A Modern Take on the Tradition of Postpartum Confinement

April 01 2022 – Kathryn Wepfer

A Modern Take on the Tradition of Postpartum Confinement

A Modern Take on the Tradition of Postpartum Confinement

This mom practiced a modern version of an ancient tradition that prioritizes a mom's rest and healing and emphasizes the importance of leaning on others for support from day one.

 

Name: Nina Sui

Occupation:  Marketing Manager at Microsoft

Children: Boy – 5, Boy - 2

Let’s start with your work outside the home.  What you do for work and why do you enjoy your job?

I’m a Marketing Manager at Microsoft, focused on our cloud-based services for software developers. I create hands-on experiences for developer communities to get them excited about building applications with our technology. I love working with developers because they are such innovators, and in my role I can bring their problem-solving skills and innovation to important real-world needs through the coding challenges and hackathons that I produce.  Diversity, equity, and inclusion is also a critical part of my job and I create opportunities for communities that are traditionally underrepresented in the tech industry to build their developer skills, so we’re growing the pipeline of talent for our industry.  It’s a joy to be able to use the Microsoft platform to work in a way that aligns with issues and groups that I care about.

And how about your family – give us the basics of your maternity leaves and your feeding journeys:

I've got two boys, a five-year-old and a two-year-old.  I breastfed both of them and supplemented with pumped milk from very early on.  I took my full 20-week maternity leave for both boys, and then returned to working from home.  I’ve been a fulltime remote worker since long before Covid, so that gave me a lot of flexibility for how I breastfed and pumped while working.

I’m lucky that my mom lives close by, so for the first few months after my first maternity leave, I worked from her house and she provided the childcare.  I would bring the baby plus all the supplies and my computer to her house and work there for the day. After a few months, we transitioned to daycare. We had the same arrangement with my younger son, but then Covid hit so we continued using my mom for childcare until we felt comfortable sending him to preschool. Having my mom’s help made my transitions back to work much smoother.

In addition to your childcare arrangement, is there anything in particular that helped make those transitions smooth?

I found a few things helpful in making the transition back to work. First, I was very conscious about blocking pumping time on my calendar, and I felt like that put me in control of my time.  I also managed expectations around my participation in meetings so that I could pump during a meeting if I needed to.  If a meeting was going to be a video call, I would let people know in advance that I would have my camera off for part of the meeting.  I wanted to have a lot of flexibility to accommodate pumping without my colleagues thinking I wasn’t being fully present.

The second thing that was helpful for me was that I got a second pump from a friend, and I kept it at my mom’s house so I didn’t have to lug a pump around every day and just brought the pump parts and bottles back and forth.

I wanted to have a lot of flexibility to accommodate pumping without my colleagues thinking I wasn’t being fully present.

I want to ask you about your experience of the tradition of Chinese postpartum confinement.  Tells us about the origin of that tradition.

In the Chinese tradition there’s a concept of "zuo yue zi," and the literal translation is “sitting out for the month.” The idea is that after birth the woman's body is very fragile, and she needs to heal in order to prevent illnesses from coming back when she gets older. This healing process includes traditions around the foods you should eat to replenish blood and boost general nutrition. Another part of the healing process is maintaining body temperature, and traditionally there was concern about catching cold when you leave the house.  There's a spectrum of people practicing this from those who follow the traditions very rigidly to those who take a modern spin on it with a do-it-yourself version where you get a lot of external support.

So what might a more modern version entail?

A DIY version could be mainly not leaving your house, which aligns with the Chinese postpartum confinement term.  That vocabulary makes it sound more restrictive than what many people do, which is really just staying home, trying to minimize or eliminate screen time to protect your eyes, and resting. There are food delivery services that cater to this tradition where you buy various packages and meals get delivered.

Nina Sui family

How did you personally incorporate this tradition into your postpartum experience?

We hired a Chinese postpartum nanny to come live in our home for a month, and she would take care of cooking all of the meals three times a day plus snacks, and she also helped with the baby by changing diapers and helping to soothe him for naps and night sleep. Pretty much my only responsibility for that month was to get my milk supply up and breastfeed. Other than feeding the baby, I would be resting, napping, and really allowing my body and mind to make the transition from pregnancy and birth to motherhood.

That concept feels like something everybody should have from day one.

Absolutely. The concept places importance on caring for the mother and recognizes that she needs time.  Most importantly, it establishes a system where she’s not supposed to do it all by herself, which is a big contrast to many western cultures where those support structures typically aren’t valued.

Most importantly, it establishes a system where she’s not supposed to do it all by herself, which is a big contrast to many western cultures where those support structure typically aren’t valued.

Do you feel like that early experience better prepared you for stepping into your role as a mother once you no longer had the support of the postpartum nanny?

