A Pandemic Parent’s Story of Sadness and Loneliness
Jennifer S. Griffiths
My son’s small head fit perfectly in my hand on the night he was born. After barely three hours of labor and only four intense contractions, I caught him before he slid onto the floor. I had given birth to my baby alone and he was now lying on the bathroom floor in a puddle of our shared fluids. I was terrified that something had gone wrong. My pregnancy had been difficult, marked by the anger and sadness of perinatal depression. My first glance was of a silent and gray little body. I immediately feared that he was dead and I stopped myself from looking again. Instead of picking him up, I stood crying with my eyes tightly shut. Studies have shown that distressing events during childbirth can contribute to postpartum depression and even result in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (Ertan et al. 2021; Patterson, Martin, and Karatzias 2018). In cases like mine, where mothers have emotional support systems, these aftereffects are rare. My midwife arrived moments later. She calmed my fears, picked up the baby, and reassured me that he was fine. The well-meaning, if clumsy, paramedics came after fifteen minutes to haul me uncomfortably into the freezing air of the December night and off to the hospital in their very cold ambulance, where, naked, I shivered uncontrollably, for thirty minutes, while the painful aftereffects of an oxytocin injection washed over me. I had been given this medication to prevent excessive bleeding in the ambulance because the placenta was still inside, but the result was prolonged and painful contractions. In the months to come, I sympathized with my child’s mad rush to avoid a lifetime association with the year 2020. This was the dramatic opening act of my pandemic parenting experience.
Pandemic mothers went on giving birth in hospitals and at home. During 2020 and 2021, women increasingly opted for home birth, in order to avoid the risk of contracting COVID at the hospital (Davis-Floyd et. al. 2020; Daviss et. al. 2021). In hospitals around the world, many found themselves having to labor alone without partners or family. Such women have been shown to experience higher levels of disrespect and abuse, resulting in poorer outcomes for mothers and babies, and this is particularly true for women from vulnerable groups. A report issued by the Board of Human Rights in Childbirth in 2020 documented practices of banning partners from delivery rooms in Britain, Slovenia, Lithuania, Hungary, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina (Human Rights in Childbirth 2020). While it was logical to isolate mothers and babies with the virus from those without it, many mothers also experienced being separated from their babies postpartum in the name of control protocols, even though we know that skin-to-skin contact and breastfeeding boost immunological defenses. The study by the Board of Human Rights in Childbirth documented such cases in Spain, Romania, Australia, and Argentina. One research group at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. set up an online study to understand the experiences of new families during the pandemic, gathering information from over 2500 parents (Aydin et al. 2021). Mothers commonly reported high levels of anxiety related to isolation from partners and poor support systems. The intensity of childbirth makes it difficult to concentrate on much else. Mothers cannot advocate for their own well-being at this time, so they are vulnerable to the abuses of a medical system streamlined by capitalist efficiency. Like an indicator species in a damaged ecosystem, the worst hospital experiences of new mothers highlight some dehumanizing tendencies that were already endemic before the pandemic.
The pandemic made all of us more familiar with disconnection and loneliness. This was the feeling that accompanied the arrival of new life in my home and it darkened the departure of millions of old spirits. We were deprived of a hand to hold at precisely those moments when the fragility of our own materiality is most joyfully or tragically apparent, when we are most in need of each other. As immigrants, my husband and I were separated by the vastness of the Atlantic from extended family, so we couldn’t share the joy of our new baby. Isolation is a natural by-product of uprooting yourself, whatever the reasons. During the lockdowns, border closures, and travel restrictions, we felt that isolation more acutely. Two days before our scheduled travel to be with family, all trans-Atlantic flights were canceled. We became pandemic parents, raising children without the support of family, friends, hired help, or social systems like daycare or school. It is right to celebrate the brilliant new technologies that allowed us to continue to shop, work, and meet online, but parenting can’t be downloaded, streamed, or uploaded. There’s no babysitting via Zoom and grandparents can’t change diapers or manage bath time on FaceTime. Pandemic parents had to be teachers, friends, parents, and grandparents, all while trying to pursue our own studies or work.
