Why Won’t This New Mom Wash Her Hair?

The fascinating postpartum customs of women from around the world.

By Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand."It’s about food, about sex, about rest." Evelyn, a 34-year-old Dominican immigrant who recently gave birth, is explaining the Latin American custom called la cuarentena ("quarantine"). It’s a 40-day postpartum period during which mothers recuperate from labor and bond with their babies. Minutes earlier, her bouncy 7-year-old daughter let me into their apartment, on the second floor of a two-story house on the outskirts of Boston. With delicately pretty features and a thick ponytail, Evelyn (who prefers to withhold her last name) is the picture of new maternity: Her black-haired infant is wrapped in a pink fleece blanket and planted at her breast.

Her summary makes the cuarentena sound like a hedonist’s dream, until she elaborates: food, sex, and rest are subject to a constellation of taboos and prescriptions. Sex is a no-no. Rest is mandated and traditionally facilitated by female relatives who take over errands and chores. Foods are divided into the approved (carrots, chicken soup) and the forbidden (spicy and heavy fare). The new mother’s body is considered vulnerable or "open," and to protect herself, she must cover her head and neck with garments and wrap her abdomen in a cloth called a faja; she might also avoid washing her hair. Many women believe that proper observance leads to good health in old age, while lapses incur all sorts of problems, from headaches now to illness later in life. They would no sooner skip the cuarentena than a Park Slope mom would prepare her toddler sippy cups of Coke.

Versions of the tradition are practiced throughout most of Latin America. In much of Asia, an uncannily similar custom with entirely different origins, known as "doing the month," is widely observed. In the United States, immigrants and their children carry on these rituals to varying degrees. Last month, a "birthing center" in Los Angeles, which served Asian tourists who came to give birth to U.S. citizens, made news when it was shut down for building code violations. Part of the center’s role was to provide accommodations for clients to "do the month." So where do these postpartum rituals come from and are they good for new moms?

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