Forget Mother's Day: In China they get the gift of Moon month

Mother's Day is one thing --  "moon month" in China is another. The tradition keeps a new mother really, really off her feet for the first month after the baby arrives. Waited on hand-and-foot – allowed to do nothing including lift the baby or take a shower – women can see it as a gift as well as a penalty.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mother's Day is one thing. A mother's "moon month" in China is another: The tradition has a new mom really, really off her feet for the first month after the baby arrives. Here, in Beijing in June 2011, a new mother holds her baby at Chaoyang Park.

My friend Rachel is about to give birth to a baby, her first, here in Beijing. And while she’s been remarkably organized and calm about the whole process, she did have one East-meets-West moment that made me realize how differently things are done here.

Her ayi, the woman she hired to cook and clean and help her take care of the baby, wanted to know if she was going to honor the “moon month.” When she told her no, the ayi was horrified.

Moon month in the Chinese tradition is a period in which the mother and the baby are confined to the house. I mean, really, really confined. No going outside at all, no stairs, no open windows, no air conditioning in the summer, and – most unsettling of all to many women – no showers or baths. Women are mainly to stay in bed, and even when they breastfeed, are supposed to lie on their sides instead of holding the baby.

Traditionally, the mother-in-law is the person in charge of the moon month, cooking, cleaning, taking care of the baby, waiting on the mother. Special foods are provided that are supposed to bring the new mother strength, like eggs. Lots and lots of eggs. They’re supposed to drink warm or hot water, not cold, which is bad for the mother’s health, the Chinese believe.

Some theorize that the no-shower tradition came from a time when the situation of a new mother was more precarious. Taking a shower might mean using dirty water or getting a chill. With no running water in many houses not terribly long ago, the mother would have to go outside the safe confines of her home to bathe.

One part of the tradition, however, is rather appealing: This is supposed to be a period when a new mother is pampered while she learns how to care for her baby.

China in recent years has seen the entrepreneurial opportunities in the moon month, and businesses have sprung up to provide new mothers with a place to go to wait out the month. Beijing, for instance, has something called the Beijing New Mother Maternity Service Center, established in 1999, an improvement, the center says, on the old traditions. Instead of tiring out the mother-in-law, the center offers six meals a day (strength-building, of course), nurses dressed in pink (“elegant and cozy,” the center notes), lessons on diet and baby care, and lots of TLC for mother and baby. (I suspect that going to a maternity center might also be a way of avoiding the pesky inlaws hovering too much in a stuffy apartment for an entire month.)

Mothers who would prefer to stay at home (and China recently approved a 98-day paid maternity leave, up from 90 days), can hire special ayis who work 16-hour days and can make as much as $2,000 in a month, a fortune for poor rural women.

Many non-Chinese women giving birth in China tend to reject, understandably, the prohibitions. Canadian musician Ember Swift, who is married to a Chinese man and lives in Beijing, wrote recently in Beijing Kids magazine that her husband surprised her when he agreed that she should follow all the traditions of the moon month. “My modern, dreadlocked, musician partner is showing me his traditional, conservative side,” she wrote.

Later, after she had the baby, she wrote on her blog: “I’ve also found myself settling into the rhythm of a life in confinement, remembering what I need to do when she’s sleeping and how to pace my day, and I’ve even gotten in some exercise on the side…

“After about ten days, I was going a bit mad and so negotiated some stairwell walking. We live on the sixth and seventh floor of an old-style apartment building. There’s no elevator. I argued that I was still within the rules of the moon month if I walked the stairwell but didn’t ‘enter the wind’ (进风 jinfeng) by going outdoors. They relunctantly agreed (more to keep me from losing my mind and thus having to deal with me, I’m sure) and they make sure I bundle up excessively before my walks each day just in case I catch a cold. There are 84 steps and I can now do ten rounds of up and down. 840 going up, 840 going down. After one week, I’m feeling much better for it.”

For my friend Rachel, confinement, even with stair-walking, just isn’t in the cards. She should tell her ayi, said one friend, that she is honoring her own traditions, Western ones.

I’ll be interested in seeing whether she has the nerve to drink a tall glass of cold water on a stifling June day right in front of her ayi.

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