A Modern Mother’s First Forty Days

Being an expectant mother is  a bit like you’re walking on a treadmill and the speed keeps getting cranked up for you, bit by bit, until you’re jogging at a pace just uncomfortable enough that you wouldn’t mind stopping, but you think you maybe can keep it going…the question is how long? In a flash, labor begins, the birth we’ve been planning for is happening, and in the blink of an eye we are holding a child in our arms and now need not only to process what on earth just happened to us, but step it up and care for this precious being that’s depending upon us. At least here in the United States, that’s the case.

But across many other parts of the world, the First Forty Days of life, are a period of turning in, resting, doing (frankly) nothing but, for the mother, finding her stride on the treadmill of parenthood and for the baby, learning the first inklings of what it means to be human.

And nothing more.

In Eastern medicine traditions, The First Forty Days after a child is born is a sitting-in period meant for mama + babe to recover, recuperate, bond, and bloom. Special foods are eaten, seclusion is enjoyed and stimulation, activity, exertion, and obligations are practically eliminated so that the pair can individually and together overcome birth with strength and grace. As a modern woman + Ayurvedic practitioner this sounded dreamy to me.

So, when my own world turned upside down, Leo was born and I was shot out of my own cannon into parenthood and began observing my own First Forty Days, I felt I knew just about everything there was to know about what I wouldn’t be doing during this tender time. I had all sorts of notes from the ancient texts about “how to do the non-doing;” how to recruit help, hold my boundaries, and observe the requests of my body and my baby. But these texts said nothing of how to mold my modern life around this wisdom. But with my own Forty Days in the rearview, I’d like to say that there is a modern way to observe and honor this pivotal time. There is a way to “non-do” and still do this sacred window justice.

The sacred window

In Ayurvedic medicine, and in Chinese medicine to some degree, the healing modalities are diet and lifestyle; the way that we observe the qualities of nature around us, and the nature within us is the process, and restoring balance with our innate nature is the goal. Birth – for mother and babe – is a wild, challenging adventure that tests the emotional, physical, and psychological elements of our being. Both parties are changed on a cosmic level. The baby bursts onto the scene and begins adjusting to a world outside the womb; a noisy, cold, abrasive, tactile, and tricky world. And, as the baby is arriving, the mother is called upon to deplete her deepest reserves. When she’s at her most vulnerable, she’s called upon again to heal her own body-mind and to care for another being…to no end. In Western culture, we brush over just how much recovery is required to restore vitality and set a strong, healthful foundation for this pair. But in Eastern tradition, there’s a cultural space to allow for this deep healing: The First Forty Days.

The Chinese refer to this time frame as “zuo yue zi,” which, translates from Mandarin to “sitting the moon,” which is for all intents and purposes a confinement of mother and baby, During this period of rest, a new mother is fed special foods to restore her body, heal her womb and ease her digestion. The meals aim to promote blood flow, restore qi (or Ojas in Ayurvedic medicine,) and bolster milk production. The mother is expected not to lift a finger while the elder women in her family and community care for her. She has no responsibilities besides resting, eating, and feeding her baby and her community expects her to honor these tasks, and to support her in them.

In ancient Ayurvedic texts, the importance of a specific Forty Day window is mentioned less, but the endurance event, and the importance of recovering from it. From an Ayurvedic perspective, when the baby arrives, the newborn leaves space and air behind in the mother’s belly. This excess room can create feelings of instability that manifest in anxiety, depression, insomnia, and restlessness; all untethered feelings that can be remedied with close, tender care in the First Forty Days. This space left behind is just one of the reasons that the postpartum period is a lifetime high point of vata for most women. The mother is full of mobile, light, dry, and cold qualities after the loss of energy and blood, and fluids. Add to that sleep deprivation and fatigue that comes from feeding and nourishing a newborn and you can see how vata pops up in every aspect of this period.

The baby is also exposed to a great deal of vata dosha, by way of their stressful journey through the birth canal, popping out into the rough and cold world so unlike the womb, and the excessive sensory input of adjusting to their new life outside of the mother’s body.

