Like millions of Chinese women each year, I will voluntarily sequester myself this winter within the confines of a small room for a full month. I will putter around in my pajamas while being served meals and snacks six times a day and undergo routine check-ups by a team of state-certified nurses and doctors.
No, I am not participating in a medical experiment on the effects of isolation, nor am I temporarily seeking asylum from a noisy, unpredictable world to purify my mind, body and soul. I am pregnant and intend to partake of a time-honored Chinese tradition dating back thousands of years.
Immediately after giving birth, women in China have long been obliged to—or in more recent years, chosen to—remain indoors in a practice called zuo yuezi, literally, sitting the month. It is believed that when a woman’s body is fragile after birth and her pores are open to the elements, she must be prescribed adequate rest, be shielded from cold and wind, and adhere to a strict diet. This, it is believed, aids recovery. Not doing so may result in everything from premature aging to arthritis later in life.
Many Chinese mothers, I suspect, would balk at the notion of getting plenty of fresh air and exercise immediately after giving birth, in the way that is often advised in Western countries.
But then in most cases, the traditional rules of zuo yuezi are also not followed to the letter today as they once were. The rules were, after all, developed during a time when China was a largely agrarian society, clean water was not as accessible and mortality rates for new mothers were considerably higher. The modern Chinese woman desires her creature comforts while maintaining a patina of adherence to custom.
Many new mothers still sit the month at home, under the watchful eye of a mother or mother-in-law, but in this past decade the tradition has also been rebranded and commercialized into a billion-dollar industry – one that is expanding rapidly each year.
Many middle-class moms these days will choose to hire a live-in doula, called a yuesao, who will care for, clean and burp the baby, as well as help the mother sit the month. In first-tier cities, they can fetch a price of RMB15,000 per month. Some households even hire an ayi in addition to the yuesao to help with the cooking and cleaning, as the mother is not supposed to work at all.
Others (like myself) may avoid all of the hassle and instead check themselves into one of the many maternity hotels around their city that have sprung up, like bamboo shoots after a spring rain. In Shanghai alone, over 100 maternity hotels are now listed on Dianping.com, with prices for a 28-day stay ranging from RMB30,000 at the low end to luxury establishments that exceed RMB 100,000. From 2010 to 2014, maternity hotel revenues grew by 40% per year on average, reaching RMB5.6 billion in 2015. According to a report by GF Securities, an investment brokerage, the maternity hotel market is estimated to grow to RMB6.9 billion for 2016 and hit RMB15 billion in 2019.
I began my hunt for a maternity hotel in July, six months before my due date, as I was informed that hotel bookings for January/February were already in short supply. Prices have risen sharply in recent years. One sales rep told me that this was due to a combination of rising incomes, the recent relaxation of the one-child policy and the preference of many couples to have a child in the Year of the Monkey (which ends in late January 2017).
New mothers may also find that sitting the month at a maternity hotel, in the care of professionals, feels more liberating than sitting at home, where well-meaning relatives can sometimes be a little too close for comfort.
The maternity hotels that I visited resembled boutique hotels with distinctly feminine atmospheres. The rooms were decorated in soft, pastel tones with nurses dressed in light-pink uniforms and princess-style furniture set in public spaces. Boy and girl dolls hung on the doors of each room to denote the gender of the baby.
Though every hotel I visited claimed to have unique features, they shared common themes. Representatives presented me with special menus of nourishing soups and foods that supposedly help new mothers (a) recover vitality and (b) produce more milk. They explained that medical professionals would conduct regular check-ups to make sure the baby is healthy and growing according to schedule (the baby’s weight and vitals are recorded every week by most hotels; some do it every day).
I will have a doula sharing my room to help take care of the baby, as well as provide key services such as giving me milk-stimulating massages and hand-washing my clothes (my husband will also be there, learning how to change diapers and burp the baby). Yoga classes will be offered. There will also be a “baby spa,” with the baby given light massages and plopped into a small tub (secured in a life preserver) to float around.
To Westerners, the practice of sitting the month may seem strange, and maybe even outdated and superstitious. But for Chinese people, behind the strict diet and over-protectiveness, there is a philosophy that a new mother needs all the support she can get during this intense period of her life. The first month after giving birth can be wondrous and exciting, but it can also be stressful and exhausting. Why not ease the burden? The hard part comes next.