The Postpartum Experience and the Church

Five years ago, I joined the Orthodox Church. And I’m tempted to tell you all about it. I’m quite proud of this community.

But I won’t. I’ll spare you the boring testimony of my years of struggle and eventual deep appreciation for the teachings, traditions, people, blah, blah, blah.

But, here’s what I do want to acknowledge:

Although the Orthodox Church has a grandiose exterior and profound teachings, by being a part of the life of the Church, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing traditions that have smaller voices.

The Orthodox Church taught me about the 40-day rest period after childbirth. This can quickly become a controversial topic for some who think this is about the “uncleanness” of a woman (which it is not). I can tell you from personal experience that this gift is a blessing to a woman. Instead of feeling pressed to fulfill our religious obligation or to show face in church because it’s a good thing to do, the Church simply lets us off the hook and tells us to stay home.

This tradition is beautiful and encourages a woman who is otherwise burdened with family life to have a sort-of lying in. This teaching is a recognition of the arduous nature of childbirth and the tenderness of the postpartum phase. In my mind, it is where the church says: Stay home, mama. Rest and be at ease. God’s not going anywhere. He made this day for rest and it’s what you’re meant to do.

My priest didn’t have to tell me twice to commit to this custom and it has been a blessing to me every time I’ve had a child. My third baby – a daughter – was born in the middle of Lent. In the Orthodox Church, Pascha (Easter) is the most joyously celebrated feast of the year. It’s all food, drinks, and celebrations going late into the night, and that’s just what happens at church. So, while my church family committed to a heavy service schedule and joyfully celebrated Pascha, I simply stayed home. I rested. I slept. I nursed. I held my newborn and inhaled her sweet scent. I ate good food. I listened to my body. I recovered. And my return to church a few weeks later was peaceful, strong, and whole-hearted.

Not having to choose between my need for rest and my eagerness to return to church was like a burden lifted. I didn’t have to make up my mind. It was all laid out right there in front of me. I was given plenty of time and wasn’t expected to get back to church the moment I started to feel better.

Isn’t this such a beautiful thing? I wish the rest of life and society were like this – that a mom would be expected to stay home, entertain no one, cocoon with her baby, and do only what’s necessary for herself and her newborn. Essentially – hibernate!

What do you think? Should we be taking notes from the Church on how to bless our postpartum women? Does our society need to change its view of the postpartum experience?

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