Birth in the Time of COVID

Cassie is a current friend and former coworker. We started that job on the same day, and worked together in lockstep during some of the best years of my life.

Cassie’s skills perfectly complemented my own. We were the yin and yang of our team.

I was loud. Cassie was quiet.

I was disorganized. Cassie was meticulous.

I leaned towards quantitative data. Cassie absorbed the qualitative differences of a situation.

But there was one thing we had in common: we both loved our jobs.

I had lost touch with Cassie over the last couple years, but she is someone I can always count on to pick up where we left off.

So we shared a phone chat this week on a morning walk before work, and I confirmed something I already knew: Cassie is brave.

Cassie decided to move across the country in the midst of a global pandemic. As we’ve all learned this year, sometimes life doesn’t align with your plans. And you have to do them anyway.

“This is actually good timing,” I thought to myself, when the world started closing down.

I was just starting to work from home as part of my maternity leave plan, and now everyone was working from home. As someone with extreme FOMO, I secretly enjoyed that people weren’t going into the office and doing stuff without me.

“We didn’t want visitors anyway,” my husband and I joked when we heard that only one person would be allowed in the hospital with me. We were trying to stay positive.

But then some hospitals started not allowing support people in for births at all.

And I got scared.

I spent every day checking the hospital’s website to see if they’d updated their policies, even though they always offered the same vague details with the caveat that they could change at any time.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to give birth without Matt. To think about going through that much pain and uncertainty without him by my side was unbearable.

And that was before I realized that, if visitors weren’t allowed, it could be days before Matt got to meet our daughter.

In the wake of these heartbreaking thoughts, I found myself using what would later be identified as a CBT strategy: coping ahead.

I told myself that I had to prepare for the worst-case scenario, and assume that Matt wouldn’t be allowed in the room with me. If I did this, I thought, I would be prepared when it happened and surprised and delighted if he did end up being able to come in the room with me.

As it turned out he was allowed to be there. And, despite some hiccups along the (long) way, things went relatively smoothly.

I’ve told a lot of stories of pain, and there are much more painful ones to come. But today I feel like sharing a letter I wrote to Bailey telling the story of her birth: a story I’m determined to preserve as a positive one, in spite of everything that came after it. So here it goes:

Dear Bailey,

I can’t believe you’ll be one year old in three weeks. When I look at pictures of you as a newborn, you look exactly the same as you do today and yet you’ve also become an entirely new person. People evolve over time, but their core remains the same. 

The same is true of stories. I know you’ll continue to grow and change, and so will the stories I tell you about your birth. But for now, before any more time passes, I want to preserve the strange but joyful story of how you came into this world for you as it is in my current memory.

Being pregnant with you was, in all honesty, amazing. I had just enough nausea in the first trimester to be able to commiserate with other moms about the experience, but only ever threw up once (served me right for adding jalapenos to my nachos).

I gained a lot of weight, and quickly. At first, this was because eating was the only thing that made the nausea go away. I stashed plain, saltine-flavored goldfish (the best kind, don’t listen to your father) in every corner of the house, car, and office.

Later, after the nausea passed, my strategy was to eat all the healthy foods and all of the junk foods so as to really maximize my pregnancy experience (and your growth). Still, I loved the way my body looked and felt because I felt so fully, stereotypically pregnant. I loved the heartburn, the hemorrhoids, and the constant pelvic pressure, because they made me feel so fully connected to you.

But nothing made me feel more connected to you than when you moved. I remember the very first time it happened, sitting at my desk at work. It was like my stomach dropped on a roller coaster, but more gentle and mysterious. I was amazed at the way you could simultaneously feel like an extension of my own body, and a force all your own.

Feeling you continue to move and grow was my absolute favorite part of being pregnant, and luckily it was a sensation I got to experience almost constantly. You were the squirmiest fetus, which I complained about fondly to anyone who would listen- but really I cherished it. “This baby is going to be nuts!” I’d say, as you somersaulted then stretched, managing to simultaneously punch my cervix and kick my ribs. I was worried then that this meant you’d be a difficult child, but so far you’ve been a very happy, easygoing baby, who just happens to never stop moving.

