VICTORIA -- I’m being asked a lot lately, "How are you feeling?"
I’m 37 weeks pregnant, preparing for the birth of my first child. There’s no doubt I’m excited, but in a time when the spread of the coronavirus has careened the world into a global health pandemic, the answer to that question is feeling fully loaded.
The last number of weeks have been a roller-coaster of emotions, worrying about how COVID-19 could affect my pregnancy; how the disease will change my experience in labour and delivery; and how my expectations need to shift after the child’s birth.
There have been days when stress and anxiety has felt debilitating. I’ve had moments where I’ve felt swallowed whole by the daily minutiae of grim details and new, unsettling realities - creating a pressure cooker of grief and frustration I thought I needed to suppress.
Thankfully, I’m not alone. And neither are you.
If you’re one of the many pregnant women across Canada, I hope the following information helps. It has for me.
Tidbit number one: According to B.C’s Centre for Disease Control, pregnant women are not at a higher risk of acquiring the coronavirus or at a greater risk of getting the COVID-19 disease compared to people their age.
“I think that’s important,” says the vice-president of the Midwives Association of B.C. “And that’s different when we look at other influenzas that have happened in the past.”
Aly Jones is also a Victoria-based midwife (and happens to be one of mine). She’s not the only one attesting to a spike in questions coming from pregnant women in their care.
“You’re going to have a modified delivery experience for sure,” says Doctors of BC president Dr. Kathleen Ross.
Parents can expect to see extra personal protective equipment in the delivery room.
The midwives association has seen an increase in requests for home births, while deliveries in-hospital have new protocols too.
At Island Health, women are being granted one support person in the perinatal unit.
The support person will not be allowed in if they’re experiencing a fever, cough, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat and/or diarrhea. They also won’t be allowed in if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 or have been in contact with a person infected with COVID-19 during the previous 14 days.
There are no other visitors allowed following the child’s birth. And patients won’t be offered laughing gas as a pain management tool through delivery, among other restrictions to protect the health and safety of everyone in the room.
“It was pretty intense in a way,” says a recent patient at Victoria General Hospital.
Nikki Hoyrup had her second child delivered by C-section on March 27.
She says her family noticed other changes in the ward, including a push for patients to stay in their rooms.
“The nurses would come to you,” she says. “They encouraged you to use your call button whenever and they discouraged the support partner from coming and going.” They didn’t bring the car seat or the clothes for their new baby out of the car until the day they were going home.
“I think they’re doing an excellent job in screening and making sure that everyone stays safe.”
Now here’s the part that really hurts. For me, it’s launched a grief process of its own.
We’re living in a time when Canadians are being asked to practise physical distancing - meaning new parents are bracing for and coping with the reality that close friends and family who don’t live in their home won’t get to hold their new baby, possibly for months.
“When [parents] come home with their newborns, our recommendation is to stay in self-isolation with their newborn to try and prevent being exposed to others,” says Jones.
Hoyrup says that's hard. But she’s found a silver lining.
“I have noticed, ironically, that with my own friends or my mom-friends, that it’s almost like we’re closer and more in contact because everyone’s lives are slowed down.”
Ross says parents don’t need to worry about any developmental concerns or stressors that self-isolation could have on newborns.
“Part of the development of newborns and young children is the strength of the interactions in the home,” says the Coquitlam-based family physician. “Certainly physical distancing does not apply to the parents, so they’re close to the baby, speaking to the baby, and meeting all those needs.”
She’s encouraging people to use electronic communication with family, allowing them to see the baby and allowing the baby to become familiar with different voices and sounds.
“My biggest concern in all of this physical distancing is the need for parent support,” she says. “For moms for sure because social, physical and emotional distancing does likely increase the risk of some post-partum anxiety or mood disorder.”
The Pacific Post Partum Support Society serves roughly 4,000 mothers and families every year. It’s still running support services by phone and text free of charge to anyone who may be struggling.
“This is a very anxiety producing situation that we’re in,” says director Sheila Duffy. “A lot of times when people have anxiety around the what-ifs that come up as a new parent or may be worrying about the health of the baby or those kinds of things that get in there anyway — you’ve got this layer on top of that.”
Mental health experts say feelings of distress and worry are normal reactions to the circumstances we face with COVID-19, but there’s a threshold when someone might need help.
“Keep an eye on one when that reaction starts to feel as if it’s spinning out of control — when it’s getting the upper hand — and to look for resources whether it’s through us at the Canadian Mental Health Association or beyond,” says B.C. chapter CEO Jonny Morris.
The B.C. government is expanding virtual mental health supports in response to the COVID-19 pandemic with a $5-million supplement.
The funding is designed to help people connect with mental health workers from inside their home, whether in remote or urban areas of B.C. For example, a free online skill-building program for people suffering from depression and anxiety has been made available to everyone, without the need for a doctor’s referral. It’s called Bounce Back.
“Now more than ever we have to take care of ourselves and we have to take care of each other,” says the minister of health and addictions, Judy Darcy, at the April 9 announcement. “Social connection is more important than ever before.”
The Pacific Post Partum Support Society suggests some new parents might find a sense of comfort and resiliency because everyone’s lives are going through a dramatic shift together.
The director says while a lot of mothers are falling in love with their babies, they can also feel an immense sense of loss missing the social aspect of their old life - like seeing co-workers all the time.
“Those kinds of things are part of the normal adjustment that new parents go through and that’s actually something that a lot of people are dealing with now across the board,” says Duffy.
She says naming and vocalizing our feelings can help too.
“It allows it to move through you more,” she says. “It’s when we take those feelings and we don’t feel like we have an outlet where we can talk about that, when we stuff it inside, then that builds and those feelings can get really intense. They need expression.”
That was the turnaround point for me.
When I started acknowledging and talking about how sad I was to think my parents wouldn’t get to hold their first grandchild right away - that my sister wouldn’t be popping in for visits too, and that my maternity leave is looking dramatically altered in terms of the travel and social plans I had anticipated for my "year off" - every conversation with a loved one made me feel better.
This reality still feels cruel. I’m an extrovert, a social person who could fill every day with visits. I’m still worried I’ll feel down or cooped up once baby arrives.
But, like we’re hearing over and over, we’re not alone. Our babies are resilient.
So as my due date nears, I find ways to embrace the things I can control.
I can still talk to my family and friends. I’m privileged to have the means of connecting virtually too. And my husband is here, eager and able to soak up every moment of our journey toward parenthood with me.
That’s not so bad at all.