Cementing The Memory
A friend of mine recently expressed disappointment over the lack of pictures from her most recent child’s birth. Her midwife encouraged her to really envision her birth experience so that its place was cemented in her memory. This resonated with me deeply. Let me explain.
When I was pregnant with Levi I made 3 birth plans: 1 for a homebirth, 1 for a hospital birth, and 1 for a caesarean birth. I had no intention of giving birth in a hospital, let alone surgically, but I wanted a plan in place if necessary. There were a few common elements between my 3 plans – a set of beads I had received from friends, a collection of music I’d listened to throughout my pregnancy, and a candleholder from Ghana. These were the objects that would keep me grounded. These were the tangible reminders that I could do it, and that I was not alone. Seeing the candleholder, smelling the sweet purifying beeswax candle if at home, feeling the weight of the beads, hearing the music - - all would serve as signposts on the road, indicating that many other woman had also walked this path before me, and were in fact walking this road with me. These signposts would bring me strength, courage, and joy.
Having been to homebirths as a doula, I knew what practical things would make it easier for my support team to be in my space. A large trash bag – labelled. A large laundry hamper for birth laundry – labelled. Easy healthy snacks ready. Crockpot of corn chowder warming. Dishes, cutlery, & napkins out on the counter. A variety of portable beverages in the fridge. Tea & coffee ready. Antiseptic handsoap and a stack of fresh hand towels at every sink. I had an ‘early labour to do list’ pinned to the bassinet in our bedroom which ensured that all these things would be in place by the time our doula and midwives arrived. I figured that being a first-time Mom I’d have lots of time to fill in early labour and that getting the house ready would be a good way to occupy all that early labour time. When my support team walked into my birth space, I wanted everything to be ready. I envisioned myself leaning on Nathan through contractions, my body supported against his bare chest - drawing strength from his strength. Music playing. Candle burning. Birth beads around my neck. I did not want there to be any sense of panic, or chaos, or frantic urgency in my space. Calm. Open. Surrender.
As it turns out, there was no time to occupy or fill. There wasn’t even time to catch our breath. I woke up at 5am with contractions that came every five minutes, lasting a minute. There was no time to play music, light a candle, put on a fresh nightgown and birthing bead necklace. Birthing day food stayed in the freezer. Antiseptic soap and towels stayed in the birth supplies bin. Dishes were piled up in the sink. I wore the undershirt, boxer briefs, and hazelwood necklace I’d slept in. Just before 6am I woke up Nathan who made the decision for us to call our doula. By 7am our doula had arrived and Nathan had made the decision to call our midwife. By 8am, just as our primary midwife was arriving, we realized that the birth was imminent and called for the second midwife to come too. At 8:19am Levi made his appearance. Before my body and mind had really come to grips with being “in labour”, labour was done and the baby was on my chest in our bed. What?! How did that happen? Labour was so fast that, in some ways, I feel like I missed it. Like my friend who missed having pictures as a reminder of what had happened, I felt as though I missed the time I needed to process what was happening. I certainly didn’t have time for the things that I thought would be important to me like music and candles and a necklace. Despite the absence of the ‘signposts’ though, there was no panic or chaos. There was still a sense of calm in the space. But it has taken me 10 months of processing and reflecting to see that.
Penny Simkin is well-known in natural birth circles for her research which shows that how a woman recalls her birth experience in the months immediately postpartum, is almost word for word how she remembers it decades later. A few years ago I went to visit my grandmother in the nursing home where she lived. Taped to the door of her room was a small note which said: “Please leave this door open at all times”. She told me the story of my father’s birth, 60 years prior, in which she was locked - alone - in a cold, dark basement room of the hospital. It was a traumatic experience, and for the rest of her life she couldn’t bear to be alone in a closed room. The memory which was cemented for her, was one of trauma and fear.
One of my goals as a doula is to help women look back on their birth experience, and see their own moments of strength, courage, and joy. I used to believe that this was only important for me to do when the labour or birth were difficult. I would often talk through a clients (difficult birth) experience with them, and listen for where they were proud of themselves; where they were especially happy. If I didn’t hear it, I would be sure to plant a seed of encouragement into their story – mentioning where I had seen them be amazing. If you’d had a good birth though, then of course you would form a good memory right? Not necessarily.
I had a lovely homebirth – just like I hoped for – but I quickly realized that I didn’t see any moments of strength, courage, or joy in it. I felt as though I had merely done my job as a birthing woman and there was nothing special about it at all. I wasn’t proud of myself. I didn't feel joy. It all just ‘was’, without any particular emotion attached to it. Which brings me back to the beginning of this post. As I’ve worked to cement my own experience in my memory, I have been sure to look for my own moments of strength, courage, and joy. Because how I remember Levi's birth now, how I choose to cement it in my mind, is how I'll remember it years from now. Someday, when I am old, and I can't remember what I had for breakfast or where I put my false teeth - the memory of Levi's arrival will still be with me. And I want it to be a good one.