My postpartum struggles during COVID-19.
New parenthood is often isolating during normal times. In quarantine, it’s exponentially harder.
My daughter entered the world in the last weeks pre-coronavirus.
I went into labor in early February, right before everything went haywire. We had no idea what was about to transpire. If my daughter had been born just a few weeks later when the coronavirus pandemic swelled, my labor & delivery might have been more challenging on a number of levels. I’ve heard stories of women required to wear face masks during 30+ hour labors, laboring alone without their partners. My heart goes out to them.
We felt especially prepared for this baby, our second child. We had fertility struggles for several years and finally managed to conceive. We knew there would be many sleepless nights ahead, but looked forward to the upcoming dedicated time to bond with our new baby. Given the experience we’d had with our firstborn son, we knew we had our work cut out for us. Thankfully we had a smooth labor and delivery, and welcomed our girl into the world on February 10th, 2020. We named her June. Little did we know this moment would be the calm before the storm.
The threat of the virus was still distant.
My thoughts were occupied elsewhere: how to get more sleep. Like most new moms, I made it through the first few weeks on pure adrenaline. Limping around the house with ice packs in my underwear and leaking, aching breasts, I assembled a mama den in the basement tv room, snuggled up with the baby, and made a pact to never leave. I attempted to sleep whenever the baby slept, which was to say, not much.
After a mere 72 hours post-delivery my nipples were cracked and bleeding. My daughter latched like a piranha, eagerly sucking every drop she could extract. On the fourth day my milk came in like a torrential flood, and the pain increased even more. I was in absolute toe-curling agony. I wept on the bathroom floor. I made a phone call to a lactation consultant who provided helpful suggestions and comforted me.
“It will get easier soon,” she said soothingly. “A few days perhaps. Maybe a week.”
In that moment, a week felt like an inordinate amount of time. Yet with a industrious combination of latch adjustments, prescription nipple ointment, and the miracle of time, things did improve. I was on the mend. I nursed my baby and nuzzled her soft head.
In my fugue state of sleep deprivation, my husband Adam and I managed to work out a semblance of a schedule in those early weeks. I’d feed the baby at night and then gratefully hand her off in the early morning to catch 2 or 3 hours of uninterrupted sleep before she needed to eat again. My husband would wake up extra early and help get our son Finn to school. At dinnertime, one of us held the baby while the other person prepared the meal. Or we’d order takeout. When 8pm rolled around, both Finn and Adam went off to bed and it was time to start the routine all over again. Nights were much harder than days.
I remember reading about the virus outbreak in Wuhan thinking, “It will never make it all the way over here.” That was until a man in Snohomish County, WA was identified as the first known U.S. case of COVID-19, less than an hour’s drive from where we live. I didn’t panic. But change was in the air, so to speak.
Up until then, we’d enjoyed regular visits from friends and family and kind offers from neighbors to drop off meals. I’d interviewed and coordinated several babysitters for backup childcare support. We’d made tentative plans to take a few short trips to visit friends in the weeks ahead. We’d gone out to eat on a handful of occasions. Now we were nearing the ugly six-week mark, the milestone in early parenthood and in a newborn’s life when colic is at its peak. I thought I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. The worst was almost behind us, or so I thought. How much harder could it get?
On March 13, when my newborn daughter was nearly six weeks old, we were plunged into a new level of isolation: quarantine.
Plans were made, only to be cancelled. My son’s school closed. My weekly new mom’s group regretfully said their goodbyes. Friends and neighbors cancelled visits. Restaurants shut down. Grocery store aisles were emptied. There was no toilet paper or hand sanitizer to be found. I found a stash of old bandannas in a box and made a DIY mask. At that point not many people were wearing them yet. With a newborn at home, we realized we would need to take extra precautions.
At first quarantine felt like a fun adventure. Let’s get cozy at home and watch Netflix! Wear pajamas all day! Bake cookies! But the excitement quickly died down as reality set in. I had six short weeks of parental leave left and my return to work was imminent. With no childcare and no school, how would we manage to get any work accomplished? Spoiler alert: not much.
In the tsunami of chaos, I felt like I was starting to drown. I kept coming up for air, gasping for breath, and then sinking back under. Sleep deprivation was catching up with me, and my nerves were on edge. Everyone I knew was busy dealing with their own version of quarantine. Each day I felt more and more alone and overwhelmed. Depression runs in my family. I’m no stranger to the ups and downs. I began to feel like I was disappearing into a fog.
