In China, after giving birth, women must stay in bed for a full month. Typically, there are a number of rules that dictate this period of one month called zuo yue zi, or “sitting the month.”
Some of the common rules include:
- Only leaving the bed when absolutely necessary; definitely not walking around for extended amounts of time
- Always making sure the entire body (including the head) is clothed, preferably in multiple layers, to prevent the body from getting cold— (one of the worst things you could do in the crucial month)
- Avoiding foods that are “cold”, like watermelon, lotus root, and cucumbers, and only eating “warming” foods like ginger, sea cucumber, and chicken
But Alice wouldn’t need to follow any of these rules. Western women didn’t do it. Her husband’s mother went straight back to washing and cleaning and feeding four children; and so, she wouldn’t do it either. Her mother offered detailed horror stories of new mothers who rebelled.
“She didn’t believe in zuo yue zi, so she started cleaning and cooking a week after labor, and after a while, her vagina was feeling very heavy, so she went to the doctor…” her mother paused. “The doctor said that if she had come any later, her uterus would have fallen out of her.”
Alice reacted the way she knew her mother wanted her to, but still, she maintained that either this was definitely an exaggeration… or, at the very least, it would not happen to her. So her mother continued, with stories of women who suffered from arthritis and migraines caused by the wind of a ceiling fan, or swollen finger joints from postpartum dish-washing.
Alice, too, knew her body would change— she was acutely aware of her distended tummy, the dark brown stretch marks that cradled the belly— and made up her mind to be a fruitarian after birth.
The day after the birth, the mother went to the wet market and bought two fresh fish that were netted, gilled, and scrubbed of their scales in front of her. The morning was spent making a four-hour roiling opaque broth. She brought the ambrosia to the hospital in a metal canister safely encased in a heat-retaining bag. The soup would enable the swift recovery of her first-born daughter, and it would nourish the new baby; from this soup, an abundance of mother’s milk would spring.
But her daughter had no appetite. When she opened the canister, the hospital cubicle smelled like a warm, dirty ocean. She drank a third of it and refused any more. She ate an apricot instead.
The ambrosia went cold and lost its potency.
The scientific understanding of zuo yue zi is, in theory, quite simple. The postpartum body, having just gone through a tremendous hardship, is extremely vulnerable to the slightest change in surrounding, and must take time to recover. The grandmother would tend to the daughter in this crucial month. It was how it had worked for millennia, a tradition passed on through generations of Chinese women— each generation caring, tending to, cooking for, and cleaning after the new mother.
Alice was already up and about, tidying the apartment, tending to the newborn, folding her husband’s clothes. The mother didn’t understand. She was there precisely to do all these things for Alice, but Alice refused.
“Christian said that his mother started working right away,” she said, parroting her husband.
The mother scoffed. Her Western, German mother-in-law. She would’ve begged for this treatment had her own mother been so caring.
So she made more soup. The fish wasn’t popular so she swapped it out for chicken. The next day it was pork trotters, made of wiggly collagen that would improve Alice’s skin. Out of each fresh pot made, she watched her daughter drink two thirds of a bowl. The newborn cried a lot, even when suckling. Her daughter pumped breast milk on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and on Saturday there wasn’t enough. She caved and bought two tins of formula.
“You need this soup”, she told her daughter. “You’ll only have milk if you drink soup.”
Alice ate a pear.
The baby was still crying often, always hungry, suckling on Alice’s teat till it was raw. She was almost underweight, the doctor told her.
“You won’t produce milk if you don’t chug that soup,” he said.
The mother gloated; she practically radiated. I told you so, I told you so.
Later in the week, Alice’s joints started to hurt. Her fingers felt stiff after washing the baby’s clothes. After a long day of chores, she felt a strange, throbbing, aching pull between her legs. And Alice suddenly remembered:
“…Her uterus would have fallen out of her.”
Two fat peaches sat on the kitchen countertop, ripened to burst; her planned dinner for the night. One had a bruise. Liquid gathered on the surface of the slightly flat, light brown spot. A pot of soup was on the stove, boiling for the second time. When she scooped out a spoonful, a blubbery squelching slab of meat plopped into the bowl.
When Alice sat on the toilet later that night, she felt the tug again. She imagined that same square of meat drop out of her into the toilet.