I realised early on that I would have to be OK with peeing myself. It seemed counter-productive to labour towards opening up more and more and more with each contraction, and during this maintain an exception for bladder control. I would have to let go of that as well. (I had come across no explicit discussion of bladder control during labour anywhere in the literature and clearly this wasn’t the time to look it up, although in retrospect a birth story from Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth comes to mind, where a woman mentioned that the toilet was where she felt most comfortable. Perhaps she was troubled by the same contradiction while relaxing her pelvic floor. In any case, labouring in the loo was out of the question. I needed to keep moving.) This also meant that I wouldn’t be able to rest much on the bed: wetting the bed was an inhibition I didn’t care to break, plus lying down during contractions seemed to make them shockingly longer and stronger.
Of course none of the above arrived as conscious thought. I just found myself jumping off the bed and grabbing a towel to put under me. The towel stayed on the floor and became a nest where it felt OK to completely let go as the waves hit. In the 14 hours I laboured at home I ended up with padded nests in different spots around the house. This happened spontaneously but I now realise there was sense to their locations: the first was by the bed so I could quickly get to it from lying down. The second was where I sometimes spread the yoga mat, by the computer and sound set-up where I play music: here I let muscle memory take over, rocking, swaying, and breathing into positions that felt good. The third nest was in the corridor by a bit of clear wall. I used the wall to push up on or press against, stretching and adjusting.
I went to a place I didn’t want to leave, and I realise that this was primitive and entirely my own, but it was also something I had been trying to unlock during the previous months. During the third trimester especially, I had been writhing, aligning, breathing, moaning, and dancing in the different traditions of Claire (all-rounded informative and physically instructive sessions covering labour-related eventualities, with a whole lot of emotional support wrapped in a hypnobirthing practice), Emma (highly sophisticated and well-researched pre-natal yoga following the BirthLight system), and Sylvia (spiritually inspiring and physically unafraid bellydance, that I hope she’ll turn into a series of workshops). In case this sounds extravagant I note that I could afford to invest in the art of these practitioners because I refused to buy any baby-stuff. I balked at the pregnancy-related consumerist onslaught, and decided on a second-hand only policy (baby vintage!). Working with these experts was a way to keep physically strong for labour, as well as emotionally strong in the face of a radically controlling culture of well-meaning advice.
Aside from giving me a healthy frame of reference regarding birth and baby culture, and their politics, I realise now that these classes were crucial in helping me with a kind of unlearning that had a lot to do with letting go, not just of my conditioning around bodily functions but also around human composure, or behaviour in relation to a clinical context that still, inevitably, at times, casts the labouring woman as a patient. These classes taught me with words and through movement, that it was OK, or rather necessary, to prioritise my experience, my instincts and my body’s demands over any kind of external expectation. They gave me practice in mooing and screaming and surrendering wildly in the presence of strangers, and more importantly, while under close observation. They also equipped me with enough cross-referenced information to feel that I more or less knew what I was getting myself into.
When asked, previously, I would declare my certainty that he would arrive after the due date. But this was a week early. In every other way, though, there was an unconscious poetry in my actions. My body’s timing involved having cleared out the house, having contacted his father communicating great warmth but not an invitation to the birth, and having dreamt, the night before, that my mother had passed away. I believe the latter had to do with my fear of fear, or my fear of an approach, represented by my mother, that pushed instinct aside. That trusted medicine over instinct, of putting faith in the institution over intuition. In many ways, this labour story is about ritually neutralising this fear, about becoming a mother different than my own, about overcoming Foucault. I think we can see aspects of labour as an exercise in social and institutional trust, which for me relied on trusting specific individuals to work with me by letting me work alone, and to keep me safe so that I might follow my senses, above all.