I realize others have it equally as hard or much harder. Parents with multiple younger children. Parents of children with special needs. Single parents. Elderly people who live alone. Single people who are lonely. Grandparents who miss their children. Nurses, doctors, emergency workers. Grocery store employees. People who keep our infrastructure running. People who have to send their kids to daycare because their jobs are deemed essential. People who long for children. People who are less fortunate, with fewer resources and less flexibility. This pandemic has put so many lives and families at risk. And we are all struggling.
This is not a new normal. This is totally unsustainable.
My days have dissolved into a hazy blur of feedings, diaper changes, conference calls, and household chores, often punctuated by tears of frustration. With the 24x7 job of looking after a newborn, managing remote learning for our 2nd grader, and both continuing to work, we are in survival mode.
There is no relief in sight. There is no backup plan.
Neither of us are getting enough sleep. There are nights that are better and nights that are worse, where she wakes every two hours wailing. My husband is a saint. Every time she cries, he gets up and brings her to me so I can nurse her without getting out of bed. No matter how tired he is, he rarely complains. In the morning, he gets up to make us a pot of coffee. Sometimes it’s the only thing that gets me out of bed. Coffee, or a crying baby.
Adam watches June while I shower and get dressed. I bundle my messy hair into some variation of mom-bun and wearily don my daily uniform of leggings, nursing bra, and loose milk-stained t-shirt. I stare at the bags under my eyes in the mirror, hardly recognizing myself. Clumps of my hair are falling out — a lovely postpartum symptom in addition to night sweats and mood swings. Also, I haven’t had a haircut since last October.
I feed the baby. I sterilize the bottles and pump parts and then pump for 15 minutes so that Adam can give the baby a bottle later that evening while I spend some quality time with Finn. During the daytime hours, I’m preoccupied with taking care of the baby and just getting basic tasks accomplished.
Mornings are crazy hectic in between managing baby duties and helping Finn get his daily school assignments completed. He has daily writing, reading, and math. Sometimes he has an art project, science experiment, or a special project to complete. For an hour or two every morning, it requires the nearly undivided attention of one parent to help navigate all the different apps and guide him through the lessons. I don’t know what we’ll do come September when the next school year starts. I try not to think about it too much.
I feed the baby while Adam works. We both barter with Finn for extra screen time in trade for his help with extra chores around the house, above and beyond his normal list. In return, he gives us hours of running Minecraft commentary, a typically one-sided conversation.
Our baby giggles and coos. She is a bright spot of joy. I wonder what this is like for her, rarely leaving the house, seeing people in masks. Only knowing the warm cocoon of home. When I’m wearing a mask, she looks at me, confused. Where did mommy go? I pull it down to give her a smile, and her face lights up with recognition. There you are!
I begin the routine of sanitizing doorknobs and light switches. Running a Clorox wipe over car handles, car keys, our phones. The house gets dirtier faster because we are home all day, every day. Cereal crunches under my feet in the kitchen, dog hair piles up in the corners, baby toys and Legos explode everywhere. We run out of food faster than usual, because there are three meals a day to prepare.
More effort goes into meal planning and grocery shopping. Every grocery run involves masking up, getting through the store as quickly as possible, and then the slow process of rinsing and disinfecting food items before putting them away. (Yet somehow I eagerly look forward to this one trip out of the house every week.)
I feed the baby. I try putting her down for a nap. Fifteen minutes later she wakes up, screaming. With a sigh I walk back to her room, pick her up out of her crib and sit back down in the rocking chair. If she doesn’t nap she’ll be a wreck later. Sometimes when she is less fussy I can wear her around the house in a baby carrier while I do chores, but lately she’s been resisting it when awake. My neck, arms, and back constantly ache from carrying around a heavy sixteen pound infant for hours.
Today I’m stuck sitting with her in this chair for an hour and a half while she naps on me. I know I should be treasuring these moments, and truly I am. She’s my last baby. My sweet girl. I look down lovingly at her tiny sleeping face, watching her eyelashes flutter as she dreams. At the same time a giant tear rolls down my cheek. As much as I’m love-drunk on her sweet smell, I’m also exhausted and bored. I’m so tired of sitting here in this chair for hours every day and not getting anything done, and I mourn my complete loss of productivity. My email inbox gets deeper and the checklist of tasks I need to complete grows longer by the day. I despair about my loss of free time.
