One of the most difficult things about new motherhood is how isolating it can be. You get tons of attention when you’re pregnant, and your birth is a long-awaited, celebrated event. But after a few days in the hospital, you’re suddenly off on your own. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a partner or family member who can stay with you for a day, or maybe a couple of weeks (and that’s if you’re even afforded enough maternity leave to be home at all).
But many moms don’t have more than a few days of help (if that), and pretty much have to figure out how to care for a baby and adjust to motherhood all on their own. It’s no wonder so many mothers end up feeling lost and defeated — or why a startling number of us sink into episodes of depression and anxiety.
The thing is, the way we handle the postpartum period in America is culturally specific, and in many cultures around the world, new mothers have a strikingly different postpartum experience: they are fed, pampered, and cared for by everyone in their community. (No, I’m not talking about some fairytale — I’m talking about real life here.)
In fact, just a few hundred years ago, this is how things were done in America, too. According to The Daily Beast, Colonial women were given a “lying in” period of 3 to 4 weeks to recover, and women in their communities would come to coddle them and help them transition into motherhood.
Pretty amazing, huh?
The good news is, traditions like this are still alive and well throughout the world, and even in some pockets of America thanks to many thriving sub-cultures. And now, a new book is highlighting that in a unique way.
It’s called From Mothers to Mother: A Collection of Traditional Asian Postpartum Recipes, and it’s a compilation of postpartum recipes from six different Asian cultures (Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Hmong, Cambodian, and Filipino).
The editors, Khanh Hoa Thi Nguyen and Marilyn P. Wong, MD, are both Asian-American themselves, and spent two years interviewing hundreds of grandmothers, aunts, and other relatives in an effort to preserve their recipes and traditions surrounding the postpartum period.
As NPR reports, Nguyen, at the time a second-year student at UC Berkeley, had the idea for the book when she went to visit her sister who had recently given birth. She noticed that her mother was cooking foods that she had never cooked before — giant pots of traditional Vietnamese postpartum soups. As she shared with NPR, this aspect of her family history was something she would not have known about had she not been visiting home at that moment, and it sparked the idea that perhaps other Asian families in her area had similar traditions.
After interviewing hundreds of Asian-American families in California, she and Dr. Wong (a retired physician) found that there were many varied, specific recipes across different Asian cultures, all associated with the postpartum period. Many of these recipes were passed on orally from generation to generation, and weren’t recorded in cookbooks anywhere else. Preserving them was one of the goals the authors had in writing the book.
And Dr. Wong explained that selected foods weren’t just arbitrary: they actually have nutritional properties that can do postpartum women a world a good, both for healing from childbirth and establishing a good milk supply.
For example, Chinese culture has a long-standing tradition of serving braised pigs’ feet with ginger and vinegar to their new moms — and it’s all for one very specific reason.
“The vinegar probably leeches out the calcium from the bones. That’s what you need, the calcium,” Dr. Wong told NPR. “Women will have loss of bone mass from breastfeeding. In the old times, they could not verbalize it that way, but they knew that women who did this did better than women who didn’t.”
But aside from the great healing properties found in each recipe, the authors tell NPR that the most beneficial part of these traditions is really a simple one: They emphasize the importance of caring for new moms and draw the whole community together to do so.
“The whole village would be there and people would be cooking and taking care of your baby,” said Wong, describing the postpartum practices in pre-industrial China. “The mothers were really pampered.”
Doesn’t this sound just divine? Of course, it’s not just because of the fact that the moms were “pampered,” but the fact that their experience in the postpartum period was given attention and weight. As it damn well should, if you ask me.
Think about it: Your body has gone through a major transformation after giving birth. It’s a big myth that women should just “bounce back” right away. In fact, it takes at least six weeks for your uterus to shrink back to its normal size, and some even say it takes up to a year to fully recover from childbirth. Not only that, but your hormones are shifting all over the place, you aren’t sleeping, and many women are learning to breastfeed, which requires more support and time than many realize.
I think (and hope) that the tide is slowly changing when it comes to postpartum support for new moms. Many are speaking out about it and realizing that something needs to give. And perhaps learning how other cultures have done it throughout history, and even today, will both inspire us and give us a strong model for how it can be done here in the future.
From Mothers to Mothers is now available in-store and online at Eastwind Books in Berkeley, California, for $16.95.