There was one time, while I was pregnant, that you scared us a bit. Your heart rate was low, even though they could hear that you were moving around. They ended up sending us to the hospital to get an ultrasound and check on you, but of course by the time we made it there your heart rate was totally fine. I’m pretty sure you had just been asleep the first time, but you confused the nurses by moving around so much while you slept. 

Now that I’ve met you, I’m even more sure that whether you grow up to be an athlete or an activist, you’ll continue your life the way you started it: in constant motion.

I think in some ways this is something you get from me. While I’m not particularly (ok, at all) physically adept, my mind never stops moving. Which is exactly what happened when, just before bed one night, I passed my mucus plug.

(Here we continue the grand old tradition of mothers telling you things you will probably consider to be TMI. Grammy, as a former nurse midwife, took way too much pleasure in telling my teenage friends about how most women poop on the table while pushing a baby out. So consider yourself lucky that I stuck with mucus).

So anyway, as soon as the mucus arrived, I assumed we were off to the races. I was so damned excited for you to get here. I laid in bed and closed my eyes, but my brain wouldn’t stop moving, and neither would my heart (or my uterus for that matter). I honestly don’t think I slept at all that night, feeling each gentle contraction inching me closer and closer to the moment I’d meet you.

When morning finally came, I was ready to get things started. Your dad and I sat watching episodes of Brooklyn-99 just waiting for the doctor’s office to open so we could call them. I’m sure you’re tired of hearing all the stories about being a pandemic baby, but your dad wasn’t allowed to go into the office with me because of COVID. I FaceTimed him to keep him in the loop. 

They told me I was in early labor and they would send me back home until I was further along, but they did an ultrasound just to make sure I had enough fluid. I wasn’t allowed to take my phone into the ultrasound room, so I was all alone when the tech asked a question that a woman hours from giving birth does not particularly want to hear. “Has anyone talked to you about the size of this baby?” 

“No…” I replied, having not had an ultrasound since that day that you scared us at 30 weeks. The midwives only used ultrasounds when necessary, and they had advised me to skip my 39 week appointment to avoid COVID exposure, since you and I had both been doing so well. 

“How big is she?” I asked, and the technician backtracked a bit. “Well, I’m really not supposed to give estimates, they’re not very accurate, especially this far along.” She paused. “But I’d say you’re looking at a 9, probably 9-and-a-half pound baby?” 

When you rang in at 9 lbs 9 oz, I thought of her and how accurate her inaccurate prediction had been. 

She said that otherwise everything looked good, plenty of fluid, maybe a little more than usual. So I was surprised when the midwife asked me to stay back and wait. 

It was then that I learned the term “polyhydramnios,” which is a fancy way of saying that you, Bailey, were swimming in too much of your own pee. Between your size and the excess fluid (which was sometimes indicative of undiagnosed gestational diabetes) they decided that they would have to induce me that night. So they sent me home to rest up, eat a nice dinner, and head to the hospital later that evening.

By the time I had gotten home, taken a shower, and eaten lunch, however, my contractions were already five minutes apart (and painful!). We called the midwife back and she instructed us to head to the hospital. In retrospect, we should have stayed home longer. But, like I said, we were just too eager and excited to meet you.

We donned our masks, which we had made out of leftover Christmas fabric. In these early days of the pandemic, as we hit the first peak, official PPE supplies were running out. We had actually spent some of the first days of quarantine making masks to donate to essential workers. We kept two for ourselves, knowing that we’d soon be heading into the trenches of the hospital with no idea what to expect.

When we arrived, they asked me if I wanted a wheelchair. For some reason I said no, out of the habit of refusing things that mildly inconvenienced people. “Are you sure?” they said, a bit confused, and I realized that, yes, I needed a wheelchair to get all the way up to the delivery floor.

