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How Coronavirus Has Changed What It's Like To Give Birth In America



In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has completely altered daily life for millions of Americans.

But perhaps nowhere have the changes been as sweeping — or as consequential — as in childbirth, a routine miracle that has been fundamentally altered by the virus.

In March and April, as COVID-19 swiftly took hold in the United States, HuffPost Parents spoke with several soon-to-be parents and birth professionals to hear how their experiences and expectations changed by the week, the day, even the hour.

Their accounts offer a glimpse at how having a baby has been changed by the pandemic — and how, even amid chaos, life goes on. (Some of the people in this story spoke to us on condition we only use their first names or not use their names at all.)

Elaine and Kevin, New Parents, New York City

Conversation No. 1: April 14

Elaine: I was due on April 3, but the baby came a week and a half early. We’d heard on social media about a possible ban on partners in labor and delivery at our hospital in Brooklyn. But we were still shocked when our doctor confirmed the ban was happening.

I spent that whole day the ban was announced trying to get out of it. I called a birthing center in Brooklyn that said it would consider taking me and told me to fax over my records — but at about 2:30 that morning, I woke up. My water had broken. I was basically screaming at my husband: “I cannot do this. I cannot do this.” The ban was supposed to go into effect at 7 a.m. that day.

We got to the hospital by 6:30 a.m. I was in active labor. I had to keep stopping and getting down on my hands and knees to deal with the contractions. We hoped we’d made it in time, and that Kevin was going to be able to come upstairs with me, but when we walked in, security told us he couldn’t.

Another woman came in at the same time for a scheduled [cesarean section], and the two of us were hysterical. Our husbands were saying: “Please take our temperatures. We’re not sick.” We were begging and crying, but they took me and this other woman up in the elevator together without them.

They told us I would not be alone, but there were definitely long stretches of time in triage when I was laboring completely on my own. In between contractions, I was calling other hospitals that hadn’t banned partners to see if anyone would take me. I called NYU in Brooklyn, and they said, “If you show up in the ER, we will deliver your baby.”

“They told us I would not be alone, but there were definitely long stretches of time in triage when I was laboring completely on my own.”

I had my hospital draw up the paperwork to say I was leaving against medical advice — but then the midwife from my doctor’s practice arrived. She got on the phone with my husband told him it wasn’t safe. I was 6 centimeters dilated the last time they checked, and she thought there was a good chance that if I left, I would have the baby in the car. She told me that now that’d she’d arrived, I would not be alone again.

At that point, two other midwives from a different practice started helping me, too. They were so aghast at the new policy. The hospital had promised us an iPad so that Kevin could watch the birth, but it never came. The midwives were on the phone with him the whole time. They taped an iPhone up to the bed so he could see. They went above and beyond. I’m so thankful for them.

After was the hardest part. I had some tearing and had lost a lot of blood, and I hadn’t slept in a few days. I was just alone with this baby. The nurses were kind, but there was a lot of time when I was on my own.

I just felt dizzy and tired. I felt like garbage, really. I knew the nurses were busy, and I felt really guilty asking them to come in and help with things that I would have leaned on Kevin for, like going to the bathroom and changing diapers. There wasn’t a lot of joy.

Conversation No. 2: April 24

Elaine: It definitely hasn’t been a normal postpartum experience. No one can help us. The first few days were a blurry nightmare for me. I couldn’t really walk. I was having a hard time breastfeeding the baby.

When New York announced the executive order [saying women must be allowed one support person with them during labor], that was the worst day for me. I lost it. I felt enraged that the hospital had that policy for five days. And I felt so guilty. I felt like I had done something to make myself go into labor early. I felt like I had taken that experience from my husband.

Kevin: I felt so guilty. I was in the hospital lobby on the phone with Elaine when she was alone in triage, and I was arguing with the woman there telling her: “You said she wasn’t going to be alone, and she’s alone.” The woman kind of kept arguing with me like, “No, she won’t be alone.” I was like, “What are you saying to me?! I am on the phone with her, and she is alone right now.”

It was raining and snowing, so after a while, I went back to our apartment, which felt so weird. I felt proud of Elaine — she was getting through it! — and I felt so guilty that I wasn’t there to support her. I felt helpless.

“The woman kind of kept arguing with me like, ‘No, she won’t be alone.’ I was like, ‘What are you saying to me?! I am on the phone with her, and she is alone right now.’”

