A mom-to-be shares her story of what it’s like to be pregnant during the coronavirus pandemic. [Guest post, by Kate Taney Billingsley]
Pregnant in the Time of Coronavirus
When I found out I was pregnant in November of 2019, I had images of myself 8 months later in a moo-moo, waddling down 169th street in New York City’s blistering summer heat, my thighs chafing, just to get a cold sip of an overpriced strawberry-banana smoothie.
I imagined myself walking up the three flights of stairs back to our tiny apartment, just barely cooled by a seven-year-old AC unit on its last legs; my swollen feet propped up on the coffee table and reruns of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills distracting me from my sciatica pain.
I imagined myself sweaty, but happy; eagerly anticipating the week in August where my large family would descend on the Jersey Shore with thousands of other families. I’d be there with my new baby, my step-daughter, my husband and with the people I love most in the world right there beside me to help; to offer unsolicited advice, laughter, and delicious feasts that I would neither have to prepare nor clean up.
Then, March of 2020 came around and COVID-19, and all the dreamy possibilities of what pregnancy would be like suddenly washed away.
I had been following the news and the story of the virus since January.
Being pregnant, I had some sixth sense that the city was becoming an increasingly unsafe place to live. I even ordered some cloth masks and extra hand sanitizer for our family, intuiting that this might get very bad, very quickly. I wore plastic gloves on the subway and when the mask arrived, I proudly donned it. There weren’t many of us with masks then, so a lot of tough New Yorkers gave me eye-rolls. I even canceled a doctor’s appointment I felt could wait; one with a nutritionist—yeah, I know, eat the rainbow. At this point, I was lucky if I could stomach some French fries, let alone a crudité platter due to my relentless morning sickness.
I was still being asked to show up for work (as we all were) at this time.
My husband and I are both professors at The Actors Studio Drama School. Whenever a student coughed, I became increasingly paranoid and I insisted, with support of the school, that no one show up for class if they felt even remotely feverish. I went as far as to set up small black prop-boxes around me to create a kind of protective shield. I’m an artist, not a scientist, and this somehow made sense to me. My students ran with it and no one questioned why.
When the first week of March came around and the hysteria of COVID-19 became real in New York, I remember fighting with my husband as he told me that I should not go into school the next day because of the virus.
I was insisting that I do go in because it was the day that my students’ final scenes for their spring festival would be chosen and this was a ritualistic day of sorts; a kind of graduation to the next level of their work from solo to ensemble.
I was adamant, hormonal, and in denial that this one class (let alone later, the entire semester) be taken away from them because of a virus. An hour later, we got an email saying that no one would be coming into work because school would be on leave for the following two weeks, that classes would be held online, and that we were to learn how to essentially form an entirely new lesson plan for potential further shutdowns.
Then, my mother called.
“Katie, I really think you need to come out here”. My parents live in Connecticut. They moved in January to a wooded, garden-like oasis on three acres of land that had a kind of bewitched energy to it. For instance, there is a black bra tied to one of the trees that looks like it’s been there for thirty years and a pitchfork inside a large barren oak stump. My mother didn’t like the thought of her pregnant daughter staying in New York for “God knows how long” and she insisted that I stay with them for a few weeks, “just until the worst of it passes”.
I debated going out there at first.
The main reason being, did I have the virus? Was I asymptomatic? Would I give it to my elderly (being in their early-seventies they hate that word) parents? When would my husband be able to join us? And what about my step-daughter who also lives in New York? When would I see her again? What about her mother? If my husband joins me, she is left in New York with childcare all by herself for “God knows how long”. Is this really the smartest and safest thing to do for our family? Am I being utterly selfish..?
I took a few nights to sleep on it. I had to trust the deepest part of myself: my unfailing intuition; made even stronger through the growing life inside of me. My gut would guide me towards what I needed to do.
My motherly instincts kicked into high gear; what I needed to do was migrate towards safety and fast.
The next morning, I packed a bag filled with high-waisted underwear, stretch pants, antacids, belly butter, my computer and some books on childbirth I had been putting off reading. I looked around our funky little apartment with some kind of odd feeling of loss, then I kissed my husband and step-daughter goodbye. If I had known that was the last time I would hug and kiss my step-daughter in three months and counting, I would have squeezed her a little tighter and packed my bag a little earlier, so that I could have spent more quality time with her before heading out the door. I regret this. I miss her so much right now I cry just thinking about her.
