Sitting the Month
Mum arrived with a huge jar filled with sweet rice wine and a white PP woven bag half her size.
—The sweet rice wine is a must, my mother said as she unpacked the luggage. Being a Hakanese from Guangdong, she had never spent her life outside the small town of Shaoguan before.
—What’s that? I’ve never heard of it before. My mother-in-law replied as she helped to unload. Being a Jiangsuer, she had never spent her life outside her northern part of China, either.
But these two women were under the same roof here in Guangzhou, for the birth of my first baby. Since one speaks Cantonese, the other, Yancheng dialect, they struggled to communicate using their “dialectical” Mandarin.
—You’ve never heard of it? Can’t be. The new mother needs to eat it everyday.
—Really? I don’t know.
Lying in the bedroom, I eavesdropped on their talk, my heart hanging at my throat. How can a mother-in-law not know about sweet rice wine?
—Inside this bag is the dried mugwort to make bathing water.
—Bath? New mothers cannot bathe in the month!
—It’s okay to rub the body if she doesn’t touch the cold tap water. Besides, the herb is very good for new mothers. I cut it from my mother’s mountain before I came. Good stuff. You can’t buy it even if you have a lot of money.
—I’ve never heard of it before.
I couldn’t help but hear them drop one topic and pick up another. Most of the time, my mother-in-law was constraining her comments to the minimum. Thank god, I thought.
—The pork knuckles and ginger stew is another must.
—Oh, it’s very good for healing the wound. You stew it with black vinegar and ginger for more than seven hours.
—Wow. It takes so much trouble. In our hometown, new mothers just eat a lot of chicken and chicken soup.
—Oh yes, we do too. I brought chicken, too.
Finally they found something in common! Thanks to the chicken!
The next morning, I was woken up by the fragrance of sweet rice wine, my appetite piqued. After the caesarean operation, I had been eating white porridge and vegetable soup “to protect my digestive system.” Mum brought in a big bowl of sweet rice wine with fried chicken. It was December. The steam from the dish popping up my face made me feel warm. I got a bite with the spoon, just to put it in my mouth, when my mother-in-law came in and said, Why not wait till it’s cooler? Sounded reasonable. I put it down on the bedside table. Then Mum was out. Mother-in-law whispered to my ear, in a very serious tone, We don’t blow when sitting the month. What? I was stopped short. But for what? I blurted. I don’t know, she replied. This is the rule we follow. There she went again. No reason. Other people do it, so you do it.
I shut my mouth and lay beside my baby. She was still asleep. The tiny creature cuddled warmly in the quilt, the body in the shape of an angel archer. Her small hands were lying softly on the bed. I inserted my index finger into her palm, and felt her tiny fingers curling over mine, thus we were connected.
—We eat meat of hen, not of cock.
—We eat meat of cock, not of hen.
A “discussion” broke out in the living room. Not that they were shouting, but it sounded tense. I stretched my ear, nerves on edge.
—Hen is nutritious and cock will hinder the secretion of breast milk.
—No, cock will stimulate the secretion of milk.
Hen or cock, that is THE question. I looked at my bowl of sweet rice wine with fried chicken —- no, cock —- frustrated. Where on earth did all these rules come from?
At this moment, Arthur, who was already in front of the computer, raised his voice, Now we can settle the problem. I checked the internet. Both of you are right.
Oh, come on, how could they both be right? I held my baby’s finger tighter.
In the north, people don’t eat cock, because they are castrated when young; we call them capon. New mothers cannot eat capon because it is not nutritious. But in the south, the cock is a cock. It’s actually good for new mothers and can help stimulate secretion of breast milk, Arthur explained.
Mother-in-law was silent.
Mum said, People here do the same. Can’t be wrong.
Arthur: Mum, when in Canton, do as the Cantonese.
Mother-in-law: Okay. Okay. I won’t say anything anymore.
Finally I wolfed down my breakfast. And that was just the breakfast.
In the following days, we experienced numerous moments like this, until I got used to and ignored them. When my mum presented the ginger pork knuckle, mother-in-law would pass by and dropped a question, Isn’t it too oily? Mum, taken by surprise, asked me, Is it? I would submerge in the bowl, and murmured, Nope. It’s okay…Whenever I had fried rice with ginger, a whole bowl of it, mother-in-law would ask, Can you finish so much?… I figured out that her questions were just disguise for her disapproval .
The baby was wriggling her body, her tongue stretched out, licking her lips. She was hungry. Before I was ready to breastfeed her, she burst out crying and in no time, her granny burst in. Mother-in-law carefully changed the baby’s diaper, tucked her well in the quilt, and asked, shall we give her milk powder?
No. I want to breastfeed her first.
She didn’t say anything and put the baby beside me, helping her to latch on. I made the best effort to adjust my lying position to meet hers. The wound in my stomach hurt as I moved. After the operation, my stomach was like a saggy heavy bag dragging downward.
