Prison or Palace?
A Global View of the Postpartum ExperienceBy Jenna Reedy
I was losing weight like crazy. This is usually music to a new mom’s ears, but it was happening rapidly and in an unhealthy way. A few days after delivering our healthy 7 pound, 3 ounce baby, I lost all desire to eat, as a vice-like knot in my stomach surfaced and quickly took control of my life. I was a disciplined, organized and logical woman. Yet I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t able to take congratulatory phone calls without sobbing to the confused person on the other end. The prospect of introducing the family dog to our baby practically sent me into a tizzy. I would lay awake at all hours of the night, obsessed by this task and dreading it. Of course, I was up at all hours anyway because my knot of anxiety denied me the pleasure of sleeping as well as eating. Panic attacks seized me and I was absolutely overwhelmed by my new duties. I felt trapped as a prisoner inside my normally, beautiful and safe haven of a home.
Something Was Seriously Wrong
After having an abrupt and atypical conversation with my mother, a nurse, she called back a second time. It was during that call that we both came to the same conclusion: something was seriously wrong. She suggested that I phone the doctor on call.
I sat there in the spare bedroom, wringing a navy comforter between my hands as I told the doctor my tale. Staring intently at a wall, I tried to convey the thoughts of my racing mind. They were difficult to comprehend, let alone explain. I started crying immediately (as I now did with all phone calls), as soon as he said “hello.” Trust me, this was no “Jerry Maguire” moment (on many levels). It was the nicest voice I’ve ever heard, smooth as velvet and calm. I don’t even remember my angel’s name. He just listened and gently prompted, instead of asking question after question like others had. Postpartum depression was the diagnosis.
Postpartum depression is a mood disorder characterized by major depression following the birth of a child, with sometimes severe and dangerous symptoms. It is also a dark conclusion to many women’s postpartum experiences. In a country racked by this common, but somewhat taboo disease, I began to wonder if Westerners were any different from our global counterparts. Was the postpartum experience the same? What I discovered both thrilled and disheartened me.
Non-Western Countries and Traditions
In many non-Western countries, a variety of traditional postpartum practices are still followed, some of which are believed to even reduce postpartum depression.
During the postpartum period, several Asian and Latin American cultures embrace a belief that can be characterized as the “hot and cold theory.” It is believed that a woman loses her heat through the loss of blood during the delivery of a baby, therefore, she enters a weakened and cold phase. In order for new mothers to regain this heat or energy, they often consume hot foods or drinks and dress in many layers of clothing. In Thailand and Guatemala they take hot baths, and in Cambodia they sit on heated rocks or use steam baths as a means to eliminate impurities. In China and Vietnam, women are advised to avoid drafty places so that wind, considered a cold element, does not enter the body. Many cultures advise against showering or bathing (including hair shampooing) for sometimes up to forty days in order to maintain a warm environment.
Of course, the first thing I did after arriving home from our two-day stint in the hospital was to take the longest shower of my life. It was my steamy escape from the chaos outside the bathroom door, and a gentle relief for my battered body. My husband all but sent in the Coast Guard to drag me out of there, but I must admit, this is one Western practice that I support wholeheartedly.
Beyond the question of hot or cold foods, there is a dietary practice, unique to certain cultures, which has been linked to lower rates of postpartum depression. Studies have shown that in countries whose populations consume large quantities of fish, such as Japan and Taiwan, lower rates of postpartum depression result. Postpartum depression is thought to be linked to low Omega-3 levels. I don’t know what other expecting mothers experienced, but my own obstetrician put the fear of God into me when it came to eating seafood. I was given a list of fish that I avoided like the plague. My beloved tunafish sandwich was all but off limits. The U.S. Government Mercury warnings also sounded foreboding. Who was I to question the FDA and possibly put my soon-to-be babe at risk? Current U.S. statistics estimate that approximately 10-15% of U.S. women are diagnosed with postpartum depression, which certainly makes one wonder. As my child rapidly approaches his first birthday, all I can say is, “Bring on the sushi!”
