A Day You'll Never Forget - The Day You Give Birth To Your First Child
By Penny Simkin, PT
Every pregnant woman experiences this. Other women, even total strangers - old and young - approach her in the grocery store, elevator, at the bus stop, almost anywhere, and embark on the "When I was pregnant-" story. A swollen belly seems to be an invitation for this kind of well-meaning, sometimes helpful, but sometimes inconsiderate sharing of "wisdom." Let us consider for a few moments why women want to talk about their birth experiences, even years later. It is pretty clear that this day in a woman's life is not just another day. It is the day she became a mother, her partner became a father, and her parents became grandparents. But it was much more than that. It was a landmark in her personal development, and that is what I want to focus on here.
Let us think about the nature of labor and birth. No other event comprises all these for a woman: pain, emotional stress, vulnerability, possible physical injury, and until recent times, the threat of death. Once completed, she has also undergone a permanent role change that includes responsibility for a dependent, helpless human being. Moreover, all this takes place within a single day. It is no wonder that women tend to remember birth vividly and with deep emotion! And it is most gratifying when women remember with joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment.
I recently completed a research project on the memories of twenty women who had taken childbirth education classes taught by me in Seattle during the years 1968 to 1974. These special women, now in their forties or fifties, still live in the Seattle area, and agreed to help me learn how well they now remember their birth experiences and what impact the births had on them as individuals. I still have the birth stories they wrote within days after their first babies were born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so I asked them to write another one that I could compare with the first and see if their memories changed over all these years. I also asked them to take part in a lengthy interview where we could discuss the long-term impact on them and their families.
I learned that the women remember very well what happened. The two birth stories were remarkably alike (although the second included many fewer words) despite the many years between the two. Although details such as which breathing patterns they used, and the names of their nurses tended to be forgotten, they remembered other personal "little things" very clearly and described them similarly in the two stories. For example, one woman remembered her bag of waters breaking in the living room, and her husband scolding the dog, thinking the dog had wet the rug!
They remembered both positive and negative things that were done to them or for them by their doctors and nurses. Some remembered soothing back rubs, praise, kind encouraging words, but others remembered being told to "Stop doing that breathing right now," or their husband being told to leave. One woman remembered being separated from her baby for days over a long holiday weekend because the doctor was off duty and no one changed his orders. Most remembered the actual delivery, and their feelings when they saw and held their babies for the first time. Some remembered large painful episiotomies that took weeks or months to heal.
Of the twenty women, twelve report a great sense of satisfaction as they look back on their first birth experiences, but eight feel less satisfied or very unsatisfied. Their satisfaction rating was not associated with the length or difficulty of their labors, the need for interventions or pain medications. Their satisfaction was associated with how they were treated and whether they felt a sense of accomplishment and control.
Nine of the women wept during the interview as they recalled events that took place 15 to 20 years before! Some wept from joy: "It was the best day of my life," "-my Mount Everest!" "I know I accomplished something." Others wept from remorse: "Because of what I experienced in the delivery room, I felt powerless." "I was too embarrassed to make a big fuss-I didn't want to be a nuisance to the nurses." "I kind of blamed myself at one point that I had had a cesarean-When I was feeling bad about myself and thinking of all the things I couldn't do, that was one of them. I couldn't even have that baby naturally. No one ever told me I was doing a good job."
These women taught me so much: I learned that women do not forget their birth experiences and their memories are accurate (though hazy about what happened when narcotics were in effect). They remember not only facts and events, but also feelings. If they were well treated and given an opportunity to participate, they are likely to remember the experience with joy and satisfaction.
If you are pregnant, you should also learn some very important lessons form the women in my study. Most important is that you also will always remember your experience in giving birth. The memory is vivid and deeply felt, and may influence how you think about yourself and about birth generally. Feeling in control (not necessarily of the labor, but of your response to it and of the decisions being made) and feeling well-cared for are more important to your long-term satisfaction than whether your labor is easy or difficult, normal or complicated, long or short, painful or pain-free. Do what you can to make your child's birth a good memory. Choose your doctor or midwife and your place for birth carefully. Those choices will determine to a great extent how you will remember the birth, and also how you will feel about yourself. Prepare yourself by learning what to expect and what to do so that you will remain an active participant in this most meaningful experience. And surround yourself with people who will treat you kindly, respectfully, and with dignity.
Twenty years from now, as you tell a pregnant woman about your birth experience, I hope it brings tears of joy to your eyes (and hers) and a renewed sense of wonder and awe at your accomplishment.
A Day You'll Never Forget - The Day Your Child is Born © 1992 Penny Simkin, all rights reserved