On Body, Memory, and the Myth of Maternal Amnesia
From his mother’s womb/untimely ripped (Macbeth, Act V, Scene 8)
Everyone told me that I would forget. One friend even told me that there’s a hormone that makes you forget. “Why else do you think women have more children?” She had a point. I said I didn’t want to forget, that I wasn’t going to let myself get gaslit like that—not by my own hormones.
Forgetting is a thread twisted throughout the aggregate experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. It is not at all like the forgetting of one’s keys or wallet, but rather a long-term amnesia considered desirable or even constructive. Packaged into neat little fables told by women of a certain age, it is often administered as a salve when things are uncomfortable, excruciating, daunting, or traumatic. To forget means you are cleansed—washed from whatever detritus once coated your skin, breeding memories of the body, of sense, of touch.
When I became pregnant, I would relay to my own mother certain things I felt—the sting of heartburn or the stretchy rap of round ligament pain. She tried her best to relate, but ultimately, she kept arriving at one single answer: she couldn’t remember. “It was a long time ago,” she’d say. “I think I liked being pregnant with you.”
Forgetting in pregnancy is two-fold. We not only forget the little sensations of the belly—its taut, weighty flesh, its rapturous hold over us; we also allegedly forget because we are pregnant. Maybe we find ourselves struggling to remember details or focus on tasks. Maybe we are putting soap in the fridge and butter in the shower. This disruption of spatial memory, this quintessential clumsiness is exactly how you may characterize a condition tritely known as “pregnancy brain.”
A neurobiological marvel, “pregnancy brain”—which evolves into the more enduring “mom brain”—refers to the feelings of forgetfulness, inattention, and mental fogginess that sometimes accompany motherhood. It is meant to make sense of a mother’s becoming, of a shift in priorities, but is often made a punchline, as in “I can’t believe I left the stove on. Mom brain!” Its cultural treatment creates a perception of the maternal mind as cushy, melted, and weak. Though, what occurs in the minds of expectant mothers is more of an alteration—an amplification of love hormone, a winnowing of grey matter, making way for a process of specialization in which the brain is not by any means lost, but rather opened and adjusted, fitted with a new response system.
It was this same response system, powered by love hormone, that my friend believed to be the cause for forgetting the very experiences of pregnancy and childbirth. In many ways, it makes sense—the love hormone multiplies, boring little lovely holes inside of the brain’s grey matter, allowing the mother to love the very creature that tortures her from the inside, stretching her skin like a rawhide drum, agonizing her—often within an inch of her life—on the way out.
I recently read that neuroscientists can determine whether a woman has had a child by looking at brain scans. To then insinuate that becoming a mother is accompanied by a deterioration of the mind is to neglect this transmogrification, this birth of mother before child, the construction of wires—indestructible and bound, without question, to a being without sentience, a child you haven’t met yet.
In the mirror, my scar is deep blue-red, splotchy, and unevenly ribbed like an amateur weaving. A small welt forms about a third of the way in on the left side—the short side—while the other side remains seamless. Reluctantly, I’ve begun to touch the snaking series of purples. In the shower and elsewhere, I’ve caved to its obtrusiveness, inclined to treat our relationship like an arranged marriage, like something to which I must succumb or embrace. For many weeks now, I have chosen to do neither, only to run and not look down, to shield my own reflection.
There are things you’re supposed to look at and scars are definitely one of those things. It’s important to examine a scar, to watch it heal, to check it for redness, irregularities, and lumps. A C-section scar is the remaining growth of tissue marking the spot where abdomen and uterus were cut to extract a baby that could or would not be delivered vaginally.
Lasting for the first few days after a C-section is the inflammatory stage. During this stage, bleeding stops and white blood cells gather at the site to guard against infection. This is the stage of sensations, the stage of aches, of general confusion around what hurts and where; it is the stage of phantom scars and gaping wounds decorating one’s midsection, a pain so great you are sure that there must be gashes from the breastbone all the way down to the thighs.
It is the stage of flame and dried blood, bandages strapped to overgrown pubic hair, winding, skin pushing and pulling. Every shower becomes a high-intensity exercise, where you can no longer reach for the soap. They say to let the soap wash over the incision, to just let the water fall from the high perch of your now empty belly, but I can barely bring myself to look down, to make sure the soap is moving, washing over.
