Becoming a Parent During the Pandemic Was the Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done
This completely different person I’ve become since I gave birth is someone virtually no one knows.
Image above: The photographer Rose Marie Cromwell documented her experience giving birth and her growing child during the pandemic, in a series called Eclipse.
In early March last year, I was heading home from a work happy hour on the subway when I realized that a woman was staring at my belly. She looked at my waist, where my coat was belted, and then at the floor, and then at my waist again, and then she very tentatively offered me her seat. I was four months pregnant. (I’d also eaten a lot of fried food at happy hour, in lieu of drinking.) I felt pitifully grateful to this woman at the time, and I ended up thinking about her a lot in the following months. She was really the only person—apart from my husband, my obstetrician, some nurses, and my doormen—who ever saw me pregnant. My mother didn’t. My siblings didn’t. My best friends didn’t either, or my co-workers, or any other kindhearted strangers on the subway. After the second week of March, I stopped going anywhere apart from occasional doctor visits and walks around the city. In July, I gave birth to twins, and then I stopped going anywhere at all. “You take those babies home and you keep them there,” the head nurse at Weill Cornell Medicine told me, and that is exactly what I did.
Having a newborn is isolating all by itself. You go into the hospital as one person (uncomfortable, hopeful, terrified) and you come home as another, as someone yanked into hour-by-hour survival mode, physically torn open and nearly hallucinating from lack of sleep. None of this is conducive to seeing people, apart from the ones you trust the most. In my case, all of those people were 3,000 miles away in England, a pandemic travel ban preventing them from crossing the ocean. The emotional, hormonal, and psychological transformation a person goes through when they become a mother is called matrescence. It represents a fundamental shift in your sense of self. But humans are social creatures—we tend to construct our identity not only around the things we know or feel about ourselves, but also around the ways in which people respond to us. My babies are almost eight months old and I can count on one hand the number of people we’ve spent time with since they were born. Other than my husband, not a single person I love has really seen me being a mother. This new person I’ve become since I gave birth is a person virtually no one knows.
Nothing can prepare you for the isolation of giving birth during a pandemic. The experience took my privileged life—a thing that once included people and places and activities—and compacted it until all that was left was my apartment, my husband, and the two impossibly demanding strangers I was now tasked with keeping alive. We were, in retrospect, imperfectly set up for pandemic parenthood. We live in New York, where we have a few friends but no family nearby. We don’t have a car. We were established with all the trappings of successful 21st-century lives—good careers in an amazing city where we’d moved to facilitate them. But these things also meant that, when it really mattered, we were alone.
Every person who’s given birth during the past year, I’d guess, has experienced a version of the same thing—a sense of isolation so acute that it’s hard to process. I was used to loneliness being something like a dull throb, a kind of ambient hum that rose or fell depending on what else was going on. The isolation of pandemic new parenthood was different. It felt like a wound. It stung bitterly from the very beginning, and every day that went by only made it more raw. Every milestone that my babies hit without anyone being around to witness it was colored with some grief. Every month we spent in the square-mile perimeter of our neighborhood made it harder to imagine ever leaving. Thanksgiving dinner, which we scarfed down on the couch after the twins fell asleep, was surprisingly comforting, but Christmas made me ache for everything it didn’t have. I can now see the same fragments of hope on the horizon that everyone can—vaccines, maybe a return to the office, some eventual imitation of “normalcy.” But the life that I had is gone, and I don’t know how to imagine a new one that has room for my children and anything else. Every second during which I’ve been a mother has been defined by closing off, shutting down, and retreating into a space small enough where the four of us can be safe.
I didn’t expect having babies to be like this. (Monty Python voice: Nobody expects having babies to be like this. I’ve come to see the shared delusion among nonparents about what actually happens after giving birth as necessary for the survival of our species.) When I found out I was pregnant, in late 2019, after almost four years of trying, my mother was staying with me for Thanksgiving, and even my splinters of irritation at her immediate response—“I knew it,” she said triumphantly, “when you didn’t want your salmon”—couldn’t dampen my joy that she was able to share that moment with me. I thought she’d be able to share at least some of the rest. I thought I’d have a baby shower, one last unencumbered flight somewhere, friends and family driving us home from the hospital and bringing over food. I thought the whole experience would be communal. Instead, almost immediately, it was cloistered.
