The art (and gift) of resting postpartum

Around the world, traditional cultures have honored a strict rest period for new mothers for centuries. Ayurveda adheres to a 42-day postpartum window of care for moms. In the Chinese culture, mothers stay inside and rest for 40 days. These traditions encourage women to heal, bond with their baby and make the sacred transition into motherhood in a cozy, nourishing and peaceful environment.

Contrast that image with the reality for most women in the U.S.; the pressures to be on their feet days after delivery, to entertain friends and family, to look their best for a newborn photoshoot and of course to fit into their pre-pregnancy clothes are enough to make anyone feel inadequate. Our parental leave policies reinforce the message that parents shouldn’t have to skip a beat after childbirth; the U.S. is one of only a few countries that doesn’t offer some form of paid family leave. In contrast, Britain offers 39 weeks, Sweden 68 weeks and Japan 52 weeks or more. Sigh. I digress.)

This isn’t a paid vacation. There are physical and emotional consequences when women don’t take the time they need to heal. In Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, renowned midwife Ina May Gaskin says, “Stay close to home, don’t entertain, and rest. This is your best way to prevent extra bleeding and the emotional-physical crash that often follows being up and around too early. There are lots of good reasons why traditional cultures all over the world respect the need for new mothers to take some time to allow their bodies to make the transition from pregnancy to new motherhood.”

In The First Forty Days: The Essential Art of Nourishing the New Mother, Heng Ou says of new moms, “And the experiences she had during pregnancy and birth may have left her mentally and emotionally shaken. Chinese lore says that if the complex thoughts and feelings that come up after birth are left unaddressed, or are suppressed under waves of busyness and distraction, chi will get blocked and illness will set in. Viewed through another lens, this might be called anxiety or depression.”

“Busyness and distraction.” Sound familiar? Our culture rewards and romanticizes productivity, achievement and overwork. I’ve been trained as a postpartum doula in the Ayurvedic tradition and I fully embrace the midwifery model of care, but even as mentally prepared as I was to rest and replenish in the weeks following my daughter’s birth, I struggled with the urge to do.

In retrospect, I was doing a lot. Recovering from a 32-hour labor. Getting to know my newborn. Breastfeeding and pumping for hours a day. Trying to make time for rest and self care. But working against that knowledge was the almost 15 years I spent in the corporate world, the addiction to ticking through a to-do list, verbal recognition, the illusion of control and having something tangible to show for my work.

I did happily spend my first week postpartum in bed. The memories my husband and I have with our daughter in our bed that first week are my most treasured. They were so sweet, so pure and so raw. I would’ve spent two weeks in bed with my mom as my caregiver, but she broke her foot the day after we got home from the hospital, so by the second week, I needed to be on my feet to prepare meals and help out more around the house. Looking back, this abrupt shift from bedroom nest to real life was a jolt for me. I began obsessively cleaning and organizing. I chalked it up to leftover nesting urge from pregnancy. Friends and family gave me positive feedback. I didn’t think twice about it.

I went to see my physical therapist four months after I delivered to evaluate my diastasis recti, and she asked how I felt emotionally. She said that postpartum anxiety can often show up in strange ways, like excessive shopping or cleaning. In that moment, I realized that my behavior was a byproduct of anxiety. I see now that my cleaning and organizing was absolutely a coping mechanism to help me feel whole, put together, in control and productive.

After that realization, I spent a lot of time trying to unpack and process the past year of and all of its emotions. They’re complicated, and other people will often spot anxiety and depression before you’ll see them in yourself. Bottom line: if you have the opportunity to rest, heal and bond with your baby, but resist it, I urge you to dig deep to find out why. Talk to a therapist, doctor, yoga instructor or friend that you trust. Your resistance could stem from restlessness from lack of “productivity” to wanting to establish an illusion of “normal.”

Ina May Gaskin says, “Even when everything goes well in giving birth, the first days and weeks after birth can be more stressful than you might realize. This is especially true if you were a real get-things-done person in your life before children. You have twenty-four-hour-per-day responsibility for a helpless new human being, seven days a week […] You will probably be more tired than ever before in your life. […] You want to do a perfect job — a phrase that will just make your life harder than ever.”

Whatever the choose, I encourage you to make informed decisions and consider the possible consequences.

In his book The Postnatal Depletion Cure, Dr. Oscar Serrallach says, “If a new mom isn’t allowed to fully recover from the demanding requirements of pregnancy and birth, the aftereffects can last for years. I’ve treated women who were still depleted 10 years after their babies were born.”

The Ayurveda tradition goes even further: a woman’s first 42 days as a new mother lays the foundation for the next 42 years of her life. Consider how you want to show up as a mother and make the decisions that work best for you. It’s a gift to yourself, your family and your community.

P.S. If you’re a mom but not a new mom and are feeling emotionally, physically and/or mentally depleted, Dr. Serrallach’s book also offers advice for you. He looks holistically at the longer-term impacts of depletion and gives really thorough steps on how to regain your vitality.

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