By Karly Stilling
In March of 2020, my husband and I returned home from a holiday skiing and visiting family and friends in Canada. It was a wonderful trip, done in the nick of time—our last day on the ski hill, the resort announced it was closing due to growing concerns over coronavirus. When we departed London for Vancouver at the end of February, COVID-19 was something people were only worried about if they’d visited China. By the time we returned in mid-March, London was going into lockdown.
We’d been planning on trying for a baby for a while, and the timing seemed right despite the pandemic. I was realistic; I knew the pandemic wasn’t likely to be over soon, but I also expected it to take a while for us to get pregnant. At 36 years old with endometriosis, I had no illusions that it would be easy for us.
Except… it was easy. By the beginning of April we were staring at two blue lines on a pregnancy test.
I was a bit apprehensive about being pregnant during a pandemic, but I figured with a little luck, it would all be over by the time the baby came. We had nine months, after all.
I joined a Facebook group for women due the same month as me. Many of them wrote about how hard it was not to be able to enjoy their pregnancies like they expected: no happy reveals to family and friends, no in-person baby showers, no friendly hands reaching out to feel baby bumps.
I wondered at my own feelings about the situation. Do I feel cheated out of the pregnancy experience? With the COVID death rates climbing, it was easy to keep a sense of perspective on what was really worth agonizing over. And while it’s true that very few of our friends and family even saw me while I was pregnant, with so many of them back in Canada I had been prepared for that. I felt, above all, grateful. My husband and I both kept our jobs, and working for home turned out to be a blessing. I could nap during my lunch hours and didn’t have to contend with a long commute or trying to find office wear that fit my ever-changing body.
For me, pregnancy was a private affair—something between me and my body. I connected to myself in a new way as I watched pregnancy take over. My physical shape no longer felt like something belonging to me, but rather an organism of its own that I got to share space with. I did a lot of yoga and meditation, discovering how to connect with my body and my baby. I started chanting again for the first time in a decade. I was in a state of marvel.
I made an appointment with my doctor’s office to tell them I’d had a positive pregnancy test and got a phone call with a ‘congratulations!’ and the address of the website where I could refer myself to the local hospital for maternity care. My first ultrasound was booked in for 12 weeks. That was the first time I saw any medical professional, and until I saw my little baby moving on the ultrasound screen and heard the woosh woosh of her heartbeat, there was still a part of me that thought I was imagining the whole thing.
My partner wasn’t allowed to come to any of my scans in the first or second trimester due to COVID restrictions. I was alone when I found out we were having a girl. I told my partner the news in the downstairs hallway, where we hugged beside our bikes and piles of shoes.
“Are you happy?” I asked.
The hospital relaxed the rules a little during my third trimester, and he was able to see his daughter for the first time at 36 weeks. Until then, for eight months, the pregnancy had been just mine. My partner saw my body change, felt the baby moving, but it was all still a bit unreal for him. Until suddenly, with four weeks to go, there was our daughter yawning at us in black and white. Now he was a part of it too.
Pregnancy affects the immune system, making pregnant women slightly more prone to catching viruses or infections—not ideal during a pandemic. That’s okay, I thought, I don’t get out much anyways. I was careful everywhere I went: wearing a mask, using hand sanitiser, keeping my distance. I avoided public transport; I went everywhere by foot or, until it got too difficult in the third trimester, by bicycle.
Then in December, just a little over a week before my Christmas Day due date, I came down with a cough. Probably just a cold, I thought, but I ordered a COVID test anyway. While I waited for the results, news came of a new variant spreading in a wave through London. Four days later—and five days before my due date—I received a text notifying me that I had tested positive for COVID-19.
The next few days were the scariest of my pregnancy. I heard stories of pregnant women ending up on ventilators and delivering babies by emergency C-section. I tried to be positive: my symptoms were mild, like a run-of-the-mill winter cold. I rested a lot; there wasn’t much else to do anyways. It didn’t take long for my fear to pass as I realised I wasn’t getting any worse; I wasn’t going to be one of those pregnant women on a ventilator.
My new worry became being sick and exhausted while in labour. I spoke to the midwives at the hospital and they told me that my positive test didn’t change much about my labour plans. The only difference was that all water births had been cancelled. I was disappointed, but it did make me feel a bit better that water births were off the table for everyone, not just the COVID-positive like me.
Then my due date—Christmas Day—came and went and no sign of baby. I started feeling better; baby stayed put. By New Year’s Eve I felt almost back to my old self, minus a functioning sense of smell and with a persistently annoying cough. When I started having contractions around 6pm on the last day of 2020, I wasn’t afraid of COVID anymore; I was just afraid of birth.
When the time came to go to the hospital the next morning, I left my husband in the waiting area as instructed and made my way up to the labour ward. I was asked to wait in the hall for the midwife. We arrived right at shift change, so the wait was long. This was probably the worst part of my entire labour (though not the most painful): I was left alone, riding out my contractions while grasping at the wall for support. Eventually a kind hospital worker found me a chair so I could at least sit and rest between contractions. I was out there for nearly an hour, being reassured every ten minutes or so that the midwife would see me soon.
Finally the midwife came and I was ushered into one of the midwife-led units that they were using as COVID rooms. It was a large private suite with a birth pool (not that I could use it), dimmable lights, a private bathroom, and a large mural of a beach at sunset. I was pleased—this was the room I had hoped to be in.
