Lessons From “Lying-In”

Alana Cattapan reflects on what postpartum confinement can teach us about living through COVID-19.

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The months of confinement due to COVID-19 have brought about struggles that have long often accompanied isolation. Journalists and scholars have written of the lessons we might learn from historical pandemics. Others who have lived through solitary confinement, have published advice about how to deal with enforced solitude while eschewing claims that living through the pandemic is anything like the torture they have faced.

As a scholar of reproduction, I have been thinking about how the term “confinement” has historically been used to refer to childbirth and recovery. Pregnancy, confinement, and childrearing used to be understood as the “three stages of maternity,” with confinement comprising the delivery and subsequent “lying in” period.

Lying-in—sometimes called the “fourth trimester” or postpartum confinement—is different in different cultural contexts. In the Chinese practice of “sitting the month,” women stay at home following childbirth, with relatives or a nurse to provide care, nourishing foods, and childcare. In Latin America, a similar practice is called “la cuarantena”—the Spanish word for quarantine.  In Europe and North America, women were long told to stay in bed in the weeks after childbirth, with Victorian-era women, for example, being cared for by relatives or a so-called “monthly nurse”.

Photo Credit: Welcome Collection. Image Description: Confinement of the Dauphiness Anne-Marie-Victoire of Bavaria; butcher carrying black skin of a newly skinned lamb; the lamb, alive, following.

In the months since public spaces have been shuttered, I have been reflecting on how the experience of COVID-19 quarantine echoes historical experiences of postpartum confinement.

● Confinement is a troublesome site of potential self-improvement. Confinement, as a concept, has long involved both restricted movement and aspirations for self-improvement. In Lying-in: A History of Childbirth in America, Robert and Dorothy Wertz identify that in the period of confinement, “a woman relearned who she was and in maternity, performed her essential duty.” In this way, postpartum confinement was intended to give women time to become the mothers they were seemingly meant to be. To this end, postpartum confinement has historically been constructed as a way for women to engage in self-actualization.

In the early days of the pandemic, there was a great deal of discussion about self-improvement, with people making lists of projects that might be accomplished with what, for many, has been newly-free time. In some ways, the time has been fruitful, with people baking bread and gardening in new numbers. But in other ways, days have become fitfully long, with a lack of certainty about what tomorrow will bring. Isolation need not be solely a site of self-improvement or despair. It can be either, neither, or both together depending on the conditions, day, and hour.

● The experience of confinement is often contingent on socio-economic privilege. It was women with social or financial resources who could stay in bed following the birth of their child. This was impossible, however, for others who had no choice but to return quickly to their household activities or work. While medical advice has changed over time, the capacity to engage in any substantive form of postnatal care, confinement included, has long been contingent on socio-economic means.

What we know about the experience of confinement in COVID-19, is that it too is starkly divided along lines of privilege. Those able to stay home have often been those with greater socio-economic capacity, relying like mothers in confinement on others for food and care, but in this instance delivered by those in low-wage jobs (now deemed essential) who may be unable to refuse work despite the risk.

● It takes time to cope with a changed reality. Lying-in might be viewed as a historic practice that forces women to stay inside. But it might also be seen as a recognition that pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing are physically and mentally grueling, and that time to recover is non-negotiable. For those planning to parent their baby, postpartum confinement also marks a transition into maternity, where women can come to terms with the reality of being responsible for another human being.  

The closure of public spaces and calls to stay at home are restrictive and a critical matter of public health. We have begun to imagine our new post-confinement lives with a heightened awareness that the virus is out there. However difficult and restrictive, the period of quarantine marks our transition into a new reality in which COVID is part of our collective consciousness, a shift to an unknown “new normal”.

For many, the experience of COVID-19 involves turning inward and towards the domestic. In this, like those lying-in, we struggle to find meaning in anxiety-fueled self-improvement, grapple with intensified socio-economic divisions, and try to understand our lives in a rapidly changing world. It is easy to see these experiences as nothing alike—from contagion and rapid spread to the global nature of the pandemic. But, at the very least, there is some solace in the often-fraught experiences of generations of women who have waited out confinement before.

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Alana Cattapan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Waterloo. @arcattapan.