The Cuarentena: Mothering a Mother
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
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
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 Magazine. She 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.