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.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

"It's about food, about sex, about rest." Evelyn, a 34-year-old Dominican immigrant who recently gave birth, is explaining the Latin American custom called la cuarentena ("quarantine"). It's a 40-day postpartum period during which mothers recuperate from labor and bond with their babies. Minutes earlier, her bouncy 7-year-old daughter let me into their apartment, on the second floor of a two-story house on the outskirts of Boston. With delicately pretty features and a thick ponytail, Evelyn (who prefers to withhold her last name) is the picture of new maternity: Her black-haired infant is wrapped in a pink fleece blanket and planted at her breast.

Her summary makes the cuarentena sound like a hedonist's dream, until she elaborates: food, sex, and rest are subject to a constellation of taboos and prescriptions. Sex is a no-no. Rest is mandated and traditionally facilitated by female relatives who take over errands and chores. Foods are divided into the approved (carrots, chicken soup) and the forbidden (spicy and heavy fare). The new mother's body is considered vulnerable or "open," and to protect herself, she must cover her head and neck with garments and wrap her abdomen in a cloth called a faja; she might also avoid washing her hair. Many women believe that proper observance leads to good health in old age, while lapses incur all sorts of problems, from headaches now to illness later in life. They would no sooner skip the cuarentena than a Park Slope mom would prepare her toddler sippy cups of Coke.

Versions of the tradition are practiced throughout most of Latin America. In much of Asia, an uncannily similar custom with entirely different origins, known as "doing the month," is widely observed. In the United States, immigrants and their children carry on these rituals to varying degrees. Last month, a "birthing center" in Los Angeles, which served Asian tourists who came to give birth to U.S. citizens, made news when it was shut down for building code violations. Part of the center's role was to provide accommodations for clients to "do the month." So where do these postpartum rituals come from and are they good for new moms?

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Researchers have traced the cuarentena's history back to the Bible. A passage in Leviticus stipulates 40 days of purification after the birth of a son (double for a daughter). As in menstruation, the woman is considered ritually unclean during this time and is barred from entering the sanctuary. In Europe and America, the "lying-in" period may have had the same roots, but that practice died out long ago. Presumably it was a colonial import to Latin America, where it survived and evolved to include the other rules and beliefs.

Despite its beginnings—which suggest that a woman may be more in danger of contaminating her surroundings than vice versa—its more recent incarnation has been widely seen as a sign of motherhood's high status in Latin American countries. Anthropologist Kate Masley hypothesizes a link between the ritual and the so-called Latina paradox, which refers to the unexpectedly good birth outcomes (relative to socioeconomic levels) enjoyed by Latina mothers in the United States. While postpartum activities cannot, of course, retroactively affect the birth outcome, Masley believes the two reflect the same culture of care and support. One 1998 study likewise concluded that the ritual "instills parental responsibility, incorporates individuals into the family, and integrates the family."

In China, "doing the month" emerged independently in the Sung Dynasty. The tradition comes from Chinese medicine, which promotes a balance between yin and yang in the body. According to this system, giving birth disrupts that balance, and the mother must restore it by consuming food classified as yang, such as chicken, ginger, eggs, and rice wine. Women are supposed to avoid cold water, as well as bamboo shoots and turnips, all yin. Other frowned-upon activities include going outside, bathing, and brushing teeth. Scholars have speculated that these last two prohibitions arose at a time when water was likely to carry diseases.

Are these rituals beneficial for moms and their babies? Academics and health professionals offer a mixed bag of verdicts—reflecting the eclecticism of the customs' components, which range from the eminently sensible to the harmless to the ill-advised.

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