The coronavirus pandemic has reshaped everyone’s lives. For pregnant women and new mothers, this time has been particularly stressful: There are the unknowns of how covid-19 might affect pregnant women and babies; decreased in-person appointments; and changed birth plans.
Alanna Butler, 38, was six months pregnant in early March, when Philadelphia reported its first covid-19 case. We asked Butler to keep a 30-day diary starting in May, about a month before her due date, which was June 19.
Butler lives in the city with her husband Jacob, 34. She manages the masters in public health fieldwork program at Temple University and he is the director of operations at the Movement Alliance Project.
My office threw me a surprise Zoom baby shower this afternoon. Some normalcy was attempted — there was a baby question poll: guess the baby’s sex, due date, weight. It was really sweet and also awkward, like any group Zoom event is. Typically, my university office would have hosted me a brunch, with kind small talk and well-wishes over cupcakes and boxed coffee.
Today would have been our baby shower. We picked out the date in late February. It was going to be at our home, overflowing into the backyard and on to the front porch. Femi and Sulaiha, our friends in the apartment upstairs, would have helped us host. Femi would’ve DJed, Sulaiha would’ve prepped food, my mother-in-law would’ve baked something, our friends would’ve brought snacks.
Jacob learned how to put the car seat in the car today while I worked inside. He used a stuffed animal to practice with. Initially, he couldn’t figure it out; the seat was coming up and moving around too much. I went outside to help him troubleshoot, but neither of us has ever done this before. Why is this so complicated?
In the early evening, our friend Kacia came over to take maternity pictures of us. We haven’t had anyone take a picture of us together since a family wedding in February. It felt good to have a reason to put on a cute, springy dress, and for Jacob to shave and put on a collared shirt.
Wow — today was a full and emotional and tender day. One of my best friends from college, Maggie, called in the morning and wanted to FaceTime in the room that’s becoming the nursery. I showed her the changing table we just got free at a no-contact porch pickup in my neighborhood.
I realized moments later that it was all a ruse to distract me when another dear friend, Heath, texted to say she was outside the house to say a distant hello and to drop off some baby hand-me-downs, and that Jacob should come down too to say hello.
Jacob and I walked down the stairs, onto the porch and into the sunshine to see about 20 of our friends all gathered outside our house, waving signs and shouting their love and congratulations. They stood on chalk X-es and everyone was wearing masks. Neighbors gathered on their porches to join in.
Tears streamed down my face and into the creases of my smile. From the third floor of the house, music boomed out into the street: Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day,” the first dance at our wedding two years ago. We all danced and sang to each other.
I felt so loved and full of gratitude. And then everyone left. There’s nowhere for all of us to go to keep being with each other.
We had our birth class in the evening. It’s called Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting, and since late April, Jacob and I have been attending via Zoom every Sunday evening. The class has been amazing. It’s taught by a midwife, Carol, and doula and birth educator, Molly. In class, we practice meditation and learn how mindfulness practices can help me move through the cycles of pain and rest, expansion and contraction, of birth and, honestly, just life.
Today, I woke up filled with gratitude for my friends and community, which overpowers any lingering sorrow from not being able to gather in a more intimate way.
I have a video call with my girlfriends from college — scattered in North Carolina, Tennessee, Oregon, Maine and one in Philly, too.
I awkwardly position my laptop on the arm of my new rocking chair for the nursery, which these same friends pooled their money to buy for me. “Wow! Oh my god!” they exclaim. “You are way bigger than when I last saw you, this might happen really soon!”
They have all had babies, and I trust their assessments, even if the diagnosis is across screens.
It is now exactly one month to my due date. I was born a month early. My sister was also early, as was my mother and all of her siblings. Jacob and I have held this date as a goal to be “ready” for the birth, knowing that now we exist in the “it could be any day” space.
Jacob and I finish packing the birth bag, and pick out the outfit that we will put our baby in once they come out of my body: a pale green onesie with pink stars, a gray and white striped hat. Our baby. This feels surreal.
Today was a hard day. I’m starting to worry about postpartum depression and how much more at risk I am of experiencing it during the pandemic. I am already so much more alone, now on Day 65 of the stay-at-home order in Philadelphia. I’m scared of the additional isolation that having a newborn will inevitably bring, and not having the ease to invite friends inside for a brief hello or to hold the baby while I shower.
The birth center texts me, reminding me of my visit tomorrow: “Clients ONLY for office visits. Other support persons may join virtually.”
I woke up sad, made some coffee and read about postpartum depression on the Internet. I did some writing to try to get clarity, working out what these new fears mean and worrying that I’m already depressed. I went upstairs to talk to Jacob about it. Talking freely about my fears and sadness helps, and he told me that I’m not scaring him, which also really helps.
We head to our 36-week appointment at the birth center in the evening. Once I get into the exam room with the midwife, I call Jacob and put him on speaker phone. We’re both wearing masks, and it’s so hot in the room. To my relief, the baby is already head-down. She finds the baby’s heartbeat, which is strong and steady, and she makes an estimate about their size — about five pounds.
