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Memorable birth

June 16, 2009

One in-labor comment that makes me squirm (well, and that makes me downright angry) goes something like this: “Awwww, it doesn’t matter if we do x, y,or z/if Tony or Tina or Toonces the cat is in the room/if the mom delivers vaginally or has a cesarean…IT WON’T MATTER AFTER THE BABY’S BORN, AND SHE’LL FORGET MOST OF IT ANYWAY.”

I’ve heard this comment from quite a few doctors (and I’ve met my fair share of doctors because–here’s some biographical disclosure–my dad’s one of ’em), a handful of nurses, and a whole slew of (I guess) well-meaning family members and friends.

But for most women (excluding some who use narcotic pain relief, and all who undergo general anesthesia) the latter portion of this statement–i.e. that you can do just about anything during and after active labor since the mom won’t remember it anyway–is not only misguided: it’s absolutely false.

Much to my delight, my grandmother gave me a prime example of this claim’s falsity the other day as we were conversing about her labors with my uncle and my mother.

Some background first: Grandma is 78-years-old, and while she still  has a formiddable wit (and an arsenal of sarcasm that is, strangely, as smooth as honey), she has become a bit forgetful in these later years.  You know–she forgets what day it is, she forgets how to get to the bank that she has gone to for 30+ years, she loses her keys and forgets to turn off the stove, etc.   It’s sad and terrifying for the whole family and, I’m sure, for her.

(Just for the record, I’m not worried about Grandma reading this blog and becoming offended since I think she’s already forgotten how to get to my blog.  I’m serious.  And a serious fan of potentially tasteless jokes.)

Nonetheless, despite the fact that Grandma is forgetful, she also remembers a whole hell of a lot.  Including the birth of her two children.

Now, I’m not talking about the sort of memory that goes something like, “I had some pains, and then there was a baby a few hours later.”  No.  Her recounting of my mother’s birth went something like this:

My water broke right after I got out of bed in the morning, and I remembered being so surprised since I didn’t know that could happen before labor started!  You know, they really kept us in the dark back then.

Anyway, I cleaned myself up and called your grandpa to let him know that we were going to have the baby soon.  I was about three weeks early, but we were still excited since it was one day before your grandpa’s birthday.

My contractions started pretty soon after my water broke, and do you know that they were 6 minutes apart right from the beginning?!  They weren’t too hard, though, so I made myself some breakfast and just did a few things around the house.

Okay–Grandma remembers how far apart her contractions were at the beginning of her labor 55 years ago.  (Sorry if you didn’t want your age broadcast to the world, Mom!)  This is extraordinary. Sometimes she can’t remember where she put her socks, but she remembers that her contractions began at 6 minutes apart on the morning she had my mother!

Back to her birth story…

I called the doctor, and he told me to wait until my labor got a bit harder before going into the hospital.  And wouldn’t you know, within the next hour, my contractions stopped completely.  I think I waited about 4 hours until I had another one!

Okay, a few more things: 1) Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more OBs and midwives encouraged moms to stay home (and stay hydrated, check their temperatures, and insert nothing into their vaginas) after their membranes ruptured to wait for labor to begin?  and 2) Isn’t it wonderful that my grandma didn’t have to worry about pitocin augmention once her labor “stalled”–an event that is not necessarily troublesome and can be a “variation of normal” during labor (especially early labor)?  Oh, and 3) When Grandma tells this story, she tells it as if it happened yesterday.  The memory is that vivid and fresh in her mind.

Once again, back to the birth story…

Once my contractions started up again, they came back with a vengeance, so I had Grandpa take me to the hospital.  It was getting pretty late in the evening, so we were hoping that your mom might wait until Grandpa’s birthday to be born!

I was in really hard labor then–wow, it hurt!  It wasn’t the back labor that I had with your uncle.  In fact, with your uncle, they had me drink castor oil to induce labor, and the hard contractions started right away!  I had him six hours later, and I remember my Aunt Helen riding with me in the car on the way to the hospital and massaging my lower back during contractions.  It was so tough!

But, of course, your mom’s labor lasted a little longer.  And it was so hard staying in that bed once we got there!   Ugh!  I wish that I could have been moving around like you were during your labor!

Anyway, you know, back in those days, they knocked us out just before the baby was born.  This happened pretty late in the evening.  In fact, your mom was born at 11:45, just fifteen minutes before Grandpa’s birthday!  But I’m glad that she had her own day, even if your grandpa was a little disappointed.

Worth noting is that, like most women giving birth in the United States during the middle of the 20th century, my grandma gave birth under the influence of “twilight sleep,” in which her obstetrician administered a cocktail of scopalomine and morphine at some point during the end of her labor.  The purported effects of twilight sleep were to 1) eliminate the mother’s pain by 2) forcing her into a semi-conscious state.  What’s even more noteworthy is that these powerful drugs (were intended to) have an amnesiac effect so that the mother could “forget” the worst parts of her labor.  (Unfortunately, this included the actual birth of her baby.)

So–despite the fact that over fifty years have passed since the birth of her children, despite the fact that her memory has begun to fail her, and despite the fact that she gave birth under twilight sleep, my grandmother still remembers many intricate details of these births.  To me, this is an astounding testament to the power of birth and its ability to ingrain itself in a woman’s memory.

Notably, the memory to which I am referring here is different from the (more or less) acute memory of the pain of birth, a topic that has been featured in many recent scholarly journal articles.  Instead, I am referring to the memory of the events of one’s birth.  The moments and experiences and sensations and words and people who are a part of any woman’s birth experience–and that were all a part of my grandmother’s birth experiences and, having all left an indelible mark on her memory despite its current failings.

It should make one think twice about (arrogantly) stating that mothers won’t remember what happens to them in labor “anyway”.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. renbeth permalink
    June 18, 2009 9:31 am

    Great post. We were just playing a silly game with my siblings called “Would You Rather” or something like that, and one of the questions was “would you rather lose your memory or your vision?” I picked vision right away, though others vacillated, and the main reason I did so is that I hated the idea of losing the memory of Isaac’s birth. I kind of need it, you know?

  2. BirthingBeautifulIdeas permalink*
    June 19, 2009 7:55 pm

    Aww, thanks Renbeth. I know what you mean about not wanting to give up the memory of one’s child’s (or children’s) birth. In fact, even though M’s birth wasn’t ideal, I still *need* the good memories of his birth to be as crystal-clear as possible.

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