Photos: Birthing and parenting in the pandemic
Hope and Jake Black are no strangers to challenges when it comes to having a child.
It took nearly a decade for them to get pregnant with their son. They went through surgery, and miscarriages. When they finally got pregnant, there was a complication, and Hope was on partial bed rest for weeks.
Then the pandemic hit.
In early 2020, they navigated what that meant, including changing their birth plan.
The pandemic was like a full stop at the end of a long process, dwarfing other setbacks they’d experienced.
“Having a kid, in some ways, makes you realize how little control you really have, and this pandemic has definitely done the same thing. So it’s been this double dose of breaking that illusion we have of being in control of how our lives unfold,” Jake said.
With stay-at-home orders, and growing case counts, by April 2020, small rituals of pregnancy were already on hold.
Hope wasn’t able to gather with other birthing people to talk about experiences that were fast approaching, like labor and breastfeeding.
But the couple said the pandemic brought important things into perspective and made them grateful for what they have.
“It brings into sharp relief this idea of having a child as kind of a vote of hope for the future,” Jake said. “At this time when all normal assumptions are called into question.”
Hope and Jake had initially wanted a home birth, but they’d hit so many road bumps that they decided to go the hospital route.
The pandemic gave them a reason to revisit that plan.
“In our minds, the hospital is filled with sick people, and now they’re filled with people with Covid, and I don’t know what it could do to my baby’s lungs,” Hope said.
Midwives in the Seattle area say they saw more inquiries about out-of-hospital births because of the pandemic.
For some women, especially Black and Native women, hospitals have never felt like a safe environment because of the impacts of systemic racism. Black and Native mothers die at higher rates than white women, nationally and in Washington state.
During the pandemic, birthing parents also began to worry about things like exposure to Covid and rapidly changing hospital policies limiting the number of support people present during labor.
"Things had gone wrong at every step of the way..."
Hope and Jake ultimately decided a birth center felt like the best option for them – closer to a hospital than their home on Vashon Island if things went wrong, but an environment that still made them feel more comfortable.
But in late May 2020, all their careful planning went out the window. When Hope went into labor, they missed the last ferry off the island and were unable to get to the birth center.
Their midwife made it, though, so they prepared to welcome their son at home.
After hours and hours of labor, things got complicated.
Eventually, when Hope was about 9 centimeters dilated (just one centimeter away from being ready to push), they called the place they’d been hoping to avoid, the hospital, over an hour away.
“That car ride was the worst car ride of my life,” Hope said.
When they arrived at her birthing room at Swedish First Hill in Seattle, Hope was 9.5 centimeters dilated.
Then, after all they’d been through, they finally greeted their son, Arlo.
"Things had gone wrong at every step of the way, but he is perfect," Jake said.
"He's amazing, and he's beautiful, and we're so in love,” Hope said.
The couple said they weren’t focused on Covid while they were in the hospital. But a few days out, Hope said the worries were starting to creep in about potential exposure.
When they took their son home, Hope and Jake struggled with the isolation, stress, and complications that Covid-19 brought with it.
“Plus figuring out how to be a new parent and not having any help, it’s just sort of a lot of different mind sets at once to occupy,” Hope said.
The couple said they were lucky in a lot of ways, and their hearts went out to parents in more difficult circumstances.
But, like so many others, they weren’t able to access the proverbial village at a time when they needed it most. Friends and family weren’t coming to meet Arlo or help with chores.
“It was just the three of us in a cocoon, which was beautiful in some ways, but really hard," Jake said.
Instead of having people in their home, they connected on video chat. Milestones and holidays came and went — online.
Arlo’s grandmother watched him try solids for the first time on a screen. His first Thanksgiving saw family gathered in small Zoom boxes on the computer.
Then finally, in February 2021, Arlo met his grandad in person. Hope and Jake said it was a beautiful moment, but also tinged with sadness because it had taken so long.
They attributed this new phase of life – where friends and family can meet their son, and where they can finally let in the village – to the availability of vaccines.
They said the vaccines have had a profound and immediate impact on their lives.
“Everyone has things right now that Covid is making so much more difficult,” Hope said. “Ours is a new baby. And that's how we're really experiencing the blessing of these vaccines that came out so fast is, 'Oh my god, people can meet our baby.' I can hire a babysitter.”
A few weeks ago, friends and family gathered in Hope and Jake’s backyard to celebrate Arlo’s first birthday.
It was a warm, sunny day. People mingled, ate, talked. It felt like the Before Times, almost.
Of course, the pandemic still lingers, on this day, its presence is marked in the form of more than 300 new cases in Washington state, a Covid piñata in the backyard, and the fact that this was the most people Arlo had been around in his short life.
Watching people celebrate their son's first birthday, Hope and Jake said it was a hard year. But they got through it by working together. And, despite the challenges, they say there are some silver linings as they look back.
“We'll always treasure being stuck at home, just the three of us during the phase when we were all trying to get to know each other and bond with him,” Jake said. “It was a gift in a lot of ways.”
This story is part of a series of pieces looking at personal experiences and the broader system of maternal care during the pandemic. More pieces will be published throughout the summer.
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