From giving birth alone to cocooning from the world, Anna Moore discovers the crushing lows and incredible highs of becoming a new mum during a pandemic.
When Kerry Watson realised she was pregnant in May 2020, she knew she should feel ecstatic. For two years, Kerry, 30, and her husband Kenneth, 31, had been trying for a baby, a brother or sister for their son Harris. They had even joined the waiting list for fertility treatment.
But the previous months had been among the hardest of their lives. Kerry had already become pregnant at the start of the year, only to miscarry in March just as the pandemic hit. Then her local hospital was in chaos – she’d been left alone in a side room for three hours before a scan confirmed there was no heartbeat. A post-miscarriage surgical procedure was not possible because of Covid restrictions. Instead, she was sent home with abortion pills. ‘A month later, I was pregnant again,’ says Kerry, a trainee psychologist. ‘We’d wanted a baby for years – but I was terrified. I’d already seen how alone you are, what the hospitals were like. I wanted to feel happy but I couldn’t.
‘By the time of my 12-week scan in July, I was so nervous,’ she continues. ‘Partners weren’t allowed to go with you so I was on my own again. I remember walking to the maternity desk and the receptionist’s first words were, “Can you stand back, please?”’
Happily, Kerry’s baby Alfie arrived safely on 3 January. But she’s not alone in having experienced a rollercoaster year. While many of us have felt frozen in time, the hundreds of thousands of British women who have been pregnant during the pandemic have been on an extraordinary journey.
Joeli Brearley is the founder of campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, which seeks to protect the rights of pregnant women and mothers. ‘We began on 16 March 2020 when pregnant women were classed as “critically vulnerable” to Covid by the chief medical officer,’ she says. ‘However, there was little information as to what their risk was or what their legal rights were. Our phone lines were instantly jammed with pregnant women asking, “Do I go to work?”, “Do I need PPE?” and it hasn’t changed much since. When it comes to hospital appointments, what is done by phone or face-to-face or who can be present at the birth has always been up to the hospital trusts – and the rules don’t seem to have been evidence based. At the same time, many pregnant women have had to grapple with being furloughed or faced redundancy. They may have children no longer in school who need looking after. Then, finally bringing a baby home, unable to see family, friends or other new mums. At every stage, there have been so many challenges.’
For Sophie Burns, 23, mother to Cameron, born 1 December 2020, the anxiety kicked in in March when she became pregnant. ‘We’d been trying for a baby for more than a year and I’d had two miscarriages,’ says Sophie. ‘My aunt is a midwife and told me to take a break. That was the plan – then I found I was pregnant.’ In any other year, Sophie would have been surrounded by love and support. Instead, there was a lot of isolation. She told her mum the news through FaceTime. She continued to work at her job at a bank, but worked alone rather than facing the public. ‘There was constant worry, the health of your baby is always at the forefront of your mind,’ she says. Attending hospital by herself for the scans was, she says, ‘lonely. I thought the situation might make everyone more friendly, but the waiting room was always silent. Everyone is spaced apart. No one talks.’
The uncertainty around the birth itself, the ever-changing rules around whether partners could be present has added huge anxiety. Priscilla Appeaning, 32, from London, also became pregnant last March. Since she already had three children she knew how utterly different it was this time round. ‘The rules in my hospital trust were that partners could only be present when labour was “established” and you’re 4cm dilated. As I got closer to nine months, I was rebelling in my mind. I decided not to go into hospital until I was already in established labour.’ Ultimately Priscilla’s husband was by her side when she delivered their son Israel in December.
For Sophie, it was a closer call. ‘I stayed at home for as long as possible, but when we got to hospital, my husband Lee wasn’t allowed past reception,’ she says. ‘He waited in the car park and I was taken to the labour ward, put in a room by myself and told, “Someone will be with you shortly.” After 20 minutes alone, I was crying and getting worked up. A midwife saw how upset I was and told me that Lee could come up. Just having him with me calmed me down.’ The labour wasn’t straightforward – nine hours later, their son Cameron was delivered by caesarean.
