This article explores the complexities and contingencies of pregnancy during the COVID-19 pandemic. The author uses autoethnography to describe the lived experience of navigating the conflicting feelings and nuances of daily life as an expectant person during a global health crisis. In particular, the author is attuned to how one must grapple with both the positive feelings of joy and excitement that accompany many pregnancies, with the more somber emotions of guilt and sadness from losing out on many of the anticipated normalcies of the pregnancy journey. This narrative highlights emergent themes that are likely relatable to many pregnant people at this particular moment in time due to framing experiences within a larger societal context and through a scholarly, sociological lens.
Two Pink Lines
October 15, 2020
“Is she here yet?” I thought, jerking awake at 4 a.m. from a light slumber. Ever since March my sleep is routinely interrupted by worries about unending work deadlines, avalanches of student emails, and the tenuous well-being of the world. It is as though there is always something on my shoulder poking me throughout the night, reminding me not to let my guard down.
The “she” I was wondering about was my period. She was a few days late now, but given my struggles with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and its unwelcome companions—hormone imbalance and unpredictable menstrual cycles1—this was not out of the ordinary. The effects of PCOS on my menstrual cycle were surely compounded by stress,2 and by the fact that I was in the midst of one of the most tumultuous years of my life, as we were now seven months deep into the COVID-19 pandemic, among other things.
A few days ago, I began to write down everything I was navigating. This was a dual-purpose activity: (1) to vent to my notebook, with the hopes that this detoxification exercise would help me sweat out some of my anxieties onto the page; and (2) to attempt to give credence to why I was feeling perpetually exhausted and overwhelmed.
I am not usually one to let my guard down and allow others to know how I am feeling, and I did not have the language to clearly articulate why until after graduate school. I can now see that I was subconsciously socialized from a young age to embody the Strong Black Woman, just as my mother was unknowingly taught by her mother and generations of Black women modeled before her. A Strong Black Woman should be strong, independent, high achieving, contain their emotions, and center family caregiving without breaking a sweat.3 For the most part, others have always seen my ability to get things done while maintaining a stoic demeanor as my superpower. But it seems that the pandemic and the other curveballs 2020 is throwing at me are proving to be my kryptonite.
With the exception of a recent unruly crying explosion I could no longer contain on the phone with a childhood friend, everything was pent up inside before I finally let it all spill onto the page:
Seven months of spending nearly all of my time at home with my thoughts swirling in my head, bouncing off the walls of my home I am surrounded by 24/7, and back into my mind. The lack of scenery change is beginning to gnaw away at my sanity.
Seven months of worrying my husband would inadvertently bring the virus home from the understaffed yet overstuffed intensive care hospital unit where he works. I am furious every time I pass by overflowing restaurant parking lots full of families who are prioritizing their sacred dining experiences over others’ health and safety. David has three masks he must use over and over again due to inadequate supply at his hospital. He is instructed to store them overnight in brown paper bags for a cheap attempt at pseudo-sterilization. Does darkness adequately suffocate germs? Why are we lacking in personal protective equipment for those putting their health on the line day after day?
Seven months of wondering when “normal life” will return—will it ever? Do we want it to, or will the pandemic give us a better sense of how and where we like to spend our time? I am grateful for seven months of no commute, no dress pants, and no stressful morning routines, but I simultaneously yearn for face-to-face small talk with colleagues, students, and strangers at the grocery store.
Seven months of what usually feels like Groundhog Day: I start each morning with a sigh as I anticipate the déjà vu that awaits when my feet hit the floor. I feel guilty that I have the option to work at home, that my paychecks are largely unaffected by the pandemic, and that I am healthy, yet each of my days feel cloud-covered and monotonous. “You are so lucky you get to spend so much time with your son at this fun age,” I hear from others, typically those without young children. “If only they knew,” I often think during thunderous temper tantrums that leave me frustrated and on edge. I love my son more than anything, but some days I would love a few quiet hours to myself.
Seven months of worrying about my brother, an Army soldier in the infantry deployed overseas to a combat zone right as the pandemic began. Of all times, why now? Why him? At random moments I break into tears and attempt to draw my thoughts away from worst-case scenarios for his deployment’s conclusion.
