The first forty days after childbirth are unlike any other. It’s a time of amazing intensity and massive adjustment. In many cultures around the world, there are wise traditions to help the young mother and baby navigate this period. And many of these traditions have been lost or forgotten.
Today, Heng Ou, author of “The First Forty Days,” revisits these and their benefits. She offers insights on how to best nourish the postpartum mom, in every sense of the word “nourish.” She discusses worldwide traditions for the first forty days that include foods to rebuild the mother’s life energy, creating a safe place for warmth and rest, the power of ritual and more.
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Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda.
The first 40 days after childbirth are unlike any other. It’s a time of amazing intensity and massive adjustment. In many cultures around the world, there are wise traditions to help the young mother and baby navigate this time period. This is episode 259. Our guest is Heng Ou, the author of The First Forty Days and Awakening Fertility and the Founder of MotherBees, a food and lifestyle company dedicated to nourishing a woman through conception, pregnancy, postpartum, and beyond. Heng gives us insights on how to best nourish the postpartum mom in every sense of the word nourish. She discusses worldwide traditions for the first 40 days that include foods to rebuild the mother’s life energy, creating a safe place for warmth and rest the power of ritual, and much more.
Welcome to the show, Heng.
Thanks for having me, Hilda.
When I got a hold of your book, I was immediately captivated by this concept of sitting the month that I know you said you got from your own Chinese heritage. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Sitting the month in traditional Chinese medicine or Chinese cultural traditions is called Zuò yuè zi and that’s translated to sitting the month. It goes back thousands of years sitting in confinement. Back in China, per se, we didn’t have electricity. We didn’t have a fridge. We didn’t have the easement of what we have now. It was a lot simpler back then. The one thing that we knew new moms needed was warmth, rest, herbal tonics, and simple nourishing foods.
I feel like this tradition needs to be brought back to the forest. I’m thankful that you wrote this book. Talk to us about how you personally experienced it after your daughter Khefri was born.
After Khefri was born, this is quite a bit a ways ago, but I have two aunts and one uncle who are acupuncturists up in Oakland. As soon as I gave birth, my one aunt, auntie Ou, said, “I’m coming down with bags of groceries with organ meats, pig trotters, chicken feet, bones, veggies, dumpling, and ingredients.” She’s going to come and stock up my fridge and freezer. She and my cousin, Wendy came down and they were in the kitchen making food every day, stocking my fridge. I didn’t do a whole lot back then. She kept on saying like, “You’re going to breastfeed. You’re going to feed again.” That was all I had to do, “She kept on churning out dishes and candidate to me.” I didn’t even ask what it was because I had an idea what confinement look like because of the language that we had always circled around in our family dynamic and also being in the Chinese traditional medicine family. My father was known that there was going to be a practice outright after birth.
Did your auntie really bring chicken feet and pig trotters and everything?
Yes. I love pickled pig trotters. The chicken feet use for broths. We want to extract as much collagen and minerals from these bones. Pig trotters are known as confinement food in China. It’s a celebratory dish. It’s made with lots of love and lots of hours of all this black vinegar, fresh ginger, and the pig trotter. It’s infused with sour-sweet and it also has rock sugar. It has all the elements of an umami flavor and also there’s depth to it. When you eat it, it fills your soul with not just the collagen and the texture of the trotter, but you can feel your circulation is moving. Circulation is a correlated to breast milk. It’s all moving inside and all Chinese medicine is all about moving the energy. We want to keep it flowing and not have any blockages,
Heng, you were an independent woman. I remember reading your book and you were talking about that you didn’t have necessarily the mindset of your ancestors for this whole confinement thing. It sounds like you still liked it though. Tell us how you were feeling inside. Were you feeling funny about being so dependent or were you thrilled? What was going on?
It’s a challenge that a lot of us, go-getting moms and women are these days. I was in a complete state of exhaustion and I gave in to whatever anyone handed me to eat. If they said, “You eat this.” I’ll be like, “I’ll eat it. I’ll do it.” All I can do is move from the bathroom to the bedroom to a rocking chair. That was my pace. I had no energy to think about making food, cooking, cleaning, or doing anything extra on top of what I was already doing and recovering from.
You were ready to embrace it. I imagine many of us would. That reminds me that you mentioned in your book that this is a worldwide practice of nurturing moms postpartum. Can you describe what that looks like in different parts of the world?
In Shanghai, Taiwan, and in these more industrial cities, there’s a lot of confinement hotels. I’ve been to some in Shanghai and they’re private. I went and gave myself a little tour because I trued it and got myself in there to do my own research. They are beautiful places and families would invest quite a bit tens of thousands of dollars per month to stay in these compartment hotels. They have 24/7 care with doctors and nurses. Their babies are being held and fed. Mostly, only moms would stay, and dads and other siblings would come and visit. To understand and see the investment that the government wants to contribute and partner with and they want to invest in the health of their citizens.
I’ve been to India where I would talk to grandmothers and aunties and see how their life of being is after birth. It’s all about a flow. It doesn’t stop right after birth. They prepare for the new mom. They save the best meat. They save the best veggies because a lot of these rural places, there’s not a lot of money. They have these cultural rituals, which is beautiful to witness, but yet, the items that are save for the mom, they know that it’s all for the mom’s health. That’s such an amazing, beautiful sight to witness because we’re opposite in our Western world.
I’ve always am inspired when I see this around the world. In Korea, they have seaweed soup, which is eaten for 100 days after birth. Every single day, they’re drinking this. It’s for breast milk. It is for iron deficiency. It’s to build up your energy and it’s all to do with getting up your energy right after birth. You’re building your life energy force better for later pregnancies or for other preventative ailments down the line because we believe it’s an open state that we’re in. This is an amazing opportune time to regroup like restart yourself.
The body has been through a lot at that point and you’re right. Your baby thinks that day is night and day. Everything has to get back in its place, physically. I’ve been through it a bunch of times. I remember at least in the US, there is societal pressure to get out and about with my baby. This practice of nurturing postpartum moms has practically been lost. Why do you think that is?
Humans are challenged and competing with technology. We cannot compete. Our children are demanding more from us because they’re getting that from technology. When we’re presenting a slow traditional cultural ritual of sitting there and sipping tea, it’s not to their appetite of like, “I want to learn more.” They often gravitate to what’s faster and what’s more information. I feel like there’s a gap in how we are stretching ourselves away from the traditions, especially as we move to the Western countries, we’re further away from our home life and what we know to be our history, our past, and our ancestors. There’s this gap. I love your wise traditions work and Western work is because it’s a solid foundation of what it was and how we can still attribute some of these practices into our daily lives.
That’s what we’re looking to do is rediscover these ancient traditions that had more goodness in them for us than we realize. Talk to us more about the wisdom of this practice of the first 40 days. In your book, you had five characteristics of what that time might look like for a postpartum mom.
We call this the five insights of reclaiming the wisdom. We wanted to go back to the simple foundation of how we would want to be treated, not just a new mom, but a human being when we are in a state of recovery. Childbirth, as, you know, however way you birth is a state of we need to transform, we needed transition. This transition time is a beautiful and honorable time to get in a state of the retreat. It’s like retracting, inwards, emotionally, physically, and also creating boundaries for yourself that are healthy and safe.
What would that look like in practice for a young mom?
For retreating, it’s looking inwards at what you have at your house. What is a safe, simple place in your home that you feel honored in? We’re all homebound now, we have our safe haven places. Most likely, it’s on the bed, especially for new moms. We want to create that nest nourishing environment around the bed environment and we’re in the bedroom. We start with the inner circle and we start seeing outwards.
It is making a place that feels good to your body. The next characteristic is warmth. Is that right?
Correct. Warmth is the temperature of our body. We’re a little bit more on the hotter side because there’s so much fluid that’s moving through. About 4 to 6 weeks’ time, you go through sweating like a sweat lodge, sweating it out. That’s why the infusement of herbal tonics to replenish all that is essential. To keep yourself hydrated is important. I’m big on fresh ginger, but it isn’t for everyone. If you had heavy bleeding after birth, it’s not going to be that great for you. That’s why the warmth of the food and the ingredient, and not just temperature warm, will help create the energy and the chi inside.
Did you describe in your book, there was some soup that had little pieces of liver in it. I think it was the egg drop soup and I was like, “This sounds amazing.” There’s a warmth that comes from that nutrient dense food as well.
In traditional Chinese medicine, we believe that the organ that you eat will enhance the organ inside of your body. Like pig kidneys and beef liver, it enhances and associates to reproduction. It’s simple. You eat hearts to enhance your heart. I love the function of the product and there’s always a correlation to how healing it is for your body. Also, it’s a time of association and visualizing how it’s going to help your body heal and rejuvenate itself.
You wouldn’t be necessarily thinking that way if you were still on that fast track, like, “I’m going to get back to the gym in three weeks and get my post-pregnancy body.” Spend an amazing amount of time, you’d be grabbing some fries or whatever, and you wouldn’t even give it a second thought. I like the fact that you’re emphasizing the warmth, the food, and the like-heals.
What’s the next characteristic?
It is support, I hear a lot about the challenges of support because one biggest challenge is what should I do with my in-laws? My in-laws seem to be the biggest challenge of how to incorporate in-laws in the picture of postpartum care. I always go back to checking in with your body and checking in to see what feels good, who feels good and creating strong boundaries. Also, not being rude and obnoxious about it, but stating, “This is what I need now. Maybe in two months, let’s check back in and you can come and visit.” Support is a big deal, especially in the Western world I know it’s hard because we don’t have our family down the street from us. We’re not living with our aunties, grandmothers and moms. We have to go and outreach and search for friends or organizations or we have to pay for help. It’s a little bit more challenging, but I always go back to what your body needs and how they help is going to serve your body the best to create optimal health.
Looking to your intuition and to your gut, is this going to be a stressor to have everybody over on week two or do I need to say gently that I need a little bit more time for some healing. The next characteristic I see is rest.
Rest is reorienting yourself and replacing the old belief of thinking like you’re never enough and knowing that the recovery time of your baby is more than enough to understand that concept that what you have now is everything. When you can settle with that concept, then you can allow your body to be in a full state of rest. Why keep on working out your adrenals, or why keep on pushing forward when what you want to do is sink into the most uncomfortable state, which is being at a slower pace? It can be uncomfortable for a lot of people because we’re not used to that pace. We have to bond, connect, feed, change diapers, and all these. It becomes a little mundane after a few weeks. You don’t what you’re doing, you’re not getting dressed or not showering. You’re not brushing your teeth. You’re not sleeping. It becomes a lot of emotions that arise. The concept of rest is uncomfortable for a lot of people.
It’s true. Most of us have busy full lives, even during this time that there’s a way to fill them up. It’s quite the opposite of what we’re accustomed to. It reminds me of a little story. One time I was working with this acting coach, and she said to me, “Hilda, you need to speak slower.” I said, “I am speaking slower.” She said, “You’ve gone from 100 miles an hour in your day-to-day talk to 80. That’s still too fast for most of us.” In other words, a mother might feel like, “I’m resting because I’m not doing more than two things a day,” because that’s a change from her previous life, but it’s not enough.
That’s a thing. We’re always searching for the next goal, but what you’ve accomplished and what you’ve achieved, producing a human being inside your body and giving birth to it is the ultimate role for a female. Let’s take the time to celebrate that and be grateful for that grand gesture.
I love the word celebrate that you used. That ties into the last characteristic which is ritual.
These can be small or grand gestures. It’s like closing your eyes for two minutes and connecting to the source or connecting to your baby or visualizing your breast milk flowing. It is a ritual that you create for yourself. It doesn’t have to be grand where you’re hiring a whole staff of people and inviting a bunch of people to come and dance around you. I was a good friend with them, Cecilia Garcia, who was a Native American medicine woman who passed on, but she was sharing that back in her culture, simple grooming and brushing each other’s hair was a state of ritual for them.
That created oxytocin, a communal feel of being seen and held. We’re all doing this because we don’t want to get into a state of it’s a deepened hormones or depression. We don’t want to snowball into that. It could happen and it does happen, but we want to move through it knowing that we’re going to move out of it and not fight it. If we can prevent ourselves from snowball to a larger state, then if its hair brushing or being with a girlfriend or your partner, who’s supportive and loving and having gentle ritual conversations, rituals can be anything. It can be soaking your feet, hands or your body. It can be any ritual that you do for yourself.
That’s something that makes you feel comforted and encouraged. Can you describe a couple of rituals that take place around the world as part of this sitting the month time?
Let’s say in Cambodia, they steam over hot rocks. In Thailand and a lot of countries, they do bats filled with herbs. A lot of cultures do that because it’s a beautiful practice. It’s feminine. Anything that puts us in that feminine state that elevates our emotional being is a beautiful ritual. In Honduras, they put a cotton wool in the year to keep out the bad air. A lot of these cultural practices also believe in negative energy. That’s why they’re doing these rituals to prevent bad energy to go into the mom and the baby’s energy field. It can be like weird traditions in the norm.
The thing is we might not know their value. We might think, “That’s strange,” but there’s something behind it that is deeper that’s unknown to us, but important on some level.
I’m more curious about that than not digging in and looking into it.
Some of the things you’ve described sound amazing and heavenly. What would you say to the reader who maybe is expecting and thinking, “I don’t have people around me who can do these things for me?” What would you recommend for them?
I always say to find that one person and nowadays, we’re more in the virtual space. It could be your husband, your partner, if you are living with somebody that’s in your home and finding a place that’s hopefully a nurturing conversation. I don’t want to put pressure on new moms and thinking that they have to cultivate this entire team of people because we need that one lifeline, that one helpline that one person that we can go to. It could be your midwife or your doula, if that’s the direction the one chooses. I would say one person and it could be a few more if that’s what you’re able to juggle. It’s most likely going to be virtual for now.
That is quite different from what our ancestors got to experience, but we have to recognize where we’re at. You had three kids, did you follow this sitting the month period after each of them?
I did. The second birth, I was a little bit more gung ho about in terms of, “I’ve done this already.” I did not have my aunties come. I went straight to our home office and went straight to work within a week. I had my baby strapped on and Khefri was a toddler then. She was running around and I say by my third birth, I felt ill a month before I gave birth to him. I was running hard during the 2nd and 3rd birth that I don’t even remember being pregnant. It was that time where I was running a home business and I thought I could do it because I was younger and everything was possible. Yet, I was putting my own health aside. I was in bed for a month before I gave birth to Jude. After my third birth, it didn’t farewell. My family fell apart a few months after, and it started a spiral. I had postpartum depression after Jude’s birth. I didn’t quite realize that until my midwife came in the house and said, “There’s something wrong with you. You’re vacant, you’re not here.”
I wouldn’t have known that if my midwife didn’t come to my house and into my bedroom to check up on me because I was used to the disconnect. She helped me revive myself and until I get back into what I needed to do, which was to be a mom again. I give each child about five years of parental attention and care because you’re feeding, changing diapers, you’re picking up. It’s a constant movement, but once the five-year mark comes, they’re a little bit more independent. You can graduate from that state. It was different for all three births. That’s why I have empathy for all women out there who are doing it the best that they can. I didn’t have it perfectly sized up the way that I had for the first time.
I think maybe that’s why your book to me feels like a warm blanket that we can envelop the young mom in because they’re all in different places. They’re all going to need support. We can look around to see who can we care for in this way, even if it’s as simple as checking up on someone or offering to bring a meal or bringing a meal without offering it, as your auntie did almost because it’s such a critical time physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
It’s all the above. It is not just one.
I’m glad that you’re reviving our connection to the ancient traditions. There’s much more in your book. I noticed that you had a part about learning to accept and celebrate your postpartum body and all these bits and pieces. Your community of Motherbees sounds wonderful. I want to ask you as we wrap up, if the reader could do one thing to take a step to either nurture themselves as a postpartum mother or nurture another, what would you recommend that they do or focus on?
I would recommend respecting boundaries with kindness and grace. This is more for the outsider wanting to help and support the mom. Also, make a pot of warm nourishing soup or some food that’s going to be nourishing and drop it off and not have any expectations of the mother or the baby.
That sounds phenomenal, Heng. Thank you for your time. I look forward to talking to you again sometime.
Thanks, Hilda, for having me.
Our guest was Heng Ou. Visit her website, MotherBees.com for more resources. You can find me at HolisticHilda.com. For the show notes for this and every episode, visit our website, WestonAPrice.org. That’s where you can also give us your feedback on this parenting series this summer. Thank you for reading and take care of my friends. Stay well, hasta pronto.