My Postpartum “Quarantine”

12 Apr

In Mexico, after giving birth, you have a cuarentena, which, while it might sound like a quarantine, is actually just your special 40 days (from the word cuarenta, 40). These 40 days are the amount of time deemed necessary to recover from giving birth and to establish your connection with your new baby. It’s sort of like our 6 weeks in the U.S., except that the only special treatment that you’re guaranteed in your 6 weeks there is that they can’t fire you for missing work (although they’re probably not paying you for it, either).

In Mexico, traditionally, someone (or multiple people- usually your mother-in-law and/or your mother) takes care of all the household work so you don’t have to. For 40 days you are exempt from washing dishes and clothes! You’re not expected to cook! You’re pretty much only expected to sit around and take care of your baby and yourself. For nearly 6 weeks!

So you can imagine how envious I was, how wonderful this sounded to me, as I waded through severe sleep deprivation and the confusion and overwhelming-ness that is first-time motherhood in the U.S. I wanted to cry when people said “sleep when the baby sleeps,” because that was the only time I could get anything done. And what was I getting done? Dishes, cooking, washing clothes, AND a zillion other tasks related to our planned move to Mexico 7 weeks after giving birth. It was total chaos, and I threw myself little pity parties about once a day, even though people tried to help me as much as they could. But people in the U.S. don’t have the kind of lifestyle that allows for taking care of somebody full-time. Conan was lucky to get a whole week off from work. My family did all they could, but they had jobs and other responsibilities. Friends dropped by and tried to help where possible, too, but there was SO MUCH to do. So I muttered to myself about next time, when hopefully I’d be in Mexico and no one would expect me to wash diapers or anything.

Fast forward, and here we are! I gave birth in Mexico! So, did I jump on the gravy train of postpartum life in Mexico? Of course not (go ahead and imagine me palm-slapping my forehead here). And why not? Because I can’t freaking do anything the easy, normal way.

Some of it’s not my fault, though. I mean, I just don’t have a normal life! (Ok, maybe that’s my fault.) When Khalil was born my mom and her partner, Dee, were visiting, and we stayed in a hotel room with them because our house still doesn’t have electricity. Then we moved back into our house after they left, with Conan’s mom Paulina, who had been in town since before the birth. Once we finally got reorganized in our house, my dad and stepmom came down and we schlepped ourselves and our essential stuff back into another rented room with them. Then the place where we were all staying got broken into (a whole different story) and so we moved into a different hotel. Then after they left we moved back into our house (and no, STILL no freaking electricity), this time sans the mother in law. Here are some shots from my not-so-normal life.

This one's pretty normal! The baby with his papi, shortly after birth.

This one’s pretty normal! The baby with his papi, shortly after birth.

Khalil with his Nonna, just a couple hours after birth

Khalil with his Nonna, just a couple hours after birth

More grandparent loving, with Gamma and Paw Paw

More grandparent loving, with Gamma and Paw Paw

Lucia swimming with her Abia Paulina at one of the many pools we visited

Lucia swimming with her Abia Paulina at one of the many pools we visited

There wasn’t really a situation to allow for the whole just-you-and-the-baby-in-bed time as is typical here. By day three after birth I was up and about, feeling good after my easy birth, walking down the street to a restaurant and the likes. And anyway, I quickly found out that the cuarentena, for me, is not all it’s cracked up to be. Oh, the disillusionment of reality.

Out and about with our matching wraps. Lucia takes care of her baby, too.

Out and about with our matching wraps. Lucia takes care of her baby, too.

The thing is, all that help during your cuarentena happens not just from sheer niceness (as I had assumed before moving here), but more because it’s part of THE RULES you’re supposed to follow for the well-being of your child, yourself, and any future children (and your ability to handle having future children). And ye who know me know that I have a really hard time following rules unless they have very clear reasons that make sense to me. And many Mexican customs (okay, many customs in any and every country), tragically, don’t meet that criteria for me. I just don’t get it. And there are tons and tons of rules to follow in this whole cuarentena thing! I bet there are hundreds!

The funny thing about customs anywhere, though, is that they are generally based on some kind of empirical evidence, even though it’s not documented and sometimes is taken out of context. I suspect some customs are based on some observed correlation that people assumed to be causation (like there are more colds in Winter so cold weather causes colds- false!). And even if it’s not my thing or doesn’t make sense to me, it seems to work for many people. One of Conan’s aunts swears that following the rules for your 40 days is what makes the difference in your body holding up in the long run. And remember, we’re talking about mamas in the past giving birth maybe 10 times. They needed special care- and a break- for their body and their mind, I’m sure. I couldn’t make it through 10 newborn phases (and 10 toddler phases! Geez!), special care or not! And certainly it does makes sense that getting ample time in the beginning to rest and bond with your baby is good for everyone in the long run. Too bad there are too many other rules involved to make it worth it for me. And, me being me, I’d never actually make it to spend 40 days in bed, even if it sounds nice originally.

