Please Tell Me More About Your Uncomfortable Mask

Reflections of a new mom mid-global pandemic

“Let people help”. “Rely on friends and family”. “Don’t be shy to ask family members to help around the house”. This is the advice touted on every baby blog, in all of the pregnancy books and shouted from the rooftops by experienced moms. But what if you can’t?  

The end of my pregnancy and beginning of my daughter’s life hasn’t looked at all how I expected it to. Breastfeeding classes? Canceled. Mommy-and-me play groups? Nonexistent. Friends and family coming over to meet the baby and help around the house? Nothing but a fantasy. As thankful as I am to have had a healthy baby girl and an amazingly supportive partner, I still feel like COVID-19 stole this time from me. I’m still processing and mourning the loss of a time in my life that was supposed to be happy and exciting.

My stepmom planned a wonderful baby shower for me, with friends and family flying in from all over the country, that I never got to go to. I bought a dress for the pregnancy photoshoot that never got to happen. Gazing at our bundle of joy via ultrasound with my husband by my side ended up being me alone in a room with the technician, wearing a protective mask, trying to record a video of that dark screen on my iPhone to show my husband later. My mother-in-law hasn’t even met her grandchild for fear that she would bring the virus up with her from Florida.

Being pregnant and giving birth during a global pandemic has been one of the hardest experiences of my life. The social isolation alone was challenging, but to experience that with pregnancy and postpartum hormones on top of caring for a newborn for the first time seemed almost insurmountable. When hospitals started restricting visitors, I read story after story of women who were forced to give birth completely alone because the visitor policy didn’t allow their child’s other parent.

Whether I would elect to have a homebirth or have my husband unable to attend the birth of his first child was not a decision I ever envisioned having to make. Thankfully, I didn’t have to. What I did end up having to do was arrive in the hospital, after 24+ hours in labor, breathing through a piece of fabric.

Before I could get inside, I had to stop and get my temperature checked, knowing that if I “failed”, they would try to isolate my baby from me immediately after birth. The fear that they would try to take my baby from me and prevent skin-to-skin, breastfeeding and general motherhood immediately after birth brought me to tears on more than one occasion. Had I tested positive, I was prepared to insist they leave her with me or I would have to leave the hospital and birth somewhere else.

Again, I’m thankful it didn’t come to that.

Once inside, I couldn’t be taken to L&D until I had my COVID test results back. After having my upper nasal cavity assaulted by a lengthy Q-tip, I continued to labor in an emergency department hospital room with no access to pain medication. We were told that I could remove my mask after getting the all clear from the test, but that as soon as the baby came out of me, I had to put my mask back on. At the time, I remember feeling SO grateful that I didn’t have to push with the mask on my face, which isn’t something most mothers have to incorporate into their birth plan. My husband was told to wear a mask the entire time (though to be honest, we both kept forgetting to put it back on when people came in the room with everything we had going on). All of the nurses wore masks at all times. In fact, I saw a nurse in the hallway without a mask on and asked her if she had seen my nurse who had been helping me for days. It turns out she actually WAS my nurse (embarrassing), but I had no idea what she looked like because of the masks.

As if giving birth during a global pandemic wasn’t enough weight on my shoulders, our country simultaneously (finally) began stepping up against systemic racism. While we were in the hospital after birth, our plan was for my husband to run home to tend to our dog on the second day. However, rioting around the globe and within our city resulted in a curfew during my hospitalization, and if my husband left, he wouldn’t be permitted to come back into the hospital until the next morning when curfew was lifted.

Coming home from the hospital was more emotional than I envisioned. I was leaving the safety of on call lactation support and endlessly being able to ask the nurses “is this normal?”. I knew these resources, normally available to new moms after they leave via support groups and meetups, would not be available to me.

When I did find a lactation group still meeting in person, my husband and I debated if it was safe for me to go get some much-needed help getting my baby to latch. My internal monologue debated if I was a horrible mother for risking exposing my child or if I was a horrible mother for not getting the nursing help that I knew I needed to feed her well. It felt so lose-lose. Ultimately, I made the decision that I thought would best set up my daughter for lifelong success and got the help that I needed to nourish her little body.

After a few weeks of settling in and things starting to get easier, I started reading some more baby books again now that I had the time. When the first chapter of a new book started with an emphasis on accepting help from friends and family, I literally threw the book across the room and cried to myself. When my family tried to guilt me into traveling with the new baby or letting people come see her that hadn’t quarantined, I sobbed in the shower. I wasn’t having to choose which daycare to put my daughter in when returning to work, I had to choose whether I was a horrible parent for even considering putting her in daycare during this time or if I should give up my career that I love. If I didn’t have the support of my husband, I don’t know how I would have emotionally made it for this long (shout out to all the single parents – I cannot even fathom how awesome you are for surviving!).

But hey, it’s not all bad – at least I didn’t have a ton of strangers touching my stomach for the last 4 months of pregnancy! In all seriousness, living through this situation has taught me that I can handle a lot more than I thought I could. It also taught me that there are more ways than one to lean on my support system.

I sought out others going through what I was going through. I found a lot of solace in two reddit groups – one private group specifically for mothers due at the same time as me (every birth month has a private reddit bumpers group – I highly recommend you find yours!) as well as an open group for pregnant people during this time called CoronaBumpers. My husband and I may not have hands on help, but I know we have support day and night through a network of amazing friends and family, even if it is virtual.

Two months after she was born, I still don’t know if I’m doing things right. I have no idea if I would be learning tips and tricks from other mothers that would make raising her easier. I’m still feeling isolated and lonely, but when I’m feeling really overwhelmed, I take a whiff of that amazing new baby smell and I know we will get through it together.

-Abbi Hernandez, Ph.D.


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