As the night wore on, I needed the lights to be very low around the house. Very very low. I’ve always been sensitive to light, and this is also something Ina May talked about: that the dilation of the cervix is correlated to the dilation of the pupil. I had started entering a trance-like state earlier in the day. I remember recognising the beginnings of this ascent, of this turning inside, or even of this animal-like regression at mid-morning, during early contractions, as I stood in the yard looking at the lemon trees, with their green and yellow jumping out at me. I stopped trying to get things ready and followed the dogs to bask in the sun. I remember laughing with the realisation that he was on the way while smelling a lemon leaf. These contractions didn’t register as pain but as a kind of electrifying, hypnotic intensity. I thought I’d have a nap to save my strength and an hour or so later I woke up with what felt like an extremely painful period pain. I have the impression that if I hadn’t gone to sleep, if I had kept myself in the beautiful green and yellow lemon-smelling trance, then perhaps the sensations might have escalated without this shift that allowed for them to be interpreted as pain. (There are contemporary reports of painless labour, also in Cyprus. I think it’s entirely possible.)
During the night I found myself improvising welcoming and soothing rituals. I called on all the mother goddesses in the book [insert re Aphrodite book link], and prayed to the Virgin. I brought to my mind one by one the people in my life, calling on their love and their help. I swayed and breathed through the contractions and willed my body to open. As I prepared for the next one, I arranged and rearranged gifts and charmed artifacts: Alkis’ stone, Evi’s Yemanja beads, Athina’s ouroboros, Stephanos’ Krishna, Avyi’s ring, wirrow’s schoolboy, mom’s replica of an ancient Cypriot sculptural representation of a woman giving birth, Vaso’s necklace, Christos’ and Rona’s sample of holy water, Love Ye’s ribbon. I touched and organised these to actively-quickly resolve thoughts and fears that came up, I put on music, exchanged affection with the dogs, and nibbled and drunk things to keep up my strength. Len had brought me a perfect care package made up of fruit lollies, coconut water and other things, and I had nuts and dried fruit. I worked on accepting the contractions as something other than pain. I visualised riding them as waves, and focused on surrendering into them as surges of intense sensation, allowing them as my body’s process of rearranging itself into a passageway for Jano. I anchored myself with a sense of gratitude.
My clitoris was ready, but I didn’t want to come to orgasm, not yet anyway. I guess I didn’t want to hurry things too much too soon. I found myself doing this thing I thought of as the zombie-asana, where I just let my body relax fully where I stood, let my head loll and even my mouth drool, and let my pelvic floor relax as the contraction came. I didn’t try to control my breathing in this position. I just let go of all the intensity. This was very rewarding, but it didn’t fit every contraction. I had to improvise with each one: I remembered the goddess pose that Hayal taught me: utkata konasana. Where you open your legs in a square squat so that your spine and pelvis align, the arms are meant to be squared too, but it made better sense to just reach them up. It felt like abandoning, throwing myself in an evocation. I found that when I managed to breathe myself (steadily, deeply, endlessly) into this position on time, the contraction resolved itself almost immediately. This way the contractions would come on faster, with less time apart, but they also left within 10 seconds. This is interesting because the standard instructions are to go to hospital when contractions last 40-60 seconds, come every 5 minutes, for one hour straight. I had passed that point: I could count regular 50second long contractions when I stayed still, but I didn’t want to stay still, I also didn’t want to go in to the clinic, so I stopped counting. I kept pushing thoughts of ‘going in’ to the back of my head. I wonder what it would have been like, how much quicker and less inhibited everything would have been if this concern hadn’t been there at all.
Leaving home for the clinic made no sense. It was counter-intuitive and felt dangerous: why would I choose to go into a strange and uncomfortable environment (albeit the most trusted of its kind available to me, and for which I am extremely grateful) that I knew would hold me back, put me in stress, and create risks? I knew completely and clearly that my labour was going fine and that the baby was OK. But my mom was worried (she had stayed the night, and slept through most of the above) and Sophia (Frakala, the one gynaecologist I was unafraid to do this with, who I now see as a guardian between realms, and with whom I connected via the truly wise Kika) was eager to check the baby’s heartbeat. I was caught between my instincts and my trust for Sophia: my decision to rely on her to navigate the institutional set-up and medicalised paranoia around birth was what got me through the pregnancy.
