We don’t always get to choose which memories stick with us, whether they're ones that haunt us or revisit us in waves of joy. This applies, especially, to memories of childbirth.
A traumatic birth experience can lead to long-lasting memories and even postpartum mood disorders or PTSD. Meanwhile, a happy, healthy, desired delivery can create pleasurable, meaningful memories.
And yet, these “sticky” memories aren’t necessarily tied to birth outcomes. Often, they're tied to the many small, seemingly inconsequential, details that happen on the day(s) we give birth.
We often remember the little things, like what our partners did or said on those days. I have a friend who can't recall the exact words her husband said when their first child was born. But she can remember the contents of the burrito he ate in front of her while she was in labor (she still hasn't forgiven him for that).
Her small act of thoughtlessness was big enough to sting me, and stick with me, especially in a moment where I was so exposed and defenseless.
Nearly 12 years after my first son was born, I can still picture my husband when he first entered the operating room. He was wearing his scrubs “moon suit” but no protective shoe coverings. He’d left them in the labor and delivery room, and he hadn’t had time to retrieve them. The nurse assured him that he would be fine. I giggled and prayed that his dirty sneakers wouldn’t give our newborn son and me an infection.
The little things our care providers say and do can also leave a lasting impression on us. A laboring person might never forget the way a nurse snuck in extra popsicles to eat in between contractions. They might also never forget how a care provider left them feeling empowered—or disempowered—with just a small turn of phrase.
The nurse assigned to the OR during my first child’s birth was also pregnant. Once my baby was born via an unplanned C-section, she exclaimed, “Oh god, I hope I don’t need to get a C-section.”
I’m sure this nurse was a kind enough person. I’m sure she truly didn’t wish for a C-section. But I hadn’t hoped for one, either. Yet there I was, splayed out on the operating table, my body not even fully stitched up from the surgery. Her small act of thoughtlessness was big enough to sting me, and stick with me, especially in a moment where I was so exposed and defenseless.
My birth memories aren't all (or even mostly!) negative.
During my second child’s birth—a hospital VBAC—my doctor unscrewed some of the lightbulbs in the hospital bathroom so that I could push in a dimly lit room. He stepped back as I pushed and asked the nurse to watch me as I “listened to my body” and “pushed according to my own urges and not to someone else’s counting.” I felt vulnerable, but I also felt strong and confident.
When I tell this birth story now, I always mention that my doctor unscrewed those lightbulbs—not because that act made the difference in how my birth played out, but because it represents the care and compassion I received that day. And I’ll never forget it.
'I never have to do this again. I never have to do this again.'
Finally, the little things that we say or do during our babies’ births can also stick with us forever.
My third and final labor was short—a blessed 6 hours and 15 minutes. And though a few little things stick out from that day (including me barking out orders to skip a song on my playlist because it was suddenly annoying me), one sticks out more than others: the mantra I silently repeated to myself during each contraction.
“I never have to do this again. I never have to do this again.”
I didn’t plan for this to be my birth affirmation. (Or, rather, my un-affirmation.) These sorts of little things are rarely planned. But I think I still remember this phrase because it encapsulates my bittersweet feelings about that day. I was so grateful that I never had to give birth again after that day. I still am. Mind-numbing contractions can inspire that sort of gratitude. Nonetheless, there is also something so heartbreaking about the fact that I will never be pregnant again, never give birth again, never care for a tiny baby again.
And maybe that’s why these small details about childbirth sticks with us—they remind us of the biggest, most meaningful parts of the days our babies were born.