In the run-up to Easter 2020, Melissa Darby felt constantly sick. Around two weeks before, the country had gone into its first national lockdown on 23 March, and daily press conferences told us how many people had contracted and died from the novel coronavirus that had upturned our lives. But it wasn’t the news alone alone that was unsettling Darby. The 31-year-old also noticed that smells felt unusually overpowering. At the suggestion of her mother, she took a pregnancy test on Good Friday. When it came back positive, she started crying.
“It was the height of the panic at the very beginning when we didn’t know [who] was going to survive,” she tells The Independent from the home she shares with her husband Jack in south London. “No one wanted to go to hospitals and they were filling up and it was a really scary time.”
In an effort to minimise Covid risk, Darby planned for a home birth. However, the day she went into labour in December, her local midwife home birth team was short-staffed, so she had no choice but to go to hospital. Due to Covid restrictions, Jack had to stay in the lobby until her labour was advanced.
Everyone has faced difficulties during the pandemic but, for new parents, particularly mothers, there have been a multitude of unprecedented barriers to face. These include, but are not limited to, restrictions on partners attending scans and being present during labour; not being able to have partners stay to help following the birth; not being allowed to introduce their new baby to grandparents, friends and family (pictures of people meeting through windows have gone viral throughout the year); and postnatal support groups and midwife services being on pause or moved online.
For Darby, the biggest issue was not having her partner present throughout the labour. Up until 16 December 2020, NHS trusts could decide on a postcode-by-postcode basis whether or not partners were allowed to be present throughout the birthing process, and only permit them to accompany the mother during “established labour”, once they were four centimetres dilated. Darby ended up having an emergency delivery in theatre after a problem with her baby’s heartbeat. “Everyone [was] in face masks,” she says. “You’re scared already and there were 15 people in there. It was all a bit of a whirlwind of an experience.”
For Madeleine Fogg, the worst obstacle was being unable to have her husband in hospital after the birth - despite she and her daughter, Skylar, having to stay in for four days due to an infection. The 29-year-old says that this meant he couldn’t see his daughter, now five months old, again until she came home. “That was the worst bit,” she says. “She was literally feeding every hour or so. I wasn’t sleeping, it was just the most overwhelming four days I think I’ve ever experienced - just solely on my own.
“I felt so sad that my husband couldn’t be there and see our baby,” she added. Her frustration was compounded by her not feeling that unwell - due to a course of antibiotics - but having to wait to be discharged before she could leave the hospital and have her husband’s help.
As well as being an emotional support, partners also provide essential advocacy for mothers, helping make sure their wishes are respected and that they are getting the right assistance when they may not be able to speak for themselves. Florence Sevensma found the prospect of not having her partner Mark present particularly scary. “It was really hard on me and, being a black mother, I had a lot of anxieties around the ‘five times more’ stats,” the 29-year-old says, referring to figures that show black women in the UK are more than five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than white women.
“I had hoped to have my husband with me as he is great at advocating for me but, sadly, I was unable to.” Fortunately, Sevensma’s mother, an NHS worker, works at the hospital where she had her daughter Zolah, and was able to be with her until her husband was allowed to attend.
As well as being restricted during the birth, many mothers have had to attend scans alone. This not only means partners miss out on milestone moments but that mothers may have to receive difficult or tragic news about complications to their pregnancy alone.
To avoid finding out the sex of her baby before her partner, Danyelle Mcfarlane, 31, from Brixton asked her sonographer to write down the information on a piece of paper to take away. She and her partner decided not to open it, and wait to be surprised, but their 10-year-old son asked if he could look and keep it a secret. Instead, he let slip by accident while shopping in Tesco.
“My partner and my middle boy were walking ahead and I just said, ‘You said “he”, is it a boy?’ and he said, ‘Yes mummy’.” Mcfarlane remembers bursting into tears. “It was the shock of it,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting to find out in the middle of Tesco’s.”
Even once women have left hospital, some say they have struggled with changes to appointments with health visitors. Health visiting services were cut in the first lockdown, with some moving solely online, as many health visitors were redeployed. While these services have been reinstated, there is still variation around the country.
Abi Clinton’s son, who was born two weeks before the first lockdown, had tongue tie which wasn’t initially picked up by her GP. “Because of Covid, they would barely come near him, to be honest,” the 33-year-old from Worcestershire says. “It was kind of like an at-a-distance look in his mouth and they were like, ‘No, no, he’s fine’.” Later, Clinton took her son to a private practitioner, who diagnosed him.
“We didn’t know because we had no health visitor or midwife coming around at all,” she says.
Although some stories show how the pandemic has created adversity for parents that they needn’t have faced, others have been glad that their pregnancy coincided with unprecedented circumstances. Not least because it has given people unparalleled periods of time spent at home - meaning those who might otherwise have had to return to work now get more time with their newborn baby, even if they are still working remotely.
This is particularly the case for fathers - when you compare the nearly year-long period many have spent working from home with the statutory fortnight of paternity leave, being furloughed and being away from offices have offered many dads more time. “How many dads have the opportunity to be home for three months of a new baby’s life?” asks Lucy Mitchell, from Cambridge, who gave birth to her son Jasper in December.
“We’ve had absolute privacy to nest together and I could learn to breastfeed all day and night without entertaining countless people wanting to cuddle the baby,” the 30-year-old says. But she does also highlight the issue of grandparents, friends and family being unable to meet the new baby - something many will have experienced. “On the downside, my mum and dad haven’t met the baby yet and he’s three months old.”
Sevensma too says there have been positives among the pain. “It always feels so sad to say because so much heartache has come from Covid but there have been a lot of positives for us,” adds Sevensma, who documents her experiences of motherhood on Instagram. “Being able to be home together has been amazing… my oldest daughter, who is nine years older than Zolah, has been able to spend so much time bonding with her sister. We’ve adopted a much slower pace in life which was very much needed.”
For Mcfarlane, social media has played the social support role that parent and baby classes once might have occupied. “I’m using it now to connect to other mums that have been pregnant, the same situation as me really,” she says. “Just to reach out to other mums and have a network of people that are all going through the same journey.”
Like most people’s connections, these chats remain behind a screen for the time being but the mum-of-three says she’s making plans for a “massive get-together” with the friends she’s made online once lockdown is over. “I’ve met so many nice people,” she says. “I’m looking forward to meeting people face to face, you know?”
The health implications for babies who have been without the usual medical support, and have only ever seen a handful of faces, are not yet known. What we do know is that new parents have had to adapt to an extraordinary, and sometimes terrifying, set of circumstances. Like all of us, the workarounds they’ve employed have been grueling but with some unexpected joys.
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