By 8am resisting the looming prospect of changing location became difficult and counter-productive. This is the most crucial moment, I think, the punctum of local biopolitics: I needed to stop thinking and communicating in order to go further into labour, just as my community’s norms closed in. A cat would have just given birth unobserved, in her nest, in her trance. This was what I craved, intensely, with no hint of fear: I knew that what I needed was to be alone. No fear, but a deep, sad complaint directed towards myself, was that I was denying myself this necessary (sublime) privacy, out of caution. The social and medical monitoring I had received / accepted / arranged for myself and my baby precluded this kind of privacy. It meant that I would never quite be allowed to completely let go physically, like the cat was able to. This monitoring demanded that I let go in a different way: that I trust the structures around me. That I give in to them (insert note about the draconian, alienated aspects of social control around pregnancy and childcare – largely to do with the mother’s enculturation, her constraint, the neutralisation of her instincts.). So in that sense, this was the moment and the way in which I had to let go: to trust and accept all the help I could get, and in my case, with regard to my own particular Foucauldian anxieties, trust that science and technology would stay out of the way and that my animal needs would be respected rather than alienated.
This was the point that I needed Claire to take over. To become my interface with the clinic and keep both me and Sophia positively disposed. I had been working with Claire to prepare for all this. To figure out my options, to emotionally handle the necessity for institutional reliance. And build on trust. (I think of Claire as a μαμού, Cypriot for the extinct, as far as I can tell, local type of midwife. The term doula doesn’t sit well with me. Of course I now also call her a friend. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to reciprocate.)
To complete the necessary institutional set-up in a way that assuaged my anxieties, Claire had helped me find Emily, a paediatrician known for her kindness, gentleness, expertise with breastfeeding, and disinterestedness in intervention. Having seen more of the wonderful Emily since, I would also describe her as amazingly intuitive. My feeling was that since Emily, Claire, and Sofia had previously collaborated and seemed truly pleased at coming together again at my invitation, since that is, they had pre-existing trust for each other, all I had to do was trust their trust. This triad thus completed the sub-institutional infrastructure I needed in order to satisfy my sense of labour as something I had to do alone.
Mom drove and we met Claire outside the clinic around 8:30am. The daylight hurt my eyes. I was afraid and frustrated. Leaving home didn’t feel right. Claire helped me get out of the car and into the clinic with my head covered to avoid the light. You should have seen [the clinic staff’s] faces, Claire said later, they didn’t know you didn’t want the light to disturb your flow, at first they probably thought you were some celebrity hiding your face like that, then they obviously thought you were a madwoman, and by the end they were like.. ‘θεά’
I refused the hospital gown, snapping out of the projection that putting that kind of unfamiliar / alienating thing on was the normal thing to do. I was perfectly comfortable in my own gown, it wasn’t what I had been planning to wear, but it felt right: a light green abaya with gold flowers, an old gift from my brother. I reacted badly to being touched and quite unlike my character, felt instant and intense dislike for the nurse assigned to me by the clinic. This was interspersed with guilt for being rude to her, and annoyance that would keep touching me without my permission. I remember lashing out at some point: ‘I don’t know you, don’t touch me [μεν μου ντζίζεις, εν σε ξέρω]’. I should note that I continued to feel grossly invaded by her presence throughout and was only able to appreciate her help and consideration afterwards, when my perspective shifted away from that of a cornered animal.
I also refused to stay still / lie down for 20 minutes so they could map the strength of my contractions. I asked how that might make a difference to anyone but me? I don’t remember the answer. In any case there was no way I could spend 20 minutes lying down, I had to move through the contractions. I was annoyed that I had to negotiate in order to be left alone, and in retrospect I wonder how much more of this I might have encountered if not for Claire’s buffering of the clinic’s expectations. The processes proposed to me felt wrong, they were far from what I needed. Throughout labour, I intensely hated the cold gel, the metal sensor, and the screeching feedback of the baby heart-rate monitor, but the baby’s heartbeat was strong.
