After 9 hard and long months you think about stuffing yourself with sushi, soft cheese and wine straight after giving birth. But for some, it’s 30-days of pig trotters and ginger soup. Mothers, welcome to the confinement period.

Confinement is a practice in many Asian, Indian, European and Middle Eastern cultures. It’s a tradition where mother and baby are home bound for 30-40 days post-birth to rest, recover and bond. Sounds pretty blissful right? But wait, there’s more. During this time:

  • Mothers typically stay at her in-laws and is cared by her Mother in Law.
  • She is to avoid anything cold such as icy water or air conditioning. She must wear warm clothes including socks, even if it’s scorching hot outside.
  • She’s not to leave the home for 30-40 days in case she catches a cold or infection.
  • She’s not meant to wash her hair for the whole period (don’t worry, dry shampoo is OK).
  • She’s to bathe in specially prepared water with herbs.
  • She’s to eat a calorie dense diet. In Chinese traditions, it’s soup with pig trotters in black vinegar and ginger. In Korea, it’s a diet of everything seaweed. In Malaysia, its fish maw (aka fish bladder. Apparently male bladder is highly prized) and green papaya soup for lactation.
  • Visitors are restricted to immediate family members only.

My unexpected confinement

When my son my born 15 months ago, I was out the door two days later to shock horror of my family. It was quite scandalous to them. I have cabin fever and need my daily dose of caffeine and vitamin D (speaking of D, you’re not meant to have sex either and not that you’d want to. I was still wearing adult nappies up until 11 weeks post-birth!). Don’t get me wrong, I was exhausted, sleep deprived and in pain but the idea of confining myself indoors for 30-40 days was not an option. Family members told me that I was stupid and ungrateful for not staying at my MIL’s place.

However, my MIL came over everyday for a month and brought with her the confinement experience. She cooked chicken soup and ‘warm’ foods just like the traditions of confinement. I wore socks around her and took them off as soon as she left (I know, rebel right?!).

I had mixed feelings of gratitude and stress to have my MIL around.  I was grateful that she was caring, loving and super excited about her first grandson. At the same time, I was stressed because she seemed to be watching my every move and telling me what I should and shouldn’t do. I was pushed into giving my son formula milk because she didn’t think I was producing enough breast milk.

Because my MIL came over everyday, I felt I didn’t have any personal space in my own home or the opportunity to enjoy being a new mum. I couldn’t simply tell her not to come over but I was desperate for some alone time with my husband and new baby. I felt anxious all the time, even asking permission to hold my baby, leave the house or shower. I kept telling myself to “get over it and stop being selfish and that she was here because she wanted to help”.

An authoritative style of parenting is common in Asian cultures and comes with very high expectations of their children. You shouldn’t question things because it means you don’t trust your parents. You are to be obedient and respectful at all times. This is a big culture clash as I’m the type of person that has #nofilter and a free spirit.

What other mums say about confinement

Being Aussie born and bred, confinement isn’t something that’s widely talked about. I know I haven’t painted the greatest picture so far. To be fair, the ideals of confinement are not to oppress, but rather it’s all about the wellbeing of mother and baby. I totally agree that this is important.

I reached out and asked a few Aussie mums from various cultural backgrounds on what they thought of the practice. For some, the first reaction is that it’s restrictive and ludicrous, but for most, they’re avid fans.

  • Mary is South East Asian and highly recommends it, but said some practices are questionable, “I would recommend it to other parents to some degree. There are a few questionable ones, example sitting above a bed of hot charcoal speed up the recovery down there”.
  • It took some convincing from Patricia’s Greek mum to be confined, “I done it with both my girls after some convincing by my mum and I’m really glad I did. It gives you a chance to heal from my c-section!”
  • Jess was confined with her second bub after experiencing enormous stress and pressure with her first-born, “This time I was so relaxed. It gave both me and baby time to rebuild immunity. We restricted visitors”.
  • Anna who is of Lebanese tradition would do it again and was happy she did it, “I didn’t have a great birth although I had a vaginal delivery I struggled to walk or sit properly for 3 weeks so being out in public was the last thing on my mind!”

Outsourcing Confinement

Not all parents have the luxury of having family in Australia to help them with their newborn. But for some that do, there are parents who are disinterested in looking after their grandkids. Bec is a friend of mine who has parents overseas and saddened her in laws are so disinterested in taking care of her baby, “They only live 10 minutes away, but don’t care! It’s madness”.

Rachael doesn’t have family here so she sponsored a nanny who came highly regarded from Singapore to look after herself, her baby and run the household, “It’s just cheaper to sponsor someone overseas to come here and take care of everything. These women cook, clean and take care of bub for you. You don’t get close to that level of service here”. Sponsoring someone from overseas is a little contentious. A few mums respond with outrage, commenting on the lack of support for local employment. Some have suggested the possibility of extra-martial affairs between nanny and partner/husband.

Today, especially in the sharing economy, the concept of confinement is not only reserved for certain cultural backgrounds. Many mothers are seeking hired help such as post-natal doulas and nannies.  Doulas have always been thought as only appealing to the hippy, wheat grass loving mums, but more and more are taking up on the service. I’ve even found some requests for hired post-natal help on Airtasker.

Nothing prepared me for the culture clash

I felt prepared for childbirth and the possibility of PND, however nothing prepared me for the post-natal anxiety associated with cultural expectations. I feel the practice of confinement emphasises too much on physical wellbeing at the expense of emotional wellbeing. I do see a lot of merit in the practice, but it simply wasn’t for me.  It would have been a different scenario had I been brought up overseas, in a country where its widely practiced and talked about.

If you or someone you know is experiencing immense post-natal stress, anxiety and depression, please contact PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia) who support women, men and families across Australia to recover from post and antenatal depression and anxiety, a serious illness that affects around 100,000 Australian families every year. Call 1300 726 306.

Note – I shared this post as a guest blogger on ‘And So She Thought’. Check out Teya’s beautiful blog today for more honest stories of sisterhood.