Seven months of balancing numerous roles simultaneously with very little help. I learned how to teach three back-to-back classes on Zoom, three days per week. On days that my husband has to work or the WiFi is lethargic, I teach my classes from my dining table near the Internet router while Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood blares on the nearby flat screen to distract my toddler. I routinely think about my adjunct faculty colleagues who are undercompensated for doing much more teaching than I am, yet I continue to lament my relatively privileged situation. As Townsend and Gay write, “adjunct teaching is a boon from hell.”4 Who am I to complain about my position?
Seven months of compounded, chronic stress that I can feel accumulating in my body day by day like plaque, on top of anxiety I already know was building as I contend with the unique stressors as a woman of color in the academy.5 We are oftentimes held to an impossible standard by students, and the unfeasibility of these expectations are exacerbated during a time that our country is experiencing heightened tension politically and along racial lines. I feel an obligation to maintain a sense of “normalcy” for my students, but I do not even know what some of them look like because they have been black boxes on Zoom for the entire semester. The line dividing “normal times” and “pandemic times” is beginning to blur as the former drifts farther into my memories.
Surely, my anxieties and the compounding of chronic stressors could play a role in why my period was late. It was not impossible, though, that Aunt Flo was MIA for another reason: Was I pregnant?
It had taken about one year and visits to a fertility specialist to fall pregnant with my son, so my husband and I recently decided we should start trying for our second child. Despite the above list that some may perceive as reasons to hold off on trying to conceive, I did not want us to stop living. The certainty of the virus’s steadfast nature seemed well-established, but unfortunately as I approached my mid-thirties with chronic health issues, my fertility was likely declining as quickly as my morale. We had been trying to conceive for only two months, so the likelihood for such quick success felt slim.
While my husband slept, I contemplated opening my thirty-pack of cheap pregnancy test strips to take advantage of my most concentrated, first morning urine that is recommended to get the most accurate test result. My contemplation was swiftly interrupted by the sound of my hands urgently tearing open the package. If the test was negative, I would be disappointed and anxious that this may turn into another long saga of trying to conceive.
“Maybe I would be okay with one child after all,” I sometimes rationalized in these trying pandemic times, the Strong Black Woman coming out to monitor any creeping feelings of weakness, doubt, and vulnerability. “We love our son and he is all we need,” I thought during both the adorable picture-perfect moments and the tough, pull-your-hair-out episodes with my toddler: screaming for another television episode; telling me he loves me at the conclusion of our bedtime routine; demanding a snack during a faculty meeting; gently holding my hand as we cross the street; sobbing at every potty-training attempt; or cuddling with me adorably on the couch while we read Llama Llama Red Pajama for the umpteenth time.
Truth be told, if my test was positive, I would be thrilled: pre-pandemic, we always wanted more than one child because my husband and I both appreciate our childhoods with our siblings-turned-friends. Simultaneously, the thought of bringing another person into a world of masks, climate change, mass shootings, and increasingly widespread racist hate speech terrified me.
In disbelief, I stared at the two pink lines next to each other. My iPhone flashlight tremored in my hand as it illuminated the pregnancy test strip. I revisited the instructions to make sure I was not misunderstanding what two stripes indicated, questioning my ability to think clearly through the brain fog that saturated my mind lately.
“How many PhDs does it take to read a pregnancy test?” I jokingly thought to myself.
I took another test to be sure, and then a third for good measure. Moments later, three positive tests stared back at my tired eyes with a certainty still not enough to overcome my disbelief.
I crawled back into bed.
“Hmm…do I wake my husband? Wait until morning?” My heart raced. I sent a photo to one of my best friends. “Look!” I captioned the photo excitedly. She is the only friend I had told that we were trying to conceive. With a sleepless newborn, I knew she might be up, or would be soon.
Before I could ponder much longer whether to wake my sleeping partner, I aggressively tapped him on the shoulder with my index finger armed with a furious force meant to be gentle but that probably resembled hitting a stuck computer key with extra oomph.
