Along with 643,000 expectant mums in the UK, author Ellen O’Connell Whittet has had to rip up her dream plans and tearfully adapt to the realities of giving birth during a pandemic
I cancelled my baby shower a week before the celebration. I’d already changed its location from a friend’s house to an outdoor park back when the coronavirus recommendations seemed like no more than useful precautions, but as the threat of infection became more real each day, I knew what I had to do. Still, seeing the cancellation email in my own inbox was painful. I felt like it represented a rift between the moment I thought I knew what the future held, and the moment I realized I had to let go of all of my expectations.
The baby shower had been particularly important to me. It was supposed to celebrate not just my future baby, but the end of a long road of getting and staying pregnant. As I struggled to conceive over the past year and a half, I’d come home from other people’s showers and cry about how unfair it was that some women could have babies easily and others, like me, couldn’t. At one point I’d told my husband I couldn’t go to any more baby showers until I was pregnant because each one was a painful reminder of what I wanted but couldn’t have. Planning my own felt like a reward for my patience and good fortune. And then the world changed forever.
Two days before the baby shower was supposed to take place, five of my friends invited me to a virtual celebration. “Requirements are to don something sparkly. Bows and scrunchies strongly encouraged,” the email invitation read. “We can all say our blessing to our new mini bestie and her mom (to get us by until the real one).” When I opened the invitation, I felt tears slide down my cheeks, both with relief that the day wouldn’t go unmarked and with sadness that the party had to take this form.
Getting ready for the shower I was still teary—partially from knowing I wouldn’t see most of the people I’d originally invited, partially with gratitude that at least I’d be able to see some of my closest friends. I was also fearful and frustrated about the world’s unknowns, the ways the death counts rose each day and how the only way to help was to stay put. Despite the swirl of grief and guilt and fear, I put on a dress and curled my hair for the first time in weeks. My husband set up my computer in the garden. “What if I have to leave to use the bathroom?” I asked him, panicked my friends would disappear if I excused myself for a minute. But he assured me they’d understand.
My friends and I spent an hour having tea online. The internet was glitchy. As each friend offered up blessings and advice, sometimes the sound of their voices stuttered and broke as the connection became unstable. But in the end, I was showered. One friend wished me confidence, another health. When our free forty minutes of zoom time was up, we got an extra twenty to entice us to upgrade for a paid account. After that, we went on with our days.
Isolation has made all the wonderful, ordinary parts of life feel extraordinary. So much of the last few weeks of my pregnancy is now online, from our prenatal classes and many appointments to panicked diaper shopping. My husband couldn’t come into the clinic where I got an ultrasound, so I facetimed him from the table where a technician rubbed goo on my belly and showed him on the screen that the baby has hair.
Preparing to give birth in a pandemic means making decisions I never thought I’d have to make. If I get sick, the local hospital’s standard policy is to take my baby from me so I don’t infect her, and once she tests negative, give her to another caregiver. I called my mother in tears after learning this and asked if she’d come get the baby in the scenario that my husband and I can’t care for her ourselves. A few friends have also said, to put me at ease, they’d take the baby if I needed. I appreciate the gesture, but each time someone makes it I double down on my own resolve to avoid the outside world so I never have to face such an awful reality. But we still worry about the food our loved ones drop off at our door. We worry about keeping the baby away from our families so she stays healthy. We worry about what her future will look like if this is our new normal.
Faces on a screen are as much a lifeline as they are a way to remind us that nothing is as it was, nor as it should be. When the baby arrives in the next few weeks, I know my husband and I will introduce her to our families and friends on a screen, to show her what faces besides our own look like.