One of the horrific aspects of viruses is that they punish intimacy. Ebola, Lawrence Wright wrote in his pandemic novel, The End of October, is “a disease that specifically [targets] love and compassion,” condemning the people who tend to their loved ones. The coronavirus is similarly cruel. It has separated families, deprived seriously ill patients of the comfort of human connection, and left millions to die, many alone. And, at the other end of the spectrum of existence, it has led to women giving birth alone. For a brief period in March, as New York City hospitals moved to contain the spread of the virus, some pregnant people found that their birth partners and support visitors were no longer allowed to accompany them during labor.
The impact of this policy was disproportionately felt by Black women, who were already eight times more likely than white women to die while giving birth. Even after Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an order allowing people in labor one individual accompanying them, this meant choosing between a partner and a doula. Studies suggest that the presence of a doula during childbirth may lead to fewer surgical interventions and better overall outcomes for mothers and babies, and advocates say that doulas can be particularly advantageous for women of color. COVID-19 has also limited the prenatal care pregnant people receive, which seems to have played a role in tragic consequences. One Black woman who was pregnant with twins last March in New York couldn’t get an in-person appointment that she needed until she was already 25 weeks, by which time one of her babies had died. In April, a 26-year-old Black woman died during childbirth in the Bronx, after suffering serious complications related to high blood pressure. Her family said that her ability to get an in-person appointment had also been limited by the pandemic.
My pregnancy was deemed high-risk because of my age (36 when I conceived) and the fact that I was carrying twins, a significant risk factor for preeclampsia. But in March, my doctor appointments were replaced by video visits. I went to the hospital, now alone, for sonograms, but for months no one so much as weighed me or took my blood pressure. I began to feel less like a person than a gestational sac, significant only so far as I was succeeding or failing at growing the babies (mostly failing—they were always tiny). I treated myself to cabs home from the hospital and started to cherish the conversations I’d have with the drivers—the only in-person discussions not with my husband I’d had in months. They always had kids. They were always floored that I was having a boy and a girl. They told me that boys were easier but girls were smarter. They opened the windows for ventilation and made sure I used hand sanitizer after putting on my seat belt. After I gave birth, we hired a specialized car service to bring us home from the hospital, because we had no one we could safely ask for a ride and I couldn’t imagine trying to install two car seats in an Uber after a C-section. I remember the driver settling the babies in and then heading over the cobblestones of First Avenue toward the Queensboro Bridge with such care, it felt like tenderness.
We came home from the hospital in a state of what I can only liken to shock. We hadn’t slept in three days. Both babies were small—my son was 4 pounds, 15 ounces, and my daughter was 5 pounds, 6 ounces—and cluster feeding every 90 minutes, but rarely at the same time. Our relief at being in our own space was tempered by an ominous feeling of What now? We were both perpetually holding babies. There was no extra adult to pour water or unload the dishwasher or wash onesies when my son peed through four of them a day, his little pencil legs too skinny for even newborn diapers. My postpartum anxiety raged; I was terrified of leaving the apartment. For the first six weeks, we saw no one except the babies’ pediatrician. She assured us that they were doing really well. But as far as human contact went, she wasn’t quite enough.
When the babies were two weeks old, my son developed silent reflux, which meant he’d grunt, turn beet red, squirm, and eventually cry out in pain from the stomach acid burning his esophagus. Before that, we’d been managing four or five hours of sleep a night in a couple of chunks; afterward, that went down to two or three. I remember believing in my heart that eventually someone would help us. I don’t know who I was expecting to come: the government? Mary Poppins? (Both are about equally as likely to help new parents.) But the weeks went by and no one came. No one could. Up until that point, I’d thought that my father dying when I was 22 was the worst experience of my life. Having twins during a pandemic was worse. At least when my father died, I occasionally slept. I started hallucinating phantom babies crying in the night. I would wake up in a panic, convinced that I’d fallen asleep while holding one or both of them. I couldn’t stop visualizing, in visceral detail, all the awful things that could happen to them, a phenomenon known as having “intrusive thoughts.” Most frequently, I imagined one of the babies accidentally falling off our balcony and pictured what its smashed skull would look like on the sidewalk. The same thought kept going through my head: We’ve ruined our lives.