I slept well last night — no leg cramping, and my 4:15 a.m. trip to pee didn’t result in me staying up for the rest of the early morning.
I talk to my doula in the afternoon and fill her in about my prenatal yesterday. I also ask her about postpartum depression; I say I’m worried about it. She talks about some resources — therapists to line up, websites to read.
I talk to my mom in the evening. She tells me that when I was born, I was a little over five pounds, almost the weight my baby is now.
I feel better today, feel farther away from my feelings of fear.
I notice that at some point, I must have started leaking a few drops of breast milk. This gives me a peaceful rush of excitement. It’s continuously reassuring and incredible to see how my body is preparing itself for this new life.
My sister Danielle and her partner Nathan come down from New York City in the early afternoon. I am so excited to see her. She sits on the sidewalk and I sit on the porch. She’s too scared to even get six feet from me. She eventually eases her way onto my old, enormous porch. I’m so happy that she can see me in the third trimester of my pregnancy.
We spend the rest of the day together — catching up on the porch while friends stop by. We decide to grill and share dinner in the backyard. Chairs are repositioned, only Jacob or I serve the food. It’s starting to get dark when I tell Danielle that I think it’s okay for her to at least touch my stomach and try to feel the baby moving. We put our masks on and she sanitizes her hands. She gets to touch my belly. The baby moves.
They leave late to drive back to Brooklyn. It’s the last time that we will be together before I become a parent, she an aunt; our relationship forever transformed.
It’s Memorial Day. Last year, Jacob and I went canoe-camping to commemorate the start of summer. This year, we just do more work around the house. Jacob cleans the basement, I keep setting up the nursery.
We have dinner at Jacob’s parents’ house. They live about a mile away. We try to talk about logistics for after the baby is born. Jacob and I figure that we’ll be the danger — we will be the ones who have just interacted with health-care providers intimately for hours during the course of the labor. Hopefully we won’t get transferred to the hospital, but even staying just at the birth center, we will be around a midwife, nurse, our doula and potentially others. We envision that we’ll have to quarantine for 14 days after the baby is born to ensure the safety of his parents. If they strictly quarantine for those same days, then they can come over and meet the baby and be in our home.
I think I’m becoming nocturnal. I was up from 2 a.m. until I got out of bed around 7 a.m. The night was plagued by excruciating leg cramps, which rocketed me out of bed (I didn’t realize I could still move that quickly). The silver lining of the sudden pain is that it gives Jacob and me an opportunity to practice what we’re learning in the mindfulness birth class. In groggy predawn, we’re able to access a shared language around breathing as a way to calm and focus my body on what is actually being physically experienced.
In the evening, the baby moves around so much. The quality of the movement is different now that it has so little space. The movements feel more coordinated, as opposed to before when it would be an isolated little punch.
I woke up early and met my friend Lillian in a little patch of woods near my house, a secluded area with a stone labyrinth. I brought a silk robe, she brought some scarves. We had about a half-hour for her to take some sensual woodsy maternity photos. Why not? We gathered tulip poplar blossoms, and she gave me some socially distant directions behind the camera lens. Even if I don’t share the photos with anyone, it’s a simple way to rejoice in and capture my body’s changes if not for anyone else but myself.
There was a huge protest in Philadelphia today to demand justice for the murder of George Floyd, and to condemn police violence, though of course this moment was precipitated by a cascade of so much more. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, the calculated wielding of white supremacy by Amy Cooper; centuries and centuries of violence and oppression.
Many of my friends go to the protest. It feels unthinkable for me to put my body in a crowd right now. Simultaneously, I recognize how easy it is to sink into white complacency because I can use pregnancy as an excuse, use the distraction of new parenthood as an excuse. I would be given a pass if I did nothing right now.
I donate money to two bail funds, one in Philly and one in Minneapolis.
It’s almost June. When the pandemic started in March, I thought obsessively about June. I imagined that things might be better then. I imagined it would become easier to figure out who could hold the baby, who could come into our house, who could stay for a couple weeks in the guest room.
Today, I don’t feel any closer to having that information. Instead, cases are going up while rash decisions are being made about reopenings all over the country.
I found out the National Guard was called in to Philadelphia last night. I don’t know much about this baby that I’m having, but I know they will be white. What do I need to teach them about racism and their responsibility as a white person to work to dismantle it?
How do I reconcile “wanting the best for my child” with the knowledge that the best schools and many of the safest communities are majority-white spaces rooted in systemic racism like segregation, redlining and white flight?
I woke up worried that the baby wasn’t moving as much as it had been a few days earlier. I called the midwife, and she said I could do a fetal kick count, or come in this morning for a non-stress test just to be sure. This seemed like the best option for peace of mind.
When I get to the birth center, they set me up in a loungey recliner. The baby’s heart rate gets printed out in jagged peaks and rapid valleys on a machine to my left. I call Jacob on the phone, and he walks to the window. We talk on the phone as we look at each other through the glass.
