Thursday, October 15, 2020

Pregnant In A Pandemic


 I entered the third trimester of pregnancy with joyous anticipation. Then coronavirus came.

The first sign that something was amiss was the toilet paper shortage. My husband returned from a trip to the wholesale club empty-handed. Apparently, they’d sold out of TP. At first, I couldn’t believe it. I thought that because I was the primary household shopper, he just didn’t know where to look. But nope. He looked. He asked. They were out. “I’ll solve this!” I thought, and went online to order some. They were sold out there, too.

I waited a couple of days, then headed to the warehouse club as soon as it opened, when it was usually a ghost town. This time, it was packed. Swarms of people scurried around the store, filling carts beyond capacity. The atmosphere was crazed, like we were all contestants on Supermarket Sweep.

I made a beeline for the toilet paper section. Along the way, I overheard someone ask an associate where the TP was.

"We're all out, but we have some napkins," the associate said.

This was unacceptable. There had to be toilet paper. There had to be! I went to see for myself and managed to nab two of the remaining six boxes of the cheapest TP available. A minute later, an old man hobbled by me and noticed the toilet paper in my cart.

“Where did you find that?” he asked.

I pointed in the direction of the corresponding wall, knowing full well there wouldn't be any toilet paper left by the time he got there. I felt awful, like I should offer to give him one of my boxes – and yet, as a woman (and a very pregnant one at that), I felt entitled to a substantial toilet paper stash.

I stocked up on hand soap and sponges, only later wishing I'd snatched up paper towels, napkins, and baby wipes, too, because those all soon sold out, as did red meat, chicken, bread, and any other edible staple my family used to take for granted. I swung into hoarder mode, visiting multiple stores in one day to stock up on non-perishables and frozen food, driven by a fear of not having enough nourishment for the remainder of the pregnancy. Yet as a former anorexic, seeing the cupboards, fridge, and two freezers bursting full made me feel panicked, not reassured. Who was going to eat all this food?

By mid-March, there were several cases in our county. It was time to hunker down. My daughters shifted to online learning. My husband started working partially from home. 

There were two public places I frequented religiously: the gym and church. But with COVID-19 cases on the rise, both seemed risky. I canceled our gym membership and we stopped going to church. I’d been going to the same gym for 15 years and my husband and I hadn’t missed a week of Mass in over two years. While I didn’t interact with many people in either place, having those routines torn out of our lives felt like a real loss – at a time when I was already anxious about how much life would change once the baby was born.

Then the entire state went into lockdown. Life became very small, and every day was the same. Wake up. Elliptical. Shower. Eat. Work. Eat. Walk. Stretch. Nap. Eat. Work. Eat. Play cards. Stream. Sleep.

New terms popped up in our daily lexicon: COVID. Pandemic. Quarantine. Shelter in place. Social distancing. Respiratory droplets.

Every day I checked the state statistics on confirmed coronavirus cases and watched them go up, up, up. I had nightmares about stores running out of food and people standing too close to me.

“How is the hospital going to handle coronavirus?” I asked my new midwife (who we’ll call Jenny, even though she won’t be around for long). I now felt nervous about delivering in a hospital, especially the bougie one, which was among the first in the state to create a coronavirus wing.

“Good question,” she said, “but I don’t know the answer to that yet. We have a staff meeting this week to discuss it.”

The pandemic was in its infancy, but it seemed like a serious oversight for the labor and delivery team not to have a plan in place for how to keep pregnant women and newborn babies safe. There were so many unknowns about the virus, like: could it be transmitted in utero? During birth? In breast milk? Were new mothers or babies more at risk than the general population? Could infants die from it? Would Minnesota hospitals forbid fathers from being present at births, as some New York medical centers had?

The hospital setting now seemed like a dangerous place to spend 48 hours postpartum with a newborn. A birth center, which would let me and the baby go home only hours after the birth, started to look more and more appealing.

After a short Googling session, I realized I wasn’t the only woman reconsidering her birth plan in the wake of COVID-19. There were several newspaper articles, both local and national, about pregnant women switching to birth centers, which were deemed lower risk for contracting coronavirus. 

"Given how important having a natural birth is to me, it’s kind of odd that I didn’t pursue a birth center further before," I wrote in my journal. "I guess my fear was driving me into a hospital setting; and now, in a way, fear is driving me away from that."

There were three birth centers in the metro area that would accept a transfer patient as far along in pregnancy as I was. I contacted the one closest to me and set up a consultation.

The birth center was located inside an antiquated, stately house in St. Paul. It had been renovated to accommodate two birthing women at a time, plus acupuncture and chiropractic treatments, as well as classrooms for birth, parenting, and yoga instruction. Just walking in the door, I felt more at ease. The space was decorated with modern but neutral d├ęcor, with a wall full of baby pictures. The midwives wore street clothes and were makeup-free. They spoke calmly and were very laid back about this whole birthing-in-a-pandemic thing. The birthing suites were gorgeous; big, inviting beds, huge birthing tubs, walk-in showers, and every imaginable birthing tool you could think of.

There were some downsides though. First, a ton of bureaucracy. The paperwork was novella-length. There were phone calls to the financial coordinator to ensure insurance would cover the birth center’s fees. They required me to attend two (virtual) classes: one on breastfeeding and another on postpartum care, despite the fact that I had already given birth twice.

A lot of the birth center incidentals were DIY, too, which was a slew of to-dos I really didn’t need in the midst of a pandemic. I had to purchase my own postpartum care items, like disposable underwear and “padsicles” (maxi pads with witch hazel and/or ice packs inside). There would be no free onesies, caps, blankets, or even diapers for the baby. I also had to pack my own food and beverages, because the birth center didn’t provide any (despite having a requirement that new moms eat a meal before going home). We had to bring everything. It seemed like a lot of preparation for what would be a brief stay.

I was on the fence. Ultimately, I didn’t so much make the decision to switch to the birth center as it was made for me – in the form of a phone call from Jenny’s office.

“Midwives will not be attending births until June,” the receptionist told me. “We’re transferring you to an OB for care.”

Despite Jenny's experience and support for my unmedicated birth plan, I wasn't attached to her. She was cold and unenthusiastic compared to the cheerleader-like attitude of Dr. Baby-Maker. But getting transferred to an OB defeated the whole purpose of switching clinics in the first place. If I wanted an OB, I’d go back to Dr. Baby-Maker. I told Jenny's clinic thanks but no thanks, I was transferring to the birth center.

But as I soon discovered, the birth center, which prided itself on empowering women to create their own birth experiences, was not as advertised

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