SHORTLY after the New Year, I wrote an article for the Church Times about a list of 13 “urgent health challenges” issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) (News, 24 January). “Countries invest heavily in protecting their people from terrorist attacks, but not against the attack of a virus, which could be far more deadly economically and socially,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general observed. “A pandemic could bring economies and nations to their knees.”
At this point, the first cases of coronavirus were being reported in China. I had no inkling that, just over two months later, I’d be on a maternity ward staffed by nurses in masks, watching through a gap in the curtains a fellow new mother’s regular, anxious trips to the hand-washing station. The day that my newborn son and I were discharged, my husband was told to wait outside the doors. Policies had been tightened: now, there would be no visitors allowed at all.
GIVING birth during a global pandemic is a surreal experience. In the weeks leading up to our son’s early arrival at 36 weeks, our NCT WhatsApp group was usurped, transformed into a forum for weighing up, collectively, a reasonable level of worry.
Updates from the Royal Colleges were encouraging. Limited data from China suggested that the virus was not transmitted from mothers to newborns. The Sun produced a front-page splash announcing that a newborn baby was among the confirmed cases, and I felt self-conscious sneaking a look at it on the stand at the supermarket, my bump protruding from my coat. But life went on. We shared pictures of nurseries and continued to meet in person in a local church, passing around toy babies and giant birthing balls.
Then came the press conference adding pregnant women to the list of high-risk people advised to stay at home for 12 weeks. A precautionary measure, but another weight in the scales. Our final NCT meeting would take place via Zoom, our circle of chairs replaced by tiny windows into our homes, illuminated on a screen.
For the last half-hour, our tutor addressed the mothers-to-be only, concluding with a poem, “She Let Go” (“Without a thought or a word, she let go. She let go of the fear. She let go of the judgments. She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head.”). We closed our eyes, and practised our breathing — in through the nose, out through soft, open lips — and, by the end, tears were streaming down my face.
I wasn’t crying about the coronavirus, though. I was crying for the same reasons that I’d been crying for months — because I was afraid about something going wrong; because I already loved the baby so much my heart hurt; and because I was thinking about my own mother, who would never meet him.
I had cried with relief during scans. I had cried when midwives were kind during check-ups. And I had cried during Advent carols, sitting with a handful of others in the choirstalls in the dark, listening to the story of Elizabeth’s baby jumping in her womb.
THE journalist Jon Ronson wondered aloud on Twitter whether others among the long-term anxious felt “weirdly calm”. “My theory is that we rehearse catastrophic what-if situations in our heads so often, when a real crisis happens we’re quite good at it,” he observed.
I understood what he was driving at. When I arrived at the hospital at two o’clock in the morning, my waters having broken in a rush, I should have been afraid — of hard surfaces, doorhandles, other people. In my late twenties, I was treated for acute health anxiety. I am well acquainted with obsessive thoughts about cleanliness, and practised at rehearsing the cognitive behavioural-therapy techniques that are designed to lure you down from the ledge of imminent catastrophe.
The sign on the maternity unit door listing symptoms could — should? — have sounded like a klaxon in my ears. But I already had so many fears stored up that there simply wasn’t room for any more. And I had managed so far: I had felt the fear and done things, anyway.
A CONSULTANT came to see me, in scrubs and a mask. “Everyone is afraid,” she told me, making an assumption — not unfairly — about the source of my anxiety. Like every professional I met over the next week in hospital, she avoided “the C-word”. The virus lurked, unnamed, in the shadows, cloaked in “current events”, “with things as they are”.
Alone in bed, waiting for my husband to park the car, I deleted Twitter from my phone. I wanted to shut out the thrum of the outside world. On the ward, I felt my horizon shrink. My only job was to have the baby safely; nothing else mattered.
An apologetic midwife (“It’s horrific”) informed us that my husband would have to leave soon — visiting hours had been reduced, to 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. But he could stay with me throughout labour — they hadn’t stopped that yet. I sat wide awake in bed, listening to ancient episodes of Desert Island Discs and reading a long essay about the Emperor Akihito and his expertise in goby fish.
