Despite being in her nineties now, my Malaysian-Chinese grandmother, Anna, remembers giving birth to her first child as if it were yesterday.
My grandmother was twenty-two when she had her first child (my mum, Helen). She was sent to a midwife’s house to give birth because her own mother didn’t believe in hospitals.
“No-one told me what to expect, and there were no birthing classes in those days, so it was all a big shock.” Labour took all night. “There was no pain relief, and neither my mother nor my husband were with me. But anyway, it was all so painful that I couldn’t think about anything else.”
“There was no pain relief, and neither my mother nor my husband were with me. But anyway, it was all so painful that I couldn’t think about anything else.”
When my grandmother returned home after the birth, she was looked after by her mother and a maid. “I was given traditional Chinese confinement food to help me recover – eggs in sweet wine and ginger chicken – and I was instructed not to eat raw foods as they would ‘chill’ the body. I was only allowed to bathe twice a week, with special herbs added to the water.” And her guiding light? “I always did what my mum told me to do!”
My grandfather, Kim, was a teacher and he worked in a different town, visiting on the weekends. Almost seven decades on, she remembers the moment he first saw his baby daughter. “He was so happy. He patted her all over!”
Just a month after giving birth, my grandmother went back to work as a teacher – my grandfather thought it would be better for everyone if someone more experienced cared for the baby.
After a year, my grandmother moved in with her in-laws. She went on to have three more children. “Initially I only wanted two, but your grandfather talked me into having more. He thought that a family needed to be balanced, like a car. So: four wheels, four children!” All six of them lived in one room.
My grandmother remembers Kim as being untypical of men of that place and time. “He was very gentle, and he really cared for the family. At night, he would get up to feed and change the babies so that I could sleep.”
When asked to nominate the best and worst aspects of being a mother, my grandmother answers, “The best part was seeing my children happy and laughing. And the worst part was when they were upset, especially when they got their immunisations: when they cried, I cried too.”
Helen was born in Malaysia and moved to Melbourne when she was 18. She had my brother, Kevin, at 26 and me at 28. Although there were some similarities with her mother’s experience (labour pains of course!), her experience of giving birth and parenting in Australia was quite different.
“Absolutely horrible” is how my mother describes going through labour. “And painful and exhausting too”, she adds. “But when Kevin finally arrived, your dad and I were delighted and relieved.”
After giving birth, my mum stayed in hospital for seven days, and it felt like a holiday: “Ticking the boxes for my meals and not having to do the dishes... I loved it!”
Mum’s in-laws brought her Chinese confinement food, including pig’s trotters in vinegar and chicken and ginger broth. Like her mother before her, she was discouraged from bathing or showering as it would cool the body and cause arthritis. But there was one significant difference in their respective experiences of confinement traditions: “No-one enforced the rules, though, so I mainly did my own thing.” And does she have arthritis today? “Actually, yes I do!”
Mum’s parents were still living in Malaysia at the time. “I would have liked to have them around, but that’s not how it was. Phone calls home were too expensive, so I wrote them letters.”
My dad’s parents worked seven days a week in a Chinese restaurant, so my parents mostly did the child rearing on their own. Luckily my dad (David) was, according to Mum, hands-on and helpful. “He cooked dinner when he got home from work – quick things like noodles or vegetables and rice.”
Luckily my dad (David) was, according to Mum, hands-on and helpful.
For my mum, the hardest parts of parenting were the the lack of sleep and freedom. And feeding me and my brother was an ongoing challenge. “You kids barely ate the chicken rice porridge I lovingly prepared – if only I’d known that children won’t let themselves starve.”
As for the positives of early motherhood, Mum quips, “Were there any?” But she does concede that not going back to work was great.
One of Mum’s most memorable parenting experiences was flying to America when my brother Kevin was only 11 months old. “He cried the whole way, traumatising me, your dad, the lady next to us and a cabin-load of people.” Then, while she was out shopping for towels in LA, Kevin got quite sick. The memories of dealing with the US hospital system live on. And so do the towels. “We’re still using them forty years on.”
I was 36 when I had Holly (3), and 38 when Edith (8 months) was born. After having had children, I am in awe of my mum and grandma’s generations, who did it without Google, baby wipes and online shopping.
It was an amazing experience to go into labour. Not knowing exactly when your life is going to be transformed forever is a great reminder that Mother Nature is boss.
Unlike my grandmother, I attended prenatal classes and read books and, in theory, I knew what to expect. But no amount of bouncing on a ball or deep breathing can really prepare you for the extreme sport that is labour. Or the intensity of the first few months.
Unlike my grandmother, I attended prenatal classes and read books and, in theory, I knew what to expect.
Holly arrived on my birthday! I was planning to have Italian for dinner but ended up with a baby and a hospital chicken schnitzel. As for confinement activities, my parents aren’t very traditional so there was no suggestion of me being trapped indoors with greasy hair and a bowl of pig’s trotters. I ate salads, showered and, actually, when mum came to visit me after Edith’s birth, she ate my hospital food and used all my teabags.
Just like my mum, I’ve found that one of the worst parts of motherhood is sleep deprivation. Holly wasn’t a sleeper, and we tried everything. I rubbed olive oil on door hinges and blacked out her bedroom windows with garbage bags. God only knows what the neighbours thought we were cooking up. Thankfully, Edith is better so far.
Like both my mother and my grandmother, I have great support. Paul’s the parental good cop to my bad cop, and Holly is always sidling up to him for a Teddy Bear biscuit when I’m out of earshot. My parents will help out whenever I need it. I took the girls to a playground with them recently and it was like having two butlers – bananas were unfurled, toy unicorns were picked up…
And then there’s the steady food delivery service that comes direct from my parent’s kitchen to my dinner plate. They’re also 100% dedicated to feeding their grandchildren: Mum makes them rice porridge and, unlike my brother and I, they do lap it up.
While I’m permanently knackered, being a mum is fun, funny and has filled my life with purpose. I hope my girls can experience the joy they have given me. It’s still early days, but little Holly has said she wants one baby named Ronnie. Or Timmy.
Kelly Eng is a Melbourne-based freelance writer.