In late April I traveled with my nine month daughter to India. We joined my sister, who was wrapping up her second major backpacking trip around the country, and we flew from hot sticky Delhi north to Srinagar, the entry point into springtime Kashmir. From there we visited a number of incredible spots, from vast Wallar Lake to high in the Himalayas. Kashmir is truly one of the most beautiful and special places on the planet, with much more that could be said about its people and ongoing aspirations for political change.
In Srinagar we stayed on a succession of houseboats, gorgeous hand-carved wooden palaces moored in boathouse neighborhoods, complete with boathouse grocery shops and tailors. In the morning, vendors drifted by on canoes selling bouquets of bright purple irises, saffron ice cream, trinkets and sundries to the many Indian tourists on Dal Lake. We saw very few other western tourists, and were always received with sweetness and hospitality.
While in India I met an herbalist who was surprised that I hadn’t received “proper” postpartum treatment, and he arranged for the owner of one of the houseboats to prepare an herbal bath for me. No matter that it was nine months after my baby was born! He went out and purchased all the herbs, only a few of which I recognized (nuggets of turmeric root and rose petals, but everything else was a mystery).
The owner of the houseboat was an older woman who spoke no English, whom we called Grandmother. In the 1990s both her son and husband passed away suddenly within the same year. Drawings and photographs of these men hung on the walls, and I sensed their loss in the deep lines on her face. It was special to be there with her and she showered my baby with love.
Grandmother prepared the bath, steeping the herbs in a bucket of boiled water, and then mixed it–plants and all–in the tub with tap water. I felt like a tea bag being dipped and steeped in the tub. She and my sister took fistfuls of herbs and scrubbed down my whole body. I was in for no more than ten minutes, then my sister had a turn (“to ensure that all our babies would be born with ease,” it was explained).
After the bath I was sent straight to bed. It was important to maintain the heat that I’d build up in my soak, so I was covered in blankets and a scarf wrapped around my head, my baby tucked alongside me. I was served dinner in bed–mutton prepared with special herbs–by a handsome young Kashmiri boat fellow. I felt like royalty. The next morning I had a tea, again with special herbs, and waited a few hours before my meal.
I can’t say that I felt physically different, though the entire trip to India was amazingly restorative and I came back feeling refreshed (which, if you’ve been to India, isn’t exactly the normal experience for backpackers…). My physical recovery from birth went through stages, and by eight weeks postpartum I’d felt mostly recovered. By nine months, I certainly felt like I was myself again.
What impacted me the most was not the way that the bath was meant to restore me, but the experience of being honored as a new mother. This included being cared for by other women in a beautiful and intimate way, and being connected to plants that had been gathered and prepared as part of that honoring process. New mothers need to be mothered; we are asked to give so much of ourselves in the immediate postpartum, and that giving is ceaseless over the span of our lives (even if it evolves). But, the transition to motherhood is also worthy of honor as the passing of a significant threshold in our lives as women.
Postpartum baths are a common tradition in many places in the world, whether to honor, renew, heal, and/or purify. Aviva Romm provides a simple recipe of healing, astringent, sweet-smelling herbs in Natural Health After Birth:
2 oz comfrey
1 oz calendula flowers
1 oz lavender flowers
1 oz sage leaf
1/2 oz myrrh powder
3/4 cup sea salt
Bring four quarts of water to a boil and add a handful of the mixed herbs. Steep, covered, for 30 minutes, then strain and discard the herbs. Add two quarts of the liquid to the tub and reserve the other two quarts for a second bath, for compresses, or to use in a peri-bottle.