The Cuarentena: Mothering a Mother

Immigant Advantage by Claudia Kolker

Ed. note: A new book, The Immigrant Advantage, is a look into the lives of immigrant enclaves in the United States and an exploration of how immigrant customs can enrich our own lives — with details on immigrant traditions for things such as selecting a spouse,  saving money and educating children.

To research the book author Claudia Kolker visited Korean and Chinese afterschools, West Indian multi-generational households in New Jersey, and Chicago’s “Little Village,” among many others. 

The following is an excerpt from the chapter titled “How to Mother a Mother: The Mexican Cuarentena.”

The Accidental Cuarentena

claudia kolkerby Claudia Kolker

My husband Mike is the kind of person on whose shoulder tiny babies melt to sleep. I’m a different case. Before I had kids of my own, I could swear my presence made babies cry. Toddlers and older kids, I could relate to: there were a million things to talk about, and I appreciated how frank they were about their views. But I’d never even held a newborn.

So in the spring of 2003, when I learned I’d be giving birth to not one, but two babies, Mike’s stepmother handed me the phone number of a woman I barely knew. It was her niece, the recent mother of twin infants. I was thrilled. Before I called, I lined up a legal pad and three pencils as if for the SATs.

I trusted Theresa at once. She was smart and irreverent, and her advice was succinct.

“Get help,” she said. “Before the babies are born, line up six weeks’ worth of people to come stay with you. “They need to be people you’re totally comfortable with. We had three relatives come stay with us for two weeks each.”

Six weeks of guests? With tiny, shrieking newborns, and me exhausted, maybe miserable? This was the opposite of how I planned to launch family life. For years I’d heard and read about the chaotic first weeks with a newborn. “Crazy” and “overwhelmed” echoed through these accounts like a gong. As a casual hostess at best, I had zero interest in amplifying that stress with guests for whom I’d have to bathe, wear clothes, and entertain.

“They’re not guests,” Theresa said. “”They are going to cook, shop and answer your phone. “They are going to take care of you.”

Cowed by my lack of baby skills, in the end I did exactly as Theresa instructed. It was about the best advice I’d ever gotten. Only three years later, during a wintry week in Ohio, did I realize this counsel was more than just good luck. Theresa had given me the outline of a cuarentena: an ancient set of postpartum rituals still practiced with religious intensity by migrants from rural Mexico.

The cuarentena is a folk custom, handed down for centuries by people with no other resources. It’s meant to protect the lives of newborn babies and, even more urgently, their mothers. While it is practiced throughout Mexico, it’s no coincidence that the cuarentena thrives most fully today in Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico, with the highest rate of infant mortality.

Yet I soon saw why migrants in Ohio swear by cuarentenas, too, and why even affluent cultures around the world still practice variations on it. For the poorest of the poor, the six weeks of a cuarentena may be a family’s only weapon against infection and other deadly threats to a new mother. But a cuarentena can also bu!er against postpartum depression, which plagues mothers and babies in wealthy cultures as well. For most women, a cuarentena can do what many Americans are taught to think is impossible. It can make the first weeks with a baby
a dream.

Claudia Kolker has reported from Mexico and Central America, as well as the Caribbean, Japan, India and Pakistan. A former Los Angeles Times bureau chief and member of the Houston Chronicle editorial board, she also has written for publications such as The Economist, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and O: The Oprah MagazineShe lives in Houston.

Read More about The Immigrant Advantage

To read more about Kolker’s book, and the stories she captured visit other sites participating in her book tour:

Monday, October 24, 2011: Juan of Words.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011: Voto Latino.
Wednesday, October 26, 2011: Spanglish Baby.
Thursday, October 27, 2011: Latinaish.
Tuesday, November 1, 2011: Chicano Soul.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011: Motherhood in Mexico.
Thursday, November 3, 2011: Atzlan Reads.
Friday, November 4, 2011: Multicultural Familia.

Disclosure: The Tiki Tiki received a free copy of the book from the author as part of a Simon & Schuster Book Tour.

Share, por favor!

