So, in case it is not totally clear, growing and birthing a baby takes a lot of energy and resources, as does producing breast milk. In Chinese medicine terms, you give away a large chunk of your vital energy (qi) and life force (jing) to that little bundle while growing it, expend a large amount in birthing it, and share and lose a lot of blood throughout the process. In addition, breast milk is seen as a derivative of blood (basically filtered blood), which is produced in large quantities and given away to nourish your baby. So, how are these resources, which are vital to your health and well-being replenished? Well, in part through a great diet (though energy also must be expended in digesting and assimilating said nutrients), but mostly and very most importantly, your body is restored through rest. There is absolutely no way your blood, qi and jing can be restored if you are not spending a majority of your time postpartum resting, as in sitting or laying down, preferably while not thinking too hard. According to Chinese medicine, there is a relatively short window of time after giving birth where the resources you lost can be regained. Your long-term health is most certainly affected by how you care for yourself during this time, as is the health of any future pregnancies.
The Chinese were certainly not the only ones to figure out the importance of postpartum recovery. Nearly all traditional cultures had some structure around supportive care for a new baby and it's mother. This included specific nutrition, as well as help with food preparation, household maintenance and child-care (for more information about this, as well as some great postpartum recipes, check out this book I highly recommend: The First Forty Days by Heng Ou and Amely Greeven). In many cases, rest was enforced by watchful matrons who rarely allowed the woman to leave her bed for up to or over a month after birth. Can you even imagine that happening in our culture?
Staying home for more than a few days in a row under any circumstances is considered practically pathological by most Americans, much less by women who consider themselves to be functional, active, healthy people. We have such a strong culture of do-ism - we must constantly be busy, engaged and active, and the media, as well as popular culture in general, pushes the image of the super-mom who bounces back to her pre-birth self in a few days- the sooner the better (and more impressive). This image is extremely damaging to the physical and mental health of reproducing women everywhere, and, no doubt, is a big contributor to postpartum depression. Most people are totally unprepared for the real demands of motherhood and are often over-stressed, over-worked, and so out of touch with the true state of their physical body and energy that they don't even realize how depleted they are.
Along with the super-mom myth comes a lot of stress around weight and fitness, rushing women into working out to regain their "pre-pregnancy bodies". Let me tell you, your body postpartum is not supposed to be the same as it was pre-pregnancy (and probably never will be), and most certainly not during the first month. Think of all the transitioning that is happening physically during this time! Your uterus has to shrink down several times over while shedding its thick lining, your breasts have to greatly enlarge (sometimes painfully so!), your vaginal tissue and skin around the birth canal has to heal, your pelvis has to realign itself and all the ligaments and skin around your abdomen have to try to find their normal tension and positions again. Hormones are coursing wildly through your veins, your body is coping with a whole new schedule and pace of life, and you're gonna exercise?!? Please, don't do it!! There will be plenty of time to get back in shape later, but for now, please, take the time to allow your body to repair itself before you begin adding more stress into the system. You're expending plenty of calories making milk for the young 'un and your body will thank you for saving what little additional resources you have for repairing and rebuilding itself. If movement is an important part of your sanity, then please consider something very gentle- a short walk, some mild stretching or yoga, most preferably done in or near your home.
Now that we've addressed the physical, I'd like to also address the more energetic importance of rest and calm for the weeks following birth. In addition to just sitting and laying down as much as possible, another important part of resting involves keeping stimulation levels low (which usually means staying home). The few times I ventured out into the world during the few weeks after having my first child, I became acutely aware of how energetically open I was. I felt like I had totally lost my filter, like I couldn't keep anything out. The experience of birth had blown me wide open (as I think it is supposed to), and it was going to take some time to get those boundaries back in place. I became very aware of the importance of being in a protected, safe and nourishing environment as much as possible until my energy returned to a more normal state, and I ventured out of the house as little as possible. I also clearly saw the benefit of this for both my newborns, as their nervous systems adjusted to life with so many new kinds of stimulation. My second child couldn't even cope with a trip to the grocery store in the first months of life without showing signs of overstimulation and stress!
Chinese medicine talks about this energetic openness too, though in slightly different terms. During the postpartum time, women are seen as being especially vulnerable to the environment, particularly in regards to cold and wind. Because of this, it is wise to eat warming foods and avoid exposure to cold (temperatures, water, floors, etc) and wind. Exposure to these elements can lead to illness, fatigue and other potential complications. This seems to me to be another reason to stay home or near home, and possibly even in bed as much as possible!
As a final plug for taking it easy, ensuring you are as relaxed, rested and nourished as possible will greatly benefit your emotional health and stability and your ability to parent (which can often be difficult at unpleasant hours of the night). Emotional stability is difficult enough at this time without adding in a bunch of extra stress and fatigue and any gains you can make in this department will benefit not only you, but your entire family as well (children and partners will be grateful for your sanity, believe me)!
While I know it is quite difficult and very unrealistic for many women to take a full month off to rest and restore postpartum (especially if you have other children!), there are lots of little ways you can try to make life easier for yourself. Do your best to educate your partner and family about what a physically and emotionally demanding time this is and enlist their support in helping you rest and stay home as much as possible. Line up whatever help you can before baby is born to assist in meal prep, child care and housework. Find some good books to sit and read while breast feeding and nap with the baby as much as you feel like it and are able. Find baby-holders that can help you get a few minutes to rest or care for yourself, try not to worry if the house is a mess and most importantly, let go of the guilt that you are not doing enough!! Your family will not function well without you, so take the time now to invest in your long-term health. It will benefit EVERYONE now and in the many long days and nights to come! And there will be plenty of time to do do do, but please, savor just a few precious weeks and allow some time to appreciate the amazing miracle that has just taken place in your life and through your body and soak up this once-in-a-lifetime chance for you and your baby to just be together!
Best of luck and happy resting!!