“Babe. Babe. Babe,” I whispered.
David, unlike me, is a hard sleeper not easily awakened by a moaning toddler or wandering thoughts.
“BABE!!!!” I said, in the loudest whisper scream I could muster.
“What’s wrong?” he asked with concern, still half-asleep.
“I’m pregnant!!!” I said. My whisper scream teetered into outside voice territory now.
“Wow, okay.” He said in a tone of disbelief, half-sleepy confusion, eyes still closed, a closed-mouth smile slowly creeping on his face. He kissed me and continued to lie in pleased disbelief.
Many of the published autoethnographies centered on pregnancy are focused on loss. Overwhelmingly, researchers using academic storytelling and self-examination to analyze their pregnancy experiences describe the unfathomable loss of the pending new life that one anticipates at the conclusion of a pregnancy. These narratives include experiences of stillbirth and perinatal loss,6 miscarriage,7 and ectopic pregnancy,8 to name a few.
I consider my narrative also to be one of loss, but not on the same plane or magnitude as those just listed. I in no way claim that the “loss” I describe is comparable to those who bravely and remarkably published about these life experiences in ways that I am unsure I could handle, let alone write about them with poise and thoughtful reflection. I do not even consider the “loss” of my pregnancy experience to be terrible, or even noteworthy. The story of my pregnancy—and likely the stories of others who are experiencing pregnancy at this time—are just different: more isolating, strange, uniquely challenging, and rife with silver linings in ways one may not anticipate. The way a pregnant person navigates the social world and contemplates the distinctions of a pandemic pregnancy are complex and difficult to concisely put into words.
The odd and novel nature of a pandemic pregnancy is what makes autoethnography so fitting for recounting the experience: it allows me to describe the “mundane” aspects of being a pregnant person in 2020–2021.9 Compared to my first pregnancy journey in 2017-2018, what pregnant individuals are living through right now—expecting during a time of a fast-spreading, life-threatening virus around the globe—is unlike what most have experienced in the United States, possibly since the H1N1 Influenza pandemic of 1918.
The emotional tensions I continue to grapple with—living on the cusp of gratitude that I have a healthy pregnancy, anxiety of the uncertainties that are inevitable when expecting during a pandemic, glee at the new member of our family on the horizon, sadness at the isolation this pregnancy is trudging through, and guilt that I am not experiencing infinite joy at this time, made autoethnography an apt method for sifting through my shifting thoughts and feelings. Bochner and Ellis write that autoethnography aims to show “people in the process of figuring out what to do, how to live, and the meaning of their struggles.”10 My narrative, while one of loss, is also one painted with delight, introspection, and quiet thankfulness. Simultaneously, my pregnancy was experienced in the shadow of an anti-science presidency.11 Consequently, opinions about the virus and how individuals should conduct their lives is increasingly polarized, and information to sift through can be overwhelming. Like Ngunjiri writes, “as we all navigate the Covid-19 global pandemic, including…whether life will go back to normal or be forever changed, whether our institutions will survive or become part of history, collecting my ruminations and feelings is part of how I am coping.”12 My decision to write this comes at a time that I am in search of understanding and calm about what I am feeling, and I hope that my efforts to articulate my experience can help others to see light in their own.
Further, my status as a sociologist allows me the privileges of being able to more easily express my feelings within the context of social structures—namely, the institutions, norms, and policies that make pregnancy at this time particularly complex. I draw inspiration from sociologist C. Wright Mills, who wrote of “the sociological imagination” that allows us to “grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society.”13 During what has quickly become a pandemic worthy of inclusion in history textbooks, my hope is this article serves as a personal but academic insight into a particular slice of life during this time.
My writing falls under what Ellis and Bochner describe as “personal narrative” in which social scientists write about “some aspect of their experience in daily life.”14 One purpose of autoethnography is to “articulate insider knowledge of cultural experience,” and this article represents an insider’s perspective on my personal experiences during this peculiar moment to be pregnant.15 While I make no claims about the generalizability of my experience to all pregnant people during the pandemic, themes emerge that others will likely find relatable due to framing my experiences within a larger societal context and through a scholarly lens.