When we got to triage, one of the first things they did was test me for COVID (but not your dad). Tests, like masks, were very hard to come by at that time, so they couldn’t afford to waste them on birth partners. 

Until my test came back, I needed to wear a hospital-provided (real) mask and assume that I was COVID positive. Let me tell you: laboring in a mask was no picnic. But it was still early on, my contractions were painful but manageable, and I was feeling pretty confident. I was dilating relatively quickly, and thought you’d make your way into the world in a reasonable amount of time (spoiler alert: you did not).

My COVID test came back negative, I was allowed to take off my mask, and we were moved into the very same spacious, luxurious room we had seen when we toured the hospital. On the tour, I had pictured my labor the way they showed in the birthing class videos. I would spend time on a bouncy ball, in a sports bra, walking around the room while your dad rubbed my back and we listened to the cheeky but motivating playlist that I’d put together. Maybe I’d take a bath, if there was extra time. 

When the real day came, however, I remembered that my instinct when I’m in pain is to curl into a ball and move as little as possible. Between this and the fact that I needed to be hooked up to an IV to get my antibiotics for Strep B, I was stuck in a mildly comfortable armchair that for some reason I didn’t even think to recline. I found the IV to be extremely uncomfortable, but assumed I was just being a baby. It wasn’t until a later shift change that a nurse told me how common pain was for that type of antibiotic. 

My first nurse was much less forgiving. “So what’s your pain management plan? Are you getting an epidural?” She asked bluntly. 

I had resisted making a birth plan because everyone always told me that things never go according to your birth plan, and you have to be willing to adjust. If I was going to have to change it anyway, I didn’t see the point of making one. I joked that the only birth plan I had was to use nitrous (laughing gas) before deciding whether or not I wanted an epidural. 

Unfortunately, because nitrous was aerosolated, they weren’t using it, in order to prevent the spread of COVID. Since I didn’t know that until I got to the hospital, I hadn’t had time to make a plan B. 

Let me reiterate: do not bother making a birth plan.

“I… I’m not sure.” I told the nurse. This was clearly not the answer she was looking for. “Ok, well how bad is your pain? On a scale of 1-10?” It was around 5pm, and at this point the exhaustion of not sleeping the night before really hit me. That, combined with the pain of the contractions, made me suddenly feel like there were weights pressing down on top of me.

When I had been asked to use pain scales in the past, some people said to judge it based on the worst pain you’ve experienced. Others said the worst pain you can imagine- with 10 being “getting hit by a truck.” Pardon my French, Bailey, but how the fuck am I supposed to know what it feels like to get hit by a truck?

In the moment, it felt like I had been hit by something, even if it had, perhaps, been more of a golf cart. “A six?” I offered, “Maybe a seven?” The woman literally rolled her eyes at me and laughed. She knew how early on I was, and knew that was way too high an estimate for my current level of pain. 

As you may know by the time you’re reading this, there’s nothing I hate more than being ridiculed. So for the first time in my labor, I started to cry. To this day, I cannot stand being asked to rate anything on a scale of 1-10, especially pain.

The nurse continued to roll her eyes as I waffled about whether or not to get an epidural. I had a very low tolerance for pain, but also a crippling fear of needles. The thought of sticking something into my spine sent shivers…well… up my spine. 

More than anything, I hated needing to make a decision. Which, as you can guess, this nurse loved. Which made the decision-making even more difficult. Eventually I realized that I was not going to make it through without pain relief and decided to get the epidural. 

In one of the stranger parts of an already strange day, the anesthesiologists specified that because your dad had not been tested for COVID, he could not be in the room when they came to administer the epidural. The very technical medical solution to this dilemma, at their instruction, was for him to shut himself in the bathroom. 

“You’re doing great!” He shouted through the bathroom door as I was slumped over with a needle up my back. In a halfhearted attempt to comfort me in his absence, the evil nurse held my hand while trying not to laugh at my dramatic reaction to the procedure. In the end, despite feeling like an eternity, it only took about five minutes. When your dad emerged from the bathroom, I was lying comfortably in my bed, smiling up at him serenely.

