I Can’t Wait To See You! You Still Can’t Hold My Baby.
How do new moms parent after the pandemic, when pandemic parenting is all we know?
The day the pandemic hit home for me was in mid-March 2020, when I got a phone call from the maternal fetal medicine office telling me not to bring my partner, or anyone else, to my 20-week anatomy scan. A few hours later, I walked into the ultrasound theater alone, laid down silently on the table, and thought for the first of countless times throughout my pregnancy and early motherhood, Well, this isn’t how I pictured things.
Like millions of others who gave birth during the pandemic, I had no idea how drastically the past year would shape my pregnancy and postpartum experience. How do you hold on to the joy of expecting while the death toll rises, friends lose family members, and women are briefly but terrifyingly forced to labor and birth alone?
Once my baby was born, the personal stakes got considerably higher: I was launching a life amid unimaginable death, and it was my job to keep it from reaching him. Along with many other new moms I know, I found myself meticulously Lysol-ing the diaper bag after pediatrician appointments and using car seat covers (in lieu of masks) to protect my son from any aerosolized COVID droplets suspended in the waiting room. Some of my friends with newborns set up strict rules for visitors. Many of us made it simpler: We saw no one at all.
We have become so habituated to fierce protectiveness that some of us feel stuck in it, even if we no longer think we need to be.
Thanks to months of this extreme vigilance, reentry is also not what we expected. As much as new parents, including myself, have missed the world, we are nervous about emerging. We have become so habituated to fierce protectiveness that some of us feel stuck in it, even if we no longer think we need to be. How do we parent after the pandemic, when pandemic parenting is the only kind we’ve known?
With the exception of doctors and child care providers, hardly anyone outside my immediate family held my 9-month-old son until very recently. Most friends and family have only known him as a flat image on a screen. It feels like such a loss that they will never have known him as a chubby, giggly infant; that he will likely be walking and maybe talking by the time his paternal grandparents can travel to meet him. And yet, the one or two times I’ve passed him over to a friend in recent weeks, I’ve had to manually override every maternal instinct I’ve honed in the last year to protect him from other people.
While it’s true that infants aren’t out of the woods yet — a COVID vaccine for children under 2 won’t be available until late in the year, and infection rates among kids are up — my anxiety isn’t a logical one. I don’t fear that my friends are going to get my baby sick (at this point, most of them are vaccinated anyway) or, say, sneeze directly into his mouth. Still, a kiss on the cheek from Grandma triggers a jolt of adrenaline in me. I think it’ll be a long time before I can see these gestures as affection, rather than threat.
When I first found out I was pregnant, I joined an online group of parents all due the same month. Since then, we’ve experienced the milestones of pregnancy and motherhood at the same time — and, as of last spring, all against the same scary, sad backdrop. Unsurprisingly, the topic of navigating life and parenthood after the pandemic comes up often in this space.
A kiss on the cheek from Grandma triggers a jolt of adrenaline. I think it’ll be a long time before I can see these gestures as affection, rather than threat.
We are, first and foremost, thrilled: We cheer on each others’ vaccine selfies and giddily share our hopes for the milestones ahead — our parents finally meeting their grandkids, our little “bubble babies” finally seeing the inside of a museum or a restaurant or, gasp, a grocery store for the first time. But there’s an undercurrent of anxiety in these conversations, too, particularly among first-time moms like me, who’ve only ever known motherhood under these bizarre circumstances. (The second-time moms are, unsurprisingly, much more chill.)
Mikhala, 26, is a first-time mom who had her baby in July and lives in Saskatchewan, Canada. She isn’t sure how she’ll overcome her urge to keep her daughter away from the world. “I think we had an intense primal instinct to protect our babies at all costs,” she says. “We have been in high gear since pregnancy, and the thought of reducing protection is scary — it is almost as though I need to wean myself off of survival mode.”
While many of our friends and family members are seemingly ready to jump right back into “normalcy,” many of us are overwhelmed by the exhausting risk calculus we’ll still have to keep making every day: Can friends visit our babies between vaccine doses? Can grandparents hold the baby without wearing a mask? What about crowded public spaces? Travel?
For some families, the anxiety is social. The pandemic did a lot of the hard work of enforcing boundaries for us, but the doorbell is about to start ringing — and we may have to set limits that make other people uncomfortable. Cassandra, 38, says that she and her husband have been “hard-liners” about their COVID precautions throughout the pandemic and especially since having their daughter last summer. She plans to keep doing that but senses opposition ahead. “While I’m really eager to be with people again, I feel like I’m going to need to be really specific about the parameters for social engagement,” she says.
Telling excited friends and family members “no” can also bring layers of guilt. Jennifer, 37, has grappled with this since losing her mother last year. “Even though we’re far from the end, my family is already pressuring me to visit, to meet the baby,” she says, but she isn’t ready for that. “I also feel a lot of guilt over keeping my mom away [from the baby] because she worked with a lot of COVID deniers. Now she’s gone, and she’ll never have the chance to really get to know my baby.”
“This has been globally traumatic for birthing families. Whenever we view it that way, we give ourselves a lot more compassion.”
Ashley Lingerfelt, an Atlanta-based certified clinical counselor in perinatal mental health, has spent a lot of time over the past few months counseling her postpartum clients on their reentry anxieties. She tells them that part of preparing yourself to go out and see people with your baby is acknowledging the reality that for new mothers, the past year has been steeped in specific fears, uncertainties, and grief that are no worse than the losses others have sustained but different. “This has been globally traumatic for birthing families,” says Lingerfelt. “Whenever we view it that way, we give ourselves a lot more compassion.”
Her goal is to help her clients find a balance between letting themselves feel however they feel and not letting those feelings consume them. She also encourages new moms to think about what the future holds for them and their babies: “reparative experiences,” like finally sharing our babies with our loved ones. Many of those big, joyous moments may have been deferred, but they will happen — and when they do, it will feel redemptive.
As for navigating those moments without having a panic attack, Lingerfelt suggests being very honest with your visitors ahead of time — let them know that you’re excited to see them, but still a bit nervous, and you might act a little weird as you adjust. That way, if you do feel uncomfortable and need to take a break (or rescind your offer to hold the baby), you can tap out without feeling too awkward about it, instead of allowing a scenario that makes you uncomfortable while secretly freaking out.
And if you’re in a situation that you know intellectually is low-risk and want to stick out? “Remind yourself that you’ve already processed and made the executive decision that this is safe, or you wouldn’t be here in the first place,” Lingerfelt says. “It’s important to bring our cognitive brain back online and let our emotional brain take a break.”
It’s a little poetic that this past March, almost exactly one year to the day after the ultrasound I attended by myself, I was rolling up my shirt-sleeve in a giant parking lot next to an airport and getting a little weepy as a health care worker gave me my first dose of the vaccine. It was a moment I’d anticipated for months, and while it wasn’t the neat emotional bookend I thought it might be (the vaccine, as it turns out, does not instantly alleviate a year’s worth of existential dread!), I felt flush with relief. I could barely wrap my mind around what it meant, and would mean, for my family, for other families, for everyone.
While uncertainties loom, Lingerfelt reminds me, pandemic parents have proven that we are experts at adapting.
In the space of a few weeks, we came to terms with being alone in the exam room, with awkward Zoom baby showers, with our “villages” vanishing overnight. New parents should give themselves a little more credit for this, Lingerfelt says, and see it as proof that we actually can handle parenting in public, navigating restaurants and stores with our babies, even enforcing boundaries with family members. “You’re going to be able to transition into mothering beyond the pandemic, too,” she adds. “It’s just another transition.”