Practices have also evolved over time and are quite different from those of a generation ago, especially in Chinese culture. In the nineteen forties and fifties, a new mother used to be confined to her bedroom during the confinement period which begins from the moment the baby is born until the baby reaches full moon or is a month old. She could not wash her hair during that period and could not leave the house for fear of wind entering her body and cause her to have aches and pains later on in life.
The confinement period was an enforced period of rest for the new mother so that she could recover from the ordeal of childbirth and recover her strength. A woman with specialized knowledge of herbs and confinement food is employed to look after the mother’s diet and to look after the baby day and night so that the mother has proper sleep and rest. She will stay with the family for the whole month and is paid a tidy sum for her services. Such services were in great demand and an expectant mother would book way in advance to ensure that when her delivery time is at hand, there would be someone to look after her needs and the baby.
These days, there is some flexibility. After ten days or so, the new mother may wash her hair using special bath water. Her bath is usually water boiled with a concoction of certain herbs that will draw out the wind from her body. No cold water or water straight from the tap is used.
Special food and wine are included in her diet. Chicken and wood ear fungus cooked in sesame oil and lots of ginger and glutinous rice wine is a daily staple. She can take only certain vegetables and fruit such as apples, guava and papaya. She is also given special soups which will promote breast milk production if she is breast feeding. Everyday, free range chicken is steamed with special herbs in a double boiler to get the pure chicken essence. This is especially nutritious and invigorating.
However it can be quite hard to acquire such personalized services nowadays as many of those women specialized in caring for the baby and new mother have retired and are no longer available. A new niche market has sprung up where women entrepreneurs have opened up confinement homes.
These homes offer confinement services to new mothers who want to ensure that they have enough sleep and rest which they may not get at home if they have young children in their families or if there is not enough room in their houses. These homes offer single rooms which give you privacy, or twin bedded rooms. The market price varies from a few thousand dollars to more, depending on the type of room you choose. Everything is taken care of, all meals provided and the baby looked after day and night. Baby diapers and formula ( if the mother is not breastfeeding ) are also provided. These homes are run professionally like a business and the experienced confinement ladies also impart their knowledge of rituals and taboos. Traditional massage is also available.
Many Chinese new mothers are availing themselves of this confinement home service because of its convenience. Depending on the size of the home, it can accommodate up to eight mothers.
However, in Malay culture and I believe the Indian culture too, the traditional practices are more strictly adhered to. There is also the confinement period where the new mother has to rest and partake of a special diet and herbal baths. Lemon grass and ginger feature because of their properties, especially dispelling wind from the body.
The new mother in Malay culture has traditional massage that will reduce the wind in her belly and I remember the lady who came to give me the massage, used a hot brick wrapped in a towel to warm my belly before massaging with some oil. After that a long piece of cloth specially sewn, was wrapped round my tummy to flatten it. I was not allowed to take a bath during my first confinement. The purpose of the massage is to drive the wind out, to shrink the uterus and to give me back my waistline. This traditional massage is still practiced today and the new mothers of Malay ethnicity also consume jamu ( specially prepared herbs )which will help them to regain their strength and figure. Being Chinese, I didn’t take jamu but followed the Chinese diet under the strict eyes of my grandmother and confinement lady.
At the end of the confinement period, the new mother is left to her own resources. Those who are working may still be on maternity leave and would use this time to bond with their babies. The Chinese usually have a big celebration where a dinner party is organized to introduce the new-born to relatives and friends. One tradition still observed by some families today is the giving out of red eggs, a slice of roast pork and yellow ( derived from turmeric )glutinous rice. If a dinner is held, then only the red eggs are given. In return, the baby receives an ang pow (red envelope containing money). In the yester years, when the price of gold was still affordable, the new baby would be given gold jewellery by close relatives.