Mother in face mask pushes baby in stroller
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Becoming A Mom Under The Thunderdome

by Bethany Crystal

She arrived on April 8, 2020, a day when 799 people died of COVID-19 in New York state and 5,225 new cases were confirmed in New York City.

When it was our time, we held our breaths and tip-toed into the hospital in face masks, our pockets full of antiseptic that we applied generously after touching any surface, doorknob, or elevator button. That decision alone — to stay in the city to have our baby — had already ruffled enough feathers in my family. We wouldn’t get sick now.

Every time a nurse came into our hospital room to take our temperatures (every 12 hours, by hospital policy), my husband and I held our breaths and did a silent prayer for a reading as close to 98.6 degrees as possible. Miraculously, both of us were deemed healthy, unlocking a privilege we never even knew to be thankful for until a few weeks ago: That all three of us (me, my husband, and our daughter) could remain together throughout labor, delivery, and recovery.

Twenty hours after we arrived, in an isolated hospital room in midtown Manhattan, my husband and I introduced our baby to our parents over FaceTime. While it was heartbreaking for them to meet their first granddaughter through a digital window, I told myself that it was only hello. It’s one thing to meet an unfamiliar face by phone. At that point, she’s still just a blank slate who hasn’t yet had time to live up to her name or potential. It’s a whole other form of heartbreaking to say goodbye like that. To have your parting look at a person you love, whose every line carries memories and stories, exist only as a series of pixels on a phone screen. In the very same hospital that day, I knew the number of FaceTimes hellos were far eclipsed by the overwhelming number of goodbyes.

While my husband held our baby girl for the very first time, a Hamilton quote that we knew all too well from the five years that he’d worked on the show popped into my head. I thought but didn’t dare say it out loud: “How lucky we are to be alive right now.”

I noticed my questions shifted a bit from 'novice mom' to 'pandemic paranoiac.'

To tell you the truth, I do feel lucky. In some ways, quarantine life has made the adjustment to new parenthood a little bit easier. We have no outside voices to contend with, no running stream of visitors offering us well-intentioned (but contradictory) parenting advice. By the time our baby arrived, we’d already worked out three weeks’ worth of at-home kinks, simply from already being stuck together for days on end.

But if the socially distant days didn’t blend together enough as it were, life with an infant made us feel like we’d always just disembarked from a red-eye flight. We soon learned (as all parents do) that we had mercilessly little control over the intervals separating one hunger bout to the next. Much like waking up in Las Vegas, where you’re unsure how you spent those witching hours of bad decisions and blurry memories, simply seeing the sunrise each morning felt like a minor miracle. The only difference was, in our case, we could never leave the building. There was nowhere to go but our own apartment. No one else to see.

This wasn’t for lack of trying. Before the baby arrived, we made plans to get us through those early days of infancy. Friends to visit and family to cook us food, a running list of supplies that people could bring in short order, postnatal visits from a lactation consultant, and of course, a shortlist of volunteer babysitters to relieve us for date nights. All of this vanished overnight.

“What’s it like to be a parent?” friends would ask, on Zoom happy hour hangouts.

We just laughed at the absurdity of the question. “Parents?!” I’d exclaim, “I don’t feel at all like a parent. I just feel like a person who happens to have a baby.”

“Of course you don’t feel like parents yet,” my brother told me. “You’re in isolation. You need other people to meet your baby and interact with you to give you the social proof that you are parents.”

Rather than meet up with other parents IRL, I spent hours scrolling the threads from a new mom Slack group I’d recently been invited to join. Their sub-channel for newborn discussions, aptly named “the thunderdome,” became my sole source of chatter, the only way to test out my new identity as a mom.

“Does anyone know where to get formula on short notice if Amazon is sold out? How much do I need?” I asked in a panic, unsure how well I’d get on breastfeeding without the help of an in-person lactation consultant. “How do I know if she’s getting enough milk? Is it normal for her to cry, but still stay asleep?”

Time and time again, the anonymous avatars I’d gotten to know jumped in to respond to my every question. Here was my fellow group of women warriors. We each fought our own baby battles in isolation, scattered across homes all over the world, but had each other’s backs, banded together by the messages we typed into tiny chat boxes at all hours of the day and night.

Once the reality set in that this virus was going to be very real for a very long time, I noticed my questions shifted from “novice mom” to “pandemic paranoiac.” “If you or your partner gets sick, do you have a contingency plan on how to separate yourself from the baby at home?” “Are you ever planning on seeing family in person? If so, how?” Recently, another shift took place: “Is it safe to take your baby to a protest?” I wanted to know. “How can I be an ally for others when I’m stuck at home with a newborn all day? Should I feel guilty for feeling frustrated about my own challenges, when I know that so many others have it so much worse?”

Two weeks after she was born, a calendar alert appeared on both of our phones: “Bethany — Hair Salon.” I grimaced, then deleted the notification. Barber shops and beauty parlors had been shuttered for weeks.

Naturally, the day this reminder flashed across my phone was one of those textbook “new parent” kind of days. The baby wouldn’t stop crying. She was constantly hungry. And as the person responsible for her only food source, I was attached to her around the clock. While the day started bright and early at 6 a.m., we somehow skipped right past lunchtime and suddenly it was after 4 p.m. She was still fussy, she still wasn’t napping, and I still hadn’t showered. My eyes locked in on my husband’s, in one of those glazed-over looks that he’s now come to know. And he wisely said, “You know, what, why don’t I take her for a bit? You should go for a walk.”

