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Forget Mother's Day: In China they get the gift of Moon month

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

(Read caption) Mother's Day is one thing. A mother's "moon month" in China is another: The tradition has a new mom really, really off her feet for the first month after the baby arrives. Here, in Beijing in June 2011, a new mother holds her baby at Chaoyang Park.

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My friend Rachel is about to give birth to a baby, her first, here in Beijing. And while she’s been remarkably organized and calm about the whole process, she did have one East-meets-West moment that made me realize how differently things are done here.

Her ayi, the woman she hired to cook and clean and help her take care of the baby, wanted to know if she was going to honor the “moon month.” When she told her no, the ayi was horrified.

Moon month in the Chinese tradition is a period in which the mother and the baby are confined to the house. I mean, really, really confined. No going outside at all, no stairs, no open windows, no air conditioning in the summer, and – most unsettling of all to many women – no showers or baths. Women are mainly to stay in bed, and even when they breastfeed, are supposed to lie on their sides instead of holding the baby.

Traditionally, the mother-in-law is the person in charge of the moon month, cooking, cleaning, taking care of the baby, waiting on the mother. Special foods are provided that are supposed to bring the new mother strength, like eggs. Lots and lots of eggs. They’re supposed to drink warm or hot water, not cold, which is bad for the mother’s health, the Chinese believe.

Some theorize that the no-shower tradition came from a time when the situation of a new mother was more precarious. Taking a shower might mean using dirty water or getting a chill. With no running water in many houses not terribly long ago, the mother would have to go outside the safe confines of her home to bathe.

One part of the tradition, however, is rather appealing: This is supposed to be a period when a new mother is pampered while she learns how to care for her baby.

China in recent years has seen the entrepreneurial opportunities in the moon month, and businesses have sprung up to provide new mothers with a place to go to wait out the month. Beijing, for instance, has something called the Beijing New Mother Maternity Service Center, established in 1999, an improvement, the center says, on the old traditions. Instead of tiring out the mother-in-law, the center offers six meals a day (strength-building, of course), nurses dressed in pink (“elegant and cozy,” the center notes), lessons on diet and baby care, and lots of TLC for mother and baby. (I suspect that going to a maternity center might also be a way of avoiding the pesky inlaws hovering too much in a stuffy apartment for an entire month.)

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