Discovering you’re pregnant with your first baby in the middle of a pandemic is a surreal experience. There’s the frantic Amazon Prime-ing of pregnancy tests, the burgeoning bump growing out of sight on work Zoom calls, the necessity of delivering your giddy, life-changing news to friends and family over the phone. And that’s before I even mention the utter weirdness of an actual tiny human rolling around inside you while the world implodes.
Of course, when you plan to get pregnant during such a bizarre time (as I did), you have to take some of these inevitable consequences on the chin. Over the past few months, we’ve all had our freedoms curtailed. That’s the deal when it comes to keeping ourselves and the people we love safe.
But back in July, as I looked, awe-struck, at the positive test, hugged my partner and happy danced around the kitchen, I could never have imagined what being pregnant during a pandemic would truly entail.
There have been midwife appointments on the phone, lines crackling as I stretched to make out what terms like ‘rhesus’, ‘anterior placenta’, and ‘colostrum’ all meant. The truly bizarre experience of practising baby CPR on a sofa cushion during an online first aid course. The fact that the Cosmopolitan colleagues I don’t work with directly don’t know about my pregnancy because they don’t see me waddling into the office every day. And to the family and friends I haven’t seen, it’ll seem like I began the pandemic as a carefree Sauvignon-swigger and came out the other side with a baby.
Some of these things have been easier to bear than others. But by far the most heartbreaking consequence of being pregnant as COVID-19 obliterated the lives we all took for granted has been the impact it’s had on my partner, who has been unwavering in his desire to become a father ever since we met in our late teens - but who has found himself sidelined throughout.
Due to COVID-19 rules and restrictions, many NHS Trusts banned partners from the majority of scans, appointments, and most of labour. During lockdown, this was essential to protect us and NHS staff from the disease, but as the government rushed to reopen the country’s pubs, shops, and restaurants last summer, they neglected to allow parents to go through the euphoric highs and devastating, life-changing lows of pregnancy and labour together.
The rules meant that my partner was denied the joy of seeing his child on a screen for the first time at my 12-week scan. During the appointment, I was be sent home almost immediately, a sick feeling swimming in my stomach, only to be told to return later because my baby was too small.
He wasn’t allowed to come with me to my follow-up scan, where I would find out whether or not ‘too small’ meant ‘not viable’ (thankfully, all was fine).
He would be told "no" when he asked if he could come with me to an appointment with a thyroid specialist, to discuss whether or not my underactive (read: lazy) thyroid might pose a danger to our baby.
And when we raced into hospital at 7pm on New Year’s Eve for an emergency growth scan, pre-emptive fireworks splashing the sky in colour, he had to wait in a draughty hallway.
In fact, the only appointment he’s been allowed to attend (aside from sitting silently on speakerphone during my telephone midwife appointments) was the 20-week scan, where we found out we’d be having a little girl.
As I write, I’m 33 weeks pregnant. We’ve had scares and terrifying test results along the way, but right now things are good and healthy. I can’t imagine what waiting for me to relay information from midwives and doctors, and not being able to ask direct questions himself, has felt like.
What we've been through is just one example of the way pregnant women and expectant parents have been disregarded during the COVID-19 pandemic. This became the subject of a campaign, #ButNotMaternity, launched with a Change.org petition. Eventually, NHS Trusts were told by the government that partners should be able to attend appointments and births, but many still refused to follow this advice, with The Guardian reporting that only 23% of NHS Trusts were allowing partners to stay for the whole of labour. As one Twitter user said: "Perhaps we should all give birth in pubs in order to get a better deal?"
Being alone when you’re going through pregnancy is tough when everything is going right. But when things go wrong and you're on your own, the trauma can be unbearable. One in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and many find out this awful news during their routine scan appointments. It’s hard to comprehend that women were forced to go through the impossible pain of learning their babies had died, while pubs full of drinkers sank pints around the corner. The mental health implications for the women who went through this will have catastrophic and lifelong consequences.
Some days, I seethe with the injustice of what we’ve been forced to endure at the hands of incompetent decision makers, but then I remember that some women have had no choice but to give birth in warzones and refugee camps, and I remember that I’m still pretty privileged, really. Besides, every single midwife, doctor, and receptionist I’ve encountered has been wonderful, and I can’t imagine how horrific it must be to leave your family and go to work every day in a workplace where COVID-19 is rife, putting their health at risk to take care of patients like me. I feel at once immense gratitude, but also a sense that pregnant and labouring women have had a raw deal.
As we make our way through Lockdown 3.0 (how can it still be January?!), my mid-March due date feels at once a million years away and also like it’s tomorrow. When I found out I was pregnant last July (post-lockdown, pre-Eat Out to Help Out), I (perhaps naively) thought I’d be able to give birth as normal, but spiking COVID-19 deaths mean that is currently looking unlikely.
At the moment, as with the first lockdown, many NHS Trusts aren’t allowing partners to join labouring women until they’re at least 4cm dilated (after which point they’re deemed to be in ‘active labour’). Which piece of government modelling decreed that a cervix needed to be 40mm open and not 39mm before allowing the baby’s other parent into the room, I’m not sure. It’s also looking unlikely that my partner will be able to stay with me and our baby for long after the birth. Once our daughter is here, he’ll be treated just like the second cousin of someone who has broken their thumb, and consigned to only visiting during ‘official’ hours.
There are still so many unknowns. Will I have to wear a mask during labour? Will my partner be allowed in for all of it, or just the, erm, main event? Will he be permitted to hang around for longer than five minutes post-birth, or will he be booted out of the hospital while I lie there, drugged up and bewildered, wondering WTF just happened? Will my parents be able to meet my first child before next Christmas? Will my daughter think that her aunties and uncles have masks instead of mouths?
These are all questions to which – at the moment – there’s no answer. But knowing I’ll meet my baby at the end of it makes it all worthwhile. When parents who came before me described their babies as tiny miracles, I used to think it sounded terribly clichéd. But to have grown something so precious during a year of pain and heartache truly does feel like a wondrous thing.
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