I didn’t enter pregnancy or birth with a clear image of what I should be doing, but I was surprised with the lack of support I was given to fill that void. I assumed I’d be able to ask my OB-GYN about nutrition, fitness, and feelings to expect when I was pregnant for the first time in 2016. Instead, I was in and out of there in under 15 minutes, a consequence of our for-profit medical system that sees my doctor and I as numbers to be made money off of, rather than humans seeking to be healthy. I switched to an expensive midwife, who was a little better, but I was still disappointed with the lack of culturally relevant nutritional advice.
Like most birthing mothers, I struggled to start breastfeeding, and the first few days after both my kids were born was a hellish blur of hungry baby-screaming. This is the norm, and the reason why many cultures have developed a range of tricks to kick off lactation – teas, tinctures, soups, meals, desserts, baths, fatty snacks and more to stimulate the milk and keep it coming. In American hospitals, all they seem to be able to offer you is a screeching mechanical breast pump and a harsh lecture on the benefits or breastfeeding – or an 8-pack of starter formula. I didn’t want either of those! I wanted to learn how to nourish my body as it went through the marathon of birth, recovery, and up to a year of breastfeeding – and ensure I was helping to build the healthiest possible baby through my breastmilk.
I turned to Heng Ou’s book The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nurturing the New Mother and it gave me in book form what I’d wanted from the medical establishment. It became one of my absolute favorites, and I’ve gifted it probably to 10 families (full disclosure: Ou’s aunt Ju Chun Ou was my former acupuncturist, and she was good).
The book describes how Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recipes and traditions designed to support women and families after the birth of a child can be modified to match a modern lifestyle. Mostly, it is performance fitness – recognizing that birth and lactation are feats of physical endurance and strength and should be fueled accordingly. The book also covers the necessity of saying no, how to deal with relatives, what type of water to drink, and many other mundane details that first-time parents find themselves wondering.
While Ou is rooted in her family’s TCM background, she shows the overlaps with postpartum traditions across Asia and indeed, the world. In the old country, this postpartum wisdom is intended to help the mother rest, stimulate breastmilk production, prevent future illness, restore the uterus, lymph and blood systems, and pass on key vitamins and minerals to both mother and baby. Some of the practices are just basic public health wisdom, dressed up with some scary stories to ensure compliance.
As Asian Americans, we are free to abandon these practices but some of us realized that’s literally throwing the baby out with the bathwater (sorry!). In a mainstream American culture that has virtually no healthy postpartum traditions, we are reclaiming our old ones and adapting them to our current circumstances.
Momo Chang is a pioneer in this work, publishing in 2011 a wonderful print and video series for Hyphen on the recovery of these traditions, to wide interest and curiosity. A final resource is the Mothers to Mothers Postpartum Justice Project. Started by the Asian American and Pacific Islander Health Research Group, a group of Asian American undergraduates focused on health careers, they published a cookbook of postpartum healthy recipes from Asian American immigrant and refugee families. They then branched out to other cultures and cuisines. Their project has evolved into a food delivery, research, and education project focused on “the experience of Black and Indigenous communities and the building of a new Postpartum Culture to serve new moms in the post-industrial society.” I welcome anyone to donate funds to their food-delivery program or join their campaign to declare the third Sunday in May (the Sunday after Mother’s Day) “Postpartum Justice Day.”
Mostly, I repeat my mantra to friends expecting babies and entering the American medical system unawares: “It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.” We can support mothers and fathers, babies and children, elders and neighbors who want to help. We can have a single-payer healthcare system with plenty of time for patients to form relationships with their healthcare providers and share their worries, fears or even minor annoyances before they become big problems. We can reach back to ancient wisdom and make it part of a new American culture that is pro-woman, pro-health and culturally diverse.
Nina F. Ichikawa is the Executive Director for the Berkeley Food Institute. She is the mother of two children under 5 and auntie to many more. She used to be a good cook before she had kids. She previously served in the office of US Senator Daniel K. Inouye and with the US Department of Agriculture’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” Initiative. In 2011, she was named a Food and Community Fellow by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. She was the founding Food and Agriculture editor for Hyphen magazine, and her writings on our changing food system have been published widely. She received a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies/Food Policy from UC Berkeley and a MA in International Relations/Food Policy from Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo.
Other Asian mamas and brands to follow:
First 40 Days IG: @thefirstfortydays
Heng Ou’s company IG: @motherbees
Writer Momo Chang twitter: @_momo_chang
Hyphen magazine (see all the handles here): https://hyphenmagazine.com/