The midwife comes back and looks at the readout of the non-stress test. My baby is apparently very happy and healthy.
I talked to another friend for a while on the phone who is also pregnant — our due dates are about two weeks apart. Before the pandemic, it was a gift to be tracking this bodily experience with someone else, to help give language to the changes and experiences. Now it feels even more vital.
In the evening, I meet with my anti-racist accountability group over Zoom. We began meeting shortly after the 2016 presidential election to examine our role as white people living in a racist society.
After my call, Jacob makes me pad-sicles, a supposed postpartum necessity according to my friends. They’re frozen menstrual pads soaked in aloe and witch hazel.
I cut my hair in the bathroom with clippers. I’m afraid to let it get too long because I don’t think I’m going to have the ability to cut it for a while after the baby comes.
My 38-week appointment is this evening. As is routine now, once I get into the exam room, I call Jacob and put him on speaker.
We spend the majority of the appointment discussing my positive test screen for Strep B, innocuous to me but with potential serious consequences for the baby. I’ll have to be hooked up to an IV with antibiotics for about 20 minutes, but after that I’ll be able to move around freely until the next dose, four hours later. Not the end of the world, just likely an annoyance. A pediatrician will come and assess the baby before we are discharged home, and we have the option of being further monitored at the hospital across the street, although few women elect for that option.
This centers the conversation around the culture of the hospital. We know the hospital is more conservative than the birth center. Gratefully, we are allowed a support person and a doula at the birth center. The hospital, like so many others right now, is only allowing one support person. Jacob asks about their screening practices and what it would look like, should we be transferred there during labor. The midwife shares that their policy is to test every pregnant person and provide results one to two hours later. If the result is positive, then nobody in their household would be allowed in.
I receive this information with sick dread. If I got transferred, which one-third of women do, and I test positive, Jacob would not be allowed in with me.
I wake up sad and have a fairly shapeless day. It’s hot and I’m lethargic.
I write to my city council to urge them to not pass the mayor’s proposed budget increase for the police department at a time when the city is cutting funding for parks, affordable housing, the arts and other essential services.
I wake up with sadness and fear about all the things that feel out of control with the pregnancy, birth and the world. Gratefully, I still physically feel really solid in my body. While I can’t know what labor and birth will bring, I have trust and belief in my body’s wisdom.
To combat the sadness we head to the woods. People wear masks or walk on opposite sides of the trail. Some people we pass don’t seem to care at all. We find a spot by the river and wade into the water and I submerge my whole body. It feels amazing.
Monday, June 8
Today, Jacob and I drove down the shore for what we hope is a few nights, though I could go into labor at any moment, in which case we’ll just drive right back home.
In the car, we listened to an interview with Steven Fletcher from the Minneapolis City Council about their path to defunding and disbanding the city’s police department. It was brave and vulnerable and unapologetic. It was the first time that I actually started to feel some hope, some excitement. This is a historical moment of power and change.
I made coffee in the morning and walked to the beach with Jacob. I talked to the baby about the ocean.
Jacob and I spent some time today talking about fears we have about new parenthood. We’re both scared of an enhanced and prolonged isolation. Will we be too scared to let friends hold the baby? What type of boundaries will we be compelled to make around visits?
In the absence of clear guidelines about how to incorporate community and family postpartum support, we’re left alone to test the edges of our comfort with risk.
We’re back home in Philly today, and Sulaiha tells me that while we were gone, several neighbors asked about us:
I feel a sense of investment and anticipation from my sweet neighbors, and I don’t think it would be so potent under other circumstances. Everyone’s orbits are so small right now: no gatherings to host, no trips to take, no shows to go to. The anticipation of a new baby on the block is an event for everyone to share in.
I’m 39 weeks pregnant today. The baby truly could come any day now. The world is expanding and contracting.
My child was born June 18 after 38 hours of beautiful and intense labor. The nurses and midwives at LifeCycle WomanCare made me feel cared for and powerful. The mindfulness birth class I took gave me the tools I needed to find true moments of rest between the contractions, and Jacob and I used our newly learned shared language to navigate pain and comfort. Our doula joined us for the final 12 hours of labor, providing invaluable reassurance, massage and sage advice. Everyone except for me wore a mask the entire time, but my eyes remained closed for nearly all 38 hours of labor, so I hardly noticed.
At birth, my baby was 7 pounds and 12.5 ounces and 20.5 inches long. Their heart rate remained steady and strong throughout labor. My baby entered the world calm and then let out a hearty cry when placed on my chest, at which point I finally opened my eyes.
We’re all home now, overjoyed and healthy. Our friends hung bunting and signs on our front porch to welcome us all home. Neighbors dropped off cards, toys and houseplants. Our friends and family have started to bring us food. The day we got home, Jacob’s brother, sister in-law and nephew sat on one side of the porch and looked lovingly at the newest member of our family. A day later, Jacob’s parents did the same. My parents and sister are a day’s drive away, but with nowhere to safely stay, they’re waiting until we can all quarantine for 14 days to come visit.