Before they were a month old, my babies had seen their doctor six times. I had one checkup at six weeks, where my obstetrician checked my scar, cleared me for exercise, and, when I couldn’t stop crying, referred me to the hospital’s clinic for new mothers with suspected postpartum depression and anxiety. When I was researching this story, I spoke with a number of mental-health experts, many of whom told me that rates of postpartum depression have gone up significantly since the pandemic began. “It’s gotten really, really bad,” Juli Fraga, a psychologist in San Francisco, told me. “I hear about the isolation, and how it feels like Groundhog Day; the heartache of not knowing when you’re going to see your family; and the anxiety of bringing home a new baby … and not being able to have any support, especially early on in the pandemic.”
Postnatal health care focuses primarily on infants, but, based on my experience, there’s no better way to boost the developmental and physical health of babies than by taking care of parents. “Social support is a really strong predictor of health outcomes in infants,” Denise Werchan, a population-health researcher at NYU, told me. A pandemic doesn’t just deprive new parents of this kind of support from families and friends; it also directly increases their stress levels. Werchan cited “a lot of evidence that increased stress exposure not only during pregnancy but also during the early postpartum period is associated with a number of different adverse changes in infant health outcomes, in their brain development as well as social-behavioral development.” A forthcoming study she worked on that’s currently undergoing peer review looked at nearly 5,000 pregnant and postpartum women during the pandemic and found that rates of perinatal depression had increased approximately 5 percent compared with pre-pandemic figures.
In many ways, I was lucky. I have a stable job that offered a generous amount of parental leave. I have insurance, which paid for my video visits with a therapist. I had a postpartum doula with whom I FaceTimed twice a week, and who reassured me that I was doing as well and as much as I possibly could be. When I injured my back trying to exercise, I was able to see a physical therapist who helped me slowly fix all the things in my body that pregnancy had broken (I came home from these rare in-person visits floating on a pure high of social interaction). The twins grew and grew, turning from scrawny baby birds into soft little piglets. At six weeks, my son’s reflux disappeared as mysteriously as it had arrived. At four months, the babies began sleeping reliably through the night. After their two-month doctor appointment and first round of vaccines, we started doing outdoor visits with people, and even ventured a few places on the ferry. But then the winter came, and we found ourselves inside and alone once more while COVID-19 rates skyrocketed around the city. The pieces of normality we’d managed to gather all fell away. My husband and I started to gauge how well we were doing mentally by how many of our jokes were about ending it all. (“Twinkle twinkle little star,” I’d sing to the babies when they abjectly rejected the concept of naptime, “I don’t want to live anymore.”)
If your experience of new motherhood was different from mine, I salute you. If you, too, were utterly upended by the mental, emotional, and physical torture of it, come join me. In the earliest weeks, I mentally sorted the messages I got into two piles: from people who’d recently had babies and people who hadn’t. The latter were universally congratulatory and blithely chipper. One of my best friends wrote poetically that I should enjoy “the fog of love and milk,” a description so unlike what I was experiencing that it made me want to throw my phone at a wall. I did love my babies, but not blissfully—more in a nervy, impulsive, react-to-their-cries-with-ferocious-internal-programming kind of way. Later, after they started smiling and looking at me with more than curious resentment, I loved them so much, I thought I would burst. Then, when I was truly depressed, I loved them abstractly, as if there were a wall of glass between us.
