When I was delivering homemade soups and smoothies to the doorsteps of new mothers around Los Angeles I would sometimes be invited in for a brief chat. Most were bleary eyed and frazzled, rocking their small bundles in their milk-stained t-shirts. I would follow them into the kitchen and the number one thing I would hear as I warmed them some soup or a cup of tea was, "I didn't think it would be this hard."
Postpartum is hard - especially when the effort of pregnancy and birth is not acknowledged and when space isn't made for proper rest and recovery. Contrary to how it looks in most western countries, where women casually tote their newborns to grocery stores, parks, even business meetings just weeks after birth, growing a baby and delivering that baby into the world are feats requiring a massive amount of physical, mental and emotional fortitude. During pregnancy a woman's body must go through a stunning transformation. Her blood volume will nearly double to support the growing foetus, her organs will be pushed to the side by an expanding uterus, her breasts will swell in preparation for lactation and her hormones will rise and dip exponentially. And those nine months of gestation may also require her to endure a grab bag of discomforts like haemorrhoids, sciatica, acne, constipation and insomnia. Throughout the process she may feel sparks of happy anticipation or heavy-hearted and unsure about the unknown territory into which she is headed.
And then there's birth. Whether she delivers by an unmedicated vaginal birth, a medicated vaginal birth, or a C-section, the effort will be herculean, unlike any physical or emotional challenge she has faced to date - unless she's already had a baby, that is. Giving birth requires a mother to push herself light years past her own limitations. She will be skyrocketed out of her comfort zone into a foreign land that demands strength, stamina, resilience and a shocking amount of trust - that her body really is designed to do this, that her tiny, yet-to-be-born baby is tough enough to handle all that pushing, gripping, and squeezing, and that this is an event that will eventually be over (those 35-hour labourers know exactly what I'm talking about). Along the way she'll discover a crystal clear truth that she'll lean on during the other heart-wrenching, body-challenging experiences that will inevitably come her way during the course of her life: the only way out is through.
The postpartum period is considered to be the roughly six-week period when a woman recovers from the magnitude of pregnancy and birth. It is also the wild, messy, tender, achy, exhilarating time when a woman begins the process of shedding one way of being for an entirely new identity. It is a fleeting, essential moment, a powerful pause before the full initiation of the next chapter of her life. But in a society that encourages a new mother to "bounce back," right after birth, a woman is pushed to do the opposite of resting and recovering; she is encouraged to get back to a version of her body and her life that is gone forever. She has been forever transformed by the profound act of making another human being and requires care and attention before hurtling forward.
I was inspired to support new mothers with fresh, homemade food after my own experience with zuo yuezi, the ancient Chinese art of "sitting the month." During this time a circle of women surrounds the new mother; her mother, mother-in-law, aunts, sisters, cousins or neighbours come together to take responsibilities off her plate and to keep her sustained with a special diet of warming, rejuvenating foods that encourage healing and promote lactation. The tenets of zuo yuezi are simple and universal: From India to Mexico, from Russia to Indonesia to the Ivory Coast and beyond, similar cultural codes say that a new mother is to be encircled with support for 21 or 30 or 40 days to focus on replenishing, resting and nursing her newborn. Most importantly, she is never to be left alone. The first weeks after giving birth can be blissful, but they can also be lonely, stressful, exhausting and nutritionally lacking - four factors that can contribute to postpartum depression. Time-honoured protocols like zuo yuezi have protected new mothers' wellbeing and ensured baby's best start for eons. It's a far cry from what most first-world women - especially in the U.S., the only developed nation with no mandatory maternity leave - experience today.
My hope is that we can remember this lost art of mothering the mother, creating a softer landing for new mothers everywhere.
Heng Ou's new book The First 40 Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) is out now.