Yesterday was Alex's 15th birthday. Taller than me now, he has feet bigger than his father. But I can still see the baby behind the almost man. And I can still remember his arrival.
I knew nothing about babies. I hadn't even really thought of going to the doctor before Best Beloved suggested it. “Why? I'm not ill...” I had said. “It just might be a good idea” he gently persisted. “Most pregnant women have check-ups.”
I chose a female doctor, reasoning that women understand women better than men do. She had trained in Germany, spoke English with clipped Teutonic tones, and frequently used the word 'Kontrol' when she meant 'Check'. Best Beloved had his doubts. “She seems a little Authoritarian” he said. “But it is your choice.”
I didn't understand what the Big Deal was. Women had been having babies for millenia, hadn't they? The private hospital in Nicosia where Alex was born offered ante-natal classes, and I went to two. They were taught by a woman who had never given birth and who made the whole event seem no more than a mild inconvenience. “When the baybee eez about to be borrn, you may feel a need to poosh,” she said, smiling. “But no eez goood to poosh naow. You muzt wait for when the doctor say you, or maybe you'll have a torn.”
Alex was 'late'. Five days late. “You musst come effery day for Kontrol!” said Doctor I. “Zis musst not go on for too long.” Lamb to the slaughter, I nodded meekly. She was the pro: she must know best. “My husband can be there, can't he?” I asked. She huffed. “Ass long as he doess not get in ze vay!” Finally she said. “Vee must induce!” and before I could ask what that meant, shoved a pessary up me. “Just vait!”
We didn't 'vait' long. An hour or two later I was screeching for pain relief. “Why didn't anyone tell me it would be like this?” I was given Pethedine, but like half the women who have Pethedine, felt little noticable pain relief – just a lot less control. I couldn't walk anymore and had to lie on my back.
The midwife was a Battle Axe. “You don't spik Grik! Huff!” so to be obliging (if-I-make-friends-with-this-woman-maybe-she-will-make-the-pain-go-away) I gasped out “Arhizei!” (“It's starting”) every time a contraction began and “Telionei!” (“It's over!”) every time it finished. Sometimes she had the grace to say “Bravo!”
Finally Dr I came into the room and peered between my legs. “OK, take her in!” she said and I was wheeled into the bright lights of the Delivery Suite (makes it almost sound comfortable, doesn't it?), Best Beloved at my side, seething, though I didn't know it. Then it was feet in stirrups and the snapping of latex gloves followed by the most powerful compulsion to push that I have ever experienced. Terrified does not describe what I felt. No word articulates that fear. Fear is not the word. Fear and pain paralysed me. I was going to 'have a torn'. I was being split in two... And then Doctor I said “No, you must not push now!” How could I not? I was in the grip of something incalculable, unbearable, beyond anything that I had ever experienced or dreamed of. My eyes sought Best Beloved's. At least he was still there. His grip became my lifeline.
I heard the metallic clink of instruments, then, unbelievably a whitehot slice as she cut me open “So zat ze baby vill haff more room to come out... See he had ze cord around his neck...” Everything suddenly happened very fast, but all I felt was a slithery thing between my legs and the unbearable scissor-cut. Then Doctor I wrapped the cord around her right hand, braced the other against something and began to pull the placenta out. "Ha! Yess. Ve haff it all here!"
Something blue was carried over to the sink. I heard a thin wail. Was that mine? Doctor I started prodding around her scissor-slash and I felt the stab of a needle. I screeched – far louder than the blue thing in the sink. “Now, keep still. I must sew you up but zis vill not hurt!” But it did and I asked for anaesthetic. She huffed again. Jabbed in a needle. Waited half a minute and began to sew again. A stitch later and I screeched again. “I cannot give you more anaesthetic!” she said, and sewed on regardless. Eight stitches.
Someone brought me the blue thing. He was wrapped in a white blanket and looked up at me through milky eyes from an elongated face. No hair. No brows.
“Now what do I do?” I thought.
I began to get to know him over the next few days in the clinic. He stayed in the nursery: the only child there. I could hear him crying between the times that the nurses brought him to me for feeds, but was told that going to him would spoil him. I was shocked and shaky and dizzy when I stood up.
After three days, I took him home. But I couldn't keep to the schedule of a breast-feed every four hours and chamomile tea between. I became nervy and sad, snapping at Best Beloved and insisting that he take the baby away when he cried as I couldn't bear to hear him and had been told not to nurse him. After a week I asked my GP, a Scots woman with a sensible attitude to everything. “Och don't be listenin' to that crowd! When he cries, pick him up and stick a tit in his mouth. Give him a cuddle, sit there and relax with him... Fancy that! Telling a new mother with her first bairn to leave him alone when he cries and just give him chamomile tea...”
When I followed her advice, life became less stressful. Breastfeeding was not common here then – without Dr Cecilia I would have given up. No one told me how to do it and the hospital suggested formula when I said that it hurt. Because nursing is not done by my generation in Cyprus, I had no idea if it was acceptable, and Best Beloved said “Just do it anyway!” so I did. The reaction surprised me. Cypriots of all ages were supportive. Old men and women smiled, several coming up to confide “I wish that my daughter had nursed. It's so much better for the baby...” “My daughter in law tried, but couldn't do it and the hospital said that bottles were easier and that she would lose her figure...” Younger people also commented: “I wish I could have breastfed, but it hurt too much!” “I tried to get my wife to do it but the nurse said that she didn't have milk...” “No one told me how...”
When I had some equilibrium, two weeks or so after the birth, I asked Best Beloved how he thought it had gone. “Well, I didn't want to say it, but I thought that the whole thing was awful,” he replied. “They didn't treat you as a person at all, they processed you...” he told me about his daughter's birth in London, three years before, about the midwives' compassion and the doctor's respect. “... And that was in a busy NHS hospital with all sorts of other things going on at the same time,” he continued. “Doctors think they're god here,” he said. “But there was nothing I could do at the time but be there for you.”
Alex's birth and the lack of breastfeeding support made me realise that although women had been giving birth for millenia, there was a lot of room in Cyprus for improvement. Slowly I met other mothers who thought like me. A Canadian friend introduced me to Mothering Magazine, and fifteen years later, I still subscribe.
Things have improved a little in Cyprus – husbands are more welcome in delivery rooms, and a few determined women offer breastfeeding counselling. Induction for babies a week 'late' is still routine, Caesarian sections make up about 40% of births and episiotomies occur in close to 100%. Except with a few doctors, informed consent goes out of the window with the first contraction. I had a bad experience with Sophia's birth, as well, but the male doctor who attended both Zenon's and Leo's births agreed to keep interventions to an absolute minimum and kept his word. (He was even willing to consider a breech delivery for Leo, and after a relaxed and easy – everything's relative – birth with my best friend and then-six-year-old Sophia in attendence, said 'Shall we do the next one at home, then?'. But that's another story.)
All the memories of that day fifteen years ago came pouring back as I watched Alex blow out the candles on his cake yesterday. The pain, the bewilderment, the blue thing wailing in the sink, the loss of trust. Alex's birth and its aftermath changed me not just in that I became a parent.
I realised that even people whom I had assumed were on my side might not really have my best interests at heart, that there's more than one way to do everything. And that nature really is a wonderful designer.