As a proud Chinese-American and daughter to immigrant parents, I decided to try the Asian tradition of confinement after giving birth to my daughter, Ava. I wanted to connect with my roots, but admittedly I was a bit skeptical of all the benefits my mom and relatives were raving about. As it turns out, it was one of the best months of my life.
But let me back up. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, confinement is pretty close to what it sounds like. For one full month after giving birth, the mother is confined to the house with her baby so she can properly rest and heal during the most crucial period of recovery. The Chinese call it zuo yue zi, which means “to sit a month.” In addition, the mother must also follow a very strict diet. “Confinement meals” are prepared during the month, and postpartum mothers must only eat what is given and nothing else. This age-old tradition dates back to year 960 and is still very commonly practiced in Asia.
Here’s the best part: You get a pui yuet, or a companion of the month, aka confinement nanny. Your pui yuet doesn’t just take care of the baby, feeding it, soothing it and changing diapers. She takes care of YOU too. Sometimes a close female relative performs the role, but you can also hire a professional. Your pui yuet lives with you for the month, and she prepares all meals for you, washes laundry, cleans baby bottles and toys, develops a routine for the baby, and helps track the baby’s feedings and bowel movements, so that you don’t have to stress over it yourself.
The meals she cooks are incredibly healthy but filling—whole grains, lean proteins, steamed vegetables, minimal salt and oil, and tons of fluids and soups. This part may sound a bit crazy, but since mothers aren’t supposed to use tap water for bathing during confinement, she also prepares a special ginger-infused bath water for you. When else in your adult life will someone else take care of you and your child completely? It was a dream come true.
Here’s what it meant for me: I walked into my home from the hospital with food ready on the table. I sat down to eat a real meal; clean and simple, healthy and light, but nourishing at the same time. While I enjoyed my first meal at home, my confinement nanny took the baby and handled everything. I can’t stress enough how crucial this was for my mental health. New moms go through SO much during birth and the first week home. My pui yuet made this time less lonely for me. I felt like I had a teammate who was guiding and cheering me on the whole time, while making sure I felt as comfortable and relaxed as possible. I felt like she was my family. I can’t even imagine going through this whole process without her and not having a breakdown. My body also felt really good. I felt energized, strong and comfortable every day, something you don’t usually hear from postpartum moms.
As for that ginger bath, all I can say is, after each bath, my skin felt incredibly smooth, my body felt energized and my face was glowing. The hot ginger water left a tingly sensation on my skin that made me feel great from head to toe, as if someone just gave me a great scrubdown. It felt like I walked out of a spa.
And here’s what it means for working moms: Confinement allowed me to fully heal and rest. By the time I finished my 3-month maternity leave, I felt fully recharged and ready to go back to work. I wasn't sleep deprived, overwhelmed or undernourished like many new moms trying to juggle everything on their own. This also meant I was always in good spirits when I was with the baby, making my mommy duties enjoyable. My husband got plenty of sleep as well, and we both got to enjoy our time with the baby. (Admittedly, he missed going out with me, since I was confined to the house, and he missed eating meals with me, since I had my own special diet.)
All in all, my postpartum period was a breeze, and I enjoyed every minute of it. How many new moms can say that? Even my husband credited my sanity and his to our confinement nanny. Seriously, this is something that every new mom should incorporate into her first postpartum month. There are plenty of books out there on how to prepare parents for a baby, but there really isn’t enough focus on the most important part of the equation—the wellbeing of the mother. She needs to be comfortable, happy and healthy, and that means we should do everything we can to make sure new moms have a great postnatal experience the second they step out of the hospital.
If you can’t splurge on a pui yuet, or don’t have a family member who can perform the role, you can still practice some basic tenets of confinement: Enlist help. Eat well. Go easy on yourself. Soak your feet in ginger-infused water or even give yourself a quick facial by simply heating a towel with ginger-infused water and laying it over your face. At the very least, light some candles, take a long shower and give yourself a little “me time.” You’ll need it, and more importantly, you deserve it. —As told to Audrey Goodson Kingo
Chef Kathy Fang is the co-owner and executive chef of Fang Restaurant, located in San Francisco’s SoMA district. She has appeared on a number of Food Network shows, including Cutthroat Kitchen and Guy’s Grocery Games, and she has two wins on Chopped. Apart from her role as a successful chef, restaurateur and formidable culinary competitor, Chef Kathy is the author of a lifestyle website KathyFang.com, and she offers quick, easy and healthy recipes on her YouTube channel.