What’s the most painful thing you can remember happening to you? Getting stung by a swarm of bees? Breaking a limb? Being dumped by a dude named Jeremy at the school dance while “Love Hurts” was playing? Well, one of the memories many women would put pretty high up on that list is delivering a baby.
I had a C-section in order to deliver my (one and only) child, a son. And except for the IV requiring far too many tries to get it in place, and the doctor poking around to see if my cervix was ripened by the Cervidil yet, the rest was, I suppose, bearable. Even the two day’s worth of contractions I had weren’t much worse than bad period cramps. I had an epidural and was given morphine as I entered the operating room, and I didn’t feel the doctor slicing into my belly, her hands ripping into my insides or any of the other things they do during a C-section (which I have heard get compared to an autopsy).
It wasn’t until I got home and began to try to do seemingly common things like sit, stand, or walk that I started to experience the pain, which, even with the Tylenol with codeine they prescribed me, was excruciating. Ultimately for me, having a C-section was so scary, unexpected, dramatic, intense, and painful (in the aftermath) that I can sincerely say I did not enjoy my birth experience—and I wouldn’t want to go through it again. Having another baby is far from the top or even in the middle of my to-do list. It’s way down at the bottom, next to “trim cat claws.”
That all being said, I’m thrilled to be a mom and thankful for the technology and the surgery, because who knows what might have happened without it.
For a while, I was truly on the fence about having only one child. And it’s a common conundrum for many parents. Have just one kid or two? Or more? For people like myself, who had a hard time delivering, there is this added element of fear. In addition, things weren't exactly easy for my husband, either, and he is still experiencing lasting emotional effects and anxiousness that leaves him less than super excited about trying for baby number two. But many women will tell me, “Oh, don’t you worry! Your body totally forgets!”
Uh, forgets what? Do women really “forget” the pain of labor or the aftermath of a C-section? The postpartum hell? It’s been almost two years, and I certainly have not.
So I went and sought out the answer to this question, and it’s the one you might have guessed: Many moms do forget, and some absolutely don’t.
Megan, a stay-at-home mother and actor who had a vaginal birth both times, tells me she considers both her labor experiences good ones, meaning there were no major issues. The pain was real, but she does feel like she has forgotten, or at least distanced herself, from the experience on some level. “I can remember that both times I legit was thinking I would die from the pain and that I would never come back from the pain cave I was stuck in,” she says. “But even by, like, three months postpartum, I couldn't connect to that anymore and started to think, ‘How bad could it really have been?’”
Other women agree that while they didn’t forget their labor experiences, the sensations of the actual pain they felt were not something they have held onto. “I have forgotten the feeling of the pain, but not the memory, if that makes sense,” Julie, a retail manager and mother of one toddler, tells me. (She had an emergency C-section.) Jaika, a 37-year-old mother of two who delivered vaginally, echoes her sentiments: “I forgot the pain but remember the experience as being very painful.”
Annie, a UX researcher and mom of two, says she has definitely forgotten or blocked out the vivid memories of her first vaginal delivery—so much so that for her second vaginal delivery, it felt completely shocking and fresh again. “The second time around, I couldn’t believe how much it hurt. It was like nothing I had ever felt. But objectively the second time was actually much easier, I had just forgotten what it felt like.”
But then there are people more like myself, who don’t feel so disconnected from the pain. Take Kristen, 38, a stay-at-home mom, who still remembers one infamous aspect of both of her vaginal deliveries quite clearly: “I’ll never forget the ring of fire crotch burn as both of the babies heads came out for two separate labors, two-and-a-half years apart.”
Maddie, like some of the other women I spoke with, remembers things being painful but has disconnected from the actual intensity of the labor pain, and that of her vaginal delivery. “Interestingly, the most visceral memories I have are of the non-labor parts, like the God-awful catheter that got inserted wrong … and the episiotomy,” the 32-year-old mother of one explains. “But the labor pains, not so much. I remember it being horrific. But my body can't connect the pain with any kind of physical memory.”
Melissa, who has one son whom she delivered vaginally, was in labor for 59 hours. “I don't remember the pain,” she says. “I remember becoming pain. I was only pain. I met the end of myself.”
There’s no indisputable scientific rationale for why some of these (lucky) women eventually detached from the pain points of childbirth and the postpartum period after, though there are theories.
Jennifer Conti, M.D., clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University and co-host of The V Word podcast, tells SELF that this concept of dissociating from the discomfort of childbirth isn’t something that’s well studied. But she theorizes that it’s possible the survival of our species might depend on the idea that a woman would forget the pain of labor and birth. “Evolutionarily, it makes sense though,” she explains. “If you can’t remember how intense your [birth experience] was, maybe you’re more likely to do it again and reproduce.”
Dr. Conti says that, anecdotally, it’s common for women not to recall the actual pain in detail. “I often hear women say that they can remember that they were in pain during labor, but can’t actually recall the perception or intensity that well. On the other hand, there are women who swear they remember the event like it happened yesterday.” She says that the hormone oxytocin—which is what causes contractions—may play a role in this phenomenon, “but it’s not well understood.”
As we have seen from the disparity of recollections, and since women do have such a wide range of childbirth experiences, there’s no definite way to confirm whether this idea that women forget the pain of labor is true, because it is a wholly unique and different experience for each person. However, one study that surveyed women in Sweden two months after they had been in labor (not including women who had elective C-sections) suggested that a woman’s recollection of labor pain specifically may have something to do with their first overall reaction of that particular birth experience. In other words, if a person evaluated their birth experience as positive when reflecting on it two months later, they rated their pain as less and less as time went on (they were surveyed again one year and five years later), more so than people who felt negatively about their birth process.
It’s also worth noting that not all people receive the same pain interventions during childbirth, or even handle or tolerate pain in the same way. Other women simply don’t have a bad or extremely painful experience in labor, as pain and how each individual handles it, is a very personal thing.
So you might say, it’s all a matter of perspective. Every woman experiences some pain during labor, but their personal experience influences their memories.
Your memories may even be influenced by factors such as the way you were treated by hospital staff, the comfort of your accommodations, the people you shared your hospital room with, the food you were fed, your emotional state, whether you had spousal or family support during labor, or whether or not you had a vaginal or C-section delivery, among many other things.
For me, it was certainly not as much fun as say, sipping margaritas beside a pool or eating pizza while watching Netflix. Though there’s almost no easy way through it, the pros for me (a beautiful, smushy baby, come on) far outweighed the cons. I'm just in no mood at this point to do it again.
But if you’re approaching your first delivery, be prepared to maybe have some horribly vivid memories of it for up to half a decade later and maybe never want to have another child, or to possibly love it and want to have 10 more children. And just in case you really want to make sure you don’t forget a thing, bring a pen.