Not only can diet play a role in contributing to postpartum depression, but fear can as well. Fear is known to trigger changes in brain behavior. Compare the postpartum experience in some South American villages to that of a Western experience. In a village culture, birth is understood to be a natural phenomenon, witnessed by many. Helping hands abound during this important event which transforms a woman into a mother. This is in dramatic contrast to many postpartum experiences in the U.S. Here, the emphasis is typically placed on the arrival of the child, through an endless string of baby showers, rather than focusing on the woman’s experience. I, as a Westerner, had rarely spent much time around young children prior to having my own. And I certainly hadn’t witnessed any births. This sparked a tremendous amount of fear for me, regarding the birthing process and caring for my new baby.
“Doing the Month”
Another tradition that is practiced in parts of South America, and numerous other regions of the world, is the observance of an isolation period for the new mother. During this seclusion, which is often around forty days or longer, the mother and child are cared for by relatives. Both nuclear and extended family members take on the mother’s household responsibilities to allow her to rest during this time. In China, this practice is called “doing the month” because the activities of the new mother are extremely limited. In Japan, women typically return to their mother’s house for a month or two after birth to receive this special care. In India and Guatemala, mother and baby are given full-body massages during this isolation period. As shopping, cleaning, cooking and childcare are removed from the mother’s typical schedule, she is encouraged to focus completely on recovering. This wonderful practice is thought to help lower rates of postpartum depression. All I want to know is, where do I sign up? The thought of doing laundry, while I nursed my body that was sore from head-to-toe, was almost too much to bear. Couple that challenge with diaper runs, feedings every three hours (while attempting to simultaneously throw something in the crockpot that resembled a meal), and you’ll begin to understand true exhaustion. Granted, my mother was around to help for two or three weeks, but still, having an army of relatives to hand the little munchkin to so I could get several hours of sleep (IN A ROW), sounds like heaven.
Decorating with Henna
One last practice that I’ll focus on, which also ties into this concept of mandated rest, involves the application of henna. In parts of India, Africa and the Middle East, this beautiful tradition calls for a woman to be decorated with henna after birth. The custom is practiced to help promote and ensure rest for the new mother. Intricate patterns are applied to the feet and lower legs. Rather than moving quickly and ruining the ornamentation, a woman is encouraged to remain in a reclined and restful position. As she (literally) props her feet up, the housework and other domestic chores are taken over by relatives. A new mother’s true duty is to sleep, eat and recover.
Celebrated As Queens
After I uncovered many of these traditions, I promptly walked into the kitchen and told my husband that we were having our second child in another country. It seems as if the postpartum experience of non-Western women is filled with a level of support that is unavailable to most of their global counterparts. Perhaps our transient Western ways have left us so far removed from our extended families that we’re unable reap their natural and intended benefits. Regardless, I was elated to discover these women who were treated like royalty – these queens of birth. They were supported in a way that brought tears of joy (and envy) to my eyes. These women had survived excruciating pain and were then celebrated for being the amazing vehicles for life that they were: mothers.
Many thanks for the following resources that provided a wealth of information and inspiration:
- Boes, Rannie, “Postpartum Care Outside of the Western World and What
They Can Teach Us”
- Cartwright Jones, Catherine, “The Functions of Childbirth and Postpartum
- Foreman, Judy, “Eat Fish, Be Happy”
- Minh Thi, Le, Pasandarntorn, Wanawipha, Rauyajin, Oratai, “Traditional
Postpartum Practices Among Vietnamese Mothers in Anthi District, Hung
- Kaewsarn, P., Moyle, W., Creedy, D., “Traditional Postpartum Practices
Among Thai Women”
- Mony, Keo, “Postpartum Practices”
- Soo Kim-Godwin, Yeoun, “Postpartum Beliefs and Practices Among
- Urbani, Laura, “Postpartum Depression Can Rattle New Moms”