The first birth I can remember was that of Aunt Becky’s twins on Full House. Aunt Becky is unmistakably pretty and just the right amount fearful as she is whisked off to the birthing den. Her husband, Uncle Jesse, is checked into the hospital at the same time for appendicitis, in a twist of screwballish fate. What follows is a series of sitcom attempts to lighten the birth sequence as much as possible, with Bob Saget standing in as birthing coach and Uncle Jesse playing the jolly jester who, in the end, is happy to be there but isn’t totally sure what’s going on.
Aunt Becky forges ahead, hee hee hoo-ing through contractions amidst the follies of the men who keep her company—or don’t. At one point, Saget even ropes Aunt Becky into broadcasting her labor on air as part of their morning show. Once the expectant father returns, strung out on anesthesia and strapped to a sack of IV fluids (Becky, as it appears, is hooked to nothing at all), it is nearly time for Becky to push. Dumbfounded and a little grossed out, Jesse yodels I’m having a babyyyy. Becky, now pushing, begins to shout back “Shut up!” over a laugh track, which fades into the San Francisco skyline.
The skyline clears, welcoming us to the bedside of the aunt and uncle—now parents themselves—as they cradle a set of clean-skinned eight-week-old twins, not at all newborn, but beautiful and unscathed nonetheless.
As a child, this was not only funny to me, but beautiful. I admired Aunt Becky—somehow more stunning in a birthing gown—and even found myself mimicking her Lamaze breathing patterns. Hee hee hoo, hee hee hoo. Aunt Becky’s birth was the first of many television and film births I’d witness over the years—each of them more trope-filled than the last. There was always the water breaking on the kitchen floor, the oafish husband, floundering in the virile act of starting the car or grabbing the go-bag, The woman—pretty and bearing few marks of physical distress—usually wailed through contractions until, finally, she was ready to push the baby out. Despite slight differences in each film and television birth, there was always, always pushing.
When I was pregnant, I couldn’t help but imagine myself like Aunt Becky, beautiful and rosy-cheeked, chanting hee hee hoo into my bent knees. Mostly, though, I thought about the pushing—the sweet excruciating release of gentle, fleshy burden. I thought about the victory of labor, the endurance it required to get my body from start to finish, to open, to bear, to yield. In the end, I could not get my body from start to finish; and what I endured was nothing like what I’d seen on TV. Like so many women in real life, I had a C-section—which, unlike vaginal birth, requires no pushing at all.
In an essay for Rogerebet.com on the C-section in American movies, writer Violet LeVoit identifies why C-sections, generally only portrayed as gory or supernatural affairs in film, aren’t given more normal treatment. “A C-section is a dramatic lead balloon. A protagonist’s responses to challenges are the cornerstone of good drama,” writes LeVoit. “If a character is pregnant in the first act, then the obvious resolution to her story is to rise to the difficult task of birth by the third, emerging heroically at the end having conquered her challenge.” Where, then, was my challenge?
My C-section occurred after 40 hours of a failed induction and non-progressive labor. It was the tip of the anti-climactic iceberg, the dramatic lead balloon deflating and flitting through the set of a long and arduous second act in which I, the protagonist, battled my body for permission to have my baby the way I’d imagined all these years—since I first watched Aunt Becky do it on TV—and in the end, neither I nor my body won.
The second stage of healing is called the proliferative stage. During this estimated three-to-four-week phase, collagen gathers at the incision to strengthen and pull it together from the edges inward. New blood vessels begin to form, creating a protective boundary for the scar as it gets thicker and goes from pink to something closer to the color of your skin.
This stage is characterized by a more acute style of pain—stitches pricking, the sharp sensation of little hairs catching as you peel your steri-strips off one by one in the mirror, trying your best not to look anywhere but right at your hand as it works its way across your pelvic bone. You peel your gaze from the line on your skin—an unwelcome dressing, an unfriendly wrapping with no bows.
I remember the sensation of the last bandage, halfway loose between my two fingers, clutching my lower navel with the other hand. This time, the mirror is a menace mocking me all over again, a reminder of my body’s faults and inabilities. My flesh is fuchsia and my teeth hiss as I am finally unstuck; I hobble to the shower and wonder when the separation will mend, when I will no longer feel like I am in sections.
In LeVoit’s view, C-sections are too muted, too convoluted to become great cinema. “The effort and struggle and noise of vaginal birth looks better on screen than the woman’s anesthetized passivity in a C-section. Most significantly, having someone else (i.e. a doctor) solve a character’s climactic problem is too deus ex machina to make for satisfying drama,” she writes. In other words, C-sections strip women of agency, rendering us not as heroes of our own stories, but merely players. The mother does not work for the baby’s removal; the baby is simply removed.