I had doubts about being a parent again. I remembered the sleepless nights, the crying, the constant demands, the endless cleaning up of food, or poop, or vomit. I knew this would go on for years. I reassured myself that I was a good mother and that the difficulties would be assuaged by having plenty of help. I also knew that these hardships would be offset by laughter and cuteness. I didn’t know that help would be impossible and I didn’t expect my second child to be so much more difficult than the first. He scratched and bit while nursing. He slept less, cuddled less, and cried more. He refused to be calmed and consoled by his father. I felt alone, even if I wasn’t. I felt unloved by my new baby and I often hated him. Of course, this meant I also felt incredibly guilty. Clearly, I was a bad mother. Glen Henry, a musician who became a stay-at-home parent and a YouTube advocate for black fathers, has spoken publicly about the emotional exhaustion of parenting even in normal times, which he found left him drained of creative energy. He remarks, “The one thing I underestimated most was the emotional fatigue… when you’re with your kids all day, you become emotionally tired” (Henry 2018).
Just before the pandemic struck, I signed a contract for my first academic monograph, so I was supposed to be writing, but conditions amplified all the difficulties of being a professional mother. The total collapse of work-life and home-life required heretofore unprecedented levels of multi-tasking and time management. In 2021, the New York Times dedicated a series of articles, called “Primal Scream,” to highlight a mental health crisis for working mothers exacerbated by the pandemic. It is not surprising that women’s participation in the United States labor force reached a 33-year low in early 2021 (Ewing-Nelson 2021). I was one of those women in crisis, who left a full-time paying job (that I loved) to become an unpaid caretaker. When I accepted a full-time teaching and administration job for an American study abroad program, we moved our family to a small town and my husband left his job. When I left my job, we became a zero-income family.
We were locked down for over two months with our new baby and our five-year-old in Italy, a country which imposed some of the strictest measures in the world. One child cried all night, while the other whined all day. Residents were forbidden to leave their homes, so I was grateful to have a garden and to live in the countryside. We put our older child through mini obstacle courses and let the other one wiggle on a blanket in the sunshine. Mostly, we made the best of it and knew we were lucky. Many of our friends were confined with their children in fifty-square-meter Roman apartments. Regular physical exercise has always been my anti-depressant of choice. As scared as I was, I broke the law almost daily to run along the empty country lanes. If I saw anyone, I hid in the bushes. I was stopped by police on several occasions and ordered to return home. Strangely, it was permissible to walk your dog, but not your child or yourself.
The end times require a positivity bubble, but it burst when lockdown lifted. We began to entertain some nagging doubts about the well-being of our baby. We took him for follow-up tests, which confirmed that his first failed hearing assessments had not been due to an early respiratory illness. Our son was profoundly deaf and the cause was genetic. Of the infinite challenges faced in life, this is surely a minor one. Nevertheless, news like this transforms a parent’s worldview and can be difficult to digest, particularly when you are far away from extended emotional support systems. Logically, I could appreciate that there is nothing wrong with deafness, but as a hearing person, it is an unfamiliar state of being. It was hard to accept that my baby had not heard me singing all those lullabies. It was harder still to imagine that he would never hear any music. I went through shock, denial, and a long period of mourning before beginning to accept my child’s disability and face questions about his future. This is when I resigned from my teaching and administrative job. I began to educate myself about the deaf community and the options available.
Between restricted re-openings and provisions to limit the spread of contagion, we ferried our child to testing centers and hospitals. We decided that cochlear implants were the right choice and he underwent surgery. I was alone through most of this process, as only one caregiver was permitted to accompany the child. At eleven months of age, my child began to hear. People often assume that this was a moment of joy. Alas, the proliferation of videos titled “Child Hears Mother’s Voice for the First Time” on social media puts deceptively rose-tinted glasses on a situation that is usually far less pleasant. Most children are horrified when their peaceful world is torn asunder by sound. When he burst into tears, my son looked pleadingly at me, as if say, “Why are you doing this to me?” Children are remarkably resilient, however, and by the afternoon he simply seemed curious about this new world. The volume and frequency of sound was incrementally increased over the course of many months to allow time for his brain to build the new synapses required for hearing.
