What it's like to give birth during a worldwide health crisis
Photographer Dallas Curow shares an intimate account of her daughter's birth story, in text and images
Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.
On March 11, 2020 — the day that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic — I was already on the edge of my seat.
I was exactly 37 weeks pregnant that day. After traversing a high-risk pregnancy, this was the magic number of weeks I'd been hoping and praying that baby and I would reach without increased complications or going into preterm labour.
When I hit this long-awaited milestone in my pregnancy, I allowed myself a brief mental celebration. And then — like nearly everyone did as the realities of a global pandemic started kicking in — I got down to the business of freaking out.
As a working mom, I'd spent the past two years of my first child's life learning how to be both an artist and a mother. After much trial and error, I finally felt like I was striking a balance of sorts. I love being a portrait photographer with every fibre of my being; the incomparable high of helping people feel seen through portraiture is what I live for as an artist. I'd known that the arrival of another child would temporarily upend my business operations, but experience told me that my career would be waiting for me when I was ready. But what happens when there's a stay-at-home order issued for an indeterminate amount of time? What would happen to my career if childcare continued to be unavailable? And how do you even photograph people in the context of social distancing?
Despite these many questions about the future, I tried to keep my mind on the most pressing issue: giving birth during a pandemic.
As I waited, I watched the news, and as I watched, my anxiety started to swell. Like everyone, I was horrified by what I saw. The stories coming out of Italy were nightmarish and heart-wrenching in every way, and my pregnancy hormones made me feel everything so much more intensely. What kind of world would my baby be joining?
Then I started hearing rumblings of mothers being forced to give birth alone in the hardest-hit regions such as New York City. I knew the situation wasn't as dire in Canada or particularly in Edmonton, where I live, but things were changing rapidly. I started to try to come to terms with the very real possibility of giving birth alone, without my partner.
When my doctor's office called to say I would have to come alone to all future appointments, and my hospital announced they were no longer allowing more than one support person during labour and no visitors postpartum, my confidence in a smooth and enjoyable birth experience started to crumble. Was barring partners from the delivery room the next step? And if it was, could I do it alone if I had to?
I thought of all the mothers doing just that in cities at the epicentres of the pandemic. I thought of all the different places and contexts in the world and throughout history in which women brought babies Earthside solo, and damn if wasn't buoyed by their strength. Yes, I told myself — I could definitely give birth alone if that's what it came to.
In hindsight, it would have been hard as hell. I ended up being in back labour, and if I didn't have my partner to press aggressively on my lower back during every contraction, I would have been in a whole other level of pain for a very long time. In most cases, nurses are not able to give this kind of hands-on support with everything on their plates; it's something only a partner or another support person such as a doula can offer. (This is just one of many important reasons why it was shortly determined in the state of New York that the risks of forcing mothers to labour alone outweighed the risks of allowing partners in delivery rooms.) Thankfully, our hospital decided to allow birthing mothers to be accompanied by one support person, and my partner was allowed to be by my side the whole time.
We arrived together on the morning of March 23 to begin the induction process. They administered the medication, observed me for a few hours, and sent us home together to wait for labour to begin and return to the hospital once active labour had kicked in. The rapid evolution of the pandemic was driving the hospital to constantly update its screening processes and policies, and I can't imagine how complex it was for decision-makers to change the policies and then orchestrate rolling everything out. I applaud the frontline workers for showing up every day and adapting to these changing working conditions with courage and grace.
Of course, once I arrived back at the hospital that evening with contractions a few minutes apart and ready to have my baby, it was hard to be objectively happy with these policy changes. I was in pain, and I was less than thrilled to be giving birth in the time of a plague.
Was it fun to stop to wait in line at the hospital entrance to answer a series of thorough questions at two separate screening points while my body was being intermittently vice-gripped by contractions? Nope! But did I feel deeply reassured by the presence of these checkpoints and the level of care — and litres of hand sanitizer — being dispensed? Absolutely.
After just under 12 hours of back labour, narrowly avoiding an emergency C-section, an epidural that thankfully worked like a dream (not the case with my first delivery), and miraculously only a few minutes of pushing, our beautiful daughter, Beatrix Hazel Skye, was born. It was the morning of March 24.
For mothers, the postpartum period can be incredibly isolating when you're suddenly at home all the time with a baby and it seems like the world is moving along without you. This time, however, everyone else was doing exactly the same thing as me.- Dallas Curow
Holding her in my arms, I told the doctor and nurses that I felt like a million bucks. They laughed and told me no one ever says that the moment after giving birth. For me, riding that wave of blissful hormones and finally holding my daughter in my arms, I felt no more fear, no more panic — only love. The pandemic had temporarily dissolved in my consciousness.
On the trip home from the hospital, the vibe was decidedly different than when we'd driven the same route with our newborn son two years earlier. Then, our nerves had been limited to the shock of suddenly being parents and having a tiny human in our backseat, but those nerves were cancelled out by the excitement we felt to embark on adventures as a family. We were eager to introduce him to our favourite people and places and fold him into our life. Our world expanded as we discovered different, baby-friendly spaces and made new friends along the way. But this time around, we drove home on near-deserted city streets in a mild state of shock. We were returning our baby home not to continue life as normal, but to shelter in place as a family. What would this be like?
For mothers, the postpartum period can be incredibly isolating when you're suddenly at home all the time with a baby and it seems like the world is moving along without you. This time, however, everyone else was doing exactly the same thing as me: sitting at home in far less than their Sunday best, puttering around, keeping weird hours, connecting with their loved ones virtually, and wondering often what day it was. Solidarity! And if I pulled myself away from the news and leaned into the all-consuming demands of newborn life at home, I could almost make myself believe there wasn't an unprecedented worldwide crisis outside our doors...almost.
Here is what I wonder now as a mother: if social distancing continues until the arrival of a vaccine or some other miracle, how will I create a village to help raise my children? What will community look like for them? As an artist, I wonder: when will I be able to return to work, or will I be on a semi-permanent maternity leave in order to keep my kids safe? How does a portrait photographer work when you can't be physically close to your subjects?
But these are all questions for another day. For now, I'm staying home, cuddling my little people, and making sure their basic needs are met. The pandemic might have put my job on hold, but it doesn't stop me from being an artist. My medium has just changed from creating photographs to creating some semblance of a normal life for my family in these strange times.
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