As I complete this manuscript, I am in the final weeks of my second pregnancy, living in Texas under state leadership that recently announced we would be one of the first to fully re-open the state and to drop mask mandates, despite public health experts’ recommendations to the contrary.16 More recently, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) announced that masks are mostly unnecessary for those who are fully vaccinated, which has led to both shouts of relief and sighs of frustration at the questionable “honor system” in public places that may put yet-to-be-vaccinated children in vulnerable positions.17 I am marching through this moment as I write this, and consider this autoethnography a living and breathing account of what is happening in real time. In this way, my narrative is inconclusive and in many ways feels incomplete because it is incomplete. Even when my pregnancy ends with what I hope is a momentous, yet uneventful birth experience, my thoughts about my pandemic pregnancy immediately after giving birth, on my daughter’s tenth birthday, or even tomorrow, may change drastically from the moment that I complete this article. In that vein, consider this a final draft but work-in-progress that attempts to articulate my most pervasive, salient experiences to date about one pandemic pregnancy: my own.
Expecting during a Pandemic
November 24, 2020
During my pregnancy with my first child, my husband attended every medical appointment. He got to know our nurse midwives, asked questions, and held my purse. This time around, partners are not allowed to attend visits with the expectant person, making this pregnancy feel much more like my project rather than our family-building endeavor. My health insurance covers routine prenatal appointments, and we have access to what is known around town as the “best” hospital in the area for supporting those considering a Vaginal Birth After Cesarean (VBAC). I often remind myself of the privilege conferred to me in knowledge, social networks, cultural capital, and health care access, yet the anxiety for my first appointment consumes me.
I drove twenty-five minutes on the congested highway, navigating an urban medical district with its mazes of parking garages and identical brick buildings without my navigator-spouse. The anxiety from awaiting my first ultrasound, along with driving around an area I was unfamiliar with, left me with elevated anxiety and sadness that my husband could not be with me. I felt guilty for being sad at a moment that I was simultaneously excited for. Juggling my racing thoughts meant my focus on Google Maps disintegrated: I accidentally parked in a garage that was about a fifteen-minute walk from my physician’s office, on a path that Siri warned included several construction zones and gaps in the sidewalk. I walked quickly to ensure I would not be late, which of course meant elevated blood pressure and unpleasant body odor when I arrived at the medical facility.
As I entered the building, my anxiety continued to rise. This was my first time inside of a building outside of my home since March, so this venture was, in a sense, breaking the seal of my pandemic bubble. I was not yet used to wearing a mask because I seldom left our house. Somehow, I felt that my mask interfered with my vision and hearing—a nonsensical connection of the senses that reminded me of my habit of turning down the car radio while driving and looking for a friend’s house number. Even though everyone around me wore masks—from receptionists, to UPS delivery people, to housekeeping staff, to patients—I could not escape the feeling that everyone was a potential carrier of the virus and threat to our well-being: not the most reassuring feeling when entering a medical building meant to ensure a healthy pregnancy. My early instinct to protect my fetus was unlike what I experienced when pregnant with Lucas. It was my quiet duty to keep all germs away from my unborn daughter, even if she was the size of a speck.
I approached the elevators and spotted a visibly pregnant woman waiting for the next car to arrive. I slowed my stroll and pretended to be focused intently on my cell phone so I could avoid any awkwardness in having to tell her I would prefer to wait for the next elevator so I could ride alone. Dodging what looked to me like an opportunity to exchange infected air in a slow-moving capsule of germs seemed to be the best option for me and our baby.
I stopped my thoughts in their tracks: “When did I become this paranoid? Were others this concerned? Chill out,” I told myself. A distinct voice was perched on each of my shoulders: one, the ultra-careful, paranoid person acting as though she has never been in public, and the other, the uber-carefree, anti-masker trying to convince me to relax and stop worrying. I did not want to favor the latter, but did want to embody a bit more confidence to “live life normally” so that I could enjoy my first time seeing my baby.
