What the U.S. Can Learn About the Time After Birth From Cultures Around the World
Imagine having a baby and immediately surrendering to a massage, soaking in an herbal bath, and spending a month in a state of rest.
For many new moms this sounds like a dream, but for Evelynn Escobar it was her reality after she gave birth in May. Escobar, who identifies as Black and Indigenous Latinx, observed the Latin American cultural practice of la cuarentena or "quarantine," a sequestered 40-day postpartum period in which new moms focus on healing and bonding with the baby.
"I did not lift a finger for the entire 40 days," says the 30-year-old.
That meant not even descending the stairs of her three-story Los Angeles townhouse where she gave birth to baby Isla. During her cuarentena, Escobar relied on her husband, delivery services, and extended community for care while she recovered. The cultural practice of rest and recovery allowed her to have a seamless transition from pregnancy to parenthood.
"It gave me the preparation that I needed to sort of come out and feel confident about my new role as a mother, because once I did come out, I was like, 'OK, I'm ready,'" says Escobar.
The weeks after birth are a critical time for new parents that sets the stage for long-term health and well-being, according to a study on optimizing postpartum care. In the United States, the care of those who gave birth often looks like a singular visit at six weeks postpartum to their OB-GYN or midwife.
In contrast, many cultures around the world observe postpartum rituals that allow new parents to be "mothered" for longer periods of time, according to a 2007 study.
The lack of a structural system for postpartum care in the U.S. encourages some new parents like Escobar to lean into cultural practices to transition from pregnancy to parenthood. It may not always be a walk in the park (spoiler: some traditions mean no air conditioning or short-sleeve shirts even during the hottest month), but there's still an urgency to take care of a person who gave birth.
So, what are some examples of these cultural practices, and what can we learn from them?
Cultural Rituals That Take Care of New Parents
In China, it's called zuo yue zi or "sitting the month." The practice, which dates back over 2,000 years, is based on the belief that a new mother's path to recovery starts with rest and dietary and lifestyle restrictions. Because the Chinese government invests in the care of new families, the sitting month is now a multi-billion dollar market with all-inclusive postpartum hotels, according to Heng Ou, author of the 2016 book The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother.
Ou, who is Chinese American, practiced tenets of the sitting month after the birth of her first child in 2003. Traditions require a new mom to stay indoors, bundle up with warm clothes, and avoid cold food and drinks to restore the heat that escaped the body with the baby. Ou's aunt became her de facto confinement ambassador by moving in and filling her freezer with broths and food.
"It's a really beautiful time to hold the mom and nurture her and keep her warm so she could heal and replenish herself from the inside out," says Ou.
The mom of three only practiced sitting the month for her first child. Her subsequent postpartum experiences differed starkly. She returned to work—with a newborn strapped in a carrier—just days after birth. As a result, Ou said she felt disconnected from her body.
Inspired by her postpartum experiences, Ou founded MotherBees in 2010, a company that delivers bone broth and porridges to new moms. "If we take care of our mothers, we really take care of our society as a whole," she says.
In Latin American and East Asian cultures, similar postpartum rituals exist to support new parents via rest, family and community support, and child care.
"Some cultures really fundamentally believe in this long-term detriment to one's health if they don't get the support during the transition of having a baby," says Cindy Lee-Dennis, Ph.D., professor at the University of Toronto's Lawrence Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing and the Faculty of Medicine.
In Korean culture, the 21-day postpartum care period is called Saam-chil-il.
Before the birth of her first son, Kelly Lee hired a professional Korean care specialist, to perform blood-circulating massages, take care of household chores, and cook her seaweed soup. For Lee, 29, of Bergen County, New Jersey, the extra support helped her recover from a difficult pregnancy.
"I don't think my body would have recovered as quickly," says Lee, who is Korean American.
Many say the postpartum rituals open a space for new parents to prioritize self-care. New moms put the baby's needs first, says Ou. What's left over for them? Scraps. These cultural practices center the birthing parent. After all, healthy babies start with healthy parents.
What We Can Learn from Postpartum Cultural Practices
Realistically, we can't expect to adopt all these cultural rituals into the American social fabric. Sorry, there are no plans to build postpartum hotels in a zip code near you yet. But maybe it's time to support new parents with resources already available.
"Instead of thinking that we need all these traditional rituals, says Dr. Lee-Dennis, "new moms have an embedded support network that we actually haven't capitalized on, and that's the partner."
A partner can look different for every family, but the goal is having another person who is able to provide support.
"Everyone always says it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a village to raise mothers," says Escobar.
During Escobar's cuarentena, her husband Franco Andrade, 31, was also able to take time off work to be there for his family. "Once the baby was born, for sure Evelynn did nothing and we did our absolute best for her to do nothing, and I knew that meant I had to do everything," says Andrade, who calls himself blessed for taking five months off work.
That's a luxury in a country that ranks last in UNICEF's report on family-friendly policies, including paid family leave.
It's not easy to practice these postpartum rituals, says Ou. There are groceries to buy, toddlers to hug, and jobs to keep. The extra support may not be financially accessible for many families, but the philosophy of cultural postpartum rituals is free—it's about slowing down.
"I think that it's got to happen in increments. It could be like a couple of minutes a day. Any moment that you could hang on to," says Ou. In those small moments, a new parent can make mindful transitions and connect with their mind and body. Those mindful minutes can add up to days and months and lead to healthier new parents.
As Ou puts is, "Don't we want to have a better society of moms and babies because isn't that all going to benefit us in the future?"