I was greatly relieved to see Sophia: my dilation was at 5cm. I presume it had regressed, which according to my reading is a natural response to the mother finding herself in a threatening situation. My dilation stayed like this for a while, predictably, as I worked to get comfortable all over again. Claire arranged my artefacts in my room and put music on to help me relax. Three beloved friends came, Len, Evi and Athina. (Avyi, couldn’t she was battling bronchitis). I was heartened to see them. Their hugs felt like energy transfers. It makes perfect sense: much needed oxytocin boosts. The clinic nurses tried to set up the birthing pool, which I had picked up from Anastasia of BirthForward the previous day and which I had come to visualise as a moat, a watery buffer between my process, my animal state, and the medical stresses / presumptions of the sterile environment. The birthing pool setup was unsuccessful in the end, because of a missing pump, but the commotion around this may have been what saved me from having an IV catheter installed in my hand as a priority / matter of routine upon admission. I had been very worried about this as the primary intervention: a reminder that I was in a setting that automatically anticipated and prepared for the worst, a symbol of the possibility of things going wrong even against the odds, often simply in order to avoid institutional legal liability. I had discussed this with Sophia previously, she explained that she needed the IV so she could help me with speed if she needed to, and I agreed to follow her instructions. In order for her to help me through this, I needed her to be comfortable. I had resolved to compensate for the necessity of the IV from my side: to symbolically counter-balance it with other things, render it irrelevant and invisible, to neutralise it using something like a favourite scarf. I didn’t have to in the end. The birthing pool / protective moat couldn’t have been of better service in creating a distraction. I had never imagined myself labouring in the pool anyway. I felt that I needed a moat, but whenever I had previously thought of myself in labour there was no water.
My waters broke while Sophia was checking my dilation. She didn’t use a hook, but applied a little bit of pressure during a contraction, and a gush followed. It felt like a midwife-y trick, a bit of welcome help, despite my fear of intervention. I thanked her. A little bit later I was encouraged to move to the delivery room. Once more the idea of moving to a new place was discomforting, but I found wisdom in Claire’s idea that it was far better that I take myself there at this point, rather than deal with the clinic’s / nurse’s insistence that I ‘be taken there’ at a later stage.
In the delivery room Sophia performed another facilitating trick, with my permission: Although by then I had been having and following the urge to push, a bit of cervix (they call this a lip) had been slowing the baby from coming down. Sophia used her hand to slip this bit of the cervix out of the way. (Counter to what the above link suggests) I didn’t mind this at all. It felt helpful, a relief. Perhaps it released pressure in some way. The baby came down quickly after that. Thinking back while going through the above links, I realise that this was a moment where my confidence failed. I had already been doing things I didn’t want to do, and I thought there had been something out of order with my process. I had to struggle to return to my instincts, and I could do so only intermittently.
I remember being invited onto the bed at different stages. Both in the delivery room and before, invitations that I refused with some annoyance, with one exception where I gave in for a little while – as little as possible, and then got down. My movements had slowed down considerably by that time, and getting down from the bed wasn’t easy (I understand now why women tend to stay there) but I had to be on my feet and have a full range of motion both in order to keep on top of the pain levels, as well as of my anxiety about being prone: in order to remain active, responsive and connected through what was happening to me and my baby, again, to hold on to this knowing. Perhaps there was a way to achieve the right kind of support on the bed itself, but moving between positions while on a narrow elevated surface is nonsensically difficult. It is, however, the dominant piece of furniture in the room, the implied stage, around which everything was organising itself, which is probably the reason I found myself trying to use different parts of it as best I could, improvising ways to prop myself in a position that made sense. What I needed was a supported squat with the right kind of alignment, which was hard to get. I tried various acrobatic tricks in attempts to appropriately distribute my weight between my limbs and find the right position for pushing, I held myself off the edge of the bed, and put my legs on these metal bits (used for attaching the leg holders that keep the woman’s legs up and open in the reclining position). I remember Claire saying ‘I don’t think the bed has ever been used in this way before…’ which I found amusing. A wonderful reprieve, one of many she gave me, naturally, consciously, patiently, calmly, and with a sense of wonder.
At some point Sophia asked to fix me with an IV line, so that they would be ready to give me fluids after the birth, I thought about it. I was, unfortunately out of trance enough to balance the pros and cons: perhaps she had noticed something wrong and was being diplomatic, or perhaps she was receiving pressure from the clinic staff about regulations and insurance concerns, I knew their job was to prepare for the worst. I wanted to be agreeable to Sophia’s suggestions, but I was extremely sensitive all over and having my skin pierced, even lightly, would have been too much of a shock while he was so close. I explained so, kindly asking that they wait for me to bring him out.
