I was 38 weeks pregnant with my first baby and ready to finish my last day of work. Because I live in Malaysia, even my American colleagues were familiar with the concept of confinement. Some more than others.
“So is confinement like house arrest?,'' one of my colleagues asked me.
I laughed. “No! It’s more like staying indoors with baby and having lots of support.” For 40 days. There those who manage 100 days. It’s a low expectation time where the focus is on the new mother bonding with her baby and recovering from birth. Family members and/or live-in helpers take care of everything else – cooking, cleaning, laundry, and looking after other children.
I love how in Malaysia, confinement is the cultural norm across the different ethnicities here. I followed a more or less Malay version as I was inspired by my mother’s good health after having six children. She followed the confinement tradition after giving birth to each of us in Singapore.
“No! It’s more like staying indoors with baby and having lots of support.”
Even though I grew up in Sydney, my reverse migration back to Malaysia solidified my decision to adhere to postpartum confinement just like my mother did.
I followed a special confinement diet consisting of freshly cooked rice, stir-fried vegetables and chicken, fish or beef cooked in ginger. I added an Australian twist by having a lot of oats, and by not completely staying indoors because even introverts like me need fresh air. The wisdom behind postpartum confinement diet has to do with consuming foods which help with postpartum recovery and breastmilk production. Cold foods can cause ‘masuk angin’, or wind invasion, which can slow down recovery and affect breastmilk supply.
For all three of my postpartum recoveries, I hired a confinement lady to help massage me and help bind my belly with herbal wrap. The concept behind belly binding is to help promote uterine healing. Plus, it really helped my sore back. A special herbal postpartum wash consisting of boiled leaves helped me feel better. I wore socks at all times. I was advised not to watch anything scary on TV or to read anything distressing. Instead, I listened to relaxing audiobooks, watched light comedies, and avoided watching or reading the news. I was enjoying my safe confinement bubble. My close friends would come and visit me at my home, so I wasn’t starved of all human contact.
I listened to relaxing audiobooks, watched light comedies, and avoided watching or reading the news.
Staying indoors made things easier, because all of my babies hated being in their baby car seats. With my first baby my mother flew in from Sydney to help from my third trimester onward. For my second baby, I had my mother, mother-in-law and husband on board to help out with my then 2.5 year old.
For my third baby, I had to be wheel-chaired out of hospital. He was my biggest baby, and I needed all the help I could get. My postpartum massage lady did us a tremendous favour by not only massaging me, she also helped to bathe, massage and swaddle my newborn son. I cannot emphasise how much of a lifesaver she was. My two little girls needed both their grandmothers and their father’s attention while I was still recovering from a very fast birth, and a very big baby. Belly and hip binding took a whole new level of importance for me, because I couldn’t even walk out of the hospital after giving birth.
It’s been an absolute whirlwind having three kids so close in age, and I’m so grateful to have the family and cultural support necessary for me to stay afloat. In Malaysia, if a woman was spotted walking outdoors with her newborn, she would be promptly scolded and ushered back indoors.
Postpartum confinement is an extension and a reflection of this concept of interconnectedness that starts even before babies are born.
It’s a totally different expectation to the West, where women are expected to jump straight back to their pre-birth selves. Whereas it’s understood here that there is no going back, and that mothering takes an entire village. Postpartum confinement is an extension and a reflection of this concept of inter-connectedness that starts even before babies are born. Here, a baby is born into a family that has deep roots in faith, culture, tradition and expectations.
There is so much help in raising children, and that comes with its pros and cons. It’s not always easy to stand up to family elders by choosing a different way of parenting, and it begins in small acts of rebellion, like drinking iced lattes in pregnancy. Yum. But where there is love, there is always room for difference, and maybe even agreeing to disagree.
This article is part of a series on Multicultural Motherhood, exploring diverse experiences of birth and parenting, edited by Saman Shad.
Other articles in the series can be found here: