Wednesday, March 20, 2013

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Everything about »zuo yuezi« in Taiwan

3/20/2013 Taiwan Explorer

One thing I had no knowledge about prior to my wife's pregnancy was the concept of zuo yuezi (坐月子). It literally means "to sit for a month", and it's actually a month long postnatal confinement of the mother after she's released from the hospital. It's an old Chinese tradition that "forces" the young mother to stay home, rest, and eat very specific food, mostly consisting of soups and herbal drinks. There are various rules a woman needs to follow during that period. Some of the traditional ones would be: Don't wash hair, don't bathe, don't touch cold water, don't climb stairs, don't read books, don't cry, no sex and no sewing. Not every Taiwanese woman strictly follows all these rules these days, but many will definitely pretend in front of their mothers, that they do.

How to zuo yuezi

Zuo yuezi is serious business in Taiwan, and I mean this figuratively and literally. There are two ways to confine yourself:

1. At a "zuo yuezi center" | 坐月子中心

This may be suitable for women, who need extra care and comfort after birth, but it can be very expensive. When my wife and I browsed online to find some info on these centers, they all looked like overpriced hotels to me, where you have to eat soups, and drink herbal drinks. A decent zuo yuezi center in Taipei may cost you at least 4500-5000 NTD per day (which makes it around 120 Eur/150 USD), you can check some prices here (imagine, four weeks might cost you over 4000 USD). Aside from the enormous cost, you will need to decide, whether you will stay overnight with your wife in the center, or whether you will go home. If the center's location is far from your home, and far from the company you work for, this can be quite troublesome, so take it in consideration. We decided against a center due to the cost, and because I wanted my daughter to get used to our home and her bed as soon as possible.

2. At home with a "zuo yuezi ah yi" | 坐月子阿姨

This is the cheaper option, but you will have an "ah yi" (阿姨, "auntie") in your house for a month, who will cook proper meals, and look after your wife and the baby. These aunties have no certificates, they are women with Chinese wisdom, and with a lot of free time (a lot of them are retired). They are trying to make some money on the side next to their meager pensions, and their children's customary monthly donations. We paid her 1800 NTD per day, but we also had to buy Chinese herbs, that cost us 6000 NTD (we ordered online), and the ingredients for daily meals such as chicken meat and vegetables from the nearby day market (one of the auntie's duties is to buy the proper ingredients, but the cost is ours). All these ingredients will cost us roughly 4000 NTD per month. We hired her for 15 days, that is three weeks, each week from Monday to Friday (she doesn't come during the weekend). Why we hired her only for three weeks instead of a full month, you can find out further below, where we share our story.

3. Cost comparison

This is just an example, and the cost may vary greatly from case to case, but I just want to show you how we did the calculation, it can serve you as a reference. If we paid 4500 NTD per day in a "zuo yuezi center" for 15 work days, our overall cost would've been 67500 NTD (around 1750 Eur/2300 USD). Instead we chose a "zuo yuezi auntie" and our overall cost for 15 working days will be 37000 NTD (around 960 Eur/1250 USD). This was for us around 55% cheaper.

Our zuo yuezi experience

After the complicated birth, my wife and I had to stay in the hospital for a full week. At that time she was very weak, she could barely eat. My mother-in-law would make special soups for her, which she would bring to the hospital every day. In a way, my wife's zuo yuezi period already started back then, but it wasn't the real deal yet. We returned home on a weekend, and we could finally take a break from all the hustle and bustle in the hospital. You can't believe how great it feels to bring your baby home, and realize that she's actually calmer and happier in the bed you made for her. Luckily, we're living in one of the upper floors in a fairly new condo, which means we're far away from all the scooter noise and the garbage truck symphonies. But there is one problem: Our apartment is very small. It's almost like a studio. We wanted to change to a bigger one for a long while, but it proved to be very difficult. Generally, we like the apartment complex and the security, the cleanness and the proximity to the MRT station (5 minutes by foot). That's why we decided to stay here for another year, and stopped searching for a new one few weeks before our daughter was born.

She's a two-face

After what felt like a very short weekend, the auntie finally arrived on Monday. I went to work, my wife and the baby had to survive without me for the first time since birth. This part of the story is based on what my wife has told me. I wasn't witness to any of these things, but you can trust, that she didn't make up anything. Everything was fine on the first and second day. The auntie, which was in her late 50s, often referred to herself as benshengren and spoke mostly Taiwanese, was polite and showed a lot of engagement in cooking, cleaning and assisting with baby related things, such as making powder milk, disposing diapers, purchasing ingredients for the meals, and so on. My wife was very positive about her, and told her already on the second day that she plans to extend her services to four full weeks (the contract we signed initially was meant for three weeks, but with the option to extend). And then came the third day, and things changed. My wife noticed, that she's become hasty and noisy when cooking and washing dishes, and in addition to that very focused on our baby daughter. My wife was at that time already fully capable to take care of our baby, but for some reason whenever there was a cry heard from the baby bed, the auntie would leave all the simmering pots, and take her out to hold her. When my wife messaged me about it, I wasn't very pleased. I said we don't need a nanny, we need someone to cook these traditional meals and assist the mother, not replace her. I urged my wife to speak with her about this issue, and clarify what we're expecting from her. My wife agreed with me, but was afraid to broach the issue due to auntie's seniority. Later that day my wife's ex-classmate and friend, who is also our insurance agent, came over to visit. She wanted to see the baby, and bring papers that dealt with the cost compensation of our hospital stay. She's been of great help, and has handled everything very well, we're very grateful to her. As they were chatting on the couch, the auntie was eavesdropping on the whole conversation from the kitchen. At one point our daughter was crying due to a tense stomach, and the friend asked, if we had a certain ointment that is applied around the belly button, it helps to ease the pain. My wife said no, and then out of nowhere the auntie remarked: "The mother didn't do her homework." My wife wasn't pleased with this kind of word choice. Our friend then offered help, and went to the pharmacy to buy the ointment for us. As she was gone, the auntie commented: "Now you will get a lot of calls and advertisements". As she was eavesdropping on the conversation, she was assuming, that our friend will push us to buy all kinds of insurances, and regularly bother us with calls and advertisements. That's of course far from the truth, but she just had to assume that, hadn't she? Soon after that my wife had another friend visiting (these visits are quite common in Taiwan). The friend came with her husband and her baby. She gave my wife a lot of useful tips, her baby was older than our daughter, she was more experienced, and my wife was happy to get some new tips and information. After the friend left, the auntie said to my wife: "What your friend said just take as a reference." She then started to comment on the friend's tips, giving my wife the impression, that she doesn't believe these tips have any value. My wife would have more friends visiting in the days after this event, and the auntie would always have some comments. When I came back home, my wife was very disappointed, she felt disrespected by her, and we started to think how to approach this issue and improve the situation.

It gets worse, before it gets better

The last two days of the first week proved to be the worst. My wife could not find an opportunity to speak with the auntie and voice her discontent, despite constantly being encouraged by me to do so. That's mostly because the "senior needs to respect junior" relationship was very quickly established by the overly eager helper, and the fact that she was our employee (something I kept telling my wife all the time) didn't have any effect on that. So what was going on during these two days you might wonder? She was literally hogging the baby. Cooking the meals, washing dishes, cleaning, as well as taking care of my wife (the reason why we hired her) became secondary - our daughter became her prime obsession. She kept taking her out of the baby bed whenever there was a small cry. We only take her out, when she's really crying hard, because we don't want her to get used to sleeping in our arms. If that would've become a habit, we'll literally have no time for anything. She obviously didn't care about what we wanted. Sometimes after my wife breastfeeds she falls asleep, and keeps our daughter laying on her chest. While they were both sleeping, the auntie suddenly grabbed our daughter out of my wife's arms, and took her away to sit on the couch and played with her. When my wife messaged me that, I was furious. She would also completely disregard my wife's wish to put the baby back in the bed. Nope, she liked to hold her, and loved to keep her all for herself. She even called her "小寶貝" ("little baby"), and behaved like she was her grandmother or a close relative. All that was happening while my wife was right there all alone on her bed hoping to spend time with her little daughter.

Changing tactics

When I came home on Friday evening, I told my wife, that we need to change something. I decided to take two days leave the next week, one time in the morning, and one time in the afternoon. We also had our daughter's first medical check and name registration scheduled for Monday, so we told auntie that she doesn't need to come on that day. I said to my wife, that when I'm home, I will be "hogging the baby". Whenever I'll hear a cry, I will be at her bed immediately. If she'll cry harder, I will take her and hold her in hope that the auntie will finally realize, that she needs to let us take care of our own baby. On Tuesday morning she arrived at 8.30 like always. When she entered, she was visibly surprised to see the husband at home. Guess what happened? Everything literally changed, said my wife. She was like on the first day: She focused on cooking and cleaning, wouldn't even sit on the couch to rest (something we would have no problem with), because she wanted to appear busy and show engagement in front of me (that's called "積極" in Chinese). On that day I left after lunch, and told my wife that she should continue "my work" in the afternoon. And she did. She kept our daughter close to herself all the time, and countered all auntie's attempts to take her (and believe me, there were aplenty). The next day I stayed home in the afternoon, and the auntie didn't anticipate that either. We continued our way of not letting her take the baby at all - and we finally succeeded. In the evening just before she left, she asked my wife: "Your husband likes to take care of the baby, ah?" (which in the Taiwanese way of communication actually means "I just realized, that you guys want to take care of the baby, and you won't let me near her anymore"). "Usually people prefer me to take care of the baby", she added implying that we were a different kind of parents. My wife replied: "Yes, we prefer to take care of the baby by ourselves" (which actually meant "Yes, we would like you to focus on cooking, cleaning, washing, and staying away from her as much as possible"). We finally had "the talk" without breaking any social norms like engaging in direct confrontation with a senior (big taboo in Taiwan), and things finally changed for the better. A few days later my wife told her, that we're only going to hire her for three weeks, as initially agreed.

Victory with a bitter aftertaste

The next days were almost like we initially hoped they would be, but with one exception: The apartment was quieter, the atmosphere was unpleasant. My wife and the auntie talked very little, the relationship became very formal, and therefore again a bit uncomfortable for my wife. Both sides were disappointed for different reasons. Now you must be wondering, how we came across her in the first place? One of my wife's friends recommended a younger girl to us, but that girl was fully booked. As she could not offer us her service, she instead recommended this auntie to my wife, and we trusted her. Now we suspect that certain zuo yuezi aunties have agreements to recommend each other, if they get new customers, but are fully booked. When my wife met up with her a few weeks before our daughter's birth, she had a good impression of her. The auntie's credentials were impeccable. She used to be a nanny for many years, and she seemed to be polite and knowledgable of the zuo yuezi tradition. None of us suspected, that we will have a bad experience with her. We don't blame anyone for the recommendations, perhaps we're just too different than your average Taiwanese parents, I don't know, but there was certainly bad communication between my wife and the auntie. And I realized, that for some reason I don't like strangers being close to my baby. Maybe it's my protective instinct as a new parent, but it really makes me feel uncomfortable, if people do that. And the more someone insists to be close my daughter, the more suspicious and protective I get. My wife feels the same. We're fine with close friends and relatives showing affection for her, but those who are not part of our inner circle will be taken as intruders, and won't be welcome (this will especially be true for strangers on the street, who will try to touch her or take photos). The other thing that bothered me is the fact, that my wife has only 2 months of fully paid maternity leave. This is so short, it's almost laughable (thank you, dear government). I wanted my wife to spend as much time as possible with our daughter, because every day, every hour is very precious. Naturally I was upset, that the auntie tried to spend so much time with our baby, and wanted to be so close to her (at one point she joked, that she "wants to take her home with her", which we found very creepy). So far whoever heard this story was surprised at the auntie's behavior, even my mother in law, who is of the same generation, and generally cares about young people respecting and following seniors.

In conclusion

For newly baked parents the postnatal confinement can be quite a challenging period. On the one hand you have a newborn baby, that needs to be taken care of all the time, on the other hand you have the mother, that needs special care, too. Following these ancient Chinese guidelines can be tough, especially the not bathing rule (which my wife luckily skipped). If you decided to hire an auntie, I advise you to be very clear about how you want your baby to be managed by her, and what specifically you expect from her. We failed to do so in the beginning, and we paid the toll for that in the first week (due to our inexperience). Communication is often a problem between different generations in Taiwan. I would personally rather hire an "auntie" in her 30s, it would be a completely different dynamic. One of my wife's friends commented our auntie was "a typical Taiwanese obasan". I won't explain this further, but those of you who live here for a while might get some vivid associations, when you hear this term. We're just glad, that this is over now, and that we can finally get back to normal. This issue has affected both of us, it made us very stressful in addition to all the sleepless nights. Everybody says that the first month is very tough, but after that it gets much better. We're very close to the end of this period, and we can't wait to see what's coming up next.