Perhaps the most accurately portrayed movie C-section—from the 1988 John Hughes film She’s Having a Baby —is rendered all the more wrenching by Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” Predicated on the perspective of an expectant father, Bush’s hymn, soundtracking an otherwise silly and flat-charactered storyline from Hughes, is maybe one of the only good examples of the male gaze in all of cinema. Moreover, it’s a raw and sympathetic positioning of birth as more than simply a means to a baby, as in and of itself.
Kevin Bacon sits crying, hands folded between his knees, in a hospital waiting room, while his wife, Elizabeth McGovern, undergoes an emergency C-section. As Bush puts it, he is “outside this woman’s work,” having been abruptly barred from the operating theater by a frazzled nurse. McGovern is strapped to the surgical table, the anesthesia siphoned through her windpipe; while Bacon half smilingly stews, struck by a parade of earthly memories.
There is house painting and running through rainstorms and twilight dancing in the grey green of a study, now a nursery—the cool anticipation of pregnancy, the moments when the fear is not yet physical, when the work is a series of shouldered responsibilities. The C-section, while not shown—no film births ever are—is, in the end, deeply personal and intimate. It is a labor—of body, of mind. There is no promethean monster-child, no mangled womb, no postmortem extraction. There is only body, memory, a drop of blood falling to a cool terrazzo floor, and a rare centering of a couple and their journey to this point, the woman’s work, even a little bit of the man’s.
The song fades out onto Bacon at McGovern’s bedside. There is no baby there—not physically, although we do learn that the baby has survived the birth. In the end, it is just the woman laying still in her own body; the birth is, if only for a moment, about the mother. It is this woman’s work. It is in and of itself.
The second to last cervical check has us both reeling—me more visibly, and my husband still concealing his discontent. My dilation has crept painfully from two to just over two centimeters and the dreamy, cinema-worthy vaginal birth I’d pictured is rapidly slipping from reality. My husband finishes reading my favorite book from childhood—the book about an intergalactic prince who wanted more from humankind—and we hold hands over a chorus of false alarms sounding, my blood pressure oscillating, IV fluids rushing, and sticky medicine making its way through my veins.
I cry through the entirety of the final cervical check. The doctor acts confused, offended even. Is she hurting me, she wants to know, but it isn’t the pressure of a hand on my cervix that makes me cry profusely; it’s the realization that soon I’ll be wheeled in for unplanned surgery, cut open, and have my son dangled before me over the cool blue shadow of a half-bloodied tarp. “No,” chimes my husband, “She’s just upset because she knows.” The doctor tries to take my hand, but I refuse. Settling for a hand on my knee, she tells me anesthesiology will be right in.
With the utmost abruptness, the lights come way up. My husband is told to pack all our bags and get ready to move. I watch as he indelicately coils our fairy lights and packs up our speaker, our snacks, which we weren’t allowed to have, and our various books and lavender-scented room spray. I become irritable and threaten to call the midwife and tell her this was all her fault, that the “birth plan” she advised me to make was a joke—that although I hadn’t expected everything to go according to plan, I also hadn’t expected the furious tremor beginning in my sinuses and spreading down my jowls deep into my chest causing me to heave and whinny as I am wheeled by what seems like six or seven medical professionals, a surgical mask slipping from my nose and hanging loosely around my ears. I didn’t expect the bright lights, to be momentarily separated from my partner, only to be greeted by six or seven more doctors and nurses in the operating room; the spell of anesthesia radiating down my legs and slowly numbing my belly. My hands, collapsed and bound, become lost underneath a series of tarps and ties; the faint echo of a voice tickles my abdomen and repeats, “Can you feel this?” until I can’t feel it anymore.
Although my C-section birth is plenty traumatic in the birthing room, the real challenges arise later, when the incision is just beginning to heal—little flames igniting, phantom scars throbbing from breastbone to navel. They occur in the bedroom, when I blindly feel my way to the bassinet—limbs swimming, elbows rooting—my own body reminding me that I have been cut and stitched, fastened with little steri-strips like the Velcro on an orthopedic shoe. They emerge in the hospital, in the days following the surgery, as I use my partner to hoist myself out of bed, battling my own body just so I can get to my crying baby, to wheel the plastic manger around the hospital floor—swollen legs shuffling, abdomen curled all the way in like a geriatric cat.
