GUEST BLOG: Pregnancy and parenthood in a pandemic

The graphic shows a white background with black left-aligned text quote that reads "The more I hear about other people's experiences of pregnancy, the more I've come to realise how especially private and quiet my own experience was. The pandemic slowed down and shrank my life.".  In the bottom right-hand corner of the graphic there are the Engender, Health and Social Care Academy and ALLIANCE Scotland logos.

We've been working with the ALLIANCE and The Health and Social Care Academy to gather information about experiences of pregnancy and maternity services during Covid-19 from women across Scotland. Alongside our work, we're sharing a series of guest blogs reflecting on those experiences. Here, Madeline Cross explores her experience of becoming a first-time mum during the pandemic.

I'd like to start with my own caveat. In May 2020, I became pregnant for the first time, and because of that a 'pandemic pregnancy' is all I know. I'll never have a first pregnancy again, so I'll never really be able to communicate what was lost, or what was gained, just because of timing. I know that people have had harder experiences than I did, both during the pandemic, and at other times. And yet really, I don't know much about that at all. I only really know what happened to me.

When I was sent the letter confirming the date of my first ultrasound, there was a slip of paper attached, telling me in large, certain words that I couldn't be accompanied to the hospital. It was June, pandemic restrictions had started to ease, but partners of pregnant women were still not allowed to attend antenatal appointments. But then the rules changed again the week before my ultrasound, and my partner Perry was able to come with me.

In the hospital, they had removed most of the chairs in the waiting room to create more space for social distancing. I was allocated a chair with a number on it, but Perry was told he had to stand beside me. He was not allowed a chair. There were four or five other women sitting on numbered chairs, their partners or family members standing beside them, looking awkward and irrelevant.

We were called in for our scan and went into the small room with a masked woman. We were also wearing masks. Perry was immediately asked to sit on a chair in the corner of the room while I lay down on the bed. We were too far away to even touch each other's fingers. Everything happened very quickly - my top rolled up, cold gel on my skin, the black screen above our heads coming to life. Suddenly, there was the monochrome smudge of our baby in front of us, although Perry had to lean sideways to see it. I was asked to turn over onto my side, and my stomach was pressed and adjusted more roughly than I expected. I couldn't see Perry's face. He stayed silent. I let out just a noise like a hiccup, a surprised sound. There were tears coming out of my eyes that I didn't feel in control over.

"There's a hand by the face, they're waving at you," the nurse said.

There they were, a tiny human fist, absolutely there, moving. I was smiling beneath my mask, but my eyes were still crying, or more like leaking. I don't find it easy to show emotion in front of others. I never seem to believe I'm justified to. Even now, I qualify my experiences of pregnancy and childbirth, tell everyone it was ok, others had it worse. I really can't describe the emotion on seeing my baby for the first time. What I needed was the moment to be stretched out so I could catch up with it. But the ultrasound ended as suddenly as it began, a due date dropped out for us. Perry was asked to leave the hospital and wait in the car park before we could even look at each other or our baby without masks.

The more I hear about other people's experiences of pregnancy, the more I've come to realise how especially private and quiet my own experience was. The pandemic slowed down and shrank my life. I was cut off from family and friends spread out across the UK and sometimes further, and I was also cut off from strangers who no longer felt comfortable interacting with each other. To my colleagues on a screen, I was just a head and shoulders. They didn't see my changing body. They could easily forget I was even pregnant.

There were no NCT classes, no face-to-face antenatal support with other mothers or fathers-to-be. I did not get to sit in a circle feeling stupid as I practised my breathing or learnt how to give first aid to a plastic doll. Our equivalent, offered to us by NHS Lothians, was an online learning tool, including short quizzes, embarrassing gender stereotypes and an aggressive focus on breastfeeding. I searched out information. I learned about the biology of my own body. Spotify podcasts told me what being postpartum might look like - how long recovery could actually take.

Prior to going into labour, my biggest fear was Perry catching Covid-19 and him not being able to be my birth partner. At no point was I given the information that only a couple of months later would be widespread knowledge - that catching Covid-19 in your third trimester created a much greater risk of going into premature labour or having a stillbirth. I continued as normal, oblivious, as my due date came closer. At this point, vaccines weren't an option, the rollout had only just begun, and there was still an uncomfortable question mark around whether they were safe for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers.

I was in labour for three days, mostly at home during the latent phase, surviving on paracetamol, followed by established labour in a birthing pool in the midwifery centre. My son Jesse Cross was eventually born at 1:08 pm on February 7th in theatre, weighing an outrageous 9 lbs and screaming his way out of me, with the assistance of forceps and an episiotomy. After a lonely night and day on the labour ward with restricted visiting hours and overstretched staff, we were able to take him home during a blizzard, driving at 10mph on empty snow-covered roads.

In February 2021, we were still in lockdown. Nobody was allowed to enter each other's homes; nobody was allowed to travel. Cafes, restaurants, and public buildings were still closed. It was too cold to introduce Jesse to people outside. We broke the rules and had my sister and her family who lived locally visit us inside our home, helping around the flat, but mostly just giving us some company, some attention, helping us know it was all real. By March Scottish Government changed the guidance again, making it clear that anyone with a child under a year old could be visited inside their home for health and wellbeing reasons. It helped us feel less covert, less judged, but the majority of our families lived too far away for it to matter. It was still illegal to travel between different 'levels'.

Because of the pandemic and lockdown restrictions, I did not go inside a cafe or on public transport with Jesse until he was almost five months old. For a long time, I was nervous of changing his nappy in a public bathroom, preferring to do it on the ground outdoors like I'd grown accustomed to. Taking a pram on a bus was nerve-wracking. Meeting new parents and babies was like leaping into the dark. It has got easier, and when I think back now to those weeks and months spent walking Jesse's pram up and down Portobello prom and not being allowed inside anywhere, it's bewildering. I am bemused at the shame we felt when our neighbours spotted Perry's parents getting out of our car before restrictions had fully eased, even though by that point Scottish Government had changed the guidelines again for new parents.

It all feels a bit like a dream of someone else's life, but I don't know if that is anything to do with the pandemic. Pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood, parenthood has been a blur. Maybe the pandemic is just one surreal and barely believable aspect of the even more unbelievable and absurd reality of becoming a parent for the first time. I won't ever know any different.

Engender has been working in partnership with The Health and Social Care Academy and the ALLIANCE to undertake a survey to find out about experiences of pregnancy and maternity services during Covid-19. The results of this survey will be used to support our work on Covid-19 and our work to improve women’s health and wellbeing.

Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of Engender, and all language used is the author's own. We aim for our blog to reflect a range of feminist viewpoints, and we offer a commissioning pot and editorial support to ensure that women do not have to offer their time or words for free. Find out more here.

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