My eldest sister picked me up and drove me the ninety minutes north. On the drive, we exchanged fears and expectations. She was in her first week on a new job, running a nursing home in the Hudson Valley region no less. She hypothesized on all the worst and best-case scenarios that would start to flood her facility. I complained about having to change my doctor and find a new hospital. “What the hell will my birth plan even look like now?” I bemoaned. And to be honest, it’s not like I had a solid birth plan in the first place. Here’s what I knew: I wanted to give birth naturally and in a birthing hospital. Oh, and I had a sick playlist already up to hour five of labor. Only problem was, my bottom of the barrel health insurance didn’t offer midwifery and there were no birth centers left in Manhattan. If I wanted one, I’d have to haul my pregnant butt over to Brooklyn. Still, I considered it.
Nearly all the women in my family laughed at me for wanting a natural birth.
“Believe me, you’ll want the epidural,” they would say, with a certain look of both wisdom and disdain towards my foolish notion of going drug-free. To be fair, my pro-natural birth mother friends had an equally condescending attitude towards epidurals, “They’ll do anything in a hospital to drug you or cut you open to make money. Go home: get a tarp, get a doula”. And as much as I loved the idea of a doula, there was no way I could afford one, let alone the tarp. My husband would be my doula. The tarp would have to wait. As much as I wanted to be that heroic, I was always too scared to birth at home.
When I arrived at my parents’ new home, I was greeted, as usual, with unconditional love; I am blessed to have a family that I not only love, but I actually like and get along with. I know…it annoys most people who follow me on Instagram, but it’s the truth. There was not much hugging, we would stay our distance for a while, but both my mother and father seemed relieved to have been able to offer me this temporary peace of mind. They had a room ready for me, fresh towels, and even an extra bed for my dog, Batsy. My mother placed the porcelain Peter Rabbit figurines of my childhood on the dresser in a loving attempt to make me feel at home in her new house. I was comforted and told, “stay as long as you need”.
And this is right about here where I need to stop, take a deep breath and acknowledge my privilege before going any further. I am privileged to be in this place, with these people, to have a job that inspires me and with which I can work remotely, during a time that is like hell on earth for millions. My parents have a wildflower prairie as a lawn. I recognize the privilege of my circumstances and I regularly oscillate between gratitude and guilt.
It was clear from watching the 24-hour news cycle that coronavirus wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
It was here to stay and so I thought, I guess I am here to stay, too. Once I realized that I would be in Connecticut for the summer, I began the rigmarole of changing doctors. The closest New York town that took my New York State health insurance was an hour away. The hospital in the town was beautiful and newly renovated, and it happened to be where my best friend gave birth (naturally) only three years earlier.
I booked an appointment right away for my 20-week anatomy scan.
When I called they said I couldn’t have anyone with me. My heart sank, but then I remembered I wouldn’t be entirely alone, my baby boy would be right there with me.
For two weeks, my husband quarantined himself in New York after having worked his second job waiting tables at John’s Pizzeria the weekend after I left. It was the last weekend of so-called normalcy before Cuomo shut the city down.
Those two weeks away from him were long and lonely.
I wrote a lot of poetry. It’s what seemed to come out of me at the time. I figured I would write something for the baby to have one day in the future when he was grown. I spent those two weeks doing my best to calm the anxiety that coursed through my veins by practicing daily breathwork and relaxation, both exercises I happen to teach my acting students.
One morning, a few days before my husband came out to join me, I woke up from a bad dream and couldn’t fall back to sleep. The bed felt so empty, the mattress springy, and my dog, who usually sleeps at my feet, had found that her new dog bed was actually quite comfortable. I thought you were a therapy dog, I groaned on my way to use the toilet. Perhaps it was the big move my husband would heroically have to make on his own; packing up our home of six years into boxes and the closure that would be taken away from me in saying goodbye to the place we began our lives together. Or maybe it was my new diagnosis of placenta previa at my 20-week anatomy scan. Or maybe it was the virus looming over everything like a shroud of death…
Either way, being wide awake, I made myself a coffee, poured myself some Special K (a strange craving), and made my way to the TV in my parents’ living room. I flipped on CNN. An hour later, my mother came downstairs in her robe and we watched the news together for another hour. I poured another bowl of cereal. Then, my father came down. Another hour passed. The news began to pour out that partners and any other kinds of visitors would not be permitted in the delivery rooms or hospitals in New York State. I started to panic.