By Contributor on October 28, 2011 · Posted in the habla habla

15 Comments | Post Comment

Sue Valencia says:

Ah so glad to read I am not the only Mexican left with this “old tradition”! I am 34, from a big city in Mexico and getting ready to have my first baby in 6 weeks… meaning, I am having my mom come stay with me for the entire cuarentena!
I always hurt when I see teeny tiny babies already being hurled into loud malls, noisy streets and the never ending pace of the city. What´s the rush? They have their entire life still ahead of them to become part of this hectic and busy life style. So really, 40 days seems like nothing. It´s just giving them some extra time to get used to a new world, no?
gracias por el post! Loved it!
Un abrazo,

Posted on October 28th, 2011

Mercedes @BeChicMag says:

I’ve heard about this. I like the 40-day rule.
Mercedes @BeChicMag´s last [fabulousness] ..What I Wore to Blogalicious

Posted on October 28th, 2011

Carrie says:

Sue, you are so fortunate to know about it, and to have your mom with you when your sweet baby arrives.
I had my parents here for two weeks, but I did not simply relax and enjoy it…If I could do it again…
Mucha suerte y joy!

Posted on October 28th, 2011

Carrie says:

…and I am believing it is a great rule!

Posted on October 28th, 2011

Ericka says:

I’m a strong believer in the cuarentena. When I had my baby, I had my mom with me for the 40 days following the birth. I wasn’t even allowed to go outside!

Posted on October 28th, 2011

Lisa Quinones-Fontanez says:

I had never heard of this before but I could see how it helps tremendously! I was lucky that my husband stayed with me for the first month and when he left, I had my mother, Tia, cousins and friends come up. I needed help to deal with 1 baby – a new mom of twins certainly needs help.

Posted on October 28th, 2011

Alexandra says:

I never would have made that first new baby shock without my mother, her sister, my 3 sisters, my niece..

All the females of the village united.

It was life saving.

Posted on October 28th, 2011

Helena says:

Definitivamente cuarentena is the best. When I gave birth my Mom, Dad and Grandmother were here. It was awesome help!
Helena´s last [fabulousness] ..Esto no lo puedo inventar

Posted on October 28th, 2011

Claudia Kolker says:

Thanks for your interesting comments! What great stories. One of the things that surprised me most in my research was how many Latino men stepped up — cooking, sweeping, cleaning — to make sure their wives got a proper cuarentena, no matter what.

Posted on October 28th, 2011

Viviana Hurtado/The Wise Latina Club says:

What great advice, brought more into focus as I am spending a week home with my family to celebrate my niece’s 1st birthday. So much “ancient” women’s wisdom, especially la sabiduría, has been thrown by the wayside b.c of cultural difference, scheduling, multi-tasking. We were at the doctor’s, getting the baby’s 1 year shots, and she was naturally devastated by being poked and prodded. My Mami told my sister who was ready to up and go. Wait, apapachala/hold and comfort her. For as long as it takes. And just like that the baby calmed down. All was right in the world. Marveling even more than I normally do, that my Mami is so lista!!!

Posted on October 29th, 2011

Carrie says:

What a lovely tribute to your mom, Viviana.
And, so wonderful that she believes in waiting for the baby…your sister is lucky to have that support and knowledge.
And lucky baby niece.

Posted on October 30th, 2011

Carrie says:

I cooked weeks worth of food for my freezer when I was nearly 9 months pregnant — all swollen feet and big belly.

Ay, how nice to have 40 days of cooking by someone else!

My parents helped a lot. Wish, I would have let them and others help more!

We all need to promote the Cuarentena to future mothers.

Posted on October 30th, 2011

perudelights says:

I´m not Mexican but I was forced to “enjoy” the cuarentena. My mother was with me all the time and I was not allowed to leave the house. At the time I thought it was awful, but many years later I learned that that experience was a blessing.

Posted on October 31st, 2011

Bren @ Flanboyant Eats™ says:

Carrie, hec, any preggers mami is lucky to have someone to cook for them for 40 days straight! I can’t complain, having been raised in a home where mami cooked 7 days/week; but in all honesty, this is my 1st time ever hearing the term cuarentena! is that bad!??!?!!

Posted on October 31st, 2011

jenny says:

such an amazing story! I wish things were more like this now where we could connect to those who came before us.. it gets harder as each generation is so much different from the last…
jenny´s last [fabulousness] ..Thai Pumpkin & Sweet Potato Curry

Posted on October 31st, 2011