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Fear, panic as women navigate pregnancy during a pandemic
02:59 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

In early February, my partner and I discovered that I was pregnant.

Looking back, that feels like one of the last big milestones of the Before Times — a wonderfully blissful and uncomplicated period. I’d skimmed a few headlines about a scary-sounding disease called Covid-19 but didn’t worry too much about it.

The virus seemed so far away on the other side of the globe. My biggest concern was adjusting to the idea of carrying a child.

Author Katie Hawkins-Gaar and her partner, Billy, learned she was pregnant in the Before Times.

Our first ultrasound was scheduled for March 3. At eight weeks, our baby didn’t yet look like a baby. According to the pregnancy website we consulted each week, she was only as big as a raspberry.

Still, she had a heartbeat — and when we heard it, my partner, Billy, excitedly grabbed my hand. We laughed in surprise and flashed giant smiles at the ultrasound technician, who grinned back at us.

That was our last prenatal appointment of the Before Times.

On March 11, Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. At every clinic visit since that declaration, I’ve been greeted at the front door by a staffer who asks a series of questions about any potential contact with the virus and symptoms I might be experiencing. Billy is no longer allowed to attend appointments with me. Like everyone else at the doctor’s office, I wear a mask.

Now when I hear our daughter’s heartbeat, there’s no one to grab my hand. My smile stays hidden behind the fabric that covers my face.

Prenatal appointments aren’t the only thing that’s different about what I imagined pregnancy would be like.

Billy and I won’t have a traditional baby shower, take a “babymoon” trip or enjoy any last hurrahs on the town with our childless friends. I haven’t been able to attend in-person birth classes or visit friends who have recently welcomed their own babies to the world. I don’t get to hold another infant and take notes ahead of time about how to wrap a proper swaddle or change a diaper like a pro.

Instead, Billy and I are learning what we can from the safety of our home. We’ve read articles and books, signed up for online courses and accepted advice from friends.

There’s a stack of parenting and pregnancy books in the room that will soon be our daughter’s nursery. The ubiquitous “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” is among the paperbacks. Funny enough, there’s no chapter on what to expect when you’re expecting in a pandemic.

Like so many of us, Dr. Lucy J. Puryear, medical director of The Women’s Place: Center for Reproductive Psychiatry at Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women, has had to adjust how she works in the pandemic. Puryear, a psychiatrist specializing in the emotional health of pregnant women and new mothers, and author of “Understanding Your Moods When You’re Expecting,” now sees all of her patients virtually.

She has to help new parents readjust expectations around what their postpartum support systems might look like. And, more than ever, she has to take her own advice.

“I tell patients to try not to get overwhelmed with when this is going to end,” said Puryear. “Look at a week at a time — that’s about the best we can do at the moment. Focus on what doctor’s appointments you have, what’s going on with your body, things like that that are tangible.”

“Pregnancy, even without a pandemic, is a time of unknowns and uncertainties,” added Puryear. “The fear of the virus has heightened that.”

She’s seen many pregnant mothers who have concerns about their own health and safety, and the health and safety of their unborn children. “They’re also dealing with immediate fears about things like whether their partners will be allowed in the hospital or whether they’ll be giving birth alone,” she said.

I worry about these things, too. At this point, my midwife tells me that Billy will be allowed in the hospital — but we won’t be able to tour it in person beforehand. I worry about what it will be like to be in a medical setting for so long, and how many precautions we’ll have to take to protect ourselves.

That’s not to say that everything is terrible. I’ve found some surprising silver linings to being pregnant during a global pandemic. I get to spend more time at home, and I don’t have to worry about unwanted comments or belly touches from strangers. Billy and I have enjoyed more time to nest and more opportunities to focus on becoming parents.

There are also plenty of things that aren’t that different. In a very clichéd move, I’ve been craving pickles and ice cream. People still get excited to see the baby bump — even if it is over video calls. And I’ve already had to tell my mom to stop buying too many tiny clothes for her first grandchild.

Puryear pointed to another benefit of having a baby during this time: So many people working at home has resulted in a more equitable split of parenting duties.

“Many dads or partners are getting to spend more time with the baby than they would otherwise,” she said. “Lately, we’re seeing more sharing of responsibilities than we would have normally, when only one parent was on traditional maternity leave.”

Every other week or so, I meet with a group of other new-moms-to-be via Zoom. A mutual friend had the smart idea of connecting all of us. We’re scattered across the country but share the unique experience of being pregnant during such a surreal time.

We talk about “normal” pregnancy topics, like the baby kicks and discomfort we’re each feeling, and we also discuss the various bits of Covid-related information and advice we’ve gleaned from our doctors and the internet.

Lately, we’ve spent a lot of time comparing our plans for allowing (or not allowing) family members to visit after birth. Billy and I are still figuring out the logistics of it all.

The pandemic, Puryear said, has provided a useful metaphor for parenting.

“This is a really good way to learn that you have to let go of your sense of control,” she said. “That’s going to be true for the rest of your life as a parent. You do the best you can, with the information you have.”

I’m due in mid-October. Based on the spread of cases, especially in Florida, where I live, I fully anticipate that the virus will still greatly affect daily life by then.

Just as my pregnancy hasn’t lined up with expectations, I doubt that giving birth will be like I imagined it to be either. I don’t know exactly what I envisioned, but it didn’t involve laboring through contractions while wearing a mask.

Still, as long as I can give birth to my daughter safely, I’m good.

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“The best piece of advice I have is to take this all a day at a time and a week at a time,” said Puryear. “It’s OK to have wishes and desires about how your pregnancy should go, but at the end of the day all you want is a healthy baby. No matter how that happens, it’s what matters most.”

The exciting thing about babies is that everything is brand new for them. This time, it’s brand new for all of us. The world may not look like I imagined it would, but our little family will figure out how to navigate it together.

Katie Hawkins-Gaar is a writer and journalism consultant based in St. Petersburg, Florida. She writes a weekly newsletter called “My Sweet Dumb Brain.”