I found out I was pregnant about two months into the COVID-19 pandemic.
A global public health crisis isn’t exactly the backdrop I had in mind when I wanted to expand my family. But if parenthood has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes life gives you poopy diapers. You just have to roll with it.
As 2020 trundled along, the tally of COVID-19 cases grew and so too did my bump. Then in January, I finally welcomed my beautiful “coronnial” baby.
Being pregnant during a pandemic wasn’t always easy, but through it all, I learned how to adapt, endure and persevere like a mother.
Early pregnancy precautions
When I first saw those two pink lines appear on my pregnancy test, my emotions quickly pingponged between joy and fear. I was thrilled but also worried. What would happen if I got COVID-19? Would I be OK? Would my baby?
At the time, medical experts didn’t know how COVID-19 impacted pregnant people. Some suspected we were more vulnerable to the disease because pregnancy can often lead to a weakened immune system, but no one knew for sure.
“Early on, we didn’t know very much,” agrees Dr. Ali Lewis, my obstetrician-gynecologist at Meridian Women’s Health at UW Medical Center – Northwest. “Our advice was do everything you can to mask, use hand hygiene and avoid exposures you don’t have to have.”
For me, some of those adjustments were fairly easy to make. I’m fortunate and privileged enough to be able to afford face masks and hand sanitizer. I have a job that allows me to work from home. And I have a supportive partner, who took over grocery runs and other errands without complaint.
Other decisions, though, were less simple.
I didn’t know whether to keep our then-3-year-old daughter in day care, where she could potentially be exposed to the virus and bring it home. I didn’t know when my mother, who would be watching our daughter when I went to the hospital, should start quarantining in advance of my due date, in case I went into labor early.
Every interaction and family outing during those nine months prompted a mini debate: What was the best way to stay safe but also manage my mental health? Was the potential risk worth it?
How COVID-19 affects pregnant people
It’s been more than a year after the start of the pandemic, and experts now know much more about the disease.
“The overall risk is still low, but we’ve since learned that there’s a higher risk of severe illness, ICU admission and needing a ventilator in pregnant people compared to nonpregnant people of the same age,” Lewis explains.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who are pregnant are more likely to become infected with COVID-19 and are at an increased risk of severe illness or preterm birth due to the disease.
In fact, a recent study of pregnant people in Washington notes they were 70% more likely to have a severe COVID-19 infection when compared to nonpregnant people their age.
On top of that, according to the study, pregnant women from racial and ethnic minority groups were two to four times more affected by the disease, potentially due to unequal access to healthcare and societal inequities that have been aggravated during the pandemic.
“Our data indicates that pregnant people did not avoid the pandemic as we hoped that they would, and communities of color bore the greatest burden,” says Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at University of Washington School of Medicine and one of the study’s authors.
Prenatal care with PPE
As my pregnancy progressed and I tried to remember what my feet looked like, I found myself comparing everything to my first go at this.
On one hand, my prenatal appointments at the clinic felt pretty much the same. I listened to my baby’s heartbeat, asked my OB questions about various aches and pains, and went through the normal slate of prenatal testing.
Even with UW Medicine’s pared-down COVID-19 visitor policy, my husband was still able to join me for the milestone 20-week anatomy scan, when we got a sneak peek at our baby.
The only major difference? Everyone was wearing a mask.
A new kind of pregnancy experience
Many other aspects of my pregnancy felt familiar, too, right down to the fluttery baby kicks and the decidedly less fun lightning crotch (if you know, you know). Other things, however, were noticeably different during the COVID-19 era.
Instead of taking group childbirth classes at the hospital with other parents-to-be, I took an online course from the comfort of my couch. Instead of touring the birthing suite at the hospital, I watched a video tour. And instead of gathering at my sister-in-law’s house for a baby shower, I logged onto Zoom to celebrate with friends.
“A lot of my patients were going virtual in their lives for work and for socializing,” Lewis explains. “So as soon as childbirth education, lactation consultants and doulas switched to that, everyone just made the switch.”
The good and bad of going virtual
There were some unexpected benefits to being all virtual, too.
For example, working from home meant I could wear sweatpants all day. I also didn’t need to worry about random people touching my belly unprompted because, well, I no longer met up with random people.
Don’t get me wrong — the COVID-era necessity of virtual everything wasn’t without its hang-ups. For example, it’s a lot easier to practice breastfeeding when someone can actually see you in person instead of through a computer screen. But I also felt strangely lucky and somewhat guilty that I had gone through this before.
I didn’t miss having a “real” baby shower or bonding with other parents-to-be because I’d already had the opportunity to do all that. I also didn’t feel the full effect of social isolation that so many pregnant people faced during the pandemic because I’d already had the chance to establish my parenting network during my previous pregnancy.
“For first-time parents, they don’t know a different experience,” Lewis explains. “They may be grieving the loss of what could have been.”
A birth unlike any other
One afternoon, five days before my due date, I started feeling contractions. By dinnertime, I knew this was it.
My husband and I arrived at the childbirth center just after midnight and, once I was formally admitted, I received a COVID-19 test. That “fun” nasal swab was just the first of the many differences between my pandemic birth experience and my prior one.
Everyone throughout my birth and delivery (myself included) wore a mask.
“The official policy is that you should mask to prevent transmission of the virus — even if you’re the birthing parent and test negative as we also want to protect you from any potential exposure,” Lewis explains.
The nurses and doctors on staff were exceedingly supportive, though, and encouraged me to let them know if I ever needed to take my mask off in order to breathe better during labor.
“We know how difficult it is to wear a mask, especially when you’re working really hard during labor,” Lewis notes.
I was so focused while pushing that I didn’t even really notice that I was wearing a mask anymore. And, of course, after my baby was born and put on my chest, I didn’t think about anything else but her.
What was perhaps the most noticeable difference during the pandemic was the hospital recovery experience.
My husband and I would take our masks off when we were alone in our room but put them back on whenever staff members came in to check my vitals or assess our baby.
We were also required to stay in our room during the entire hospital stay, so we relied heavily on the recovery nurses for little things like refilling our water bottles and grabbing extra diapers. And the COVID-19 visitor policy meant our older daughter couldn’t visit us at the hospital.
In the end, it helped to remind myself that while these protocols were inconvenient at times, they were set up to help me and my baby stay safe.
Figuring out our new normal
The first few weeks at home with our newborn flew by in a flurry of diaper changes, cuddles and cluster feedings. Then we slowly figured out our new routine as a family of four living during a pandemic.
Yes, there have been many times when I wish things were back to normal.
I want my family to meet our new addition in person, not just through a FaceTime call. I want to take my baby for a walk without having to worry about how crowded the park will be. I want her to actually see people’s faces without masks on.
On the other hand, though, there have also been so many moments when I’m filled with an indescribable feeling of gratitude. I was granted so much joy in what has been such a difficult year. In the end, I can only be thankful.
The info in this article is accurate as of the publishing date. While Right as Rain strives to keep our stories as current as possible, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve. It’s possible some things have changed since publication. We encourage you to stay informed by checking out your local health department resources, like Public Health Seattle King County or Washington State Department of Health.