Mamamade founder Sophie Baron shares the story of her pandemic pregnancy and birth of son, Arthur David.
“Of course you’re tired. You had a baby four weeks ago in the middle of a pandemic.”
The message of reassurance comes from my mother in New York. A message, of course. We haven’t seen each other in a year, and who knows when we will again.
How long ago the beginning of the pandemic seems now, nearly a year on. How naive we all were. I had been expecting a baby in July last year, and I remember in March, for the first time, and surprising even to myself, feeling utterly relieved that I had lost that baby. ‘At least I won’t have a pandemic baby.’ I felt smug.
Well, I had a pandemic baby. I have a pandemic baby. And if you’re going to have a pandemic baby, I really do know how you’re feeling. I know all about the uncertainty. The heartbreak. The fear of being undersupported.
My birth, like the pregnancy itself, went nothing as I’d imagined. On paper, my birth reads like a checklist of my worst fears around childbirth. In reality, it was a mostly positive experience.
And I just really hope this story gives some peace of mind.
The Pandemic Pregnancy
I had near-crippling anxiety throughout the pregnancy. On top of navigating a period of explosive growth for Mamamade, managing my daughter Liba, who was going through some big changes, living with the physical challenges of pregnancy, and two very sick family members I couldn’t see, there was realising my family - who live in New York - wouldn’t see me pregnant, wouldn’t be able to come for the birth or possibly even the weeks after. It was too upsetting to think about. I’d struggled so much with the lack of support I face with Liba’s arrival 3 years prior. The idea that I’d have to do that again and the fear of another bout of post-natal depression hung over me throughout the pregnancy.
And I was frustrated with the care I received. It felt disjointed. My concerns fell on deaf ears, and things like extra scans and even glucose testing (to test for gestational diabetes, which can cause overly big babies - more on that below!), which I would have been entitled to under normal circumstances, weren’t on offer due to the pandemic. A risk wasn’t picked up until 38 weeks, at which point I became so anxious I had to go on maternity leave early with barely a word to the Mamamade team. Our amazing team was working on a huge amount - a website rebuild, a rebrand, customer queries and a record month of sales - and I was entirely absent, asleep at the wheel with the stress of this pregnancy.
And then I obsessed over what we were going to do with Liba in labour. ‘Unwelcome thoughts’. I couldn’t not think about it. I wasn’t sure we’d have anyone to look after her, and there was no way I could face labor without my partner (and Mamamade co-founder!) Ian. So I was absolutely euphoric when at 36 weeks I was approved for a home birth . As an American, home birth seemed incredibly risky - the American system in general is much more medicalised than the UK’s, where most care is midwife-led - but I appreciated that here in the UK, outcomes for second-time births at home are equivalent with the birth centre. A ‘birth box’ was delivered to my house, and I felt ready and excited.
I had had a straightforward, unmedicated birth with Liba - this way I’d get to have Ian, Liba, and even a doula with me, as studies show that a supportive and knowledgeable birth partner can improve birth experiences and outcomes. My remaining appointments were at home, with a midwife who paid attention to me. I was excited about the birth, genuinely looking forward to it.
Of all the ways I imagined my birth going, of all the different outcomes I’d pictured in anxious frenzy - the one thing I didn’t account for, at any point during the pregnancy until I had to, was that I wouldn’t go into labor at all. It just never occurred to me that I’d get to my due date (I hadn’t with Liba!) let alone 11 days beyond!
I resisted induction, holding out hope for my unmedicated birth. I realllyyyyyyy resisted. I think my family was ready to get on a plane from New York and forcibly take me to the hospital themselves. But still I waited. And tried absolutely everything I could in the current climate.
Pre-pandemic, I might have gotten massages. Reflexology. Acupuncture. Instead I walked. I baked. I cleaned toilets. I sniffed Clary Sage. It was unbearable.
On Christmas Eve I got a call that home births were no longer available as the London Ambulance Service was overstretched. I booked in for induction that Sunday. The overbearing weight of uncertainty was lifted, and I began to look forward to it.
Because I was still technically low-risk, I was offered an outpatient induction using something called a Cook’s Balloon - a device that puts pressure on the cervix to manually expand it, in turn causing labor to start. I could go home with it, and then come in 12 hours later. It also meant I’d be able to give birth in the birth centre.