I entered the waiting room, trying to remember to sanitize my hands every time I touched a surface. The receptionist was wearing a mask and partially slid open the glass partition separating the desk and the patients just enough to scan my forehead and gauge my temperature. I did not realize until the pandemic began how much you cannot fully tell what someone looks like, read their mood or demeanor, or express gratitude and friendliness, without seeing their mouth. The already cold environment of a medical office was further depersonalized and sterilized by the presence of COVID-19.
After a short wait, a medical assistant guided me to an examination room. Following the usual small talk, taking down my health history, and measuring my weight and blood pressure, the time came for my transvaginal ultrasound with the physician. I tried to brace myself for the worst-case scenario.
“Okay, if there is no heartbeat, just keep it together. You can try again,” I rationalized to myself. The Strong Black Woman re-emerged as the loudest, third voice on my shoulders. But I feared I might crumble with no one there to hold my hand, hug me, or do anything other than hand me a tissue.
Thankfully, our fetus—temporarily named “Muffin” after our son’s favorite snack and word to say on repeat—had a strong heartbeat. The discomfort of the wand inside me was subsumed by my amazement as I watched the small but quick movement of this little bean’s flickering heart. She was the size of a prune, but I began to imagine our son as a loving big brother, my husband’s face as it melted upon meeting her for the first time, and the pride at witnessing her milestones. After seeing the heartbeat, my physician said the chances of miscarriage were slim. The flurry of voices on my shoulders dissipated in an instant as I allowed myself to silence everything and freeze the moment. I exhaled a hot, heavy breath of relief behind my surgical mask.
“Take photos if you would like,” the physician said happily.
I could not help but think how humdrum this social script must be for health care providers—staring at generic, bite-sized babies on a screen and encouraging photos. But for me, knowing we planned on Muffin completing our family, this was likely the last time I would get this once-in-a-lifetime experience of viewing our tiny girl. I felt remorseful that my husband was unable to feel what I was feeling, as he was busy at home with our toddler, awaiting an update.
They did not allow FaceTime inside the examination rooms, nor did they offer printed photos with early transvaginal ultrasounds at this facility. I quickly captured a few images with my iPhone as I grinned behind my mask. I reminded myself of my father at my childhood athletic events—snapping lots of photos to capture every proud moment, including the movements that barely shifted between milliseconds. Even though Muffin was tiny and her features indecipherable, I took five photos to ensure I got a “good one” to send to my spouse, family members, and friends. With half of my face veiled, as well as my doctor’s, I felt as if I were only half-sharing this experience with her, and only partially able to convey the delight I was feeling. With my other half missing, it was difficult to fully burst with pleasure over this little person who was half his.
After the doctor left the exam room, I quickly put my garments back on, eager to text the photos to my husband.
No cell service.
* * *
Scientists are observing trends as to some of the repercussions of this particularly precarious and arguably less pleasant time for someone to be pregnant. In December 2020, researchers from the Brookings Institute predicted there would be about 300,000 fewer births in 2021 than there had been in 2020.18 More women—particularly lower income and women of color—are holding off on having children during the pandemic, in part because these groups disproportionately suffered from financial losses due to closing workplaces and fewer opportunities to build income.19 Communities of color have also endured higher rates of death due to the virus,20 and receive the COVID-19 vaccine at disproportionately lower rates.21
The compounding issues of inequality in vaccine access and vulnerability to unavoidable exposure may also impact individuals’ decisions to have children during this particularly stressful and morbid moment. More than 40 percent of women report that the pandemic led them to change their plans about how many children to have, and whether to have them at all.22 One-third of women want to get pregnant later or have fewer children because of the pandemic.23 Considering that women were already having babies later into the life course due to gendered shifts in schooling and occupational norms,24 the pandemic adds another variable to already complicated matrices of family decision making.
