Confinement is still a common practice in Singapore. It is when a woman who had just given birth must do nothing but rest for at least a month. My grandmother often brings up the lack of her confinement period to reference her now unhealthy state. The interview takes place as I get my grandmother to recount my mother’s confinement period.
The following is translated and transcribed from a conversation between me, (M), and my grandmother, the interviewee (I).
M: What did you do when my Ma was pregnant with me?
I: Your mother had to stay at home. She couldn’t leave the house and must stay in bed.
M: Why did she have to do that?
I: After you give birth. A lot of your energy is taken away from you. And you lose a lot of important nutrients. So, you must stay at home and drink herbal drink. It is called zuo yue zi. Your mother had to be at home and lie on the bed for one month.
Translation: Zuo Ye Zi literally means Sitting The Moon, or sitting on the moon. Referring to how mothers who had just given birth must do nothing but sit and rest.
M: Did you also have to do confinement when you gave birth to my mom?
I: At that time I was too poor to afford a confinement lady. And I’m not lucky like your mother, my mother has passed away already so I couldn’t do confinement properly. I only did about ten days for each child then I had to go back to work. That’s why I’m so sick now, I have very bad immune system. So when your mother gave birth, I made sure that she did at least one month, I wanted her to do more but she didn’t want to. I was already quite lenient with her.
M: What would have been a stricter confinement period?
I: I wouldn’t have let her shower if I could. When you shower you take away all the energy that is helping to rebuild your body. But she insisted on getting to shower, so I let her shower with warm water. And she only drank half of the tea I made for her, she didn’t finish it all. She won’t be very healthy when she is older. But I tried my best.
This is an old wives tale of why women must be pampered and taken care of after they had just given birth. This belief comes from Ancient China where women of rich families had the luxury to stay in bed and care for their health, and in many ways flaunt that they did not need to do any work after they had given birth. Today, many Chinese people in Singapore still believe in confinement, though not to the same extreme extend of the woman never being able to leave the bed, but rather that the woman should be able to just rest at home for a month without doing anything. I think that on a personal level for my grandmother, she uses this belief to explain her sickness right now. Though there are many medical explanations such as her old age, and just generally her immune system perhaps is not as strong as other people her age, she uses the fact that she wasn’t given the proper care when she was a young mother for her illness now. I think this gives her a sense of comfort because she can put the blame on something else, and pinpoint a reason for her illness rather than just accept that in a world of chaos, perhaps she was just unlucky in health. I believe that it is also a way in which she shows care for her daughters. Due to traditional beliefs, a lot of the love and care went to my grandmother’s two sons, and not much to her daughters. And it is perhaps through taking care of her daughters through confinement that she is able to show them that she loves and cares for them deeply.