WITH things as they are, the doctor told me, perhaps it would be better to induce the baby’s arrival rather than wait for 37 weeks. And so began six long days in hospital.
Labour was frightening. The verse in Genesis promising a painful childbirth surfaced in my mind. But the worship music stored on my phone gave me comfort, and I clung to a growing conviction that, after so long thinking about death, it was all right to put my faith in the possibility of new life. Light and life to all he brings. . . We could do this.
After my son was born, the young midwife made me tea and toast — the breakfast of so many Saturday mornings in front of the telly with flatmates, and a soft landing back down on the beautifully mundane earth.
My baby and I ticked too many risk factors to be allowed home: he was premature, and the long stretch of hours between my waters’ breaking and his birth meant that we were both on antibiotics. He developed jaundice and spent time in tiny flannel goggles, clutching his little hands under a blue light.
We were sequestered behind royal-blue curtains, counting the hours until visiting time, trying not to eavesdrop on the conversations across the aisle, while keeping track of the metric goals that we needed to meet: blood sugar, weight, bilirubin levels, blood pressure. . . Glossy mums with mass followings on YouTube became my Nemesis; refuge was to be found on Jo Brand’s unkempt Desert Island.
Infection-control policies were changing every day, a midwife told me. But nothing about her actions, or those of her colleagues, betrayed anxiety about the risk that we might present. Shuffling across the unit to the kitchen during the night, I passed them chatting cheerfully at their station. My baby was “pumpkin”. They loved his hair. They missed being able to hug their patients. Perhaps it is easier to maintain good cheer when every day brings new lives into the world.
And then, so many of the pressing concerns must be unchanged from Before: women struggling to get their infants to latch on; babies squealing as their tiny heels are pricked for blood. Make sure you sleep when he’s sleeping!
They were often apologetic about their attire (“It’s so impersonal”), but a mask, while concealing a smile, draws your attention to a person’s eyes, crinkled in sympathy. I’ll always remember the student nurse who arrived — an answer to prayer — at three o’clock in the morning, and miraculously got my son to sleep; and the member of the infant-feeding team, to whom everyone was “darling” — a reminder of how good it is to be mothered when you become a mother yourself.
WHEN we finally had permission to leave, a young midwife carried my bags as I wheeled our son out to meet my husband outside the doors. Beyond the ward, I could hardly believe how quiet the hospital was: nobody queuing for the lift or a Costa coffee; no cluster of people milling by the entrance. The evening air was bracing, and we drove at a cautious ten miles per hour through empty streets back to our flat. It was eerie but reverentially hushed. A strange time to enter the world.
Two days later, we were back in hospital. A community midwife was uncertain about our son’s breathing, and suggested that we take him to A&E, if only for our own peace of mind. Waiting for the doctors, I placed a hand on my son’s tiny, warm head and prayed. I asked God to bless him, to fill him with life. It felt different, powerful, to pray for my own child, to call down blessings upon him.
When I turned around, I realised that the menagerie on the wall I’d first seen was not the only artwork in the room. I was facing a tree composed of circular flowers, each sphere containing a verse that was suddenly familiar. “Love is patient and kind. . . Love is not jealous. . . Love believes all things. . . Love never fails.”
“Your baby’s breathing is normal,” the doctor told me, when he arrived shortly afterwards. And we walked out into the sunshine and sat on a wall, waiting for my husband to pick us up, passers-by smiling while walking in a careful curve around us.
When I finally sneaked back on to Twitter some days later, I found a message from Jayne — an ordinand friend I’ve only ever met online. “You were on my mind this morning. Praying for you!” she had written. It was sent two minutes before our son arrived in the world.
Madeleine Davies is Deputy News Editor and Features Editor of the Church Times.
Her first book, Lights For The Path: A guide through grief, pain, and loss, will be published on 21 May by SPCK.