It’s the hottest time of the year, and that means a special kind of hell for new mothers who choose to follow custom and “sit the month.”
Sitting the month — or zuo yuezi in Chinese — is a traditional form of postpartum confinement meant to help women recover and stay healthy after giving birth. Historically, it was believed new mothers should be kept warm for the crucial first 30 days post-birth, during which time they were instructed to wear long clothes, avoid any kind of cold air, not bathe, stay away from raw or cold foods, and just generally lie still at home. Although the practice is not as common as it once was, every summer there are reports of mothers suffering heatstroke or even dying while trying to respect tradition.
While sitting the month may seem archaic, it is no easy thing to cast aside a centuries-old tradition. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be updated: In recent years, new postpartum medical facilities known as yuezi centers have emerged in cities across China. Many of these centers are not cheap — a friend of mine booked a monthlong stay at a luxury yuezi center for more than 100,000 yuan ($14,200) — but they offer an attractive option to urban women trying to stay in touch with traditional culture on their own terms, while still enjoying the fruits of modern life. Or in the words of my friend, because “(they let you) sit the month scientifically, without having to worry about your family’s old ideas.”
As part of my research into Chinese birth customs over the past two years, I’ve visited maternal and infant nursing facilities, as well as pregnant and convalescing women, across eastern China. Yuezi centers give women access to premium and professional medical care, nutritional support, and neonatal assistance. But their popularity is about more than just letting women use air conditioners or bathe. They’ve both benefitted from and contributed to the development of a modern family culture, new gender norms, and the country’s increasingly consumerist mindset.
Fei Xiaotong, one of the founding fathers of Chinese sociology, once said that the main axes of the rural Chinese family ran between father and son and between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, whereas the relationships between couples were secondary. Modern urban life is increasingly subverting this structure, however, and yuezi centers are a good example of this process at work.
In particular, the centers weaken the axis between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, since professional nurses take the place of older female relations as the primary conduits of reproductive knowledge. In so doing, they strengthen the ties in the nuclear family between father, mother, and child, and they help modern women redraw family relationships more to their advantage.
Sitting the month was long a kind of rite of passage, a period that transformed a woman’s identity and position in the family. After giving birth and sitting the month, a woman was no longer just a wife, but a mother as well. By showing her capacity to produce heirs, she elevated her position in the family. Nor was she the only one affected: Her husband would become a father, her in-laws grandparents, and together they would reward her by taking care of her as she convalesced. The first month after birth was also traditionally a time when female family elders passed down childrearing and other important knowledge to the new mother. In short, the zuo yuezi period marked a woman’s formal initiation into her husband’s family as much as, or even more so, than marriage.
In contemporary urban society, however, the nuclear family has begun to replace the traditional extended family as the mainstream familial unit. Young parents are less dependent on their elders, and advances in gender equality and marital attitudes have also increased women’s independence and autonomy.
In this context, the rituals surrounding childbirth and sitting the month no longer have the same effect on family hierarchy. Rather than acquiescing to a role as a managed part of the system of reproduction in her husband’s family, women increasingly hope to understand the science behind childbirth, control their own bodies, and enjoy a more modern lifestyle.
Paying to stay in a yuezi center is one way to secure the space and opportunities needed to realize this new ideal of family life. I found that most of the mothers I interviewed wanted their husbands to accompany them — another break from tradition, according to which the mother-in-law or other female elders would spend this time with the new mother. This arose from a desire for their husbands to be active in the parenting process and to avoid becoming alienated from one another after the birth.
The centers themselves blend modern and Western cultural and scientific approaches to parenting with more traditional Chinese concepts. Mothers learn how to recover from childbirth and how to raise their children more “scientifically” in yuezi centers with exercise techniques and lessons on not overclothing or overheating babies. In this sense, the centers encourage women to practice increasingly popular Western-influenced parenting and childrearing methods.
At the same time, the centers retain some traditional elements. For example, they still advocate keeping women warm, and offer postnatal rehabilitation methods based on traditional Chinese medicine.
The continued prosperity and development of the yuezi center industry depends precisely on this reference to traditional culture. Many Chinese support abandoning certain old practices, but the importance of the first month post-childbirth is still widely advocated. By eliminating what is unnecessary or outmoded and updating tradition to meet the needs and wants of modern women, yuezi centers don’t force mothers to choose between “science” and “superstition.”
If there is anything to keep an eye on regarding this new way of sitting the month, it’s that it might, in collaboration with narrow gender norms, generate new pressures and constraints on mothers. For example, some ads for the centers play on women’s insecurities about their postpartum bodies, promising to have moms back to looking like “yummy mommies” — la ma — in no time. “Tired of the sleepless nights, flabbiness, and bad complexion that comes from sitting the month at home?” asks one.
Increasing social expectations regarding women’s postpartum physique have deepened many women’s anxieties about the physical recovery process. Celebrity endorsements or stories of high-powered women who seemingly get thinner the more children they have only reinforce this effect, without mentioning the fleets of assistants and trainers that make this possible. In the words of one ad: “Yummy Mommy (and Taiwanese celebrity) ‘Xiao S’ had three children and is still as energetic as a girl — jealous much?”
Anxious women cannot help but reach out for this ideal, and yuezi centers are more than willing to capitalize on their fears. Often, however, the more women compare the brands, prices, and luxury levels of yuezi centers, the more anxious they get.
The emergence of the yuezi center is indicative of both the inertia of traditional culture and the growing demand for modern, up-to-date treatment. When women choose to sit the month in a center, they are hoping to buy a combination of greater autonomy, more favorable family dynamics, and modern, scientific care. At the same time, however, they must be careful not to fall into a consumerist trap by buying into unequal gender norms or turning what used to be a simple decision into yet another source of anxiety and stress.
In short, yuezi centers may not be a true solution to the problem of sitting the month. Rather, they are a complex and contested locus of interwoven and often contradictory forces: traditional, modern, and commercial. In this, they reflect the awkward position of women themselves as they navigate a country in transition.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Nurses take care of newborn babies at a private postnatal care center in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, Feb. 27, 2019. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)