I remember being irritated by the nurse’s shuffle to change pads or sheets from under me between contractions. Why, and who cared? I remember wondering ‘why isn’t there stillness instead of this rushed activity’? My own attempts to summon stillness were frustrated. The cold gel and the metal of the baby heart-rate monitor were intense and unpleasant, but the consensus in the room was that it was important to keep checking the baby in between my pushes. Up to that point I had known that he was fine but the checking worried me, made me lose my confidence, overwrote my ‘knowing’. In the delivery room I didn’t have my artifacts, and I didn’t have my friends, although I had asked for them to come in. I thought they must have either left or decided to avoid the gore, but it turns out they’d been right outside the whole time, waiting to be called, blocked by nurses in the name of regulations. I like to imagine that if Avyi had been there, she would have found a way to either talk or bust her way in!
I found myself holding my breath waiting to hear the baby’s heartbeat among the monitor’s disconcerting audio feedback. I had lost my trance. I was in a hurry with a bit of performance anxiety thrown in. I was worried about wasting people’s time and that people in the room might get impatient with me. I was worried that other women may have needed Sophia, and other children may have needed Emily and that they must have had to cancel their appointments. I articulated this and they gently assured me everything was OK so I could put this out of my mind, I could tell that the triad knew well the importance of speaking out any little anxieties, however silly they might seem, as well as of their role in carefully sending them away. The concern dissipated immediately.
A couple of times in-between things, I used my clitoris to diffuse the pain, this was intense and helpful, but even though I knew an orgasm would have a beautiful way to bring him through I felt too watched to get there. I made it to the delivery room loo alone at some point, but a concerned Sophia followed. There seems to be a clinical prohibition of privacy (of leaving a woman alone) during labour. Regrettably.
There were two kinds of contractions at this point: the painful kind resulting into pressure or an urge to bear down for a poo, and something new that had nothing to do with pressure or with pain at all. This was like an unfurling, like the opening of petals. I tried to explain it to Claire. I knew I should be waiting for the second kind to take over, that this would bringing the baby out by itself, but this wasn’t coming as frequently as the first kind, and my stress was mounting, which I recognised as a problem. I could feel the baby coming down with each push, but also I could also feel him going back up afterwards. I had a bout of panic where I started saying ‘I can’t feel him’ ‘he isn’t coming’, from which Claire deftly brought me back with something like: ‘Chrystalleni, it’s OK. He’s coming. He’s here.’ I believed her entirely, I remembered myself, and was thankful. I remember Sophia sitting on the floor smiling at me, speaking to me patiently and encouraging me, giving me my time.
Claire had advised me: ‘Don’t push because you’re told, push when you can’t help but to push. This way you won’t need stitches’ and at this point I understood what she meant. There was an expectation of pushing that outlasted the urge. The verbal encouragement to push, this energy in the room that was kindly intended to hearten me and give me strength, wasn’t necessarily timed with the contractions. It was up to me to figure out what kind of pushing was right. I should have stopped with the pushing and relaxed, and just waited, but I didn’t because I felt in a hurry, and because I was worried. During the last check for his heart-rate, the monitor feedback sounded horribly loud, and Jano’s heartbeat took a while to become discernible. Trying to read the room and ascertain the degree of medical concern was getting bothersome. I realised that quite likely my own stress (irrespective of whether it came out of annoyance for all the extra fuss) might turn things against my intentions. I made the rational decision not to wait for the unfurling, not to care about needing stitches, to just bring him through. So I did. In what I think of a kneeling squat, on all fours.
He came out, or rather slid out, and I looked at him and checked to see how I felt: surprise, a steady note of wonder that is still here as I write. I suspect this new note of wonder is actually ‘him’. His being in the world. Sophia called for Emily to take him, and Emily gently responded that he should be given to me instead, at which point he released what to my years was a surprisingly sweet, unpained vocalisation. I found myself on the bed with him on me, and Emily by my side. My mother (in the room all this time, staying out of the way) and Sophia cut the cord. I can’t believe it’s over, I said, and Claire responded: ‘no, dear, it’s just beginning…’ and we laughed. We stayed there while, looking at him in wonder, me in warm disbelief, Emily making sure he was well and ready to relate to my nipples. By then my legs were in the bed’s leg holders and Sophia was working on my stitches, explaining that she hadn’t been able to perform an episiotomy / help me with a smooth cut because of the position I had chosen, but complementing me on requiring less stitches than she had initially thought. She also talked me into a suppository in the absence of an IV, while we waited for the placenta to come out by itself in its own time. I wonder now: wouldn’t the baby have done the same? What if I hadn’t stressed or hurried, but just borne the pain like I had at home? What if I hadn’t gone into fervent activity? What if I’d managed to find stillness? Not an easy birth, they said, but a good one. And I think it was too.
