It has been a year since the nation first officially went into lockdown. Back then, we had no idea how enduringly the pandemic would alter our lives; how in the space of 12 months it would transform our world beyond recognition. Unbeknown to me, on 23 March 2020, a seismic change was also happening within my body. I had, as it turned out, conceived a daughter, who was to emerge nine months later into a society that looks, and feels, very different from the one I had imagined for her.
Cassandra was not born because of the pandemic, and yet her journey both inside and outside the womb has unfolded in parallel with it. During those dark days of mid- to late April, when the first Covid-19 wave was reaching its peak and a fearful population hibernated in their homes, I suffered from persistent morning sickness that saw me confined to the house out of necessity, barely even managing my full hour of state-sanctioned outdoor exercise. It was not until June that I could see light at the end of the tunnel. Two days after schools began to reopen and the government relaxed the rules on outdoor gatherings, I went – alone – to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, where a masked sonographer reassured me that I was bearing a healthy child and gave me a blurry print-out of the scan to show my relieved fiancé Ross. On a video call to my parents later that day, finally able to reveal my secret, it felt for the first time as if the isolation of the previous month might not last for ever.
As the days lengthened and the summer heat built up, my appetite for life – and food – returned along with the reopening of restaurants and pubs. I obeyed Rishi Sunak’s edict to ‘eat out to help out’, reasoning that I was, after all, eating for two; and I trusted in the campaign to ‘enjoy summer safely’, travelling to Southwold to be beside the seaside with Ross and my growing bump in mid-September. That idyllic weekend – the final one in my second trimester – was, it transpired, to herald not only the last of the glorious sunshine, but also the end of any misplaced hope that we might have seen the back of the virus. On 22 September, around the time I entered my third trimester, Boris Johnson announced a ‘perilous turning point’ in the pandemic and I retreated to the safety of my own four walls, resuming the habit of meeting family and friends on Zoom instead of in person.
In some ways, I feel remarkably fortunate in the timing of my pregnancy. Many of the losses that friends have mourned – gin-fuelled nights at the pub, mulled wine at busy Christmas markets, long-haul travel – are activities I would in any case have forgone, already embarking on a phase of my life in which sacrifices for a greater good are par for the course. I never had to drag myself into the office with acute nausea, nor beg strangers to give up their seats in packed Tube carriages during rush hour. More broadly, during a period when others have spoken of being aimless and adrift, I have felt driven by a powerful sense of purpose, able to devote myself to my own and my future daughter’s wellbeing.
This seems to be a feeling shared by many mothers of the ‘coronial’ generation, or at least by those of us in the Bazaar team, where we are experiencing something of a baby boom. Our junior fashion editor Rosie Arkell-Palmer, who, frighteningly, contracted Covid just a month before her daughter’s due date (by sheer bad luck, her second time with the illness), tells me that despite the testing circumstances, she has valued the opportunity to remain cocooned at home with her husband during such a momentous chapter of their lives. Our beauty director Katy Young, meanwhile, has felt liberated from the burden of other people’s judgements: her decision to have a home birth, which might under normal conditions have attracted raised eyebrows, has proved far easier for her family and friends to comprehend at a time when hospitals are associated with personal risk. Katy also credits the pandemic with helping her to master the art of self-care: knowing that we can all take steps to protect ourselves through simple measures such as hand-washing and social distancing has, she says, prompted her to take greater control of her own health, looking after her body while trusting in its ability to work miracles.
Yet even the most Zen-like mindset cannot guard entirely against the fear, loneliness and sense of frustration that come with carrying a child during a global pandemic. The final weeks of my pregnancy coincided with the onset of winter, bringing in its wake a slew of increasingly bleak headlines that made a further lockdown appear inevitable. I, like other mothers-to-be, had to face up to the prospect of nights spent alone on the postnatal ward with only a crying baby for company (although partners are allowed to be present for the labour and birth, most NHS trusts only permit them to stay during visiting hours throughout the recovery period); of months passing before cherished friends and family members could meet my daughter in person, let alone hold her in their arms; of cosy coffee-shop chit-chats with other new parents being replaced by awkward virtual meetings.
So it was with a complex set of emotions that I arrived at the hospital in mid-December, the trepidation heightened by the unsettling experience of having my tonsils and nostrils swabbed to check my Covid status (negative, happily, although by the time the results came in I had been in the building for at least six hours, in close contact with numerous doctors and midwives). The triage process, during which partners are obliged to wait in the corridor, seemed endless, and it was only when I was finally admitted to the labour ward and Ross was able to rejoin me that I felt ready to take on the challenge of giving birth. There, breathing through the contractions and watching the monitor track my daughter’s heart rate and foetal movements, all of my vague, formless anxieties about the future were suddenly subsumed by a sense of urgency and clarity – a laser-like focus on the present that would see me through the pushing and bring Cassandra into the world.
This is, perhaps, the biggest lesson I have learnt from motherhood: that no matter how unpredictable global events may become, there is a certainty to be found in the role of carer and life-giver; that keeping my newborn daughter warm, safe and happy from one day to the next is, right now, the only thing worth worrying about. In a strange way, bringing up a child amid the restrictions of a pandemic has felt like a return to the historic practice of postpartum confinement, when women would ‘lie in’ for anything from a fortnight to 40 days after childbirth. Still observed in some cultures, this ancient custom has been advocated by a number of scientists as a way of reducing the risk of postnatal depression, and there is certainly something to be said for staying at home in those hazy early days of motherhood, getting to grips with the task of caring for a tiny, fragile creature who is entirely dependent on you. Better yet is a confinement that takes place in the company of a loving partner: every evening, when Ross and I give Cassie her bath and sing her a lullaby together, we are reminded that, until recently, few working fathers have been able to be so present in their children’s lives.
Of course, it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. On some more difficult mornings, frazzled from lack of sleep, I have railed against the unfairness of being unable to have a friend or relative round to make me a cup of tea and help me entertain the baby. On others, I have worried about the opportunities my daughter is being denied: interaction with her grandparents, participation in baby groups, sights and sounds beyond the radius of my daily walk. The pandemic has contracted all of our worlds, forcing us to occupy smaller physical spaces and limiting our range of activity, and I, along with everyone, have lamented its tedium. Yet the circularity of our lockdown era, with its unvarying routines and minimal social contact, is not so dissimilar to the cyclical lifestyle of any new mother tending to the needs of her child. Today, three months into motherhood and freshly habituated to an existence built around feeds, naps and changes, I have at last come to embrace repetition, for I know it is in the service of love.
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