I definitely felt very well rested at the end of the month, so mentally and physically I felt ready, but I also felt a lot of anxiety about no longer having somebody with me and being alone with the baby for the first time. These nannies have a lot of experience with babies, so I learned a lot from them. Overall, I felt both ready to be more active and also scared about no longer having that support.

Nighttime is a great example.  She was with the baby at night and would bring him to my room to breastfeed.  After feeding she would burp him, change his diaper if needed, and soothe him back to sleep. Sometimes I would just pump at night and leave the milk out for her to feed to him.

I should also say that while the concept of having this postpartum support sounds nice, I do feel like it's not necessarily an experience for everyone.  There’s a huge level of trust and letting go that’s needed to welcome a stranger into your home at such a raw time in your life.  The first nanny we contracted with fell through and we had to hire someone we’d never met at the last minute, and then trust them to take care of our most precious person, so that experience might not be right for everyone.

I didn't realize she was with you at night – that’s amazing. Is this something that you always thought you would do?

I really didn't know much about it growing up. I learned about it from a friend who had her baby three years before me.  She lives in Southern California, which has a very robust Asian community, so I think it’s a more common practice there. 

Luckily where I live in the Bay Area of California, there’s enough of an Asian and Chinese community that we were able to find this type of service from local newspapers and word of mouth.  I know it can be hard to find one of these nannies in other parts of the country.

How has that early experience of seeing that you can’t do it all by yourself – or maybe that you’re not meant to do it all by yourself – stuck with you in your experience as a working mom?

I’ve always approached motherhood with the mindset that it's okay to not do it all. I don’t feel like I need to do everything by myself in order to prove my value and worth.  I don't know where I got that mindset from, but somehow the narrative that it’s all my responsibility just wasn't one that I ever subscribed to.

When it came time to return to work, I felt very comfortable getting help, whether it was with childcare through my mom or sending my child to daycare, and I think it’s because I found the transition to motherhood to be one of my biggest challenges from an identity perspective. I had experienced an identify shift when I got married, considering whether I should take my husband’s surname or keep my own, and gaining a new perspective on who I was in relation to my family and the family I was marrying into, but in comparison, motherhood was a huge identity shift. Part of my journey with that new identity has been figuring out how motherhood informs my identity.  I knew I didn't want it to be a fulltime mom because as with anything, it's temporary. One day the kids will grow up and not need me as much, and if I define myself entirely as a mother, it's going to bite me someday, just like if I were to put all my value into what I do for my daytime job. So I think part of that transition was deciding who I am in terms of all the different pieces that make up my identity, and perhaps that contributes to feeling like I don’t have to do everything on my own as a mother, because it doesn’t consume my identity.

I’ve always approached motherhood with the mindset that it's okay to not do it all. I don’t feel like I need to do everything by myself in order to prove my value and worth.  I don't know where I got that mindset from, but somehow the narrative that it’s all my responsibility just wasn't one that I ever subscribed to.

Now that you're out of the intense baby phase, what are some of your biggest challenges as a mom trying to integrate motherhood and a job outside the home?

My biggest challenge has been staying present with my kids, especially my older one.  I feel like when a child is very young, they naturally demand more attention. You can't really multitask, and there’s something satisfying about giving them that undivided attention and forgetting about everything else in the moment of being present with them.  I feel like as my kids get older, it's harder for me to stay present because at the end of the day I really crave my own time too. I crave a mental escape. I've been struggling with really focusing on playtime and that bonding when I feel I need my own time in order to show up as a happy, effective parent.

I feel like as my kids get older, it's harder for me to stay present because at the end of the day I really crave my own time too. I crave a mental escape.

What are your hopes and dreams for yourself these days as a working mom?

My approach to life has always been that when I reach the end of my life I don’t want to look back and regret my decisions. When I think about myself in retirement and older age, I think what will feel most satisfying to me and what lasts isn’t looks or money or anything like that, but rather the relationships I have with people.  If I can feel good looking at my family and if I feel like I've raised a happy and loving family, that is success for me.

I feel like at the end of the day, we're all going be retirees at some point. We're in this marathon of life and we’re all going to the same place ultimately.  Some people may have had very glamorous lives, some may have gone down very career-oriented paths, but I feel like we're all going to land in the same spot, and so what type of journey do I want along the way? That’s something I think more and more about as we get closer to the finish line.

Any words of wisdom for the moms coming after us?

I really believe there's no right or wrong way to be a parent, and moms especially need to be able to define what’s right for them and their particular family situation. There are a lot of strong opinions out there, and schools of thought about how you should parent, but each of us has a different lived experience, a different background and a unique family situation and that informs how we parent. There’s a unique motherhood journey for each of us and we need to find what works for us and then live to our own values.

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