Pandemic parents — and their babies — adjust to a brave new world

COVID-19 is changing how we all live, work and play, but for new moms and dads, it's adding another layer of uncertainty and stress during one of life's major milestones.

New moms and dads explain what it's like to become parents in a time of COVID-19

Queensway Carleton Hospital nurse Julie Desforges, left, and proud father Ian McLean, right, check out new arrival Hazel Frances Freemark-McLean, born May 1, 2020. (Alexandra Freemark)

They're first-time parents in a pandemic.

COVID-19 is changing how we all live, work and play, but for new moms and dads, it's adding another layer of uncertainty and stress during one of life's major milestones.

Meet Hazel Frances

Alex Freemark and her husband Ian McLean welcomed baby Hazel Frances Freemark-McLean on May 1. 

While McLean was there for the birth, COVID-19 protocols had prevented him from attending the ultrasound appointments for a preview.

"I was looking forward to being able to go through all the steps and enjoy the road to the baby arriving," McLean said. "It was disappointing, but ... I knew everything was being done for the right reasons. As long as it meant the girls were safe, I was happy to oblige."

Freemark's mother, a nurse at the Queensway Carleton Hospital, wasn't allowed to participate in the birth as planned because of the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

"That was a little upsetting. I was still grateful that Ian would be there. I was really scared they might take that away as well," Freemark said. 

Nor could the proud parents show off their baby after her arrival. Two baby showers had to be cancelled, and other family members could only see Hazel on Facetime or through a window.

"My own mom and Alex's mom are both just desperate to hold her," McLean said. "The Zoom call just isn't the same as being … able to cuddle the baby."

Ian McLean and Alex Freemark hold their new baby, Hazel Frances. (Submitted by Ian McLean)

Isolation was an issue for new parents long before COVID-19, but the strain has been exacerbated by physical distancing requirements. Drop-in services for breastfeeding help have been cancelled, so Freemark turned to YouTube videos and sought advice from family.

"I ended up calling the Ottawa Public Health line and spoke to a really lovely public health nurse who walked me through things," she said. "I feel really bad for mothers that are going through [post-partum depression] right now, because there aren't as many resources."

Witnessing your son's birth via cellphone

Dr. Britt Harrison and her partner Dr. Raywat Deonandan welcomed their baby boy Harrison Deonandan on May 14, via a planned C-section at the General campus of The Ottawa Hospital. 

Prior to the birth, Harrison said she struggled to stay calm in the midst of a pandemic. "Going grocery shopping was a huge anxiety-provoking experience. I wish I didn't have that anxiety through the end of my pregnancy," she said.

Because of COVID-19, Deonandan wasn't allowed to be present during the delivery. His reaction to that restriction was mixed.

"Honestly, a little bit of relief because it was going to be a C-section and I was steeling myself for the horrors of surgery and having a living creature plucked from my girlfriend's abdomen," he admitted.

But the experience was tinged with regret, too. "Obviously you want to be there from the first moment that your son enters the world, and you've always got that fear that if you're not there from the first moment then somehow you are subtracted from the lifelong experience. You're late coming to the party."

New parents Britt Harrison, left, and Raywat Deonandan, right, with baby Harrison Deonandan, born May 14, 2020, and the family dog, Sherlock. (Submitted by Raywat Deonandan)

Deonandan waited in the parking lot, connected to the delivery room only by cellphone.

"When the baby came out, he could hear the baby scream, and he was obviously emotional. It was unfortunate that he couldn't be there to see it," Harrison said.

Deonandan finally got to meet his son in the recovery room, but thanks to multiple COVID-19-related screenings, all designed to protect patients and staff from exposure, it took about an hour to get in. The checkpoint process triggered a subtle but profound anxiety in the new father.

"As a brown guy navigating a post-9/11 world, you are used to both passive and active surveillance," Deonandan said. "You feel yourself trying to look as uninfected as possible. Don't sneeze. Don't cough. This is not the moment to have an allergic response."

Even inside the recovery room, the emotions were complex.

"You're flush with the emotions of fatherhood, responsibility, love and relief. We're also a bi-racial couple and the kid is not my colour, so at the back of your brain you're thinking, 'Will people believe that this is my child?"

Unlike the Freemark-McLean family, Harrison and Deonandan have help at home. Harrison's mother is a retired pediatric nurse.

"She pre-quarantined herself," Harrison said. "I'm so happy she's here."

Ottawa Valley parents alone together

Mike Minns and his fiancée Tayllor Lockwood became first-time parents on May 5, with the early arrival of Brinley Dianne Minns. The infant was delivered in Pembroke, Ont., but taken immediately to CHEO's neonatal intensive care unit, where she remains.

COVID-19 is making an already difficult start that much harder. "Everything's up in the air. Just going down to visit her every night is a little bit tougher. We're not even allowed to go in and see her together at the moment, except for a half-hour crossover," Minns said. 

New parents Mike Minns, left, and Tayllor Lockwood hold baby Brinley Dianne Minns, born May 5, 2020. (Submitted by Mike Minns)

So Minns waits in the parking lot for his turn while Lockwood cradles their tiny daughter alone. "It's hard not being there at the same time," he said. "But on the other hand it's nice to know that she is being kept as safe as possible."

It's not the first time the couple has had to deal with pandemic protocols.

At 33 weeks, a suspected gallbladder attack sent Lockwood to the Pembroke Regional Hospital. After tests showed she and the baby were in distress, she was admitted for an emergency C-section. Minns was summoned and arrived just in time.

"You could have put a brick wall in front of me that said 'I have COVID' and I was running through it," Minns said.

Even now, the protective mask Lockwood must wear restricts her vision. "Whenever I'm holding her in the kangaroo hold, which is the skin-to-skin contact, I can't see her," she said. "She's so close to my chest and she's so little, I can't see anything she's doing."

Still, they have that brief half hour together to bond as a family, and they'll take whatever special moments they can get.

"I happened to be there when Mike was changing his first diaper on Saturday," Lockwood said.

"She got to see it, so she believes me," Minns added.

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