My breath spasmed. I sat there listening, aggressively trying not to cry, so as not to worry my parents. I swallowed my tears. I swallowed my breath. Beads of sweat began to pearl on my unwaxed lip.
My heart and mind raced as one jockey and horse with thoughts like…
Would I be alone and practicing Lamaze through a face mask? Who would be my advocate if they wanted to cut me open? Who would know my safety word if I actually did want the epidural? Who would rub my sore back? Who would I yell at? Whose arms would I cry into? Who would I share in the greatest moment of my life with? Would I get coronavirus just by being in the hospital? Would I miss the skin to skin contact I so badly desired? Would they separate me from my baby? Would I have to wait two weeks to see my baby? Would that affect the baby when he becomes an adult? Was I already a terrible mother? Is there anyone who can tell me what to do?
I looked over at my mother. There was an equal panic in her eyes, but her breath was slow and deep.
It was in that moment that I realized the importance of parenting oneself and the great responsibility I had in being a parent.
It struck me like water to the face. My mother was staying strong for me and I had to stay strong for my own baby. In a time where I could have easily dipped back into old selfish patterns of behavior that included catastrophizing with a side of crippling anxiety, I understood very clearly the impact that would have on the growing life inside of me and that I owed it to my child to give him what I so desperately needed myself; comfort, love, compassion, kindness. I forced myself to take a resounding breath, to relax the shoulders that had crept up towards my ears, to loosen my jaw, to allow myself to experience grief by releasing it instead of holding onto it like an old photo. A few minutes later, I was calm and motherhood felt like a warm lullaby.
A few years ago, I read an article about babies born in New York around the time of 9/11. They tracked these children throughout their lives and the study found anxiety to be much greater in these individuals, especially if the mother herself had anxiety. The article stuck with me for a reason. The greatest lesson I have learned from being pregnant during this time is the responsibility I have in parenting and taking care of myself because this child is a part of myself. I have had to start the journey of relinquishing selfishness, of routinely practicing self-care, of loving my body, of accepting enormous responsibility; my life is no longer just about what I want, but about what my child needs.
I keep asking when it will become real.
My mother says when the baby is wet and warm against my skin for the first time; the eye contact, the cracking scream of new life that fills the space, the unbreakable soul bond between mother and child through the senses, through the ether, through eternity. I believe her.
There is something so profound about the fact that I have this extra time with my parents while I am becoming a new mother. These past few months, when my father asks if I’d like to go on a bird walk, I try to always say yes. Last summer, and summers before then, I found various reasons to pass on the walks. Now, I crave the ebb and flow of our nature walks and realize how precious the time we have together is. There is some greater reason for this bonus time with them that I don’t fully understand now.
The rules in New York have since changed.
My husband can be in the room with us, thank God. But, in August, we don’t know what the statistics will be. We don’t know if my placenta previa will have fixed itself. We don’t know if anyone we love will have fallen ill from COVID-19 or if one of us will catch it. We don’t know when friends and loved ones will be able to meet our son in person. We don’t know if our school will hold classes in the fall or if our jobs are secured. We don’t even know where we will be living. We don’t know the future at all, not like we ever really did, but at least in the past, there were mirages of security. The truth is, all of this lack of control, a year ago, would have shaken me to my core. It is easy to understand how and why so many people feel paralyzed and alone right now, clinging to their screens for some semblance of what to expect; especially during a time when we have the largest unemployment numbers since the Great Depression.
I don’t know the answers.
I only have one piece of advice to anyone, whether you are pregnant or not: parent your inner child; give them the kind of love and attention they need and deserve. We all were children once and that child-self never went away, it just hides most of the time from all the adulting we are forced to do. But, the child comes out to play when we are most happy and blissful and fulfilled.
This is the time we must listen intently and with compassion to the quiet whisper of truth within us. We will come through this. The tunnel may be long, but there is a pin’s head of light I can see that gives me hope. I can’t help but draw the metaphor of the baby’s descent through their own tunnel and the light that awaits them at the end, which is also the beginning.
Kate is an actor, playwright and professor at The Actors Studio Drama School. She is expecting the arrival of her first baby in August 2020. You can connect with Kate on Instagram.
Read the full collection of stories on mothering in the time of the coronavirus pandemic in the Birth & Babies Anthology HERE.
Ana, a mom to three rambunctious little boys, has supported hundreds of thousands of women throughout their pregnancy and motherhood journey since 2012 as a blogger and maternal health advocate at MommysBundle.com.