What’s that sound? Mother-in-law’s question alerted me. Bad omen! This isn’t right. If a baby is really getting milk from the mother, the sound should be like “gudu—gudu,” rather than this “tsk—tsk,” she continued. And my mother came in and seconded her.
I started to doubt myself. They helped reposition the baby until all of us saw white liquid brim at the edge of her mouth. Maybe this time, she would have enough. I kept praying. May she have enough this time.
Half an hour passed. I saw her hair wet with sweat. Oh, poor little girl, she had exerted all her effort. The moment I unhooked her, she burst out into crying again. Still hungry! I know! Mother-in-law was already busy making milk from powder. She held the baby in her arms, and I heard the “gudu—gudu” sound. Within ten minutes, she finished her 100 ml of milk and became quiet. I was jealous of the powdered milk.
In order to breastfeed, we had consulted nursery friends, books, and mother friends, and got a list of advice:
Drink a lot of soup, such as papaya & crucian, pork knuckle & peanut. … No problem at all. I had five bowls of soup a day.
Have enough rest at night so that the body could produce a lot of milk.
Feed the baby at midnight when she is hungry, this is the best time for stimulating secretion.
These two seemed to be contradictory, but I could try to strike a balance.
Don’t feed the baby with powder milk. It’s easier to suck from the bottle than from the mother. If she relied too much on the bottle, she would gradually stop sucking from the mother. This was the toughest. Mother-in-law never seemed to believe that we could get rid of the bottle. Every time when the baby was hungry, she would ask me to feed her perfunctorily, and at the same time, prepared to make powdered milk.
—See, this is the only way she could stop crying, Mother-in-law said, as if she were the only one who knew the right thing to do.
—You gave her too much powdered milk! I burst out.
—But she is hungry, can’t you see? She raised her voice, a little shaky.
—Yes, but why not wait a moment? Why are you so quick to give her the bottle and make her impatient with breast milk? My voice shook too.
—Because you have No Milk!
I slammed the door behind me.
In the darkness of my room, a tiny voice whispered, calm down. It’s no use losing your temper. Another louder voice shouted, forget about that hypocritical politeness! If you don’t show your attitude, she’d think she was always right!
As I threw myself down on the bed, Arthur came in. He sat beside me, reaching for the palm-sized notebook on the bedside table. I turned my back toward him, not uttering a word. He leafed through the notebook, in which I had been keeping detailed record of each meal for the baby. Heaving a sigh, he murmured to himself,
3:00 breast milk
4:00 milk powder 100ml
7:00 breast milk
8:00 milk powder 100ml
10:00 breast milk
11:00 milk powder 60ml
14:30 breast milk
15:00 milk powder 100ml
18:30 breast milk
19:30 milk powder 100ml
Now let me add the last entry: 21:00 breast milk
21:30 milk powder 100 ml
Then he nudged me, as if he had made a discovery: Hey, see the pattern?
I sat up: Yeah, the breast milk wouldn’t last for an hour, while the milk powder could keep her satisfied for more than two hours. Blahblahblah… I know, I know. I know.
Hey, honey, keep calm. No one is blaming you. Everyone is here to do the best for us. Look at me.
I felt his hands on my arms, my head less dizzy. No matter what granny does, remember, she was not meaning harm. Whenever you are about to lose your temper, think about this. Okay?
I know. But what she did was fatal for breast milk.
Then you don’t have to argue with her head on. Let me do the talking. Okay? I know you can make it. I know you can.
Mum had gone.
I saw Mother-in-law tearing off one page of the calendar, as if the load on her shoulder was a piece lighter. She had been counting down the days. So had I. Day 28, good, it was almost the end. Mother-in-law had to boil the mugwort herbal water for rubbing my body today. This was the first time for her, but last time for me. I could still remember the begrudging look on her face the first time she heard of this herb. But she seemed to buy the idea now.
I was sitting in the bathroom. Hot white stream kept popping up and filled the room. In a December evening, nothing could be better than this. Later I had the sweet-rice wine with mother-in-law. She said, The sweet-rice wine is really delicious, besides, it keeps your stomach warm. I was a little surprised by what she said. Maybe she was not as stubborn as I thought.
Wah —- The baby’s screech broke the tranquility of the night. I hurried to the bedroom and breastfed her for more than half an hour. Slowly she closed her eyes, and her mouth loosened. Hey, wake up. I fiddled at her cheek, but there was no reaction.
—Granny, she’s asleep…
Mother-in-law tiptoed in the bedroom
—How about skipping the milk powder?
—You can say that again.
She held the baby and put her back into the cradle, humming some inaudible lyrics. With the lullaby drifting around, I fell asleep.
Ling Li is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the School of Foreign Languages, Sun Yat-sen University. She has translated works from English to Chinese, including co-translating Peter Halt’s science fiction thriller Chromosome 8 into Chinese in 2008. Now she mainly focuses on creative nonfiction writing and children’s literature.