New-mom traditions from around the world: Cuarentena and "doing the month."

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 11 2011 8:22 PM

Why Won't This New Mom Wash Her Hair?

The fascinating postpartum customs of women from around the world.

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Some journal articles urge cultural sensitivity: Let's make sure, they reasonably exhort, that Latin American women can cover their heads in the hospital and that Chinese women are not served ice water. At the same time, as even some of these ambassadors of pluralism agree, elements of each tradition may carry risks. In the cuarentena, there is concern that wrapping the abdomen too tightly with a faja could occlude blood vessels. The alcohol in rice wine involved in doing-the-month can get into breast milk. One study found that staying indoors could cause vitamin D deficiency and rickets in women and babies. Rest is good, but too little activity can be problematic, as can the restrictions on bathing.

Observers have tended to assume that the customs protect against postpartum depression, but the evidence is inconclusive. A meta-review of studies of doing-the-month found no clear protective effect, and in some cases a negative one, particularly when mothers-in-law were the primary caretakers (imagine your opinionated MIL or bossy aunt camped out in your guest room for a month). In researcher Lisa Waugh's study of Mexican-American mothers, the subjects expressed appreciation for the cuarentena, but also anxiety about the perils their mothers invoked. Like any tradition, it can be both comforting and constricting, and plenty of women pluck the parts they like and discard the rest.

Americans who hear about the customs seem to be most envious of the support womenreceive from relatives. Familial tensions notwithstanding, many women in studies (and in my informal survey) are very grateful for the help—with everything from laundry to child-care coaching—they receive. Yet this aspect may be eroding, as immigration separates family members, and as traditions inevitably fade in a new country. Another twist is a move toward institutional arrangements. In Taiwan, pricey hotel-like "doing-the-month centers" have become popular among affluent women.

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There are a number of such centers in Los Angeles, like the one that was recently busted. In January, I visited one of these. Smaller than the one that closed, it housed five women and their husbands and babies. In a ground-floor nursery, five carriages were lined up against the wall. Older Chinese women staffed the center, cooking, cleaning, and showing the new mothers how to change diapers. In addition to foreign visitors, these centers typically also serve immigrants who have no family in the area—or who prefer a center and can afford it.

Evelyn's cuarentena may be a quintessentially modern example. Her mother and two of her sisters live nearby, but they haven't had time to offer much assistance. Her husband does what he can, helping to clean and picking up Chinese food. While he's at work, her help meet is her 7-year-old daughter, watching the Disney show Suite Life on Deck in the bedroom and drawing, but ready to answer the door for guests like me and fetch bottles of ibuprofen for her mother. The newborn is calm for the duration of my visit, either nursing or asleep, her only motion to yawn charmingly.

Despite the tranquil scene, Evelyn says, "I never rest like I'm supposed to rest." As for the other aspects, she is resolute about abstinence (to her husband's half-mock chagrin), but otherwise less strict. Her version of a faja—traditionally made of cotton or muslin cloth—is a pair of lycra stretch pants. Although she hasn't washed her hair yet, she's confessed that she may cave any day, overriding her grandmother's admonitions. After all, she has to go out in public to shop for groceries; her grandmother didn't.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a writer in Somerville, Mass.