Many women did give birth without their partners. Kerry Giddens, 31, a primary school teacher from Lincolnshire, had dreaded this happening – yet it did. ‘We already have a daughter, Esme, so I experienced how different it was this time,’ she says. ‘A lot of the maternity appointments were done online or by phone. You feel abandoned. All the way through, I’d said to my husband Brian, “I don’t want to do it without you.” He’d say, “I’ll be there.”’
In the event, Kerry had to go into hospital to be induced and was told it might take 24 hours before labour started. ‘The hospital was a 45-minute drive and it was minus one outside,’ says Kerry. ‘Brian couldn’t wait in the car so he had to go home.’ At 2am, the contractions began. The midwife contacted Brian who drove straight over – but his new daughter Ada arrived ten minutes before he did. ‘When he walked in and saw me with Ada already in my arms we were both in disbelief,’ says Kerry. ‘The one thing I hadn’t wanted to happen had happened so there was disappointment – but also relief everything was OK.’
The safe arrival of a baby can wipe out all thoughts of a pandemic, says Kerry Watson, who gave birth to Alfie in Fife, Scotland, where she was allowed to have her husband by her side throughout her labour. ‘You’ve got your baby – you forget about Covid,’ she says. ‘In that room, it’s just us. The world could be ending outside but your son’s healthy and this is the best moment of your life.’
For Sophie, now back home with Cameron, life is magical and lonely all at once. ‘At the moment, if you have a child under the age of one, you can form a bubble with one other household, so I see my mum every day and that’s so important,’ she says. ‘My husband Lee still goes to work – he has a building company – so the days can go very slowly. Sometimes, you think, this is horrible, then Cameron will smile and suddenly it’s the best thing in the world. To have had this light after such a dark year – you feel lucky.’
According to consultant perinatal psychologist Julianne Boutaleb, many new mums are worried about the impact of lockdown on their baby’s development. ‘Coming home with a new baby can be overwhelming,’ she says. ‘There’s so much to learn and all this is more difficult without the support of others. I try to impress on my clients that babies are unaware of lockdown. I’m encouraging new parents to reframe it as “cocooning”.’ This can be a precious opportunity to bond.
This is how Kerry Watson sees it. ‘Everyone is told to stay at home so it feels like there’s no rush to get into a routine,’ she says. ‘My husband is working from home so he’s here to help. Our seven-year-old son Harris can sit with Alfie propped on a pillow in his arms while I take a shower. There’s no school run, no after-school football. I can stay in my pyjamas with no pressure. I’m a lot more patient this time.’
For Priscilla, too, Israel – her first son after three daughters – is a precious distraction from the pandemic. ‘Every day, he changes and that’s what I focus on,’ she says. ‘He’s a sign of hope. He’s a new beginning.’
How to cope if you’re pregnant
Pregnancy is always an anxious time as changes in hormones are designed to make a woman hyper-alert to danger. So it’s unsurprising that Julianne Boutaleb, perinatal psychologist at parenthoodinmind.co.uk, has seen a rise in referrals for birth trauma and anxiety. This is her advice…
- Understand that you are anxious for good reason. Becoming a parent in a pandemic feels hard because it is hard.
- Information is power. Find out the policies on antenatal appointments and birth partners at your NHS trust. Have a plan A, a plan B and C if needed. Check out thebirthcollective.org and the positivebirthmovement.org, which offer birth preparation classes.
- Think flexibly. Are there other ways of including your birth partner in your antenatal care? Can they be involved over FaceTime? Could they record voice notes which you can play at the antenatal appointment or when you’re in labour?
- If you’re worried about the impact of lockdown on your baby, remember self-care is important. Babies are very resilient but they are aware of how stressed we are. Take regular breaks from mothering, share the parenting load with a partner. Meet up regularly outdoors with a person from your bubble. Gentle exercise and change of routine can help hugely. Visit parentinfantfoundation.org.uk or home-start.org.uk for details of online baby groups.
- If you feel your anxiety levels are not decreasing despite reaching for support, speak to your GP or midwife.
Additional reporting: Saskia Hume