“Go for a walk?!” I scoffed. “There’s no way. What if she gets hungry?”

He smiled. “She just ate. She can wait for her next meal for you to get back.”

I nodded and looked down at my ensemble — a nursing bra with milk stains all over it and a worn-out pair of sweatpants. “I can’t go out like this,” I protested stubbornly. “I haven’t even showered.”

“Who cares if you haven’t showered?” he countered. “It’s not like you’re going to see anyone you know.”

He made a good point.

I’d assumed the city would always be there, taunting me to keep running, try harder, and aim higher.

When I left the apartment, it dawned on me that it was the first time in more than nine months that I’d been truly alone.

Rather than walk through Central Park, as we’d been doing periodically, I took to the streets and meandered up and down the avenues on the Upper West Side. As I passed each storefront, I checked out their window signs, making mental notes of which local spots were still open for business, and which ones had wordlessly closed indefinitely.

What a treat it will be, I caught myself fantasizing, to simply roam through my neighborhood with my baby in a stroller and an iced coffee in my hand. The impossibility of such a basic task made me realize just how much I'd taken New York City for granted all of these months, maybe even years. Here I’d assumed the city would always be there, taunting me to keep running, try harder, and aim higher — always demanding me to demand more in every aspect of my life. For nearly a decade, that’s the dream I’ve been chasing. And it’s a little motivating, isn’t it, knowing you’re always just a step or two behind? But no more. Not today. Today I was the one still moving, while the city was stuck in pause. Did I beat the game?

I shuffled along, feeling the freedom of being apart from my baby push up against the claustrophobia of wandering around a city without a single open door. It was the antithesis of everything New York City represents. The city of never-ending opportunity — of 3 a.m. pizza parties and meetup groups for anything, of unyielding social obligations and restaurants that opened faster than your stomach could possibly keep up — had finally met its match. Today, there was only this: abandoned surgical masks on sidewalks and a few scared locals scurrying around each other like panicked rats on a subway platform.

I’ve never felt as alone in the city as I did that day. I was traversing a tomb. Every direction unearthed skeletons of things I once loved, and what they left behind.

My husband was wrong about one thing: I did run into someone I knew. While walking past my favorite local pub, the owner’s gaze caught mine through the window, and I lingered on the sidewalk while he hung back in the doorway. I told him how we added a new member of our household and proudly displayed a few photos on my phone. He told me about losing one of his chefs to the virus and soberly gestured to the in memorium photograph on the door. I nodded gravely. Yet another tragedy to counteract our joy.

'In the past seven days,' it prompted, 'I have looked forward with enjoyment to things— as much as I ever did / rather less than I used to / definitely less than I used to / hardly at all.'

There is a contented quiet to quarantine life. It reminds me of some of the most private, yet focused periods of my life. Hours-long creative play sessions alone in my room as a kid. Sitting shiva for my husband’s mother. Recovering in my apartment after surgery. While these certainly weren’t all fun times, there’s something to be said for stripping the number of priorities in your life down to just one. Within that constraint, there is freedom. Without any other competing interests, there’s opportunity to rediscover some other side of yourself.

I like to think that the memories we’re making today, while stuck in quarantine, will germinate a similar sort of romanticism over time. We’re alone, yes. My husband is out of a job. The days are long and unyielding. But just like moving to New York City in your early twenties, through the struggle, there is triumph.

And yet. There exists a nagging feeling of loss that weighs me down from time to time. Whether it’s the loss of a carefree summer in New York, the loss of an idealized maternity leave, or the loss of innocence of a society I thought I knew, it’s hard to say. It comes in unexpected waves and without warning — on tedious, fitful days when I can’t even reciprocate a smile with a stranger on the street, and in twilight, when the infinite scroll of ever-more troubling headlines keeps me awake .

Two days after all of the looting took place in SoHo, I visited the neighborhood for my postnatal checkup with my doctor. Back when I was still pregnant, I thought there was nothing sadder than seeing so many abandoned storefronts with little signs out front announcing their closures. I was wrong. Walking into the office past all of the boarded up windows along Spring Street was the clearest reminder that the world I left was not the same as the one to which I would return.

I looked over the questionnaire they gave me in the waiting room and laughed a little to myself. “In the past seven days,” it prompted, “I have looked forward with enjoyment to things— as much as I ever did / rather less than I used to / definitely less than I used to / hardly at all.” “I have been so unhappy that I have had difficulty sleeping.” “I have been crying.”

“Look,” I told my OB-GYN, “you don’t need to diagnose me with postpartum depression or anxiety, but if I don’t answer yes to some of these questions, with everything going on out there today, I think that makes me a psychopath.”

She put down her pen and clipboard. “All of these postnatal visits are going the same way. Just hang in there.”

After the appointment, the sight of my husband waiting for me in a parked car, with a carseat clipped in back, was the most sobering image of parenting I’d seen yet. Together, we drove back uptown, through a world that didn’t exist a few months ago, as a family who hadn’t either.