Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Cabbage Stir-Fry I Ate Nonstop to Ease Postpartum Constipation

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A friend, a mother of two, told me that postpartum is indignity after indignity, and it’s true. As I attempted to release that poop, I gripped a bar on the nearby shower door to try and gain some traction, and the bar, which had been glued together years ago, promptly broke. Indignity! Later, I needed to poop while wearing my baby in a carrier, the only way I could get her to nap and have my hands free. I took her to the toilet and prayed she wouldn’t start crying. I felt both of us sweating profusely as I twisted and turned, trying to encourage a steady exit. Another indignity, shared between mother and child.

For weeks, I was vigilant. Every day, I thought: Have I pooped today? Why haven’t I pooped today? Is that sensation a pooping sensation? Should I try? Have I hydrated enough? Did I take Metamucil yet? Should I take a Colace? A Miralax? Have I eaten enough fruits and vegetables? Will adding prune juice help? Will I get a new answer of “how long does postpartum constipation last” if I Google it again? Am I doomed to suffer the same fate as some of these Reddit ladies who had constipation for nine months postpartum? Should I try to go on a walk for mental health purposes, or is leaving my home toilet courting disaster?

This was, of course, on top of taking care of a newborn, and the emotions of being a new mother. Luckily, help was on the way.

Four weeks after birth, my mom arrived. Since she bore witness to my years of constipation, I had no shame in telling her that she needed to cook something with fiber, anything with fiber. She bought a head of cabbage and, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I wolfed down her Chinese cabbage stir-fry, a weeknight staple in my house growing up.

The traditional version is Sichuanese and quite spicy; her version features Sichuan peppercorns and lots of dried chiles. But because the only thing worse than pooping a brick is pooping a spicy brick, this time she softened the heat. Crunchy and tangy-sweet, with earthy black vinegar and only a touch of dry red chile, it was flavorful enough to eat with every meal. I always had it with rice, but sometimes other classics of my mom’s repertoire joined, like a cucumber and tomato salad or braised pork ribs. At the end of her weeklong stay, and a good dozen cabbage meals after, my constipation finally waned. I stopped my cocktail of drugs.

I cannot overstate the impact of my first normal poop on my postpartum mental well-being. Besides seeing my therapist that first week after birth, not-painful bowel movements had the most dramatic influence on my outlook on life. I wish I could say This Cabbage Dish Saved Me, but it’s not magic. It’s cabbage. Right before my mom visited, my milk supply plummeted, and I had to start using formula for some feeds. My theory is that, despite spending what felt like every waking moment hydrating, my body didn’t have enough water for both breastmilk and an S-shaped poop.

After lots of advice and lots of tears, I ditched the breastfeeding dream to pursue a different dream: to not think this much about my bowel movements ever. They started fading into the background, a fact and standard of healthy life. “Regular,” at a time when nothing else felt that way.

It took far longer for other things to fall into place. Some things, I’m still waiting to make sense. But at the time, I felt more capable of handling other challenges because my physical ailments had improved. Turns out taking care of ourselves as adults is not so different from taking care of an infant. You gotta nail eating, sleeping, and pooping before you can enjoy any other part of your life.

cabbage stirfry in a white bowl on a blue fabric surface

This quick and crunchy dish relies on high heat and malty black vinegar.

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