So let me tell you about these other rules. Not that everyone follows them to a T, nor that all women stay in bed for 40 days. But most people down here at least follow it to some degree. For instance, you can’t eat pork. Okay, I can certainly live with that. Conan even hypothesized a reason- that pork is more likely than other foods to have yucky bacteria on it and make you sick. True? Hmmm, probably not. And definitely not my experience, since all of my food poisoning cases have been from vegetables or seafood. But I could be talked into this rule. No pork- I’m an ex vegetarian anyway. I’d happily buy this rule, if someone would explain some of the other ones to me. And I know they have reasons, or at least they did once, but maybe no one remembers them anymore.

And if it were just pork you couldn’t eat, it’d be one thing. But your diet is so limited that there are like 10 things you can eat, according to Paulina – queso asado (Mexican grilled cheese) and carne asada (grilled beef) and a handful of other things I can’t remember. And you’re not supposed to drink anything cold! Imagine living in the land of eternal summer, where it’s always 90 degrees and you can’t have ice water. That’s cruelty, from my point of view. (And it rules out ice cream! Double cruelty!)

And then there are the rules I found out via getting scolded by strangers while I was out. You’re not supposed to hold your baby upright until they’re older. The baby’s supposed to be lying down all the time, whether on a surface or in your arms. (Both my kids would only burp in upright position, and they just seem to prefer that position. So there.)

“Where is his hat?” someone asked, worried he would catch a chill in the stifling heat. We were in a covered area, so they weren’t worried about the sun. They were definitely worried about the “cold.”

“You need to wear a tight wrap on your belly” one lady told me, noticing my post-baby belly hanging about loosely. “No, I don’t need to, thanks,” I smiled at her, because, you know, I’m a foreigner. I refrained from saying, “I don’t have to do shit!”

Nor did I yell, “You’re not the boss of me,” when a little old lady told me I needed to stay home in bed for the whole 6 weeks.

Then one of Conan’s family members who I normally get along really well with approached me, worried, trying to cover up the baby some more, insisting that I not be out in the misty, breezy (ish) part of the evening because it would hurt both me and the baby. I should’ve had my head covered, too. Oops.

Luckily, my mother-in-law didn’t really want to follow all the rules when she gave birth, either, so she wasn’t about to try to force it all on me (not that she could have succeeded). Regardless, I’ve become an expert on shrugging off people’s advice-disguised-as-law, thanks to child #1. But the other day I ran into another foreigner with a newborn who’s a first-time mom. “Is everyone telling you to put more clothes on your baby?” she asked, and I remembered how I’d felt when I first moved down here with an infant. I felt like I had to defend myself and my choices all the time, which is super hard when you’re just figuring it out yourself and questioning whether you’re doing it right or not.

“Get used to it,” I told her. I explained that I just smile and nod my head, or tell people, “está bien”- a nice non-committal “ok.” It took me a long time to decide that I didn’t have to defend my parenting, that I didn’t owe anybody an explanation, that I (and their father) get to make the decisions, whether  they’re “wrong” or “right.”

“And,” I told her cheerfully, “remind people that you’re a foreigner! The same rules don’t apply.” She told me she was going back to the U.S., but even so, she’ll need to get used to it. They won’t be telling her to put more clothes on the baby in summertime, but there’ll still be strangers and well-intentioned loved ones sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong all the time. It might even be worse because she won’t get to play the foreigner card.

Meanwhile, my failed cuarentena is coming to a close. Or I guess I could say, my chance at what seemed like the good life of postpartum time is over. I blew it. But I blew it exactly how I wanted to this time. I spent time with people that I love. I’ve done pretty minimal amounts of housework partly from some help and partly from deciding that stuff doesn’t have to get done in a timely manner right now. And I’ve bonded with my baby- more often out and about in town than in bed, but I’m still bonding aplenty, and including my older kid in the mix (instead of sending her off to grandma’s house for weeks! Yikes! Not for me!).  It’s been a pretty great cuarentena.

Out and about, rolling with the punches, enjoying it all

Out and about, rolling with the punches, enjoying it all

At 5 weeks, Khalil's rolling with the punches, too.

At 5 weeks, Khalil’s rolling with the punches, too.

The best part about this second baby and our cuarentena (aside from me not trying to change countries) is that I know that it’s my special time regardless of how I choose to spend it. And I know how fleeting it is, so I’ve gotta enjoy every moment, sleep deprived or not. Before I know it my sweet infant will be a two-year old, and then instead of strangers trying to boss me around it’ll be my kid, screaming wildly that he wants the other color socks or whatever. Really the strangers are easier to deal with! So, yes, mom, I can see that the grass is always greener on the other side. You tried to tell me. Cheers to me not pining for what I don’t have this time around.

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