In addition to pre-existing financial and health care inequities that the pandemic amplifies, physiological risks associated with the virus are exacerbated when pregnant. According to the CDC, pregnant people are at an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and death compared to nonpregnant people. Pregnant people who have COVID-19 and show symptoms are more likely than others without pre-existing conditions with COVID-19 and symptoms to need care in an intensive care unit, to require a ventilator, or to die from the illness.25 For expectant people, the pandemic carries with it interlocking anxieties that accompany pending childbirth, the newness of motherhood, and fears of contracting a virus for which they are especially vulnerable. One study found that the infection rate in pregnant individuals was 70 percent higher than similarly aged adults in Washington State.26
Despite identifying as a woman of color, I find myself in a privileged socioeconomic position that that allows me to by-and-large avoid many COVID-19 risk factors in my day-to-day life, which is part of the reason we decided to pursue pregnancy. I can complete all of my work from home, we have our groceries and other goods delivered, and my work schedule is flexible enough that our toddler has stayed home with us full-time since March 2020. Nonetheless, I sometimes wondered what my friends, colleagues, and family members thought of our decision, given the chaos we were already experiencing being home with a toddler 24/7, operating under a ticking tenure clock, my husband regularly interacting with highly contagious patients, and having no family living nearby to provide help on a regular basis. I occasionally wondered myself what we were thinking in light of pervasive trends and so many couples in the United States making childbearing decisions that were so unlike our own.
The Pandemic Pregnancy Performance
February 17, 2021
I log into our department faculty meeting on Zoom, keeping my camera momentarily off as I quickly scarf down half of a vegetarian, faux-turkey sandwich. After checking my teeth for lettuce remnants, I turn my camera on and happily wave to all of my colleagues, leaving my microphone off. My screen looks like a version of The Brady Bunch boxes in the opening song, but with more extended family members included.
“How far along are you?” One of my colleagues asks excitedly. It is hard to keep track when we never see one another in person, and quite frankly, I often lose track of time myself given the déjà vu nature of each day.
I unmute myself. “22 weeks!” I respond with a smile. “A little over halfway. It’s hard to believe how fast this is going by!”
My concealed pregnancy journey brings simple pleasures: by and large, I am able to avoid comments of how big or small or fantastic or uncomfortable or tired or “ready to pop” I appear to be. On the other hand, it is a 40-week path that is walked privately in ways I never anticipated. I could have told my colleague I was “four weeks” or “thirty-eight weeks” into pregnancy, and he would not be able to tell the difference. My pregnancy performance at work is almost solely verbal in the virtual world where most of my interactions reside. My colleagues’ and friends’ assessments of my pregnancy are ascertained by what I choose to share orally—a stark contrast to my first pregnancy, where every step I took outside of my home was part of my physical pregnancy presentation and provided evidence to support others’ hot takes on my well-being. When I was pregnant with Lucas, the world was my audience, and every movement I made—in addition to the words I spoke—contributed to their perceptions, judgments, and reactions. The maternal body is a site of surveillance,27 and the pandemic allows for turning a few of the spy cameras off, metaphorically speaking.
On Zoom, no one sees the burgeoning belly that continues to grow even faster than it did during my first pregnancy. My cheeks gradually inflate as Muffin bulks up, but I do not know if others notice. The maternity clothes I saved from my first pregnancy are hung in my closet, but more for comfort than anything else, and by the off-chance the world is suddenly freed from the shackles of this virus. While I am acutely aware of what I am wearing on my upper half when attending a meeting or teaching on Zoom, ensuring that my growing chest is adequately covered, I have worn everything from my husband’s workout shorts, to tie-dye sweatpants, to leggings under the desk. When I am bloated or full from a large lunch, I can pull up my shirt slightly to let my belly breathe, unbeknownst to anyone on my computer screen. Sometimes I laugh in my head imagining myself transported in my current attire to our usual faculty meeting space, or standing at the front of my classroom in maternity sleepwear, baring my baby bump and donning slippers. In some ways, wearing whatever I want on the majority of my body is “my little secret” that I enjoy—it is a small sliver of agency and one ounce of rebellion that remains in this pandemic life.
