by Raichal Reed
Rites of passage have happened through every culture and throughout time. According to a scholarly journal written by Malin Eberhard-Gran, there are three phases: Separation, Margin/Threshold, and Reincorporation. Separation is defined as the individual being detached from the social environment (family, friends, etc.), then the margin (the outer edge of society where growth and knowledge occurs) and finally reincorporation (the individual returns to society changed and in a new social position). Just like with these rites of passage, pregnancy and the postpartum can be defined within these three phases. For the sake of this article, we will be focusing on the transition between the margin and the reincorporation as seen through the birth of the child to the end of the postpartum period.
The postpartum period has been defined by many cultures. Some names that “the postpartum” has taken in other cultures are: Satogaeri Bunben (Japan), Zuo yuezi (China), Yu duan (Thailand), La Cuarenta (Mexico), and Pos-parto (Portugal). There is an average of 21 days to 5 weeks among all recorded history which extensions or shortening depending on individual circumstances or specific faiths. The oldest records found speaking on instruction or depiction of a postpartum period can be found in two places. The first is in the Old Testament of the Bible in the book of Leviticus which most scholars agree had to be written around 6th century BC prior to the death of Moses. Depending on what version of the bible you were to read, the days can range from 33 to 80 days following the birth of the child. Quoting this literature, it states in Leviticus 12:5, “She must not touch anything sacred or go into sanctuary until the days of her purification are complete”. The interesting part about such a wide gap in time of rest was that depending on the anatomical sex of the child, the days were doubled. A son would give you 33 to 40 days, while the birth of a daughter would give you a doubled number from 66 to 80 days minimum. Menstruation has always been seen as unclean in biblical times to the extent that people were kept in a separate tent when bleeding, so they do not contaminate/corrupt others. “The Red Tent” written by Anita Diamant is an excellent depiction of the customs and rules that came around those who menstruate. The postpartum period depicted in the Bible had more to do with the bleeding than with the resting of the birthing person. The second oldest record is found in 13th century Iceland written by a poet named Snorre Sturlison. He writes an epic depicting the mother of a Norwegian king who fled to the woods north of the kingdom with the prince for the summer months until they had both recovered from labor and delivery. That would be a minimum of 90 days.
Coming back to present time, we can find difference and commonality within multiple cultures concerning the margin and reincorporation of the birthing person. Common features include but are not limited to: a mandated rest, social seclusion, protective rituals, and gifts/celebrations of the new social status of the birthing person. The “margin” occurs during pregnancy where the birthing person now has to come to the understanding that their life as an individual is no longer their own. They are now moving toward the outskirts of society of those without children and will reintegrate into society at the status of a “guardian” for the new life they created. The rest and social seclusion stems from prior history where the birthing person and their child were vulnerable to outside infection as well as were very likely to die.
There were beliefs that harm could come to those in the community/village who were vulnerable and so they must be kept hidden and protected. Rituals were performed to wish the child a healthy and strong body as well as for the birthing person to survive the postpartum and bear more children. In some areas of China it is believed that the postpartum period can help or harm the future life afterward. Those who have good health could do too much too quickly or not take care of their body which would lead to consequences later in life (hysterectomy, muscular dystrophy, etc.). If they were to take the time to heal and eat well they could become more healthy than they were prior to pregnancy.
With the rise of internet and blending of cultures, we find practices of multiple cultures in many households. Extended families are coming to a middle ground in how the birthing person is treated. This is seen predominantly in the subject of belly binding. It is a lot more common for individuals to wear their belly supports following birth during the postpartum period and depending on their background it could add hot stones or warming pastes. There are also taboos on foods that are cold (cucumbers, lettuce, etc.) that keep the body internally “cold” and are not good for health and recovery. Postpartum parties are becoming a thing rather than a baby shower or gender reveal party. People are starting to come back to the concept that after the baby is a trimester all its own. Despite this, some individuals are going back to the workplace and outside environment at earlier and earlier times (not always of their
It is important to understand and educate the birthing community on what the benefits of self care about delivery are. I am also a firm believer that the more information is known, the more advocacy can be made for people who struggle to stay home due to not only social pressure but economic statuses. If importance of the future health of the family and the birthing person is better understood, then more changes can be made toward longer and paid leave from work places. The postpartum period should be treated just as importantly if not of a greater importance than the prenatal period because these changes can affect the body for life. The bonds that are created in the postpartum with the newly family unit that is created and between individuals and their baby is sacred, private, and timeless.
Dennis, C.-L., Fung, K., Grigoriadis, S., Robinson, G. E., Romans, S., & Ross, L. (2007). Traditional Postpartum Practices and Rituals: A Qualitative Systematic Review. Women’s Health, 487–502. https://doi.org/10.2217/17455057.3.4.487
Eberhard-Gran, Malin, Susan Garthus-Niegel, Kristian Garthus-Niegel, and Anne Eskild. “Postnatal care: a cross-cultural and historical perspective.” Archives of Women’s Mental Health 13.6 (2010): 459-466.
Traditional beliefs and practices in the postpartum period in Fujian Province, China: a qualitative study Joanna H Raven, Qiyan Chen, Rachel J Tolhurst, Paul Garner BMC Pregnancy Childbirth. 2007; 7: 8. Published online 2007 Jun 21. doi: 10.1186/1471-2393-7-8
Raichal Reed – ” So my name is Raichal Reed I am a 24 year old, fourth year student midwife originally from South Mississippi now residing in Central Texas. I’ve always been in love with the birthing world ever since childhood and decided in the second grade I was going to work with women and children. Coming to Texas I found that midwifery was regulated and decided to take that route instead of medical school after receiving my Bachelors in Sociology/Pre-Med. I am the current volunteer director for Giving Austin Labor Support, a non profit of volunteer doulas, and a midwife student to two wonderful Midwives (one CPM and one CNM).”