“I always think of the postpartum period as a period of isolation,” said Alison Underwood. Parents are adjusting. They’re not sleeping much, not gathering with friends the way they used to. They’re staying home to protect their baby’s fragile immune system.
But the pandemic has complicated things, said Underwood, a licensed independent clinical social worker for Porter Women’s Health. “The level of isolation people are dealing with has increased tenfold.”
They say it takes a village to raise a child. But what if the whole village is stuck at home?
Underwood has been running a weekly virtual support group for new moms in Addison County. She said most of the participants had a starkly different vision for how their birth and postpartum experiences would play out. They envisioned their parents or other children visiting them in the hospital. And local friends, once they got home, stopping by to drop off meals, hold the baby or help with the dishes.
But it’s been months since the mothers in her group gave birth, and many of them have yet to introduce their babies to anyone outside their households.
Middlebury mom Jen Crodelle, whose daughter, Gianna, was born in May, got to spend some outdoor time with her parents and in-laws in New York over the summer. “But they were wearing masks and constantly hand sanitizing,” she recalled.
Laksamee P Cave, a Weybridge mom whose son was born in August, said that her father is the only family member who has met him — but only after flying to Vermont, quarantining for two weeks and testing negative.
No one in Namrata Cardeira’s family has met her baby girl, who was born in July. “My husband’s mom and sister came up two weeks after she was born and met her through the window,” recalled the Lincoln mom.
“As a first-time mom, it’s hard to know what to do and what is normal,” said Cardeira. “I want my mom to meet my daughter. She is so sad to be missing all these early days and months. So am I. It’s hard.”
In contrast to pre-pandemic times, parents are going into the postpartum period having already experienced significant isolation. “I have patients who haven’t been to the grocery store for three months before they deliver (their baby) because they’re trying to avoid germs,” Underwood said.
This can exacerbate postpartum depression.
“I don’t know if it would be easier without the pandemic,” said Cave of her depression. “However, it certainly feels as if it has made it harder.”
“I feel like I spiral into a cycle of ‘I can’t go out, it’s too risky with the pandemic’ along with ‘I can’t go out because I am alone with this baby and have no idea what I am doing.’”
When Cave does go out with the baby, it feels stressful.
“Instead of struggling to get to a park or a playgroup where you can groan along with other parents, or enjoy having a friend hold the baby, you struggle to get to a space where no one is around, or you have to be hyper-aware of how close people are, if they are wearing masks, etc.
“It doesn’t feel worth it,” she went on. “But I know for my own mental health that I need to leave the house and learn how to bring the baby with me. Winter has not helped with this.”
Cave stays connected to her friends and family with Zoom calls and video chats, and she participates in two regular virtual meet-ups. “It feels like it should be enough,” she said. “In some ways I am talking to my family and friends more than I was prior to the pandemic. But no, it’s not enough, I think a lot of us are longing to be seen, and not from a screen.”
The pandemic has complicated childcare, too. “Not that childcare is easy to get during normal circumstances,” Underwood said. “But once you get it, you just might not feel comfortable sending your child to childcare right now.”
That was the case for Jenna Hunsinger and her husband, whose daughter, Ruby, was born in October. Her maternity leave ended at the start of February, and now she’s working from home — with her baby. “We didn’t feel comfortable sending our daughter to daycare at such a young age during a pandemic so I’m juggling both work and childcare,” she said.
How’s that going?
“On weekdays when my husband is home and can watch Ruby, I feel relieved that I can go upstairs, shut myself in my office, and just have to worry about the work in front of me,” she said. “But then, of course, I feel guilty for feeling relieved.
“On days when I have to juggle watching both Ruby and working, I feel overwhelmed and guilty (again) for not giving her my undivided attention. At the end of the day, though, I feel such a huge sense of accomplishment for keeping a baby entertained while getting work done.”
Hunsinger said it’s been hard to adjust her expectations as a first-time mom.
“From attending prenatal appointments alone to not having in-person support after labor, it’s been a challenge,” she said. “While pregnant, I didn’t get to do the fun pregnant lady things I once envisioned like going out shopping for baby clothes or having a big baby shower (although not having strangers try to touch my growing belly was a nice perk).”
One of the moms in Underwood’s group has an older child, and recently moved to Middlebury in part because she wanted to be close to the many playgroups and library story times. But now those activities are gone.
“Honestly, people wouldn’t go,” said Donna Bailey, co-director of the Parent Child Center (PCC) in Middlebury, which typically coordinates playgroups open to all throughout Addison County. “We’ve had two inquiries about them. People aren’t asking to go. And I think that’s wise.”
The PCC is focused on supporting its participants, especially the families most in need. Since the pandemic began, the organization has been delivering monthly boxes filled with food, diapers, cleaning supplies, toys and other necessities. Its childcare center is open, though not at capacity, and the education program continues over Zoom.
“All of us are going through this for the first time, trying to muddle through and really support each other,” said Bailey. “How do you do that without human contact?”
Bailey said everyone at the PCC is doing a lot of texting to keep in touch with and offer support to parents.
“We have spent thousands of dollars on phone cards for families,” Bailey said. “If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s about the importance of universal access to the internet and health care.”
Underwood and Gillian MacKinnon, a WIC Public Health Nutritionist in Middlebury, agree that virtual communication has been a good thing for new parents — and they hope it will stay long after the pandemic is over.
“It’s so much easier for a new mom to just get on the phone or on a Zoom than getting out of the house,” Underwood said.
MacKinnon said participation in WIC’s nutrition education and breastfeeding classes has increased. And she and her colleagues are having longer, more in-depth conversations with clients. Routine phone calls they expected would be over quickly often last up to 45 minutes.
“For some of the families who are home with children all day long, it’s so nice to hear from another adult,” said MacKinnon. “I feel like we’re social support just as much as we’re nutritional support.”
The pandemic may have complicated the postpartum period for many new parents, but the joy of watching a baby grow is timeless.
Lately, Jen Crodelle is in awe of her daughter learning to crawl. For Jenna Hunsinger, it’s making her daughter, Ruby, laugh. “I find I spend most of my time with her making silly noises or faces just to hear her precious little giggles,” she said.
Laksamee Cave said she cherishes this early time with her son. “He learns something new each day, from smiling to laughing to rolling and eating solids; the days feel long but I know the years will feel short,” she said.
What does she look forward to?
“This seems silly, but my immediate response to this question is, letting someone else hold the baby,” Cave said. “While this is partially motivated by the yearning for a break, it really means being around friends and family. I am most looking forward to sharing a meal, hugging my people, and watching this new life I’ve brought into the world interact with others.”