How I survived the traditional South Asian 40-day confinement
By Suzanne Yar Khan
I delivered my baby boy via emergency C-section in August 2016. I had no idea that pregnancy and delivery would be the easy part.
The recovery in the weeks that followed tested my patience and strength. The pain I felt every time I stood up and walked was like no other. The sleepless nights caring for a newborn were something I wasn’t prepared for, despite all the books I’d read, and friends and family who’d given me advice. And breastfeeding was another obstacle entirely. It isn’t as easy as those pictures you see with smiling mothers and babies. There’s a definite learning curve in getting your baby to latch correctly.
Adding to the usual challenges that many new mothers face, my baby and I also spent the first 40 days postpartum inside our home. We didn’t venture out for walks, go to the mall or visit friends. Save for doctor’s appointments, we were shut-ins.
Why? Our South Asian culture dictates that those first 40 days are a delicate time for both mom and baby. We’re told that’s how long it takes for our bodies to recover from delivery, and for a baby to build its immune system. So the answer is to stay indoors, away from harmful bacteria and infection, and rest so we both build our strength.
To be clear, neither my mom or mother-in-law, or any other family member forced me to abide by the 40-day rule. I was aware that this is what we did, and I chose to follow it. Call me superstitious, but I didn’t want to take any chances of either of us falling ill.
I’d also researched the history of the 40 days. It used to be much easier to abide by the rule when everyone lived in a joint family. Having that daily support would help keep the new mom’s mood uplifted and avoid postpartum depression. Each meal would be prepared for her (including foods that she must eat to build strength and milk supply, like ghee and gourd), and she was restricted from housework.
Why 40 days? In some parts of South India, the confinement period is as much as 60 days. Still, most follow the traditional 40 days. And while there is no medical evidence to support the practice, there must be something to it. After all, our postpartum doctor’s appointment is scheduled for 6 weeks after delivery, or 40 days.
I was also surprised to find that many parts of South America, the Middle East and Europe (e.g., Greece) follow the 40-day confinement period.
All of these factors aided in my decision to stay indoors.
But being confined to our tiny condo for 40 days wasn’t easy. After the second week, my husband went back to work and it was just baby and me. Thanks to both of my moms, my fridge was stocked with meals that would apparently build my strength, including ghee paranthas, chicken soup and oatmeal, each of which I was instructed to eat daily. Of course, after three days, I’d had enough and was craving pizza, salad, anything that wasn’t desi khana.
So while meals weren’t an issue, staying sane was. Our condo is 700 square feet. I can walk the length in about 20 steps – some days I’d feel a bit claustrophobic.
And though our baby kept me insanely busy and exhausted, I was thirsting for fresh air, or conversations with people who could actually reply back. Of course, our family is the typical large Indian one, so we had visitors every couple days. But it’s a very different feeling when you can’t go visit people yourself.
Still, I was persistent. I had friends and cousins my age who had survived the 40 days, so I was determined to do it. I looked on the bright side and realized that when I wasn’t caring for our baby or sleeping (which to be honest, took up about 90% of my time), I could binge watch that TV show I’d never had time for, or read some good books.
Each day that passed made me that much closer to my goal. I knew I could get there, and I did. Okay, I cheated once during the fourth week and went to my in-laws. I still remember feeling like I was breaking out of jail, and the pure thrill of it. The fresh air had never smelled so sweet, and I’d never had so much fun doing something that I’d taken for granted before. That one day rejuvenated me and the remaining 10 days passed quickly.
In hindsight, would I do it again if I had another child? Yes. While it wasn’t easy being confined, I do think that forcing myself to rest helped me be a better mother. My focus was solely on our son and learning how to overcome new mom challenges. Missing out on the last few days of summer, friends’ birthday parties and family gatherings during those 40 days were worth it. I’ll have a chance to experience those events again. I will not have the opportunity to bond with my baby like that ever again.
Suzanne Yar Khan has spent the last decade as a journalist, writing about business, finance and lifestyle. She also blogs about her adventures as a mom in her spare time. Visit www.mission-mom.com for more.
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