Pregnancy is usually visible, even if not until the final stages. The body expands at a rate that is quicker than most experience at any other point in their lives. Ordinarily, pregnancy is a public experience shared not just between the pregnant person and their partner but also with family, co-workers, and the public with whom the pregnant individual comes into contact. Longhurst writes that pregnant people often feel they must adjust the space they consume as their bodies grow, while hiding themselves from the public eye.28 During this pregnancy, I am hardly taking up any space at all, arguably making this aspect of “successfully” performing and embodying pregnancy easier to achieve than usual.
To use Neiterman’s language, the performance of “doing pregnancy” is drastically altered during the pandemic.29 Neiterman writes that “pregnant women are expected to ‘do’ pregnancy, actively perform socially established practices that signify the status of the body as pregnant.”30 The process of “doing” pregnancy includes the process of learning to be pregnant; the process of adapting to pregnancy through becoming skilled at the daily routines of self-care; and the endless performance of pregnancy.31 Much like the ways we engage in “doing gender,”32 the ways that we do pregnancy often align with cultural scripts that we learn from watching other pregnant people, the media, and conversations with significant others who have been pregnant before. The social context of the COVID-19 pandemic and its surrounding circumstances have altered this public embodiment of pregnancy in ways that are tangible and messy, and confined to our homes in ways that most have not experienced. There is no playbook for how to do pregnancy during a global pandemic, which is simultaneously freeing and baffling.
Despite the humor I often find in the behind-the-scenes fluidity of my pregnancy performance, in some ways I feel I am losing out on the social experience that typically accompanies pregnancy. I rarely see anyone in the flesh outside of my husband, toddler, and physician. My parents, grandparents, friends, and co-workers cannot watch my swiftly morphing belly in-person, inquire about preparations, and easily gauge how we are feeling. There are no random run-ins with acquaintances on campus. I have mostly lived in pajamas and workout apparel and have found little reason to feel cute or attractive, or to frivolously purchase clothing that shows off my final baby bump. I anticipated that the growing number on the scale would be easier to cope with during this pregnancy given its more hidden nature, but much to the contrary, my body insecurities have grown exponentially with Muffin, as I am often alone with my thoughts and my bathroom mirror.
April 17, 2021
“You’re looking bigger!,” my mother says on FaceTime with a tone of utter surprise. I do not blame her for the knee-jerk response, as she has not seen me in months.
“Thanks?” I respond, with a mix of embarrassment and annoyance. I know she did not mean anything by it, as I indeed was looking bigger, but to have it acknowledged felt like a gut punch—particularly since I was not accustomed to comments during this pregnancy.
We video-chat each evening so she can talk to her grandson while I prepare dinner. My son likes sitting in his special chair at the dinner table, so I put the phone in front of him and angle the screen away from me so I can waddle around the kitchen sautéing vegetables and microwaving chicken nuggets without an audience. Apparently the positioning of my phone was off today.
I quickly adjust the device and return to the stove, wishing I had better maintained the invisibility this pregnancy usually afforded me.
Maternity Leave on the Horizon
May 20, 2021
My due date is about five weeks away. My brother is home from his deployment, and rates of COVID-19 rates are down in our area, so my husband has not had a patient with the virus since March of this year. Classes ended a couple of weeks ago, and I have started to come up momentarily for air, between bouts of anxiety over finishing this manuscript before baby arrives, and uncertainty as to what I can expect in the coming months with a pandemic childbirth and brand-new human arriving soon. With the size of my baby quickly approaching the size she will be when she departs the womb, breathing—and moving in general—has become increasingly challenging. I am physically exhausted, and pregnancy hormones make navigating the conflicting feelings I am confronted with increasingly difficult in the past few weeks. I burst into tears as easily as my heart explodes with excitement.
On par with my excitement at the pending arrival of our little bundle is my concern that the isolation that accompanies the newborn stage—particularly for mothers—may be aggravated by the pandemic. How will my mental health stand up to what is to come? I was never diagnosed with postpartum depression with my first born—in large part because the Strong Black Woman I always told myself to embody would not allow revealing vulnerability and seeking that type of self-care—but looking back, I suspect I may have had at least a mild case.
