Confinement Lady Unrest
Updated: Aug 10
I thought getting a traditional confinement lady to take care of me in the first postpartum month would set me up to a good start into motherhood. Meh.
confinement noun UK /kənˈfaɪn.mənt/ US /kənˈfaɪn.mənt/ - the situation in which a person or animal is kept somewhere, usually by force -old-fashioned or formal labour noun uk (= the process of giving birth to a baby)
In many Chinese speaking countries going into confinement refers to the traditional 30 days postpartum rest period a woman takes to recuperate from the stresses of giving birth. It used to be an older female relative, like a mother or grandmother, taking care of the new mom and sometimes if the former was too weak the newborn. In the olden days mandolins, as well as older Chinese female relatives, were more readily available. Nowadays it’s quite common to hire a confinement lady. In an ideal scenario, she’s a skilful cook who knows to make traditional Chinese medicine soups edible. On top of that, she is a bit of a nanny and has good bedside manners. Worst case scenario, she is all your bossy and overbearing aunts and nans rolled into one and will drive you into postnatal depression. I was somewhere between those two.
When I was pregnant I read this Sassy Mama article in which a Western woman has hired a confinement lady to care for her twenty-four seven. They got along splendidly. It was perfect. Being cared for by a woman who was fluent in newborn, could cook you recovery food and give some guidance if needed and most importantly if wanted. That is why it never occurred to me to ask my mother or my mother-in-law to be my confinement companion. Firstly, the last time they intensively cared for a newborn was more than thirty years ago. Secondly, it is easier to disagree with someone who is getting paid by you as with someone who lounges higher up the Asian family hierarchy.
We started interviewing for a confinement lady two months before my due date. Most people will tell you to have a CL confirmed six months prior. I did not do much research and just called someone called Wah Tze who came highly recommended by a mommy acquaintance. “She cannot speak English very well, but the food she cooks is delicious. I hired her for both of my kids. Can you speak a bit of Cantonese? No? But your husband, right? Then you should be fine.” We met Wah Tze at our local Starbucks and I liked her immediately. She was radiating the warmth of Mrs Doubtfire while being as cheerful as Mrs Potts from Beauty and the Beast. Of course, Wah Tze was taken already. That is why she brought her friend Grace, another confinement lady.
The whole interview was conducted in Cantonese. All I did was trying to catch non-verbal clues about Grace’s character, hydrate and go to the loo. Grace was less cuddly than Wah Tze. She was the slim vase to Wah Tze Potts. Grace seemed confident and competent and after a while, it looked like she was interviewing Kai. It has been going on for a while and I’ve been to the loo three times already “There is something you should understand about the way I work. When you need me but do not want me, then I must stay,” subtitles in my head provided by Nanny McPhee.
We decided to give it a go with Grace. Her English was passable and she assured me that I would call the shots. If I did not want to eat caramelised pickled eggs or bathe in ginger water every day all I had to do was to let her know and those things would be off the CL menu. We were all set and felt well prepared. Maybe we were radiating too much prenatal smugness as the fruit of my womb felt there was no reason to be suspended in amniotic fluid any longer and was ready to greet the world ten days before due date.
Unfortunately, Grace was still contracted by another family and she sent us a substitute CL, Ida, for the first week at home with the baby. Kai had to again explain to the new CL who barely spoke a word of English what was important to me: I wanted to care for the baby, she cares for me and maybe for the baby if I’ll let go, I’m not really into traditional treatments but open when it comes to food stuff.
So the positive bit first: the substitute was a great cook. Unfortunately, she tried to stick to her definition of what a good CL was like and what was within her scope of authority and disregarding my gweilo needs. It was clear from the beginning that she was a bit of a novice. From day one, Ida kept doing the same cardinal mistake: coming between a mama bear and her cub. She kept trying to take Dex away from me so that I could rest when all I wanted to hold this small life bundle in my arms, take in his smell and look into his big clear clueless eyes. Yes, I was exhausted but still running on postpartum adrenaline. The other maternal hormones were raging as well and the only people who could take Dex without pushing my feral button were my husband Kai and my sister Alba. And those two never dared to lean in unannounced and take the baby off me.
