Baby Boom: Wealthy Asian Moms 'Sit the Month' in Style
For a woman who gave birth three weeks ago — for anyone, really — Tsai Ya-hui looks immoderately rested. Since arriving from the delivery room, the 29-year-old has seldom left this sleek, minimalist suite that looks over the manicured green of Taipei Municipal Stadium. She stretches out contentedly in two-piece pink pajamas, nearly pitching a laptop from the unmade queen bed. A flat-screen television fixed to the wall broadcasts an image of her swaddled, squirming newborn, who, down the hallway in the nursing station, is the target of a small surveillance camera. Does Tsai ever change the channel? "Never," she says. "Except for when I want to watch a movie."
The Chinese practice of postpartum confinement (zuo yuezi in Mandarin, or "sitting the month") dates back in literature to the 1st century B.C. And yet it is still observed, with contemporary adjustments, by millions of women across the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. There are no definitive guidelines, but new mothers traditionally spend the 30-odd days after childbirth indoors, focused on warmth and the restoration of energy. They avoid cold, raw foods said to delay the shrinking of the uterus and instead consume lactation-stimulating soups and dishes laced with additives. Typically, a woman's mother-in-law assumes the role of caregiver, tending to the baby and preparing meals. But as disposable incomes have swelled, so too has the market for luxury confinement centers and first-rate doulas. A booming industry has sprung up around the custom in recent years, ushering it into modernity — and into vogue.
Tsai has been sitting the month in style at Baby Moon, a three-year-old confinement center with the feel of a boutique hotel. A pack of staffers in pink cardigans and ponytails wait at the reception desk, ready to lead guests to a cushy lounge. Across the corridor, in 20 rooms that range from $200 to $330 per day, new mothers enjoy nights of uninterrupted sleep. In addition to classes on personal and infant care, there are spa and salon services available. The women are visited biweekly by doctors, have their bellies bound with postnatal girdles and take meals on white-linened food carts. They see their children when the mood strikes and — if they so choose — to breast-feed. For most of the day and night, the babies are attended to by a team of nurses. The center is booked solid for over six months.
Hiring a stay-at-home confinement lady, as they are called, is another way to escape the madness. In Hong Kong, the demand for skilled doulas has spurred an upswing in postpartum training courses offered by the government, NGOs, employment agencies and retired nurses. The Kwun Tong Methodist Social Service (KTMSS) was the first to recruit middle-aged women, instruct them — for a fee — in postnatal care and cuisine, and dispatch them to the homes of fatigued mothers. A month's worth of round-the-clock work — doula sleeps when baby sleeps — costs about $4,115, a percentage of which goes to the KTMSS. The organization serves 500 families a year, up from 100 in 2003; Wong Wai-leng, one of its most seasoned postnatal helpers, is reserved until late next summer.
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