue of a mother with her baby. A young mum emerges and when asked how she found the month, she replies, “It was great, absolutely great”. She didn’t miss anything and was even allowed to go out for a tea with a friend!
This modern approach to sitting the month seems to be successful. Care Bay has four clinics in China – two in Shanghai, one in Shenzhen, and one in Beijing. Famous actresses are said to have spent around HK$1,000,000 for a month in the presidential suite in Beijing. Compared to that, Shanghai is quite reasonably priced: prices per month range from HK$80,000-HK$380,000, which includes a stay in a spacious room or suite, dietary full-board plus a personal confinement lady, or yue sao.
For many new mums, the yue sao is the best part of the package. Upon request, the yue sao can be present during birth and will be there for the entire stay. Over four weeks, she will take care of the new mum, providing instruction in childcare and careful yoga lessons.
A Family Affair
Escorting husbands are charged extra if they choose to come along. One father-to-be didn’t hesitate for a second when he heard he could be there to make his wife’s stay more pleasant. He spent his time working at the desk of his wife’s suite.
New parents are particularly grateful for their introduction to baby care. Since most of today’s mainlanders have grown up without siblings or cousins, they are simply not used to babies. Even grandparents – who may be paying for all the clinic expenses – express their gratitude. “I’m a better business lady than nurse – so I’m glad that I needn’t look after her during her confinement period. I don’t want to stay in for four weeks either,” said one grandmother.
Moving With The Times
“We emphasise a very friendly, familiar atmosphere”, says Johnny Han, the CEO of Care Bay, who was formerly a banker. “And we keep up with the times. Washing hair is supposed to be a standard here.” He mentions that only recently a woman in Shanghai died because she had taken her confinement rules too seriously. On hot summer days she wouldn’t let go of her winter blankets, nor would she switch on the air conditioning or leave the bed. The origin of these rules date back to the Middle Ages when people were living in cold houses built of mud, and they got their water from dirty wells. Nevertheless, supposedly more than 50 per cent of all mums in China still respect the old, strict rules, depending on how their mum or their chosen yue sao interprets them.
Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners make regular checks on the new mums, and paediatricians are available to check on the newborn babies. The Chinese doctor often prescribes different herbal drinks according to the new mother’s condition. It’s one of innumerable little details that might justify the high costs. The wholesome meals can be chosen from a menu, and are presented as if from a five star restaurant. The personal confinement nurses, or yue saos, are extremely knowledgeable and friendly, especially next to some of the nervous and inexperienced new parents.
Choosing Your Yue Sao
People who prefer to do their month with a yue sao at home have to hire her four months before giving birth. Most mums-to-be choose a yue sao via established agencies or through word of mouth.
Having a yue sao on call around the clock means you needn’t lift a finger. During the night, the yue sao brings the baby to you for nursing. She will also do the cooking as one of her main duties. The meals she creates are dependent on the amount of blood a new mum lost during birth and on which kind of delivery she had (natural birth or C-section). Traditionally, in the first weeks a new mum should eat a lot of soups, and later she can have chicken and steamed fish with very little salt and oil. Consequently, most yue saos start their days in the supermarket, buying fresh fish, tofu, veggies, lots of ginger and dates – highly nutritious food, but not always tasty.
The average rate for an experienced yue sao in Shanghai can go up from US$1,200 to 2,000, per month. Here in Hong Kong they charge even more. One highly skilled yue sao who is self-employed in Hong Kong, and works without an agency is paid HK$40,000 a month when she works in a house, on call 24 hours a day.
For more on pregnancy and child birth, check out our Maternity page.
This article was updated February 2021