But that’s what she did. She would swoop into my field of vision, take Dex and tell me to rest. Initially, I was intimidated as she had cared for so many babies and Dex was my first and probably only. So I would go to bed, trying to rest and ending up crying because I was missing my baby in the other room so much. It got so bad that the following day I waited for the CL to go to the loo and I scooped up Dex in this Moses basket and fled into the master bedroom. Dex was comfortable sleeping on my chest and I was finally content…. Until the Ida came in to check on us. She tried to explain to me that Dex should not be lying on my chest due to the risk of SIDS. I said it was fine and waved her off. She did not agree and kept coming in every 10 minutes to make sure the baby would not die on my watch. I knew she meant well but I so NEEDED the quality bonding time with my little squirmy former uterine passenger. Unfortunately, Ida just could not read the room.
Another side effect of all the hormones was that I felt hot all the time. I was probably experiencing heat flashes of ten menopausal women and could only bear to wear a sleeveless nursing top and light cotton PJ bottoms. Yet Ida was insisting I cover kept my shoulders covered. According to traditional Chinese medicine women in confinement should avoid everything cold as it would slow their recovery and weaken their immune system. But clearly, I was so hot I was cancelling out the air conditioner in the room. I kept telling her that I felt uncomfortable. She just nodded and tried to cover me like I was accumulating dust. By day three she talked to Kai and told him that I was basically harming myself and no wonder I was only producing so little milk if I exposed my shoulders to the elements.
“I can’t stand her,” I texted my mommies’ Whatsapp group. “I know it was my idea to hire a confinement lady but we just don’t get along.” I got lots of kiss and heart emojis as replies. “You are paying her, you’re the boss, “ wrote Nathalie who has given birth a week before me. “I really like my confinement lady but she treats my helper like a servant. Had to tell her to cut it out.” This was a true mama bear. “You're lucky,” I typed back, “you’ve got a common language. My CL only calls Dex by his Chinese name because she thinks his English name sounds weird. *angry emoji* And although Kai told her in Cantonese already how we like things for Dex and me to be done, she still tries to convince Kai of her way. *cry emoji*”
Another big emotional support was my sister Alba. She would try to pop by every second day and see how I was doing. “What’s that?” I asked pointing at the paper cup she was holding when she came into my room around 8 am. “A chocolate mocha.” “Gimme,” I hissed and she quickly checked if Kai was in the vicinity who to this day believes that caffeine will only taint my moo juice. I passed Alba some hand disinfectant. She passed me the cup to put some disinfectant on her hands and I handed over her slightly puzzled looking nephew. After a big gulp, I leaned back into the pillows. The sweet taste of a far gone normality.
We heard Ida coming through the front-door and carrying bags of groceries. The door behind her was not shut yet and she yelled: “Jou san bebi!” Good morning, baby. She did that every morning with no regard if the baby was sleeping or not. I do not know why she had to inject so much over the top vociferous enthusiasm in a household which was clearly attempting to be a nest of peace and quiet like a library. Even Jane Austen's Mrs. Bennett could have not been more been more exuberant when she announced that Netherfield was let a last.
Alba noticed me tensing up. “She clearly makes you anxious. Why don't you just send her away?” poking the vein which just popped up on my temple. “Three more days,” I said like it was a mantra. “Three more days and the other CL will be here and all will be well.” My sister sighed and probably resolved to be more sane when she would become a mom.
On Ida's last day I almost felt generously good-natured like the living who won't speak ill of the departed. And she was about to depart, just a few papers needed to be signed and the remainder of wages to be paid. Before she left she asked if we could take a picture of her with Dex because he was so cute. Although I was not keen for her to add a pic of Dex on her portfolio or her Facebook page, I wanted to offer a her a gesture of goodwill. I was grateful after all: She took care of my baby boy, she prepared nourishing food, I did not have to do any dishes. And in all the monotony of barely sleeping, worrying and caring for a newborn baby, her leaving gave me something to look forward to.