Do Children Remember Being Born?

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Scientists suggested that neither children or adults can remember being born, despite the many anecdotal claims of birth memories.  The inability to recall birth or any early childhood events before the age of three or four is called childhood or infantile amnesia.[1]  However, it appears that infantile amnesia does not hamper the unconscious that stores information about how to do things, for example how to navigate a birth channel.[2]   It seems possible then that if a person can recall the journey to birth,  other memories might be accessible as well.

According to the 1950s psychoanalyst Otto Rank, every birth is a traumatic experience.   He believed falling in dreams was simply the latent desire to return to the embryonic womb, which was deemed safer than the birthing experience.    Sometimes this desire to return to the womb might be played out in other symbolic fantasies like being under water or being sucked into quicksand. Otto Rank suggested that every psychological problem generally ended with some kind of representation of birth.

Sigmund Freud was interested in the links between dreams and repression.  He maintained that human anxieties and hysteria generally happened through processes of emotional and experiential denial and this could be revealed in the content of dreams.    Freud was renowned for his dream analysis, which he turned into therapies called the talking cure, or psychoanalysis.

Clearly, experiences are going to re-occur in our dreams and might be the source of further anxieties.

Anxieties were rife in the post-war period and they were probably exacerbated by the newly invented television set that graced the lounge rooms of those who could afford one.  My family were one of the first to acquire a black and white television set.  Television changed people’s perspectives. The scenes of the post war struggles that surrounded us were very real, we could identify with them; but at the same time, they were dispersed. When portrayed on the new media everything was concentrated into a small square box screen that flickered back and forth over a much wider area than that experienced first hand and this magnified the problems as well as the emotional responses from the audience. Then, over time this perspective changed and the distance made it easier to look at the devastation. However, no one could truly escape the devastation of War.

Britain had won the Second World War, but London’s outskirts were impregnated with the stench of poverty and hardship. The Second World War Armistice took place in 1945 and it brought with it some rapid changes, but also much chaos. The biggest problem for most people was finding somewhere to live.   All the eligible men had been called up for National Service, which was a compulsory two years contract so British women had basically kept the nation running in their absence.  Women lost their employment when the soldiers returned to England so the traumatic experience of the blitz was coupled with the sudden disappearance  of income.  There were other problems too.

The Second World War Armistice was portrayed as a time for celebration, but the immediate future looked grim.   For many Britons life would deteriorate far beyond the hardships of the War years and the difficult times did not discriminate between rich and poor because the entire nation was lacking in resources.  The War years had left Britain with a myriad of state regulations and a bureaucracy that was highly complex and beyond human comprehension. People were already struggling and the paperwork made things worse.  Taxes were high and wages were low. Rents were out of reach for a lot of families due to the shortage of housing.  Some basic commodities like dairy products, tea and fuels still had to be purchased with coupons.  Sugar and treacle were freely available and people would eat sweets instead of food. Meals were nutritionally lacking.   In winter the poor ate humbugs to keep warm when clothing was inadequate. A bright orange cough candy was also said to ward off influenza.  The high levels of sugar intake were bad for the teeth so charcoal was used to clean them as tooth paste was a luxury item and unavailable.

The lack of food for purchase also encouraged people to produce their own.  Around the city high steal wire fences were needed to stop people from stealing the home grown produce because the need was so great and the poor were suffering.  Some individuals who did not have land took advantage of the allotments that ran along the railway lines, but they had to be paid for, the sum was small, but money was hard to come by as there was little or no work.

In the 1940s and well into the 1950s many people who had homes lacked modern facilities like water, sanitation and electricity. Only businesses and rich people had modern appliances such as stoves and telephones. The washing was done in a boiler and put through a roller machine that stood outside in the yard, the rollers froze up when the temperatures fell below zero and the rollers perished and deteriorated, they were expensive to replace.

The water pipes had lagging to stop them from bursting. My grandmother would cut up old rags and put around pipes. It was not as though we could not afford to buy materials, there was just nothing available.   Winters were cold and wet so newspapers would be spread under carpets and mattresses to keep out the rising damp. There were no tradesmen, you had to take care of your own problems from plumbing to the removal of splinters and weeds.

It was said that the First World War took roughly 1,385,300 residents from the United Kingdom. The Second World War claimed the lives of nearly 500,000.[1]   Every family lost someone and some families were completely destroyed. People were numbed by the circumstances and they were despondent, which left them open to exploitation. Career thieves become landlords and entrepreneurs by taking advantage of the poor, the sick and the homeless.  Gamblers and bookies operated on every street corner encouraging people to bet on the horse and dog races. Most of the activities were illegal, but there was hardly any policing.  There were other forms of gambling too, cock fighting, racing pigeons and the football pools, with the latter offering such high rewards that some people would pour every penny they had into them and regret it later. Gambling and drinking were common past times as they served as a diversion from the harsh existence, but all too many succumbed to the addictions which dulled the painful memories and added to the squalor and dereliction.

The short supply of housing coupled and the high demand forced some families to live in old bomb shelters. Many were dug deep into the ground and  made of concrete while others were flimsy and built above ground with of corrugated iron. The shelters were hardly adequate protection from the rough winters, they were cold, damp, they leaked and they were havens for vermin.  Later the government built prefabricated bungalows, which were equally flimsy and damp.

Everything was in short supply, but housing was the worst problem with the highest demand. Some folks were so desperate they were prepared to squat in condemned buildings.  Table cloths and old blankets could be seen swinging from glass free windows and the holes in floors were covered in scrap tin sheeting that had fallen off the back of trucks or was stolen from local scrap yards.   The stench from the sites was repulsive, there were open drains and no toilets.  Most sites had not been properly cleared of contaminated debris and the smell of death and incendiary fuels made for an unpleasant mix.

My family escaped much of the sordidness, but my aunt drove and ambulance and I would often go with her to a call in the poorer regions.  Ambulances did not just pick up sick people, they collected body parts and the dead.  It made for an enlightened upbringing.

Returning to the topic of memories, it is hard to assess how much one actually remembers first hand or what is gleaned from conversation.  Either way, it was a shocking picture for most to process.

Some memories can be relied upon. I recall an odorous air of carcasses that seeped from through the alleyways as giant rodents scavenged for any decomposed remains, mostly dogs and scraps that had been thrown from cafes.   The rats were twice the size of the domestic species as the poisons put down by the town council had resulted in an immunity which doubled the size of the animals.

The rats would run along the small front gardens and along the kerb-sides before disappearing into the drains.   . Women could not leave their babies outside in perambulators for fear of their children being attacked and eaten by rats.

I grew up with a loathing for rodents, but my cousin Eve  loved rats. She worked in a laboratory that made biological weapons and rats were used for experimentation. My cousin would sometimes visit my grandmother on a Sunday afternoon and she would generally bring a rat or two with her for our amusement.

On one occasion  a rat escaped in the kitchen. My grandmother gave chase,  but the rat outsmarted her . It jumped from the floor to a chair and then on to the cooker where my grandmother had a pot of soup cooking for dinner. The rat observed the soup and tried to balance on the edge of the saucepan, but fell into the boiling liquid.  The loss of a nights dinner was not small dilemma. My cousin Eve was upset at the loss of her rat and my grandmother was furious at the loss of a pot of good soup.

Many lives were in ruins after the War, but there was a strength of character that grew from it.  The will to survive seems to surpass every human dilemma, be it small or a grand upheaval.

[1] War Causalities Retried 6th October, 2018.

[2] The consumption of mentholated spirits was common.


[1] Infant Amnesia Retrieved 29th October, 2018.

[2] Ibid.