Elaine: Now that we are all home, I think Kevin has done a better job kind of keeping it together. I’m struggling more. At times I have become kind of obsessed with the news. Like, what are today’s death tolls? When is this going to end?

I don’t care at all about going into a restaurant or things going back to “normal.” I’d just like to be able to sit in a park with a few other new moms and talk about what we’re going through. I’d like to be able to take a long walk with my son outside without being afraid. I’d like him to meet our family.

Anonymous, OB-GYN, New Jersey

Conversation No. 1: Sunday, March 29

I am a private practice OB-GYN in New Jersey. (I’m choosing to stay anonymous because otherwise, I would need to get permission from my boss.)

Things are really tricky right now. We have to work, but we’re trying to cut down the number of patients in the office to properly social distance. We prescreen everyone the day before they come into the office to see if they’re symptomatic. The hospital where I have delivery privileges is treating a lot of people for COVID-19, but we are not maxed out in our [intensive care unit].

My patients’ reactions to everything that is going on seem really … polarized. Either people are really scared, and they don’t want to leave their homes, or they think it’s being blown out of proportion. I have had patients say to me, “Oh, I don’t need to wear a mask,” and I say, “No, no, I’m asking you to wear a mask.”

I have a 10-month-old, and I have completely isolated myself within my house. I have a routine. I change my clothes before I leave work. When I get home, I go straight to the bathroom and take off all of those clothes and put them in a bag. I take a long, hot, soapy shower. When I’m done, I disinfect everything in the bathroom. I change, put my mask on, and then sanitize my hands again.

I don’t pick my son up. I was really worried he was going to be afraid of the mask, but thankfully he thinks it’s funny. I don’t know that he notices how different things are because we play games. We’ll play hide-and-seek and peekaboo. We play this little footsie game through a gate.

“I have had patients say to me, ‘Oh, I don’t need to wear a mask,’ and I say, ‘No, no, I’m asking you to wear a mask.’”

I don’t know what the end of this is. I am so anxious every single day. I don’t sleep at night. I worry about getting sick and spreading it to other patients. I worry about spreading it to my family.

Conversation No. 2: April 16

My patients are way more cognizant of the importance of social distancing and wearing masks now. I’ve had a lot more patients call and say, “I don’t want to come in unless I have to.” We do far more telemedicine appointments than we ever have before. I think I saw seven patients that way yesterday.

In the hospital, we have specific rooms on labor and delivery for patients with a confirmed positive COVID test or who are PUIs [persons under investigation for the disease] — and they always have people in them.

There is a screening tent set up at the entrance to the hospital, and all pregnant women and their partner (they are allowed one person) get screened when they come in. They have to wear a mask during delivery. No one is allowed to leave the room.

I have patients calling every single day to tell me how anxious they are. They’re asking me if I can prescribe them medication, and I have to explain that’s not what I do. I’m probably getting five, sometimes 10 calls like that a day, up from zero normally. People are scared. They’re scared for their babies.

I haven’t kissed my own baby in six weeks [starts to cry]. Luckily, he still thinks the mask is silly. He thinks mom is being so funny when I play these games with him. But it is hard.

Kim, Expecting Her Second Baby, Iowa

Conversation No. 1: April 11

I live in a smaller community of about 8,000 people, and we do not have anyone here who has tested positive for COVID-19. I’m taking every precaution I can. I’m not going out. I’m wearing a face mask. But my husband is an essential worker, and he has to go to work every day.

I got laid off two weeks ago. It was kind of a mutual decision. I work as an administrator in a real estate office. They knew I was nervous about coming in with people walking through the office and clients coming in.

I approached my boss and asked if I could work in a separate office or remotely, but it would be hard for me to do what I do. We agreed that I would leave the office for the month, but he guaranteed that he would hire me back after I have my baby. They can’t afford to furlough me.

I applied for unemployment benefits, which will be about $200 to $300 less a month than what I usually make. But my husband and I saved for the last nine months, so we have a little bit of a cushion. If we didn’t have that, it would be very scary.

Conversation No. 2: April 25

My situation hasn’t changed that much. I’m still unemployed. They still don’t have any confirmed cases here in my county; however, the numbers in Iowa have been going up drastically, so it’s scary to watch them climb. I’m due in early May, and I’m anxious for sure. I hear stories about women testing positive and being separated from their babies.