My stomach becomes like ribbons of prosthetic skin pieced together with a slightly more technically advanced version of Scotch tape. My legs like two enormous paddles, each controlled by a different member of a clashing twosome. I look tired, still pregnant, and sad. As I step out of my hospital gown that first night, I notice a dark line splitting me vertically—the linea negra. During pregnancy, I didn’t have any lines or marks, but after, I am marked clearly, bedecked with freckles that weren’t there before, a little scab to the left of the cappuccino-colored divide.
The skin above my belly button appears in folds and crinkles—a dune of pooling epidermis where skin was once taut. All around my hands and wrists are little stab wounds, sores, and a single hep-lock still gnawing at my knuckles. Remnants of surgical tape decorate my legs, arms, and hips. Most severe is the massive ache in my abdomen, the constant tremor of sliced muscle, and the high-pitched screech of new skin trying its best to make scar tissue, to absorb stitches, to make a woman feel more like herself again—or maybe, like something else entirely.
People tell me it’ll all be worth it, but I don’t think that way. I can love my baby and still be haunted by how he got here. These early days of limb swimming are far from worth it anyways. My baby is barely animate. He is not interested in me and just holding him, just feeding him hurts me on a deep, muscular level—right down to the marrow of my compressing bones.
When family comes to visit, I stand beside my husband, tears welling as my father-in-law tells him what a good dad he is. I am bereft. I think, to be a good dad is to exist, to move, to hold, and to sway; there is no physical healing, no breastfeeding, no rapid yet steady release of hormones. Next to my husband, I feel I am not yet a mother but a mess. I fall from my waist, doubled over into my dresser, weeping, despite the company that’s present. I do not seem to care, though I care very much. I want to be good. I want to be mother, caregiver, sustainer, collected, having it all. I want to be a mother in a movie—water breaking, in the car, bag packed, baby on the way, comic breathing. I want so many things.
At six months postpartum, I try out a new OB-GYN, one that will hopefully eradicate any trauma I‘d accrued from the last one. She asks about my birth. “You had a C-section?” This she can at least tell from my records. I describe the ordeal as best as I can—the induction by cervical balloon, and the other by chemical process, the arduous, non-progressive labor, the epidural, the surgery. She tells me that once a patient goes into labor, they are suddenly hoisted onto a sort of track; and the doctor’s job is to ensure the patient rides that track from point A to point B, like a jolly passenger. I nod, like I usually do when I listen to doctors—reverentially, deferentially.
“At least mom and baby are healthy,” she adds, speaking into my sewn-up bikini line as I lower myself to the edge of the examination table. The entire process of wrestling with the tissue paper sends me into a battle with my own memories. The exam room alone gives me the spins, rousing the beginning of a flashback; and so, I dissociate. I pretend that I am elsewhere, as I steady my legs into the stirrups, and quietly plead with all my might, that the speculum doesn’t make me weep upon entry.
After blood vessels proliferate and collagen zips up tight, you become like the baby bird flying the coop for the first time. You flit and flap furiously, shedding bits of sticky abdomen from your recent hatchling. This is called the remodeling stage, and it continues on for however long you consider yourself to be healing, or, according to most medical professionals, up to a year. This is when it is not only safe but comfortable to lay on your belly, when you are finally able to sneeze without folding your body into halves and quarters.
Your body—it comes back to you in that order; first, you begin to reclaim, to grip onto the reigns again, then you begin to make sense of the thing itself—is no longer visibly pregnant but a pretty bone sack with a new stripe. You begin to purge your drawers for underwear you haven’t worn in at least six months. You are not afraid of a low waist, of the shower, of your own reflection naked in the mirror. You are being remodeled. You are an English basement with original crown modeling, new countertops, and a subway tile backsplash stuck onto old paint, paint on top of paint. A metaphor for your own body’s memories.
You are a metaphor for the final, total transformation of your scar, a slow and gradual flattening of puffy tissue into something seamlessly embedded into the cradle of your bikini line. There is no more pink, only the soft yellow of skin that you will hide for the rest of your life.
If you don’t forget childbirth on your own, someone will try to make you forget, usually through an overused sentiment like, “at least you and the baby are healthy.” Often “you” is omitted from the framework, in the even more common, “at least the baby is healthy.” And sometimes, it’s put back in, but in a way that makes “you” not your own entity but a mere keeper or overseer, like this: “At least you had a healthy baby. That’s what counts, right?”
Birth will forever be broadcasted as the day your baby was born. A birthday, but only for your baby. The woman’s work becomes but a footnote, with the baby being fodder for forgetting. We are meant to forget. We are to only celebrate birth’s beauty, bask in its public image. “I love giving birth,” Gal Gadot told USA Today earlier this year. “I would do it once a week if I could. It’s so magical.” And so, we take her for her word; we feign some sort of magic spell has befallen us.