I have a gnawing feeling of anxiety, dread, and sadness with my upcoming pandemic maternity leave that I did not experience after the first child. Even writing that sentence, I feel guilty to be swimming in these feelings when so many are not afforded the opportunity to stay home with their newborns. I am simultaneously chomping at the bit to have a break from work, to set aside time to physically and mentally recover from childbirth and the chaos of the past year, and to soak in these once-in-a-lifetime moments at home with our little family.
My anxiety is fueled by the fact that I spent 99 percent of my time at home since six months before this pregnancy even began. When our son was born in 2018, I was home with him as I completed my dissertation and prepared for our cross-country move to start my first tenure-track job. It was amazing watching every milestone moment in his first six months of life, and capturing thousands of photos on my iPhone, but it also got very lonely, and this was in “normal” pre-pandemic times. When you have a baby, many friends do not want to bother you, or assume you do not want to be disturbed. Some friends come to visit or call on occasion, but becoming socially connected and deriving a sense of purpose from a little person who cannot easily express appreciation, does not sleep well, and spends most of his time lying around and drinking milk is a trial one cannot adequately prepare for—not to mention it is considered a faux pas to express anything but gratitude and glee about motherhood. But at least with my first baby, friends could come by for newborn cuddles. Family could visit. We could travel to see loved ones. I took Lucas to the grocery store, the park, and to others’ homes and did not realize at the time how good I had it in being able to expose him to the world with his fresh, wide eyes.
My anxieties about taking my first baby into the world were about making sure I packed enough bottles and hoping he did not have a public diaper blowout, not about whether or not he would contract a deadly virus with unknown long-term consequences. Muffin’s social world will be small compared to Lucas’s in the first few months of her life, and I continue to feel guilty about bringing her into these circumstances she had no voice in choosing. Although I am now fully vaccinated, I assume that my baby will not be until sometime next year, making my comfort level in inviting people over and visiting indoor locations relatively low compared to how I felt with my first child. The CDC says we can relax many of our precautions, but it continues to feel sinful to have indoor visitors without masks. Wearing masks has become as normal to me as wearing a seatbelt, to the point that it feels too free not to do so.
Reconciling my feelings of joyful anticipation and lingering fear leaves me feeling remorseful, uneasy, and nervous for what the latter part of the year will look like—especially as our first born heads to preschool and I no longer have my little quarantine buddy to spend time with. The newborn phase is a beautiful time of firsts, scattered with periodic dark clouds, unimaginable fatigue, and bursts of unmatched happiness that only a parent can truly understand. I hope I can be present in every moment, as I sit in each feeling, accepting them for what they are while not allowing the dark clouds and feelings of loss to mar the beauty in these moments I will never get back again.
September 17, 2021
Today we celebrated: beautiful Maya, formerly known as Muffin, joined us exactly three months ago. Our sleep deprivation is slowly waning, but the excitement over watching her first smiles continues to grow with every gummy grin. As I re-visit my pregnancy writings, the mixed emotions I felt then swirl within me again in new forms. My attempts to be present in the moment while dodging the distractions of an uncertain future continue to challenge me on a day-to-day basis.
So much has changed since pre-Maya life, for which my feelings continue to butt heads. During the last three months, I accepted a new job, we sold our house, and our family moved across the country. We are excited to live closer to our extended families, but nervous at the prospect of cultivating connections and creating routines in conjunction with an unfamiliar new normal as a family of four. I am grateful for our pleasant birth experience, yet lamenting that it will be the last time we experience it; impressed but impatient with the speed at which COVID-19 vaccines may become available for small children; and proud yet nervous about the thought of others reading some of my most personal and vulnerable writing.
By describing the most minute, routine details of my pandemic pregnancy’s taken-for-granted moments, I aspire to contribute to an imagined community of those experiencing pregnancy at a time when physical community is more challenging to create. There are universal aspects of gestation, childbirth, and parenthood that unite expectant people across time and space, but these experiences vary drastically depending on a person’s positionalities within society and in history. The unique turning points of the life course complicate and differentiate these experiences, but the certainty of every life’s unpredictability provides common ground. We may have a playbook for how pregnancy “should” go, but we are one pandemic away from experiencing it on a different plane.
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