Author and rogue guest contributor Vicky Kavanagh gave birth to her first child shortly before Covid-19 restrictions came into place. She writes about being cut off from the support network so important to new mothers, and the grief that this first chapter of her daughter’s life is being witnessed only by her parents[restrict]
The process of becoming a mother is a highly individualised, specific experience. Like falling in love or falling apart, no two circumstances are the same. There are of course broad similarities; commonalities that all mothers share, an invisible thread linking each one to the next. But each mother, each journey, is as unique as the person going through it. You don’t become a mother overnight, thank god.
When I found out I was pregnant, excitement and fear filled me in equal measure. In the midst of my incredulity that this had happened – the butterflies each time I put my hand on my unchanged stomach and thought of the person developing within – a worry would whisper softly to me: how will you know how to mother without a mother of your own to show you? It was a fear that stayed with me, in different potencies, as my belly and baby grew through summer, autumn and winter.
I did what is natural to me in the face of such fears; I planned around it. I would build a team, a support system of mothers, that I could look to for guidance and advice. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law, friends, mothers I hadn’t met yet but planned to. I researched each phase of my pregnancy in advance of it happening and made myself aware of baby groups and swim classes for the months after my baby was born. Parenthood is the most unplannable event of your life, but I felt comforted by mine, pulled it tight around me like a blanket. I had my partner, I had my supports. I would be fine.
My daughter was born in the wake of the first storm of the year and the significance of that in light of what was to come would be a tragic cliché if it weren’t true. The birth was not an easy one (are any?) and those first few weeks were a heady mix of pain, love and bewilderment. The days easily slipped into weeks, time gaining its own momentum. At one week old, we had to make our first frantic dash to A&E when a nail infection sprung up overnight, unexplained. Five days of antibiotics four times a day followed, which my daughter treated as if poison were being administered.
Hormonal, sleep-deprived and still recovering from my cesarean, I found this experience so wearing we moved into my in-laws for a long weekend to get some support. The fear of post-natal depression cloaked me like a shroud. I have ‘a history’ of mental illness which placed me in the high-risk category for postpartum depression. In the weeks after the birth, as my emotions swung wildly, I would think to myself, terrified, ‘Is this it?’
I examined my behaviour forensically, constantly searching for warning signs. Exhaustion, normal. Crying, normal – once it doesn’t go on too long. Wanting five minutes away from the baby? Normal, once it’s only five minutes. In the final months of winter, it was not a virus I was scared of, but the power of my own mind.
When I first heard mention of Covid-19, I quickly dismissed it as ‘over there’. Every few years there was something, some insidious new disease that due to privilege of geography I never worried about. In those first feverish weeks of motherhood, I was more concerned with getting through each day than I was with current affairs. But of course, this wasn’t something for over there. It wasn’t like anything any of us had ever seen and as I got to grips with breastfeeding, the WHO was trying to get to grips with a pandemic.
My fear of postpartum depression edged away, gently receding into my horizon as I felt my confidence grow. I was finding a rhythm in motherhood, a routine of support. I thought I was out of the woods. Then, it all happened so suddenly. Like that bit in your Irish oral when your story veered quickly with a ‘go tobann’, galloping off dramatically somewhere else. By the time the schools were closed, I knew what was coming. At least, I thought I did.
The last time we were all together as a family was for my partner’s birthday. Plans had already been adjusted. A trip to the pub was cancelled, although the pubs remained open, and we gathered at my in-laws, watching the 6.1 news, edgy and uneasy, saying how this would be the last time we would see each other for a while. I think of us gathered in that sitting room, already socially distant from each other, facing a cliff none of us wanted to jump off.
You know the rest, what happened next.
The closure of the pubs, the address to the nation on St Patrick’s Day, the overnight change in our lives. By the time the “stay at home” edict came on March 24, life had already been cleaved in half: before and after. My daughter was barely two months old. The fabric of our lives was torn to shreds. Her grandparents, who live 2km away, were no longer able to see her every few days, couldn’t cuddle her and watch her grow. All the new mothering groups stopped long before March 24, nobody wanting to take the chance to bring their baby to meet with strangers, no matter how desperately we longed for the connection. A coffee with a friend, a trip to Dun Laoghaire to go to the library… all the little anchors, weighing me down, keeping me steady, vanished.
It was as if I had been marooned on an island, with a newborn and my partner, in the ultimate test of endurance. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but they never said what to do when that village isn’t there.
Along with all my new mother anxieties and fears came the terror of the virus. Information was mercurial, shifting from one week to the next. At first, it wasn’t believed babies and children could contract, only carry. Then, they could, but they didn’t get it that bad. But then a pregnant woman in the UK died and a newborn baby in the US died and the thought that there was a harm that I might not be able to protect my child from, no matter how hard I tried, was too mind shattering to contemplate.
When I wasn’t worried about what might happen if she got sick, I worried about her weight. Seemingly overnight she developed reflux and breastfeeding her became a struggle. I would hear her hungry cry and try to feed her, milk spilling over my stomach and legs, anywhere but her mouth, as she wailed in pain and frustration. While other babies drifted off to sleep, milk drunk, I struggled to get my child to take the baby Gaviscon she hated after every feed. I would wipe her tears and rock her to sleep, exhausted with tension, feeling stretched impossibly thin.