Janos (named after Janus, the god of thresholds and transitions, named to be able to make it through, also named to be above conflict, above the conflicts of his parents with the world, and with each other) and I made it out of the clinic as soon as we could, in less than 24 hours from going in. We were exhausted, in need of undisturbed love, and this wasn’t the time for additional practice in overcoming governmentalities, or well-meaning help that was nevertheless disconnected from our senses: the bed was too narrow for us to snuggle in, the heating system was difficult to regulate to our needs, and the effort of negotiating through the suggestions of however caring staff was throwing us out of sync. I learned, against my initial fears, that the clinic as a framework (and again, I consider the specific clinic especially harmless) is more absurd rather than sinister: a framework that grants normality to the expectation of two wonderfully polite nurses that, two or so hours after giving birth, instead of resting with my newborn, I should be following their directions and do my best to soothe their concerns. Had I been able to urinate, they asked? If not then I should try as soon as possible, and in fact I should do this immediately, while they waited, standing outside the loo, with the door open. I laughingly refused to play. I had given up the privacy of my bodily functions to the clinic, just short of orgasm, and just long enough to bring him out, but no more…
‘Έτσι έπρεπεν να γεννήσεις!’ Sophia told me a few days later, triumphantly, in congratulations. And I think she meant that this was how I needed to give birth. That this was ‘right’ in accordance to my nature, and necessary for my psyche. I am grateful beyond measure. Among everything that is deeply humbling about motherhood, I am happy and proud for this story that marks my/his entry, that I was able [to find and to afford the support that allowed me] to own my rite of passage in this way. My choices and the coping mechanisms or rituals I developed, in preparation and during, are the foundations of my relationship with this new human, and I will continue to trust him, and to trust myself for him, and to trust my ‘knowing’.
At the same time, I come out of this ultimately sublime Foucauldian encounter, with respect for women that actually opt for caesarean in advance. Ibut because their story, their own triumph over this biopolitical condition, their choice to stay in control and to keep their privacy by not fighting the clinic [the institutions of conventional medicine], seems entirely appropriate, perhaps more sublime in its realpolitik than my desperate attempts / techniques to ritualise my way out of patient-hood, to de-sterilise or humanise my child’s coming into the world, to neutralise the clinic’s traumatic history and its embedded stresses. The unashamed woman’s caesarean labour is just as real. Neither of us is allowed / allows herself to labour intuitively. The labour part of the unashamed caesarean is simply transposed to the extremely difficult process of emotional acceptance of this biopolitical condition. It becomes the work of lovingly overcoming the disconnections and alienations of this condition, of buffering its hormonal risks and potential depressions. I can see the choice for caesarean labour not as a denial of nature, but as a defiant contribution to a wake-up call, to a set of paradoxical principles the medical community is trying to redefine itself against so anxiously. A gesture of resistance to contradictory social puritanisms that demand nature just as they stifle or invade it, or just as they fail to respect its privacy.
But the fact that I can now understand the advance choice for intervention / medicalised birth (as a shortcut offered by the institution through its own absurdities) doesn’t mean that I would make it. For me, it’s the turning away of my own capacities that is most risky and unsettling. The simple answer, I think, is that whatever the circumstances, love and privacy can be ritually or otherwise reclaimed, and powerful and beautiful exhibitionisms can be developed.
Home births are not / no longer illegal in Cyprus, but I could find no support in that direction in my immediate environment. Both Sophia and Claire, the most understanding professionals I could find, had declined to work with me towards a home birth. They had cited matters of professional responsibility, especially since this was my first birth, as well as not fast enough ambulance and E.R. response rates. Claire said, afterwards, warmly, that she isn’t letting me give birth in a clinic next time <3
Other birth stories
Drakounas’ beautiful story of a caesarean
Insert link to Georgie’s mom