Instead, I feed the baby. Breastfeeding is a full-time job (and then some).
I’m grieving for all the things we can’t do.
The monotony of life with a newborn is unbearable. I long to get out of the house. I’m missing the friends we can’t visit. The places we can’t go. I find myself daydreaming; an idea will pop into my head. Maybe this weekend we should go to the beach nearby, grab a bite to eat at that neighborhood place we haven’t been to in awhile. Two seconds later it will hit me — we can’t. We’re in lockdown and we have a newborn. Our options are extremely limited.
I feed the baby. Adam prepares Finn’s lunch. We pass the baby back and forth like a loaf of bread. In the early afternoon, Adam takes June on a walk while I join a conference call. I shoo Finn outside to play in the backyard for some peace and quiet. I feel sad for him. There are no playdates, no playgrounds, no summer camp, no trips to look forward to. He’s resilient, but this solitude is definitely taking a toll. I hug him tight.
It’s challenging to accomplish basic tasks. My creative juices seem to have solidified and my mind is distracted. There’s too much background noise. Zero uninterrupted focus time. Some evenings I get a second wave after the baby is asleep — this is when I usually try to squeeze in another hour of work. But it’s not enough. I’m stressed about our finances and what the future holds.
Please don’t judge me too harshly. I realize we are fortunate to be both be able to work from home. I count my blessings that I have a willing and helpful partner. How do single parents even manage? Or working parents who have to work outside the home during this impossible situation?
A childless work colleague emails me. “What perfect timing to have a baby!” She means well, but honestly she has no idea.
I grunt every afternoon as I push the heavy stroller up the hill towards our house, sweating profusely, a handkerchief knotted around my neck to pull up for an instant face covering in case someone jogs by. The baby is fussing, refusing to nap. I’ve covered a lot of ground during this crazy time, hundreds and hundreds of miles walking the sidewalks and streets of our neighborhood.
I had plans to walk with a friend outside today, masks on, six feet apart. She had to cancel at the last minute. I know it’s not her fault. Even so, I cry alone in self-pity while mindlessly rattling a toy for the baby.
Sometimes in the evening, I‘ll text or chat with a friend. But lately I find myself coming up with excuses not to. All of my mom friends are stressed out, burning the candle at both ends, and we’re all exhausted. The end result? I’m so very lonely these days. I feel so isolated.
They say it takes a village. But what do you do when there is no village?
Time and sleep have become precious commodities. I feed the baby. We tackle a mountain of laundry like Everest. We tag team all the things.
Awake nursing the baby in the dark, quiet hours of the night, I scroll through Twitter and Facebook, fearful of the headline I’ll read next. Disappointed in humanity. Sad for lives lost. Angry at witnessing crimes of hate and ignorance. What kind of a world will this be for our children? I often feel helpless.
At midnight the baby wakes, fussing in her crib. I nurse her and lie there stricken with insomnia, my mind racing. She wakes a second time at 3 and again at 5:30. I wake in a cold sweat at 7am and feel like I haven’t slept at all.
A thoughtful friend texts me, “Hang in there, you got this!!!”
Feelings of rage, sadness, frustration, and irritation wash over me. I think I might have postpartum depression. Or is this just anxiety? I ask my husband his opinion. He tells me what I’m feeling is normal. He puts his arms around me and holds me while I cry.
I allow myself some futile daydreams. If only I could text a friend to come over and hold the baby for a couple hours so I could take a nap. If only I could take the kids to the zoo, the park, or the science museum. If only the grandparents could come visit. If only I could hire a sitter for an evening, so we could go to a restaurant and enjoy a quiet meal. If only we knew when this would be over, so we could draw a line in the sand, have something to look forward to. If only life could go back to normal. If only. If only.
I know these moments won’t last forever.
I gaze at my baby’s sweet sleeping face, her chubby cheeks and tiny hands. She is a gift, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be her mama.
There are silver linings to this quarantine. More time spent with family. Sweet baby snuggles. Not having to get our kid off to the bus at 7am. Less money spent on things. More home cooked meals. I’m thankful for our family, our home, our health.
To all the new parents out there, and especially to all the new mothers, now is the time to give yourself the gift of compassion. Even though it feels isolating, you are not alone. A kind reminder: this too shall pass.
It’s a strange and uncertain time to have a baby. So we hold them close. All we can do is hope.