How the World Nourishes Moms
A new mother’s body is vulnerable post-birth. And while the West constantly promotes the idea of “bouncing back,” most cultures still recognize the need to take it slow after the birth of a child. Traditions like zuo yuezi, an ancient Chinese practice, recommend a specific diet of soft, nourishing foods to aid your essentially new body on its journey into motherhood. Heng Ou, a mother of three, built her company, MotherBees, around the tenets of zuo yuezi, which her aunt shared with her after Ou’s first birth. Once she felt the restorative benefits of zuo yuezi, Ou wanted to pass them along to other new mothers in her life, so she began cooking them meals. And with some practical, modern updates to zuo yuezi, Ou started a meal-delivery service in Los Angeles. Her book, The First Forty Days, is the perfect companion to the postpartum period, filled with Ou’s favorite meals and snacks and a few self-care rituals for good measure. Ou encourages this moment of rest as a time to align with the new rhythms of the body and shift the period of postpartum toward a state of much-needed pampering. Granted, that’s easier said than done when there’s a new baby in the house, but small indulgences have a way of making a big difference.
A Q&A with Heng Ou
What are the most important nondietary components of zuo yuezi that can be more easily adopted today?
Rest, definitely. Also, having or setting up good boundaries before you give birth. I talk a lot about having those circular boundaries around you and around your house. Keep your bed and your bedroom sacred. If you have visitors after you give birth, have them outside, making you food or bringing you food, so they’re not always in your personal space.
Why does your book focus on the first forty days specifically?
Postpartum traditions range all around the world from forty to sixty days. It can even go up to three months or two years. Forty days is roughly around six weeks, and that’s a good amount of time to relax and sink into motherhood. Hormones are typically just getting back into a good balance. Also, energetically, your baby is feeding off of your energy during that time. Six weeks for me was a big turning point, mentally, physically, spiritually—that’s when I felt a lightbulb or an aha moment.
What are the unifying factors in the postpartum dietary traditions you researched?
Soft, warming foods. Nothing to do with cold or cold salads. And grounding food that has good oils, like ghee or sesame oil. We use those at MotherBees, and we also use avocado oil. Mothers are considered to be light and airy after birth, and we want to settle them and ground them in their bodies. We start with their digestive fire—their gut fire—so it circulates internally first. The gut helps to balance everything else out, restoring the body for the new mother as well as for potential future births. The factors differ somewhat by culture:
According to traditional Chinese medicine, the physical body is governed by a life force called jing. We’re all born with an abundance of jing, but significant physical changes, the kind experienced in pregnancy and childbirth, gradually deplete this energy. The goal of zuo yuezi is to replenish jing and bring the body back into a balance, using the principles of yin and yang.
Yin represents the energy responsible for moistening and cooling. Some foods that increase the yin state include vegetables, sea vegetables, fruits, beans, beef, pork, pork kidney, nettle, honey, and ginseng.
Yang is the energy that warms and activates body functions. Foods that increase the yang state includes quinoa, raspberry, walnut, chicken, lamb, kidneys, algae, and black vinegar.
In India, I spoke with many women, aunties, and grandmothers about their afterbirth traditions. Their Sanskrit word “seva” means “selfless service,” or work performed without any thought of reward or repayment. In ancient India, seva was believed to help one’s spiritual growth and at the same time contribute to the improvement of the family and community. Postpartum is considered a way of life, as the couple would move into their in-laws’ home for one to three months after birth, leaving their daily chores aside. New mothers were fed, massaged, and cared for all through the day.
The diet focuses in part on warm to room-temperature drinks:
Tapioca pearls, boiled in fresh cow’s milk with sugar and cardamom
Huwa water, or dill water, made by boiling dill seeds in water
Almond milk with ghee and honey
The Material of Medicine, written 2,000 years ago by a Greek doctor named Dioscorides, recorded remedies for women’s reproductive health, including thirty medicinals for lactation purposes.
Here are a few waters and teas that were considered to help increase milk supply and support the baby’s digestion:
Barley water, made by boiling hulled barley grains in water.
Soak chickpeas in water and drink the liquid once the chickpeas have sprouted.
Astragalus tea is made from leaves but the root of this plant is also eaten to increase the production of breastmilk in India and China.
Is the goal of the eating plan you recommend to return to the health of the prepregnancy body?
No. It’s really about going through a transition and gateway into a period of time of acknowledging that there’s no going back. There’s only going forward. You’re stepping into a new realm of womanhood and motherhood. You’re going through a mourning time, too, where you have this responsibility and you’re a new person. I like to see it as a new chapter, where someone else is there for you and you’re there for them.
What’s something that no one really tells women to expect postpartum?
The loneliness. It’s okay to say, “I’m really lonely right now, and I’m feeling really bored of the same routine. I’ve been getting up a couple times a night; I’ve been wearing the same clothes; I haven’t brushed my teeth or showered in a couple days. And my partner is going to go back to work in the morning, and everyone has left because I’m at the six-week mark.” It’s these lonely parts, especially for American women, that we don’t talk about enough—when we should call out and say, “I’m lonely here and needing some sort of connection with somebody.”
What role do you think food plays in that?
I think there are a lot of different components to food. Food can be very healing and replenishing, obviously, but also it can really lift the spirits, knowing that someone made it for you when you had no mobility to make a broth for two days.
Two Recipes from The First Forty Days
Heng Ou birthed MotherBees after she had her third child. Inspired by the healing foods she experienced during her own regimen of zuo yuezi, the Chinese tradition of postpartum care, she set out to give Los Angeles mothers the same nourishing care. Her recipes can be found in The First Forty Days: The Art of Nourishing the New Mother.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies. They are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop. This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.