So the world has witnessed yet another round of the Royal Baby bonanza — from tracking Meghan Markle’s maternity style, to conjecturing on her due date, to now discussing the baby’s name. But the most familiar set piece of this performance is, of course, the post-birth photo shoot. British tabloids loudly complained about the privacy of the actual birth, but within just a few days the royal couple dutifully posed for select photographers. The tabloids had insisted that the public had a right to glimpse the newest royal on his way out of the hospital, but I wonder, did any of us click on the Royal Baby headlines to gawk at a heavily bundled infant? Surely not. It is the body of the postpartum princess we tune in to see — whether it is swathed in a shapeless tent like Diana or sporting a recycled maternity dress like Kate.
Increasingly, commentators are discussing the pressures placed on postpartum women to appear fully recovered almost immediately after birth. But as the tabloids prepare to go through the same spectacle of watching (and likely judging) a famous woman’s postpartum physical changes, it is a good time to point out that it is not just postpartum women who feel pressure to “bounce back” from medical experiences. For all kinds of patients, and all kinds of illness and injury, our culture imagines that rapid recovery is a kind of virtue.
Just look at how the media covered Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recovery after surgery last year. When the US Supreme Court Justice missed oral arguments for the first time in over 25 years, news reports repeatedly emphasized that her prolonged recovery was a surprise, even an aberration. Journalists chronicling her many other health scares praised her previous resilience in refusing rest, time off, or even a lightened workload in the face of broken bones and cancer diagnoses. With a similar kind of admiration, news coverage of major marathons often profile runners who are cancer survivors, praising not just their general fortitude but, more specifically, the short timespan between the end of their treatments and their first races. Even our get well cards preach this message: our hope is not merely for recovery, but “speedy recovery.”
Quick recovery has not always been a virtue, however. In nineteenth-century Britain, physicians, nurses, and hospital administrators valued a long, drawn out recuperation known as convalescence. Returning too quickly to one’s work or household duties could cause relapse, so instead recently-ill patients were supposed to rest for several weeks to foster as full a recovery as possible. Nineteenth-century convalescents were packed off to the seaside to enjoy a month or more of expansive leisure, hearty meals, and fresh air. Even working-class sufferers could bask in the sun at philanthropic “convalescent homes,” which hosted impoverished medical patients either for free or for small, subsidized fees. Many writers of this era describe their enjoyment of these convalescent holidays. One journalist writing for the widely read Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine insisted that the convalescent experienced “hours of delight and days of relief of which the invariably vigorous have no sort of conception.”1 So, as this writer hints, convalescence was a welcome relief not only from the anxiety of illness, but also from the stress of normal life.
So what changed? And when? Why is it that, 150 years later, the idea of deliberately prolonging the process of recuperation sounds so alien to us? The short answer is World War I. In this conflict, many countries worked to shorten the recuperation of wounded soldiers to save money and manpower. Historian Beth Linker, who examines American rehabilitation in this era, identifies the rise of an “ethic of rehabilitation” that recast physical recovery itself as a kind of work.2 The “ethic of rehabilitation” says that merely waiting for returning strength is not enough.The patient has to labor toward the goal of full health: “War wounds in themselves are not enough to earn respect. The maimed veteran who earns accolades is the one who makes good, applying his (and now her) military skills to fight for a full recovery.”3
This kind of work ethic was promoted in several different countries during the First World War. In Britain, Dr. Robert Jones pioneered what he called “curative workshops” for soldiers recovering from orthopedic surgeries. Rather than resting for several weeks, wounded soldiers were encouraged to volunteer to perform manual labor that served several purposes: helping them regain dexterity, training them for future jobs, and (equally importantly) saving money in the running of the hospital. Jones insisted that these activities were far more beneficial to the patients than the idleness of convalescence: “As soon as the patient is fit to get about he should have some occupation both for his mental, moral and physical welfare.”4 Through depictions like these, military medical authorities enshrined speedy recovery as a praiseworthy virtue.
The “ethic of rehabilitation” nowadays is not confined to the military. After World War I, many governments and health officials sought to curtail or accelerate the process of recuperation for civilians as well as veterans.5 In fact, as Nursing Clio has previously discussed, the modern-day Paralympics were actually born out of military rehabilitation efforts stemming from the Second World War. So, long story short, when we praise cancer survivors for running marathons, or talk about Paralympians “overcoming adversity,” or even scrutinize postpartum celebrities, our ideas about the appropriate amount of effort exerted by such individuals is inherited from a military history.
But even though popular culture has mostly forgotten the history of convalescent care, it can supply an alternative way of thinking about the process of recuperation. What if we viewed recovery as a time set apart from work, productivity, even goals? How would that change the way we face the aftermath of illness and injury? More concretely, what would it look like to wish Meghan Markle — in fact, all postpartum moms, or anyone recovering from physical trauma — a delightfully slow, leisurely recovery?6
- Alexander I Shand, “The Pleasures of Sickness,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 145 (April 1889): 546. Return to text.
- Beth Linker, War’s Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 1. Return to text.
- Linker, War’s Waste. Return to text.
- “Orthopaedic Surgery in Its Relation to the War,” Recalled to Life: a Journal Devoted to the Care, Re-education, and Return to Civil Life of Disabled Sailors and Soldiers, no 1 (1917): 52. Return to text.
- Sally Sheard discusses this process in “Getting Better, Faster: Convalescence and Length of Stay in British and US Hospitals,” in Hospital Life: Theory and Practice from the Medieval to the Modern, eds. Laurinda Abreu and Sally Sheard (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013): 299-329. Return to text.
- The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013) under Grant Agreement Number 340121 Return to text.