Maternal Memory – a creative interplay between identity and meaning

Throughout the planning, execution and writing up of my PhD fieldwork sociologist Ann Oakley has been amongst my significant influences. Her work developing a sociology of maternal subjectivity and childbearing in the late 1970’s UK context has shaped both the principle argument of my thesis and the narrative approach I have taken in my ethnographic writing. Her two publications Becoming a Mother (1979) and Women Confined (1980) detailed research carried out with 55 women during pregnancy, postnatal and early nurturing stages of becoming a mother. Oakley and her team interviewed the women a total of four times each and she also carried out participant observation in the labour wards, witnessing and documenting the births of 6 out of the 55 births. Her decision to produce two books from this research, one which foregrounds ethnographic narrative accounts and the other an academic response and proposal towards a new sociology of childbirth led me to think deeply about my own writing audience. I was mostly taken with the approach Oakley took in the former, Becoming a Mother, reading this gave me confidence to use verbatim narratives from transcripts in my chapters dealing with the more traumatic and raw aspects of maternal transition. The academic more ‘conventional’ reporting of the research provided me with the foundations of my own principle argument: that maternal transition can be understood as a life event akin to others, and as such it can be distanced from an existing essentialist feminine paradigm and can be explored instead as a human response to change – individual and social (see me practising for my viva there!).

This is why I was extremely happy to see a link to her most recent article on my twitter timeline about two weeks ago. The paper entitled A Small Sociology of Maternal Memory she draws on data from a 37-year follow-up study to explore the key characteristics that maternal memory shares with other forms of memory. As I try to reflect on my own data collection and thesis, my use of narrative and analysis of emotional memory – this paper could not have arrived at a better time!

Oakley reports that as a topic, maternal memory has been studied more consistently in rats and other animals than in women. This observation rings true to my own observations of anthropological work on memory, of which there is an abundance, but very little looking at something as specific as long term recalling of life events such as childbearing and rearing – moreover in a cross-cultural context. Exploring memories of childbirth in much the same way that anthropology has looked at collective and individual narratives of trauma or violence could be fruitful for both sides. This is in part why I keep being drawn to the work of Veena Das when I write about the clinical management of birth in Mexico – where women evoke traumatic experience the violence must be described in their own words and the focus needs to be not on the violent act – but on the person who experiences it and moreover on how they recall it through the passing of time.


Frida Khalo ‘My Birth’

The way in which many patriarchal cultures frame the connection between pain, femininity and childbirth is significant to the social context of recalling events. A surprise fact, for me at least, from the paper’s introduction is that the idea that women are said to forget the pain of childbirth as soon as it is over, was first documented in the bible (King James version John16:21). This historically and socially constituted notion of mother love and maternal instinct has persisted across the Christian world to a point where it is not only retold often within the realms of medical practice but is also a popular rhetoric in the ‘natural birth movement’. A movement which calls upon the feminine paradigm equally as much as the medical model it challenges. This idea that all pain and suffering will be forgotten (and interventions forgiven) once you are awash with oxytocin and cuddling your newborn has served to reassure many a nervous primagravida, and has undoubtedly impacted upon the recalling of memory for those who wish to forget the pains of childbirth. But, what questions does this trope of reassurance raise about denial of experience and social expectations? How does it impact upon how mothers retell their experiences months or even years later, through the contextual reframing of the original event?

For Oakley this tendency to forget the pain of childbirth is also part of a wider construction of framing childbearing women as ‘biological forgetters’ – and therefore unreliable social actors. Therefore, memory or lack of it, comes to define women and their social capabilities:

  • Baby brain 1: memory and cognition defects said to be caused by pregnancy hormones (those pesky rats again!)
  • Forgetting the pain of childbirth soon afterwards – known as the Halo Effect (thanks religious oppression!)
  • Women are judged by the amount of ‘facts’ about birth and perinatal period they can retain – time of birth, weight, length of labour, extent of medical intervention, children’s treatment and illnesses – which are then pitted against the objective factors of health service records (of which human error and social context of recording is inconceivable!).
  • Baby brain 2 – further memory and cognition defects due to the hormonal overload often associated with the aforementioned Halo Effect.

This framing of mothers – and by proxy adult females if we think of how similar ideas are evoked at other stages of the reproductive lifecycle – as ‘biological forgetters’ demonstrates how human reproduction as social practice becomes more about the portrayal of maternal subjects as hindered by their very ‘nature’. When it is better understood as human beings experiencing transition in a world that is inseparable from gendered ideologies and forms of power.



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