White Coat, Black Art·Personal Essay

Dear diary: I'm having a baby at the height of a global pandemic

CBC reporter Marika Wheeler reveals what it's like to have a baby in a hospital at the height of a global pandemic. She shares her concerns about staying safe, and worries that her husband might not be able to be present at the delivery due to hospital restrictions.

Marika Wheeler's reporter's diary on the anxiety and risks involved in delivering a baby during a pandemic

Marika Wheeler and her baby daughter. (Submitted by Marika Wheeler)
Listen26:30

My husband and I are driving to the hospital, our car groaning up the steep Quebec City hills. The decade-old Mazda needs a new muffler but with garages and just about everything else closed we've had to wait. As the noisy exhaust shatters the eerie midday quiet of the streets we tell ourselves, "What will be, will be."

It's a sunny afternoon in mid-April: It's my due date, I'm in labour, and the cusp of the peak of COVID-19 infections in Quebec. 

Oddly, as we head towards the hospital, I feel the most serene I have in weeks.

I'm a planner. I often stay awake at night, my head racing, trying to project-manage whatever challenge is before me. But on March 11, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, any plans I had for the birth of our second child felt torn to shreds. 

The help we hoped for after the birth evaporated, and with it, I realized, the joys of introducing a wrinkly, tiny new baby to loved ones, rescheduled to we-don't-know-when. 

The planning I could do seemed limited to inserting small vials of hand sanitizer in our coat pockets, and stocking my freezer and pantry shelves. 

Anxiety levels rise 

Sometimes the stress of trying to figure out what the pandemic meant for my pregnancy, the baby and my family weighed so heavy on my chest, it was difficult to take a full, deep breath.

The help we hoped for after the birth evaporated, and with it, I realized, the joys of introducing a wrinkly, tiny new baby to loved ones, rescheduled to we-don't-know-when. - Marika Wheeler

I scoured news stories and tuned in to daily press conferences looking for guidance on how to protect myself and my family, and to get an inkling of what might be waiting for me when I give birth. 

My husband finally told me I should disable the news alerts on my phone. The hundred or so "dings" per day I was getting were detrimental to my mental health, he said. He was right. 

Hospital visits were another source of stress. They made me acutely aware of surfaces, hand sanitizer, coughs and unseen droplets. I was torn between wanting to meet face-to-face with my doctor, and not wanting to be anywhere near a medical facility.

About to give birth to her second child during a global pandemic, reporter Marika Wheeler puts her thoughts into an audio diary. 4:13

I would show up with a long list of questions that boiled down to two themes: "what was my birth going to look like?" and "what were the risks?".

The answers were always couched in a "we don't know yet" or "this can change any time". They were never satisfying, but the best I and anyone else could get.

About a week before my due date came news that sent me into a spiral of what-ifs and worry. A Montreal hospital announced that it was prohibiting partners and all other support people from attending births. I broke down. My doctor tried to reassure me, telling me that in Quebec City mothers were allowed one support person. For now.

Deliver us from COVID

It is mid afternoon, and my contractions are becoming more intense as my husband and I approach the security desk at the door of the hospital. A woman eyes him suspiciously until I say I am in labour— the only answer that allows him to accompany me to the obstetrics floor.

Researchers at the University of Calgary who are conducting the study Pregnancy During the COVID-19 Pandemic, have noticed higher rates of pregnancy-related anxiety. (Shutterstock)

My husband is handed a blue disposable mask and told to wear it anytime he is near medical personnel. I don't have to wear a mask. They say that they are checking my vitals often enough to know if I develop symptoms. I'm relieved I won't have to breathe through labour pains with something covering my nose.

Then we run through the questionnaire that has become familiar to me. Do we have a fever? Dry cough? Sore throat or a runny nose? Diarrhea? Nausea? Sudden loss of smell or taste? Have we traveled outside the country in the past 14 days? Have we been in contact with anyone known to have COVID-19? 

About to give birth to her second child during a global pandemic, reporter Marika Wheeler relays her thoughts in an audio diary. 4:05

We aren't allowed to leave our room. Our nurse and other staff are apologetic but firm as they explain I can't walk the halls, even to take a bath during labour. The nurse pushes me across the hall in a wheelchair. I assume they are worried I might touch a contaminated surface. 

After a total of 39 hours of labour, and nearly 12 at the hospital, I pull a pink, slippery baby onto my belly and my husband tells me we have a daughter. I have exactly the kind of birth I had hoped for. COVID-19 is omnipresent but my mind is elsewhere.

Everyone we see wears scrubs and a mask. If ever I run into the Ob-Gyn who delivered my baby, I won't recognize him. I never saw his face.

It's a girl!

"It's a girl!" we text family in the middle of the night. The next morning, exhausted but elated, we video chat with grandparents, aunts and uncles. Each call is veiled with the sad reality that this is as close as any of them will be to our daughter for the foreseeable future. 

Recently my mother told me that the virus has robbed her of the moment when she could stand next to me and witness this brand new life that connects mother to daughter to one more generation on our family tree.

Some days I'm frustrated by the situation, but mostly I'm immensely grateful that we're all healthy and that, pandemic or no pandemic, life just happens.nter quote here- Marika Wheeler

Home

The day we come home from the hospital, a friend drops off two boxes of food. I show off the baby from the deck.

A few days later another friend stops by and we both tear up as  I "introduce" her to my daughter through the front-door window. 

Marika Wheeler is a CBC/Radio-Canada reporter in Quebec City. Her White Coat Black Art documentary on pelvic floor health problems that happen post-birth has recently won a Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation in America. (Submitted by Marika Wheeler)
About to give birth to her second child during a global pandemic, reporter Marika Wheeler puts her thoughts into an audio diary. 3:09

Our two-bedroom home becomes a cocoon as the four of us get to know one another.  We cradle and soothe the tiniest and softest member of our family. Our days follow the rhythm of feeds and diaper changes, punctuated by the outbursts of a toddler who is trying to figure out a new life where he's a big brother in confinement, without the comfort of daycare routine and playdates.

Some days I'm frustrated by the situation, but mostly I'm immensely grateful that we're all healthy and that, pandemic or no pandemic, life just happens.

Marika Wheeler is a CBC/Radio-Canada reporter in Quebec City  Produced by Jeff Goodes. 

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