Always get the epidural. 

At this point, I was feeling confident again. They started me on pitocin to keep things moving. I was dilating on schedule, but you hadn’t yet dropped into the birth canal. For once, you had stopped moving. Your heart rate was fine and you weren’t in distress,so I wasn’t particularly worried about it. You were a mover and a shaker. You’d make your way down. In the meantime, all we could do was wait.

One of the hardest parts of labor, for me, was that I wasn’t allowed to eat anything except clear liquids. As the queen of hanger, I regretted not having a fuller lunch before I went to the hospital (and was happy that I’d managed to secretly scarf down a Clif Bar while in triage). But as our stay at the hospital stretched late into the evening, I knew it wouldn’t have made much of a difference anyway. 

At first I just ordered jello. It was at least a solid, even if it was kind of gross. But eventually the sugar started getting to me, and I couldn’t stand the thought of putting anything else sweet into my body. It was at that point that the new nurse, who was so much nicer than the first, suggested that I might want to try some broth. 

Over the course of my stay, I became a connoisseur of broth. Vegetable broth was just water. Chicken broth was surprisingly underwhelming. But beef broth? Beef broth was the nectar of the gods. Every ounce of excess fluid that poured out of me was replaced by delicious beef broth.

There were no windows in the room, so it was hard to tell how much time had passed. The new nurse reminded your dad that, even if I couldn’t eat, he’d probably want to order something before the kitchen closed. We watched TV to pass the time, and realized that the Schitt’s Creek finale was airing live. This seemed like a good omen, though I can’t say I retained much of the plot.

As the night progressed your dad asked how I was doing. “Honestly, I’m mostly just tired,” I said, “It’s been so long since I slept.” 

“Is there anything you can give her?” He sweetly asked the nurse, “To help her sleep?” I knew that the answer was no, but appreciated him so much for asking. I wondered what kind of biting remark the first nurse would have thrown at him, and was thankful for the kindness of the new nurse. “Unfortunately she’s not really going to sleep,” she said, “That’s kind of just how this goes. Just try to get as much rest as you can.” 

In the end we decided to put on Pitch Perfect, my favorite movie that I had seen dozens of times, and the familiar lullabies of a cappella pop music soothed me into a half sleep for an hour or two. 

By morning, I was sure that we would have made progress. And when they checked, I was 8 centimeters dilated. But you still hadn’t moved down at all. It was then I learned your second personality trait: despite your love of movement, you were also very stubborn. 

It was also then that they first started talking about the possibility of a c-section. This terrified me. In all the birthing classes that your dad and I had so dutifully taken, c-sections were presented as an absolute last resort, a worst case scenario. I had a few friends who had to have unplanned c-sections, and of course it turned out fine, but I couldn’t help feeling like a failure. 

I called your grandmother crying. “I might need to have a c-section,” I sobbed into the phone, and she faltered. Her midwife training had taught her how to talk me through just about any scenario in labor. Except for this one. “It’s going to be ok,” she reassured me, “We’ll just take it one step at a time.” 

Over the course of the day, it became clearer and clearer that you were not going anywhere. In fact, I think at one point you moved backwards. By the time the doctor came for the final check around 5:30, I knew what his call was going to be. I had already been in labor for 40 hours. There was no more progress to be made, and at that point I was probably too tired to push even if the opportunity had presented itself.

“We’ll need to do a c-section,” he said, “They’ll be ready for you in about 15 minutes.”

After so many hours of hurrying up and waiting, this seemed unimaginably fast. Your dad, always the planner, had the foresight (ha!) to remind me to put my glasses back on so I could see you when you came out.

The next thing I knew, I was being wheeled down the hallway into the operating room while your dad was suited up in scrubs and a face shield. They got me hooked up to additional medicines, which made me shake violently. They reassured me that that was normal, but it was extremely uncomfortable, especially since I had to keep my arms out straight at my sides, like a convulsing Christ on the cross. 