The other kind of messages surprised me. They were from women I didn’t always know that well, or people I hadn’t heard from in a while. “Are you doing okay?” they asked. “Things for me in the beginning were … not good.” They told me to just get through the first three months. They checked in over and over. Later, I started to get messages from other women who’d given birth after me, and I began to read between the lines of their understatements. “I don’t know how you did this with two!” they’d write. “Babies are really hard!” We’re still not good, as a culture, at talking honestly about what it’s like raising children, especially in the newborn phase, Fraga said. “When people are out on these solo islands, especially if they’re already struggling, they’re left to believe that whatever false narrative they’re telling themselves is absolutely true.”
Part of the problem is that new parents aren’t always prepared for the breadth of disruption they’re about to experience, both in terms of the structure of their life and their own psychology. The term matrescence, the reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks told me, was coined by an anthropologist in the 1970s, but as a concept it still isn’t widely understood or researched. It deliberately mimics the word adolescence, the period of profound change that humans experience when they move from childhood to adulthood. “In my work,” Sacks said, “I think about it as being physical, hormonal, emotional … But there are also financial changes, changes in how you spend your time, social changes, changes at work. So it’s really the identity shift into motherhood.”
For people who had babies during the past year, whether or not they were birth parents, but particularly if they’d never had children before, two tremendous shifts happened at once. In the external world, we—alongside everyone else—had to adapt to the drastic changes imposed on society by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. That by itself has deep psychological implications. “None of us has ever lived this way,” Sacks said. At the same time, our lives were capsized by the entirely new process of parenthood, which, overnight, transformed our daily existence yet again. “If we were imagining this as a science experiment,” Sacks added, “we wouldn’t be able to measure the experiment, because there would be too many variables and not enough control.”
Pandemic new parenthood has arguably come with a few benefits. It has liberated people who’ve just given birth from the burden of welcoming well-wishers and dealing with the baggage that might come up whenever family and intense emotions collide. One woman who gave birth shortly before I did, and who described the rage, anxiety, and yearning she’s been feeling ever since, also told me about her “secret relief” not to miss a single developmental milestone in her baby’s first year. “This has forced me,” she said, “to step away from work in ways I would never choose myself.”
I also felt this at moments. When my husband went back to work after four weeks because we were trying to stagger our leave, the only reason I survived was because he didn’t have to go into an office and could occasionally step out of meetings to help and, more crucially, provide some company. I was grateful to have time to recover from surgery without having to see people. But I craved support, and contact. I would have sold a kidney if it meant getting a whole morning with a friend. And when we got through the initial tumult of what’s known as the “fourth trimester,” and once the impairment of sleep deprivation wore off, I started noticing other, intermittently unsettling feelings. After eight months, I still hesitate to describe myself as a mother, because I don’t feel like one. I’ve always constructed my sense of self through my interactions out in the world—my job, my relationships. What does it mean to be a mother (or a father, for that matter) when you’re living in a vacuum? How do you process a new identity when both you and the world around you have changed so drastically at the same time?
“I think there is this collective fear that we have adapted to this new normal, and when things return to the old normal, we’re going to have to go through the process of adapting again while we’re still kind of weathered and exhausted from the last year,” Werchan said. But in the findings of her study, she saw that people tend to be resilient, and that increased stress levels tend to be transient. And one thing that really helps is building support systems and creating healthy coping mechanisms. There’s no one magic solution, but for me, being able to acknowledge what I felt and communicating with other new mothers who were in a similar situation went a long way.
I don’t know how well I’ll adapt to post-pandemic life, and I haven’t let myself imagine what it’ll be like when the babies meet their English grandma and aunties and cousins, or any of the other people who already love them. But if we can learn any lessons from the past year, I hope one of them is that we need to critically reexamine the process of becoming parents, and figure out how to better support those who go through it so that they and their babies are more likely to thrive. I hope we can be more honest with one another about what we’re going through.
One of the small blessings of the past year for me has been watching my mother master emoji, which has made us more expressive with each other than ever before. “I don’t know how you raised two of us as a single mother!” I wrote to her months ago. “You are amazing!” Previously, she would have brushed me off or ignored the emotional overreach. But this time, by way of response, she sent me three smiling faces swimming in hearts, and I knew exactly what she meant.
Photographs from the forthcoming book Eclipse from TIS books.