My partner is an essential worker and although he’s working a lot less, on the days when the crying was relentless, with a baby I could not settle for any length of time, walking the floor of our apartment holding her close and speaking softly to try and soothe her, I felt desperately alone. As the weeks went on, the force of reality came in waves. There’s nobody else. It’s just us. Thinking too far into the future became a dangerous game. There’s the hope offered by the possibility of future plans.
Simple things: a family meal with my in-laws, introducing our baby to family in the UK, friends at home. Dinner parties in our home, our friends gathered together, happy to just be here. But the unanswerable question of ‘When?’ always loomed and dwelling too long on that, well. The nightly news is watched obsessively, fear and sorrow and guilt increasing as the numbers grow. A new mother’s world is a small place to begin with. Your life is no longer your own.
Patterns of the day, plans and productivity are dictated by a tiny human. Your needs and wants come last, as any mother who has sat, her back spasming, ignoring the urge to pee as her baby sleeps peacefully in her arms knows. It’s worth it, of course it’s worth it. The love you feel for your child is unique, perfect. Consuming and intoxicating, it will propel you forward when you are more mentally and physically exhausted than you have ever known.
But when you become a mother, for the first time, in a once in a lifetime pandemic, you are utterly alone. There is no frame of reference; these are unprecedented times; the radio tells you. Which you play compulsively, in a need to feel connected to somewhere beyond the walls of your home. If you’re lucky to have the other parent living with you, they become the load bear for all your stress and emotions and anxieties, and you become theirs. They are the source of your frustrations and the solution to them. They drive you crazy one minute and become the only thing holding you together the next.
In between you, a thankfully oblivious baby, who only cares about being fed, held, played with, talked to, changed, kissed, loved. As the days turn into weeks and the weeks into one month, then two, I’ve never felt such gratitude and heartbreak all at once.
Gratitude is the language I practice each day. I list things off in my head, on long walks with the baby and dog: the nearby park and beach; a healthy, happy child; a safe home; a loving partner; books to read; TV to watch; good food to eat, technology to stay somewhat connected; the chorus of birdsong that delights my daughter. Simple things, so many things I took for granted, I now realise are the things which maintained my equilibrium. This comforts me somewhat, makes me realise how little, how very little, I need to be content. To survive. I just need enough of them to survive.
But the heartbreak. Oh, the heartbreak. I list these things too: family members not seeing our daughter properly, in all her marvellous glory; all the plans for my maternity leave abandoned; trips cancelled; isolation, day after day; the inability to escape our daughter for an hour, so that my partner and I can just talk to each other, uninterrupted; the beautiful weather which feels taunting when we can’t go anywhere, can’t have barbecues with our family, take a hike with our daughter; not spending time with our nieces and nephews; the chorus of birdsong that feels like a taunt, a role-reversal.
They have been liberated and we are the ones now under threat. My daughter develops a viral infection and a visit to the GP in the grips of the new restrictions is bizarre. There’s a giddy excitement at being in the car, the very act of driving somewhere feeling defiant. The strangeness of instruction that only one of us can go in with her, to have her stripped of clothes, to keep the visit as short as possible. The sight of our usual kindly GP, unrecognisable in the head-to-toe PPE makes it seem as if I’ve wandered onto the set of a horror movie, but it’s not, this is the new normal. My daughter is fine, thank god.
But the whole experience, surreal and stressful, hammers home the precariousness of life now. It feels much longer than two months since she’s been held by somebody other than us, since I hugged my friend or had my sister-in-law tell me face-to-face that all my fears and worries about my child are normal, I’m doing great, to keep going.
Without places to go, people to see, time is an ungraspable thing. It is only the differences in the light which signal one day ending and another beginning, only the weariness of my body as I lay my head down for a night of anxious dreams which leave me confused when I wake for the middle of the night feeds that let me know that time, is indeed, marching forward. Like everyone else, I’ve had to find a way to adapt, to continue on. I’ve joked that I highly recommend having a newborn during a pandemic as it keeps you busy, which is true. My daughter’s routines and needs give backbone to my day; writing is done after the 11am feed, exercise after lunch. She sleeps, in my arms, pressed close to my chest, oblivious to all that she is missing, that I am missing for her.
Over the last week, I’ve only begun to truly accept the obvious: that this isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. That in all likelihood, by the time we can go to breastfeeding groups again, I’ll no longer be breastfeeding. Or that when her grandparents can finally hold her again, she’ll be crawling, keen to be out of arms and exploring the world. Or that when friends meet her, for the first time, she will be unrecognisable from the photographs of a newborn they were sent after her birth. That a whole chapter of her life was concluded with only her father and I as witnesses.
There’s a new date to look forward to, to cling to. A date that has been transformed from mundane to magical, when I will hopefully see my daughter passed into the arms of all the other people who love her: auntie, uncle, grandparents, great-grandparent, cousin, friend. When my partner and I can leave our child, luxuriously, to go for a coffee together, a walk. Anything. Just time, together, away from being parents for a little while.
A date that will allow all the things that make our lives richer, brighter, happier – a haircut, a nail appointment, wedding dress shopping, getting books from the library. But until then, there is just this.
These endless days, this passage of time. Slipping from my hand even as I desperately try to hold onto it. Grateful that my daughter has no knowledge of what is going on, heartbroken for what has been taken from us.
Images from a selection at Unsplash.com[/restrict]