Your dad, bless his heart, asked if he could watch what was happening on the other side of the sheet, and the horrified nurse replied, “Absolutely not.”

I had only just met the doctor who performed the c-section, as it happened during a shift change. It was actually my primary OB/GYN’s birthday, and he had left to celebrate. 

The new doctor began the procedure, and reassured me about my original doctor’s decision. “Oh yeah, there was no way this baby was coming out naturally.” You were too big (especially your head), and in a “sunny-side up” position. I felt relief knowing that you and I had done all that we could before calling for back-up.

In a matter of minutes, at 5:56 pm we heard you crying softly and I craned my neck to catch my first glimpse of you. They held you next to me for mere seconds, but then whisked you away. I tried to watch what they were doing, but I remember feeling jealous that dad could see you better, and panicky that something had gone wrong. 

When they said you weighed 9 lbs 9 oz, I became worried that I did have undiagnosed gestational diabetes and I’d somehow damaged you by letting you get so big. I asked the nurse in a panic, “Is she ok? Did I do something wrong?” 

The nurse seemed surprised at my concern. “She’s perfect!” She reassured me. They just had to keep you over there to clean you up and test your blood sugar. But everything looked great, and they cooed over how cute you were while handing you to your dad. 

He still tells the story of how amazing it was to watch my whole body calm itself when he held you up to my face and touched your cheek to mine. Having you with me again made me feel whole.

To make sure this story doesn’t get too sappy, I’ll tell you that I puked. I can’t remember whether it was before or after the precious cheek moment, but it was something I remember not wanting to be included in my birth story. Which was a sure way to know that I would end up including it. So here it is.

At some point they took you from me again, and the violent shaking returned. Your dad was taken out of the room too, and a nurse advised him to keep his face shield. “You’re not really supposed to, but these days it’s a crime to throw one out.”

In the eternity that it took them to sew me up, I only really remember one thing: the doctors and nurses discussing Tiger King. It was a sign of the times.

It felt like days later that I was finally rolled into a room where you and your dad were waiting for me. They showed me how to breastfeed, and, though the pain made me wonder if I was doing it right, the nurse was very impressed. “Oh, that’s a great latch,” she said, “You’ll have no trouble.” 

It was such a strange sensation, but also reminded me of those first moments when you moved in the womb. We were our own people but also the same. Feeding you was a way of making sure that, even though you were now outside me, we could still stay attached, connected.

Your dad took so many pictures of these first moments, and I’m so grateful for that, because I was so tired and drugged up that my memories are a little fuzzy. I remember being slightly concerned when they started to wheel us up to our room that I was going to fall asleep and drop you. But I also knew there was no way in hell I was ever letting you go. 

They pushed us through the hall and into an elevator, with your dad standing next to us proudly. We were a family, a team, and I could feel our strength already. 

It seemed like everyone in the hospital was watching us and cheering us on as we made it to our room. I scarfed down a turkey sandwich- the only thing left now that the kitchen had closed. After a full day of jello and broth, and 9 months of no deli meats, it tasted like the best thing in the world. 

I have never been so tired in my life, and had been so eager for this moment when I could finally go to sleep. And yet the knowledge that you were right there next to me filled me with a buzz and anticipation that was almost as great as the night that labor first started. I worried that my mind would keep moving and sleep wouldn’t come again. 

My mind raced to an oddly specific thought, which I vocalized to your dad absentmindedly. “Nine-nine,” I said to him. “Excuse me?” He asked. “She’s 9 lbs, 9 oz,” I said, “Like Brooklyn-99.” 

I wondered, for a moment, if we should have named you Brooklyn. “I’m still on a lot of drugs,” I thought. And with that, I finally, blessedly, for the first time in two days, fell fully asleep. With you by my side. 

There will be many more stories, Bailey. But this was the first. 

All my love, all my days,

The woman you still refuse to call Mama

Thanks for reading,


23 miles