The increasing mechanization, digitization, and close analysis of humanity on a global scale is a scarily dehumanizing and dystopian prospect for many of us. During the pandemic, my family’s obsessive tendency to monitor ourworldindata.org felt meaningless. What did this tracking of death and human suffering as a chart, map, or table, by country or on a rolling seven-day average, truly tell us? On the one hand all that data seemed to make a mockery of our futile attempts to control Nature. On the other hand, it represented a remarkable achievement in the collective history of humanity. I had the same inner conflicts about my child’s prosthetic device. I knew that many in the Deaf community are opposed to prosthetic devices like the one I had chosen to implant in him. For better or worse, I had stolen away his peaceful world and gifted him with noise. He had been knighted a cyborg by the double-edged sword of technology. Although I profess to revere Nature, I had not been able to gracefully accept her decree for my son. Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” took on new personal resonances for me, as I asked myself whether I was propagating hegemonic ideals of normativity or embracing “a freer kind of human identity that is at once changeable and fragmented” (Haraway 1991). I still don’t know the answer to that question.
Parenting is difficult and isolating at the best of times. Many of us stop going to restaurants because it is too much work. We stop socializing with our single friends who are annoyed by our noisy, dirty children. We are often too tired to connect physically and emotionally with our partners after we finally get the children to bed. Every parent is familiar with these predicaments. What followed the activation of my son’s cochlear implants was a year of parent support meetings, sessions with the speech pathologist, regular visits to the audiologist, and American Sign Language classes. Parenting was definitely a full-time job. I began to feel emotionally distanced, as well as physically distanced, from family who didn’t share or understand this world. As they saw it, our son was now “normal.” Thanks to a comprehensive medical system, we were inserted into a community support structure of people with similar experiences. Yet, because of COVID, all of our new encounters took place online. The other parents, the speech pathologist, and our sign language teacher were only ever talking heads. We never met them in person. I now felt disconnected from my family circle, as well as incapable of forming new virtual bonds.
Earlier this year, school reinitiated and we hired a babysitter. I began to reestablish breathing room and I wrote my book. I am learning sign language and Gus is speaking. Life here in Europe is returning to normal as vaccination levels are high and death tolls are plummeting. By all accounts, things are looking up. For a long time, it felt as if I was alone in a broken world with a broken child, but as the dark cloud of my individual sadness is lifting, I am able to see that we were lonely and sad together, the world and I. As John Donne observes,
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
As an academic, I often cited différence or otherness as an intellectual construct. As a parent, I was confronted with the material reality that différence and otherness are internal as well as external. My son was born out of and into otherness. He was born on an Italian bathroom floor to an Ecuadorian father and a Canadian mother during a global pandemic. He will be a deaf boy who hears via prosthetic implants and speaks three languages. He reminds me of the material truth that inside the DNA of each and every individual human is encoded the whole of humanity, with all its colors, variations, and perfect imperfections. Embedded in the myth of “reproduction” is the inherent idea that we are re-making ourselves, that our children will be miniature versions of us, but we are legion.
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Ewing-Nelson, Claire. 2021.“Another 275,000 Women Left the Labor Force in January.” National Women’s Law Center. (February). https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/January-Jobs-Day-FS.pdf.
Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Henry, Glen. 2018. “What I've Learned about Parenting as a Stay-at-Home Dad.” Filmed October 2017 in Washington, DC. TED Video, 10:37. https://www.ted.com/talks/glen_henry_what_i_ve_learned_about_parenting_as_a_stay_at_home_dad.
Patterson, Jenny, Caroline Hollins Martin, and Thanos Karatzias. 2018. “PTSD Post-childbirth: A Systematic Review of Women’s and Midwives’ Subjective Experiences of Care Provider Interaction.” Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology 37, no. 1 (August): 56-83. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02646838.2018.1504285.