To that end, in Ayurveda, the mother is nurtured with as many heavy, warm, oily, smooth, and stable qualities as possible. Traditionally, the mother is taken care of by a team of women who provide these qualities with food, herbs, massage, and other practices. The three main pillars to support the above qualities are diet, herbs, and oil massage for the full forty-two days after delivery – all of which calm vata and nourish the mother’s body, enabling her mind and being to also heal and take her form as a mother.

Western women, ancient wisdom

I was all in on the reasons and traditions behind this Sacred Window. Even with the tremendous circle of support around me, it was shocking just how poorly informed our society is about the deep loss of vitality this life event inspires, just how subtle the pressure to “bounce back” to life, and how conditional the community support. You’re going to have to explain why you’re not inviting your extended family to meet the baby until after the Forty Days are over, something you wouldn’t have to do in India, China or across South East Asia. But still, it IS possible to honor, enjoy and reap benefits from a modern First Forty Days.

My First Forty Days didn’t look the same as if I was in another country, and as I exit this tender time, I realize that that’s not only because society isn’t the same shape; it’s because I also am not the same shape. I found myself longing for connection, for opportunities to introduce my curious newborn little boy to his world. I craved foods that weren’t kitchari, and I really really wanted a cocktail after a couple of weeks. And so, I took it all in stride and crafted my own Sacred Window. Even if I didn’t follow “the rules” to a tee, I found this practice to be tremendously helpful, revitalizing, empowering and soothing for both me and Leo. And I would recommend shaping a First Forty Day window to any expecting mother I meet.

This is how I did it.

I recruited helping hands

We were very lucky to have the assistance of my dear sister and mother for the Forty Days. They were so critical to the success of this quiet and sweet window for us. But, not everyone has family or friends who are able to show up and stay near for such an extended period. Fear not – there are other ways to recruit assistance. Organizing a meal train among friends in your community is incredibly helpful. If resources allow, hiring someone to come to clean the house every couple of weeks is a world of help (we did this as well,) and even taking a simple measure such as setting up a grocery delivery service (something we already use and have found to be incredibly helpful) is a super-support.

I also coordinated the team of bodyworkers and therapists I worked with throughout my pregnancy to perform services in our home, so I didn’t have to leave Leo. Once or twice a week, depending on schedule, I was receiving a body treatment meant to warm, soothe and heal my body. And the therapists worked on little Leo too. Acupuncture, abhyanga, Mayan massage, and post-natal massage were all in the mix. This was one of the most important parts of my recovery, and one I’m very pleased we budgeted for from the outset of pregnancy.

We coordinated the logistics

I don’t know what the structure of this window would look like if I lived in a culture where the Forty Days was not just supported, but expected. In my mind, I imagine a diligent team of trusted women with weathered, wise hands cooking, cleaning and shooing away visitors while my baby and I slept. This is not the way the Forty Days unfolded for me.

Instead, my beloved sister, mother and I devised a schedule that ensured we’d have some meals ready to rock and an extra hand to help with laundry, tidying up, and anything else that needed sorting while our budding little fam was resting, bonding or trying to figure out how to put on diapers. Typically, someone would come twice a week for a couple of hours to cook, check-in, tidy, and hold little Leo (there were rewards for the work!)

I created space

If seclusion was what we were expecting, it became obvious that our space was going to have to be set up to receive our new little human, and also to support our cozy, lazy lifestyle for a few weeks. So I spent some extra time before Leo’s arrival ensuring we had what we needed. Here are some measures we considered.

The day to day

Traditionally speaking, mama and baby are secluded at home, not leaving for any reason, during the Forty Days. The reason for this isn’t so much to keep them in hiding as it is to limit stimulation and exertion for the pair. There were elements of this that sounded luxurious to me and other elements that made me feel claustrophobic. I knew that there would be times that I surely wanted to leave – at least to walk in the nature surrounding our home. So instead, I fixated on keeping the stimulation and exertion at a minimum for us. I did so to limit the elevation of vata dosha in my body, Leo’s body, and in our home. And it worked! Leo’s health and well-being clearly benefitted. He slept soundly, ate voraciously. His skin gleamed, and his eyes opened – steady and deep. I’m certain that this intention – held by us and those in our close circle – helped him to avoid colic and to gain a solid foundation during his first weeks.

