Looming Moon Month
My partner, Guo Jian, has been priming me for the “Moon Month” or to zuoyuezi 坐月子.
When my in-laws were here a couple of weeks ago (the precursor to their more permanent visit that starts as of the 21st) and we were downstairs helping to unload the car, a perfect stranger saw my advanced pregnant shape, the presence of parental figures, and Guo Jian and I helping them with their things. This stranger very confidently turned to Guo Jian and half-asked and half-stated, “Your parents have come to help you through the Moon Month?” To this woman, there could be nothing more obvious. Guo Jian just smiled and nodded. His parents glowed with pride.
In Chinese culture, this period of time called the “moon month” is a month-long sojourn in the home for women post-partum. It’s also translated as “sitting out the month” or “lying in” or “confinement in childbirth” (zuo yuezi 坐月子). In general terms it means that following the birth of one’s child, the Mother and child are to remain indoors, mostly horizontal on the bed, well-insulated and fully catered to by extended family. All cooking and cleaning is provided while the new Mother’s exclusive job is to bond with the infant, breastfeed, and recover from the trauma of childbirth.
Here in China, there is a portion of the service industry specifically designed to uphold this tradition wherein a person can hire a live-in maid/attendant who will cook, clean, and provide breastfeeding instruction and/or infant care for the first thirty days after childbirth. It’s expensive, but a thriving industry in China. It’s specifically for those whose families are too far away to offer the service directly.
Sounds great, right?
Well, part of this tradition holds that women are not supposed to bathe during the moon month. I’ve heard some tell me that this is due to the fear of illness or disease, especially back in the days when there was fear regarding water-borne pathogens. I’ve heard others say that it’s also about preserving a Mother’s scent and the infant’s connection to that scent—a connection that is especially important in the first month of life.
A whole month of not bathing? I’m not sure I can do it. I’m not sure I want to! No, it’s… not going to happen…. ick!
The chance to rest, though, sounds appealing to me. I’m happy to lie around with the baby, recovering, not worrying about cooking and cleaning. I may go a bit stir crazy, but perhaps I’ll be too tired to notice? Perhaps it will pass by quicker than I ever imagined?
Guo Jian’s Mother has prepared time off work to provide these services to us and so I’m relieved that no one is insisting we have a stranger come into the house just to argue with me and my Western ways, try to cook me meat-based soups (part of the “moon month” traditional cuisine), and generally create an awkward unknown presence. His Mother at least knows me well enough to know that all of food must be vegetarian! And, since it’s important to them that I carry out this tradition, I certainly can’t deny them the right to provide the service!
And funny enough, when I expressed some misgivings about the tradition, my Father-in-Law told me that I certainly can bathe, that don’t have to remain in bed 24/7, and that I can even go out a bit with the baby, as long as it’s not far or strenuous exercise. A short walk, for instance.
When I later conveyed this to my partner, he said, “My Father doesn’t understand. He was raised in a time when all traditional culture was rejected. He doesn’t get it.”
In fact, Guo Jian claims there is evidence that if a woman does not honour the full moon month, she will be more susceptible to disease and illness later in life. When he makes these comments, his entire community (including our very wise tai chi teacher) nods in agreement with him, a huge cultural backdrop staged ominously all around me. “How can you argue with five thousand years of history?” their eyes ask, “And why would you put yourself at risk now that a child will depend on you?” I shrink at the collective potency.
My modern, dreadlocked, musician partner is showing me his traditional, conservative side…
Well, enter MY culture:
My own parents are scheduled to arrive in late January (the 20th). They’re planning to stay nearly a month, but part of the time will be spent with me, in our home. It coincides with an important tour that Guo Jian is leaving for with his band to New Zealand for two weeks. The timing on that tour was infuriating, to say the least, and so discouraging given that the baby will have just arrived, but then my parents scheduled their visit to overlap his absence, which made me feel better and less panicked. At least I won’t be alone with just my in-laws and the baby! I already know that I’ll really want my own Mother nearby when Little Spark is so little.
When they get here, however, considering that the baby will hopefully have been born a few weeks, I don’t want to be holed up in bed, unwashed and kept back from hosting them! I can smell a conflict coming! haha! Perhaps the first week can be low-key, but afterwards, I’m going to want some movement, some freedom with my parents, some Motherly advice in English, a few dinners out… generally some respite from the confinement!
Especially if the baby is delivered later than the due date (as the hospital predicts), I am gearing myself up for some conflict regarding the “Moon Month.” Guo Jian’s intended absence to New Zealand with his band will quite possibly be my release from the jailer, but that doesn’t necessarily get me off the hook with my in-laws. Let’s hope they are indeed more lenient than Guo Jian and do not suddenly descend into absolutism…
Also, regarding my parent’s visit, I had to talk my Mother-in-law out of providing all the food and hosting services to my parents while they’re here! For her, it goes without saying that it will be them hosting my parents, even if my Mom and Dad are staying in our home, not theirs. After all, they are the same generation. She was actually planning to show up every day to cook each meal, clean up after them, do their laundry, etc.! Can you imagine!?!
After some careful wagering of tactics, I explained to my Mother-in-law that my parents want to help me recover from childbirth too. I explained that they really like the moon month tradition and want to help me honour it. I added that I’d hate to have two powerful Mothers competing to cook and clean for us!
(Am I an terrible, manipulative person?)
She immediately agreed to give space to my Mother when she’s here and was so happy to hear that they intend to take care of me.
No. Small. Victory.
The truth is that my parents are Western and, like Western people everywhere, they will arrive in my home as helpful parents, but still as our guests. They know about the moon month but, unless they read this blog, they don’t really understand what it means. Our apartment won’t become their space, even temporarily, and I have no expectation for that, and so I’ll want to be up and making food, etc. My Mother isn’t intending to come here to clean and re-organize my house or cook every meal for me! Like all Western families, we’ll likely share in the cooking, order pizza, make sandwiches, etc. I can’t be confined to the “moon month” bed while they’re here because having them wait on me would just be too weird.
But as long as my Mother-in-law isn’t here too, it will all work out fine. Yikes!
Anyway, it’s all an adventure, right? The “moon month” will be impossible for me to fully honour, but a partial acknowledgement of its cultural importance while also acknowledging what’s important to me, culturally (like bathing!), is part of the dance that makes this inter-racial partnership the production that it is. I can definitely take it easy and do lots of resting. I can also host my parents. It’s all possible.
As I experienced when we got married in 2009, the collision of parents will once again be both comical and exhausting. Eventually, maybe they’ll learn to communicate with each other without me as the conduit, but until then, I also have the translator’s golden tools in place: adjustment, omission, editing, selective listening, re-contextualizing as I did above, etc.! Maybe in all family situations this is common, but in cross-cultural family situations where two different languages and customs are featured, this may be the golden key to harmony!
And I hold it.
(Wish me luck because I’m going to need it!)