Everything happened pretty quickly after that: the midwife assessed me and was able to get me to 4cm dilated so I could stay. My husband was finally allowed up and set up my electronic tea lights and my birthing playlist. I got on the gas and air. From when I arrived in that room to when my daughter was born was about five hours. During that time, we were looked after by one midwife and were frequently left alone to experience the labour together in privacy. I don’t remember much, but my husband had a great time and the birth was easy (relatively speaking; still the hardest thing I’ve done). When they laid baby Juliet on my chest, all I could exclaim was ‘you’re so soft!’ I looked up at my husband and could tell he was crying—his mask was all wet.
The moment of birth is surreal. I’d played it out in my head over and over, trying to imagine what it would feel like, creating endless pictures of my baby girl. Would she have dark hair? Blue eyes? Would she look like me?
I’d read countless stories of women whose hearts exploded with love at the sight of their new babies. That didn’t happen for me. I was overjoyed when she arrived because of the relief that labour was over. Here my girl was, soft and warm and squealing on my chest, and I still couldn’t quite believe she was real.
It didn’t worry me that I didn’t feel dizzy with love right away. It doesn’t happen that way for a lot of women. Pregnancy and birth are huge physical experiences, and sometimes it takes the brain and the heart a few beats to catch up. It took me a couple of weeks. I loved her, of course, and I immediately felt a tremendous sense of duty to her, but she was also strange and alien. But as the weeks went on and we slowly got over the hurdles of new parenthood, I came to obsess over the softness of her cheeks, the bright glint in her blue-grey eyes, the soft hooting noises she makes when she falls asleep.
The prenatal care I received on the NHS was minimal. I had midwives checking in over the phone and scans when I needed them, but it wasn’t at all like what the Canadian and American mums in my Facebook group were getting: doctor’s appointments every two weeks, 3D scans, extensive testing for gestational diabetes and high blood pressure. I didn’t mind; my pregnancy was free of complications and I knew where to get support if I needed something beyond the occasional phone call.
My postnatal care was very different. Every day for the first week, I had midwives calling to see how it was going. When it became clear on day two that breastfeeding wasn’t progressing the way it should be, we had a midwife at our door within an hour. Soon we had midwives and lactation specialists visiting us every day, working on Juliet’s latch and my milk output. They’d put on their PPD at our door and spend an hour in our living room, checking on Juliet and talking through the problems we were having. In that dizzy, sleep-deprived first week, I was intensely grateful for the proactive support. I don’t know that I would have found the mental capacity to reach out as quickly and as often as we needed. Thanks to them, Juliet is eating and gaining weight like a champ.
I found out after a few weeks that we had been assigned to their 28-day care period because of my depression; any mum with a history of mental illness is automatically assigned 28 day care. For the first week, that meant a call or visit every day, then every few days, then once a week. We were so well looked-after that my husband started getting annoyed—their visits swallowed up large chunks of the day and he wanted that time back.
While the professional support we got was excellent, I quickly felt the pandemic-induced isolation in a way I hadn’t before. The midwives always ask what my support network is like. ‘You’re joking, right?’ I want to say. The few friends and family we have in London can’t visit, my mother-in-law can’t come stay for a few weeks, and it’s anyone’s guess when my mom and sister might be able to leave Canada to come meet my baby. My partner’s two weeks of paternity leave were over in the blink of an eye. I’m a new mum so I just get on with it, not knowing anything different, but I’m still sad there are no in-person baby groups to join, no classes to take. Everything’s moved online and it just isn’t the same.
Then last week something glorious happened: my sister-in-law became a household of one, allowing her to become part of our (previously non-existent) support bubble. She came over on the weekend and the world got a bit brighter. Just that extra set of hands made me feel like I was on holiday—the ability to eat without rushing, to go for a run, to get down on my hands and knees to scrub out the bathtub. Is this what life would be like if we were allowed regular visitors?
I always expected the newborn period to be hard. But I had no idea what hard was going to look like—it’s impossible to know until you’re in it, rocking a crying baby against your chest while tears snake mascara trails down your cheeks because she won’t eat, won’t sleep, won’t stop screaming. Or moaning in agony while holding her to your cracked and bleeding nipples. Or watching her guzzle down a bottle of breastmilk that took you ages to express with the sinking fear that you’re never going to be able to produce enough to feed her.
But slowly it gets easier, even for new mums in lockdown. I can now provide enough milk for my baby, even if it’s hard. I can now love my baby, even though it took time for those feelings to solidify. She’s five weeks old today, and the first major milestone is just around the corner: smiling. I can’t wait to see her smile at me, to hear her laugh, to listen to her babble her way towards a first word, to watch her experience the joy of grasping a toy.
The newborn period is hard, but it’s the first step towards all those things. I hope that I can share them with our family someday soon.
Juliet was born at 2:12pm on the first day of 2021. Conceived at the start of the global pandemic, her birth coincided with the beginning of a new year, one bursting with the promise of hope.
With vaccines rolling out around the world, a future free of COVID has begun to emerge from the fog of 2020. We still have a long way to go, of course: new variants to contend with, public health infrastructures to set up, supply hurdles to overcome. But there is, finally, a light at the end of this damn tunnel, and the possibility that by Juliet’s first birthday our family will be able to gather together again.
When she’s older, I’ll tell Juliet about this period—about how she was a seed of hope in a dark time. About how her birth came with the promise of a future full of laughter and love. About these early days when our family bond grew stronger in isolation.
I’ll tell her about the song that was playing when she was born, and how she was our medicine in a time of illness.
And, most of all, I’ll tell her how she makes my heart explode with love.