But Ian wasn’t allowed in with me for the insertion, a fact that made me uneasy - but there were about 10 other women waiting for the same procedure, all of us alone, waiting for hours, and there was comfort in the camaraderie of it.
12 hours later was 3am, and they told me they’d be expecting me then. I thought they were joking. They weren’t. But luckily Ian was allowed in with me this time. Contractions were irregular, but I was practicing my hypnobirthing and listening to positive affirmations, and felt genuinely calm and excited about all to come.
At 3am I was 4cm dilated and I was admitted to the birth centre. I took a picture of the birthing pool in excited anticipation of where my baby would be born (spoiler alert: baby wasn’t born there).
When they noticed meconium in my waters (baby’s first poo, and often a sign of distress), things changed quickly. I was speedily transferred to the labor ward, to a tiny room with a communal bathroom.
Guys, I broke down. I know it might sound ridiculous, but I had a huge cry. This was the limit. I was supposed to be having a low-risk, no-intervention and unmedicated birth with the comforts of home. Instead I was now high-risk in a sterile, unwelcoming environment. Contractions picked up, and I struggled to stay calm through them. I tried my up-breathing, but now tethered to the monitor with a cannula in my wrist, I couldn’t get a grip. I have a real phobia of hospitals and large needles. I had lost the will and the focus. I was now 6cm and begging for an epidural. ‘There’s no medal for putting up with this,’ I kept shouting. I was desperate to regain calm and control, and I’m so grateful for the epidural because it allowed me to get back in a good headspace.
There were concerns about baby’s heart rate throughout my labour, and doctors came in and out to assess. It was hardly the unobserved, private experience I’d been hoping for. But I should say that I didn’t feel violated. I was so grateful for the attention. When you’ve lost a baby, and you’re told the one you’re carrying is no longer low-risk, there is huge comfort in knowing you’re being looked after.
I begged to stand up to push, or to go on hands and knees or to squat - I knew I’d be having a big baby (just not how big!), and I wanted the help of gravity to get him out. But the monitor kept sliding around, so I was encouraged to go back onto my back. I was frustrated - another element of my pictured birth taken away from me, but worried enough to stay motivated and calm. Let’s get baby out!
Guys, pushing with an epidural is NO JOKE! Oh my gosh. Pushing without one, with Liba, was sweet relief. My body took over and knew just what to do. But I found it nearly impossible with an epidural as I was so numb. I just kept trying to visualise relaxing my pelvic floor, as I couldn’t feel a thing…and he started to come down.
And then, ever-so subtly, about 3 more midwives came into the room as well as a neonatology doctor. I panicked that a c-section was around the corner (did I mention my fear of hospitals and needles!). I later learned it was because the baby’s shoulders got stuck behind my pelvic bone - a really rare but dangerous complication known as shoulder dystocia (it affects 0.7% of vaginal births). I was asked to lay in what felt like a super undignified position, on my back with legs pushed out and up toward my chest. But they managed to free him, and out he came at 5.29pm after about 20 minutes of pushing in total.
The feeling of fear and relief when they put him on my chest. I couldn’t believe I’d actually done it. And I’d felt so well-supported, so well-looked after, that despite the list of things that ‘went wrong,’ I felt nothing but overwhelming relief. He was huge, covered in meconium, and silent. But then he let out a big cry, the meconium was wiped off, he was checked for any damage - he was totally fine. He started feeding straight away. He was really here! All 4.6kg of him! (the average baby is around 3kg - Liba had been 3.45).
After the birth
In the end, the only difference to birthing in a pandemic was that everyone was in masks. Ian wasn’t allowed in the postnatal ward, but the midwives let us stay together in the delivery room for nearly 6 hours. By the time Ian had to leave, I was so exhausted it almost didn’t matter.
We’re 5 weeks in to life with a newborn. I want to continue sharing my worries, anxieties and highs and lows with other parents like you - and create space for you to do the same. Having a baby is a shock to the system. It’s life-changing under the best of circumstances, but add in a global pandemic, and things feel even weirder and harder. We could all use a little extra love and support.
Are you expecting? How have you been handling pregnancy in a pandemic? Join the conversation in the comments and come join us in the Mamamates community on Facebook.