We’re lucky to be behind other parts of the country that have had a lot of cases, but it’s scary to just be reading about it and waiting. I know I have to wear a mask when I go into the hospital, and I know that once my spouse is in with me he can’t leave.

“We’re lucky to be behind other parts of the country that have had a lot of cases, but it’s scary to to just be reading about it and waiting.”

We have decided the baby won’t meet our friends or family after, because it’s just not the right time. We’ve been helping everyone get set up on Zoom [laughs]. Everyone understands, but I’m really sad about it. I definitely have anxiety about taking the baby in for shots and stuff like that, because I believe there will be sick people everywhere here by then. We’re seeing it happen.

Amy Johnson-Grass, Minnesota

Conversation No. 1: March 28

[Johnson-Grass is president of The American Association of Birth Centers and owner of Health Foundations Birth Center + Women’s Health Clinic.]

Interest in our birth center has skyrocketed. My staff is doing five to 10 consults a day, talking to women about what we offer. For us, that kind of volume is insane.

We’re accepting transfer patients up to the 39th week of pregnancy, if we can get all of their records and they meet all of our criteria, because to give birth in a birth center, you have to be low-risk. Safety is still our number one most important concern. We’re also trying to keep the birth center a place of “well.” We aren’t seeing any sick patients. We prescreen everyone before they come in. We want, as much as possible, to keep this one space of wellness for women.

Conversation No. 2: April 11

We’re still really busy. Right now, we’re looking at probably 40 deliveries a month. Usually, it is more like 20 to 30.

Recently, all of my focus has basically shifted to finding [personal protective equipment]. I have spent all of my time on the phone with nonprofits and emailing suppliers making sure we have what we need, not because we’re delivering a lot of COVID patients — if anyone is COVID-positive or under investigation, they deliver in the hospital — but because we want to make sure that we keep our families and our staff safe. We have a limited number of N95 masks, and we have enough gloves for now, but we don’t know how long this will go on.

Conversation No. 3: April 25

Last week, there was a protest of people in Minnesota who oppose the stay-at-home orders, one block from the birth center. I went, because I wanted to see it with my own eyes, and I stood there and cried.

I wrote a Facebook post about it that later went viral: “I stood there thinking of all the healthcare providers that are putting their safety on the line for these people,” I wrote. “All the healthcare providers that are working with minimal PPE. The lack of testing for COVID-19 or antibody tests. How the selfishness of these people impacts the lives of so many.” It felt like a slap in the face.

“There was a protest of people in Minnesota who oppose the stay-at-home orders, one block from the birth center. I went, because I wanted to see it with my own eyes, and I stood there and cried.”

Beyond that, we’re just in this continual search for PPE — although I have been amazed by people’s generosity. We just got a box outside of our clinic door with surgical masks from a woman who had her daughter draw us a really lovely picture. We are covered for probably the next week or two.

Kristin, Expecting Her Third Baby, New Jersey

Conversation No. 1: March 23

It’s definitely a pretty … interesting … time to be pregnant. Right now, I don’t have a lot of information about how everything is changing at the hospital where I’m delivering because we have coronavirus here in New Jersey. My OB-GYN has definitely scaled back the number of appointments I have. A lot of the appointments they used to consider necessary aren’t right now.

I am a little nervous because I tend to deliver large children, and the baby is definitely not getting measured as often as usual. My goodness, I don’t want to have an 11-pound baby [laughs]. But I am not exactly sure how this is all going to progress over the next four to five weeks.

Conversation No. 2: April 15

I’ve only had one appointment since we spoke. Entering the building was pretty interesting. They only have one or two people coming in at a time, and you have to get your temperature checked. Everyone was wearing a face covering.

We talked about what the experience is going to be like on [labor and delivery]. There’s a separate entrance for labor and delivery, and they try and have you in and out of there in 24 hours. It’s frightening to think about going into a hospital, but my OB-GYN told me: “You’re safer walking into the hospital than you are walking into a Target or a food store.”

I keep thinking that I feel so lucky this isn’t my first pregnancy. At my hospital, they are still allowing one support person in labor and delivery, and I hope that doesn’t change — obviously, I don’t want that to change — but even if it did, I think I would be OK.

If anything, I feel so lucky to have had this past month-and-a-half at home with my girls. We’ve been having tea parties. I’m getting a chance to play with them before the baby comes. That’s not something I would have been able to do otherwise, so I am trying to focus on the benefits of this time rather than focusing on the fears.

Conversations have been edited and condensed

Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.

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