Remembering the reality of birth—its risks and contingencies—then becomes a radical act. We have to remind ourselves; we have to remember the hours of labor, the hee-hee-hoo, the doctor’s sneer when we say we don’t want the epidural, her audible nod of relief when we say we do. Often, we have to remember the gruesome precarity of life cycles, that in giving life there is confrontation with death, the sneaking supposition of end eclipsing beginning.
When I remember my birth—the dank, dark, room, the exhumation of fluids, the basins upon basins of yellow bile, the things I’d only previously seen at the bedside of a dying grandparent—I think of the mother octopus. When the mother octopus lays her eggs, she begins to starve herself, watching circumspectly over her unhatched spawn; by the time they are born, she dies. Often, the octopus will speed the process by self-mutilating—tearing her skin, eating bits of tentacle, or intentionally mangling her arms and legs into a web.
I once read that this is all more or less controlled by the octopus’ optic gland, which sits between her eyes. When researchers removed this gland in 1977, the octopus abandoned her eggs and went on to live a much longer life. But with the gland, she watches over her eggs, aerating them, dispensing her waning energy into fending off the occasional crustacean. Every energy, every ability becomes eclipsed with maternal instinct, until she quite literally tears herself limb from limb.
I think about the octopus’ slow roll toward death, optic gland throbbing while the great heft of grey matter dissipates from my own brain. I am ripped open to reveal my own hatched egg, the white noise of my creation filling the air while the mother octopus stares straight into the camera, gnawing desperately at a tentacle. As she takes her final breath, she shrugs comically and exclaims, “Mom brain!”
I still have a line that splits me, but other than that there are no discernible markings of motherhood, not when I am alone. My stomach descends into a tiny pouch and even though my body is mostly mine again, I can barely look at my unclothed self, not for more a minute without feeling the porcelain-colored cool of the operating cage, the imagined memory of the anesthetized knife slicing right through me. I wish to uncover my breasts and let them hang carelessly inside of an old night shirt. My showers—once long and ritualistic—are now cut short, a brief scrubbing of a body I’m still afraid to touch, followed by a race to dress my breasts in a bra fitted with absorbent pads—quickly, before the next haul of milk rushes in.
I am never without a bra, just as I am never without underwear that ride all the way up my belly button, compressing and concealing my scar. My body is new now, and my scar is the obvious metaphor—or perhaps just a literal representation—for all it’s been through. The skin is pinkish, the color of putty, and forms another line, one separating me from the part of me that is responsible for breeding, for growing. And then there are of course my legs, responsible for moving me when the line renders me immovable; the legs are the body’s natural crutch, they are its worker bees; “help me to help my legs,” I ask my husband, and I will do the rest.
I touch the pink fleshy line that now divides myself from my machine self and think about phantom scars and folds at the waist and pain so crippling I could do nothing but cry; to cry with a crying baby is loathsome, to be so weak, so hot, so cold, so tired, so needy, so sore. How could I? But now I know—because the phantoms were and are everywhere, telling me I am torn, ripped, cut in places I am not, telling me I cannot mother, cannot feed, cannot swell without contracting, birth without chemical assistance, move without legs.
But soon, I learn I can move however I please, and I do. I stand with my lopsided breasts out and I wiggle my upper abdomen side to side. I curve my shoulders in toward my ears and let me navel follow. I breathe in short gasps the way my baby does when he is happy, and I twist from one side to the other. I am doing half-moons and tree poses; my one foot creeps up like a grazing sea bird. It’s been two months since I had my baby and I’m still discovering bits of brown, sticky tape around my belly and scar area. It took me a full month to remove the corrugated steri-strips that held me together, fearing my guts would start to dribble out that moment I began to tear the little surgical bandages from my skin.
And now, it’s been a month more and I am finally beginning to address the rest of my body: the soft lower abdomen, the pudgy and bulbous belly button, the uneven breasts. I greet them all as coyly as I would if they were on another’s body. I welcome them as best as one can welcome travelers onto one’s native soil. I try my best to rally my new body parts, to give them meaning, to make them mine. “This is it,” I whisper with a sigh, “This is home.”
They say there is a hormone—or something biological, something within—that makes you forget the stomach-buckling pain, the horror of trying to hold your baby when everything hurts, when you are not you, when your body is a jigsaw. The hormone—don’t worry—will make you forget.
But I don’t want to forget.