There were very few times that I left the house during this period of time; once to enjoy lunch out while our dear Rosa cleaned the house (it was too noisy for Leo to be home.) There was one time when I jetted out for a pedicure (a lovely treat after labor,) but for the most part we stayed home, stayed in and stayed quiet. And, we took these extra measures to reduce the vata swirling during this time.

It was particularly challenging to stand our ground on some of these boundaries, which felt forced for the small community around us who couldn’t quite grasp the concept of the Forty Days. Some surely felt we were “leaving them out” of our magic moment. And there were certainly moments of clashing with family members who were eager for access to tiny Leo. But in the end, this time was about us. And we stood by that.

Eating eating eating

The shape and lifestyle practices honored during the First Forty Days are half of the effort. But the diet observed for the mother (and thus, for the baby) is the other half. Instead of having big plates of sushi delivered to my laboring table, jugs of cocktails on the ready at home, I was very careful with the foods I ate during the First Forty Days, and the way I introduced them. And, I really noticed when I threw caution to the wind; whether my digestion flared up or constipated, Leo’s sleep or easy digestion would be disturbed, or we all would feel a little more sluggish than we typically do on little sleep, my food choices were a clear indicator that healing was happening and that my nourishment was playing a massive role.

All through the Forty Days, I sought to prioritize the digestibility of my foods as well as the nutrient density. At every chance, I was adding fat or protein to help bolster my milk supply and ensure that Leo’s nourishment was solid as well. My menu for the duration consisted of predominantly soups, stews, and hot dishes full of cooked seasonal vegetables, nourishing broths, and spiked with spices to help boost digestion and energetic warmth.

eating with Leo

A few favorites were:

Spring Green Kitchari for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Super Green Soup as a bright lunch.

Homemade Boullion, sipped on as a snack.

Turmeric Lemongrass Curry Noodle Soup for dinner.

For snacks, I found myself craving…

Almond Butter Granola Bars 

Leo’s Boosted Oatmeal Cookies

Black Magic Energy Balls

Favorite Almond Butter Bars 

Adaptogenic Date Shakes

It’s worth adding that there were times during my Forty Days when I found myself craving something that wasn’t, well, soup. There were a couple of nights when friends brought by pizza or tacos. For another couple of nights, we enjoyed the homemade lasagne that I’d made before Leo was born and stored up in the freezer. I had a frequent craving for thick slices of toast with almond butter, ghee, and strawberry-chia jam. So that’s what I ate. And when other foods were on the table, I made a specific effort not to eat meats that were too heavy (pork or beef, specifically) and steered clear of spicy, fatty foods. Light, warm, soothing, and easy – not adventurous were my food rules and they served me very well.

Out of the window, into the world

With my First Forty Days behind me now and the enticing, challenging path of motherhood ahead, I find myself feeling strong, solid, and vital. My body has recovered fast and my spirit is budding into motherhood just as quickly as Leo is growing. I’m so proud of this little human that I grew and proud of myself for growing him so well.

But I’m also feeling very confident and proud of this time I carved out. It was not easy to stick to my guns and hold my boundaries, especially in the face of family who was eager to meet Leo. But now that he’s a bouncing, 8-week-old little boy, they’ve forgotten all about the fact that they didn’t get to meet him straight home from the hospital.

But I haven’t. Having that quiet time of seclusion was priceless for me, for us. I’ve never focused so hard on my own healing, my own well-being. I now have proof that I know what self-care is, and I know that should I ever need a period of time to focus on it for myself, I can take it. And I will.

But for now, I’m going to ride the challenging waves of being a new mama and keep close in mind the fact that this time is tender, that my heart is growing sizes each day, and that it’s ok to step off the treadmill once in a while to just appreciate this miracle of life and the sacred invitation that I’ve received to create and raise it.