Ever hear the one warning against showering after labor?
Of course that’s probably the first thing you’ll want to do after hours of sweating through a stiff hospital gown, being prodded by strangers, and cozying up against a vernix-crusted kid. Even on the hospital tour, a shy woman raised her hand and asked, “How soon can I shower afterward?”
The Advice Started Early
In the weeks that followed my pregnancy announcement, people descended from the hills to offer their advice. No exaggeration. I got a call from a great aunt I hadn’t seen since I was small enough to fit on Santa’s lap, and my partner’s small family quickly expanded into a network of aunts and cousins, ready to take me in their arms and rub my belly.
Take ginger for the morning sickness, they said. Make sure you use cocoa butter to prevent stretch marks. Or, better yet, use coconut oil. And if you still have to itch, scratch against the grain, side to side, not up and down.
Skipping the shower after labor wasn’t even the weirdest one. An astronomer casually relayed that going out on a new moon was believed to give the baby a cleft palate. A classmate from college said to avoid wearing scarves or necklaces to prevent the umbilical cord from wrapping around the neck. And as for my explosive rosacea? It was because I was having a girl and she had taken all my prettiness for herself.
Why risk it, right?
Each fable, presented with the best intentions, was based on the same underlying premise: whether it made sense or not, if it didn’t hurt to follow the superstition, why risk it?
And really, that’s the same precautionary logic I folded to when I stopped SCUBA diving and started asking my partner to cook the steaks through. Even if there isn’t a whole lot of peer-reviewed literature on the effect diving has on the human fetus, why risk it?
Before she was married, my mother-in-law was a midwife in the rural Filipino province of Bicol, so I made sure to pay particular attention to her advice.
“When you want to eat something, you should eat it,” she said moving the bowl of mangos closer to me. “Otherwise when the baby is born, she might be born missing something.”
Did she just encourage me to eat as many pimento-stuffed olives and slices of cheesecake as I felt the urge to? Wonderful! But this was soon followed with a forewarning, weighted down with the graveness of a condolence.
But don’t shower?
“After you give birth, make sure you don’t shower right away,” she warned. “They used to not even let you, but when I gave birth in the hospital, they said I could, and I said ‘no, I don’t want.’ You can wipe yourself off with a washcloth, but don’t shower shower for at least the first day.”
When she tried to explain why, she couldn’t quite translate it out of Bicolano. My father-in-law and my partner and his brother nodded their heads when she switched back to the music of her mother tongue, but none of them could quite unravel it in English.
The closest they came was that if you submerged yourself in water too soon after labor, then you would get a certain kind of painful illness in old age.
Waving his hands through the air, my partner guessed that the superstition might have some connection to healthy bacteria that if washed away, could dampen the immune system. Even at that, my own brother laughed because, “The consequence are just far off and vague enough so that you’d completely forget about it, until it hits.”
Dr. Google will know!
I repeated this story to as many people as I could, trying to find out more about this mysterious sickness, but even those who told me to avoid the jungle at night found it perplexing. Finally, I asked one of the midwives I was seeing, figuring that working at a hospital that delivers 5,000 newborns a year, she would have heard it all. Instead she shook her head and said the two words you never want to hear from a medical professional: Google it.
Begrudgingly—because I had Googled every other damn thing you could think of—I asked the all-knowing Internet if it was familiar with this mythos, and that’s how I got to China.
Zuo Yue Zi (坐月子) is a month-long post-partum ritual made by mothers in China. Translating to “sitting the month,” this ritual entails strict bed rest and an emphasis on keeping warm which means wrapping up in blankets, avoiding “cool” foods, slurping a whole lot of soup, and not showering.
For a whole month.
For NPR, Louisa Lim reported that Chinese medicine believes this rest prevents illness and joint pain in old age. Documenting her own period of aquatic abstinence, blogger Taiwan Xifu said she was told the practice would prevent strong headaches in old age.
Given the proximity of the Philippines to China—the former which was probably peopled by the later tens of thousands of years ago—it doesn’t seem that strange. Throughout the last millennia, oceanic trade continued between China and the Philippines so much so that it wouldn’t be odd if Zuo Yue Zi—or other traditions and foods—did pass into parts of the Philippines. If that is where this comes from, then this practice has been in my partner’s family for longer than anyone can remember—whether it was carried over by a long lost Chinese grandmother, or simply added onto a trade deal between fishermen.
May as well stick with tradition.
My family, like all families, has a few practices of its own that we continue to honor simply because they are tradition, and I have been looking forward to passing these onto my child(ren). Just as you get genes from your parents, you should also get high expectations and a list of beautifully inconvenient customs.
So, chalk it up to pregnancy brain and sentimentality, but I’ve been thinking I just might wait a few more hours to shower. Not because I’m afraid of that decades-away illness or because the precautionary principle dictates better safe than sorry, but because this is a priceless and intangible gift, an idea, a meme given to me by the family of my daughter’s father, and that seems worth carrying on.
Besides, I’d like to have something to look forward to in old age, and what could better than getting to tell these old wives tales?