A two-week lockdown in March 2020, with nationwide recommendations to socially distance, has turned into society’s “new normal” a year later. Americans continue to suffer as a result of the drastic changes in culture and society due to COVID. One particular segment of the population seems to be disproportionately affected: newly postpartum mothers.
Having your first baby (or second or fourth) is a traditionally difficult and jarring time. While new moms are generally anxious and hormonal and often experience the “baby blues” during a “normal” year, the global pandemic has only made things worse for these moms. According to a recent study from the University of Alberta (Canada), the pre-COVID rate of clinical postpartum depression was 15%. After surveying 900 moms in their first year postpartum during the pandemic, that number has risen to 40%. Pre-COVID rates of postpartum anxiety were 29%; they are now up to 72%. In June 2020, the FDA added Zoloft, the primary antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication approved for breast/chest feeding mothers, to the national drug shortage list.
Expectant moms, like Washington, D.C.-based first-time mom Jeni, typically envision a maternity leave that is very different from the reality they’re now facing. Jeni states, “I imagined new motherhood to be about long walks to coffee shops, meeting with friends who would fight over turns to hold the baby, going to see family across the country, getting my son used to flying early and lots of mommy-and-me fitness classes to get back in shape. Instead, the isolating experience of new motherhood was exacerbated by closures and social distancing.” All of Jeni’s dreams were obliterated by COVID-19, leaving her and many other new mothers feeling alone, isolated and afraid. The traditional level of community support offered to new mothers – meal trains, visits from friends to drop off coffee or to give the new parents a break, grandparents coming for extended periods of time to help – just are not possible right now. Jeni had two baby showers cancelled. Her parents have yet to meet their new grandson because of international flight restrictions.
Due to factors such as exposure concerns, inability to travel and medically vulnerable older parents, new moms are being left completely alone to take care of newborns while simultaneously trying to physically and emotionally recover from giving birth, navigate through a pandemic and attempt to maintain some semblance of their identity. Jeni also describes how her inability to attend fitness classes or a gym has negatively impacted her plan for postpartum recovery, both mentally and physically. The list of COVID complications for new mothers is endless, which results in moms being more susceptible to postpartum depression and anxiety, with limited in-person resources to see them, notice they are struggling and help them.
PACE (Parenting and Child Education) is an organization within the DMV which, during “normal times,” provides in-person emotional support and education groups for first- and second-time moms. PACE’s goal is to help moms make friends, gain confidence as new parents and find support from its leaders, but even more so from their fellow group members who are experiencing the same things at the same time. PACE, like many other organizations, shifted to a fully virtual model in March 2020. Although the experience is not the same as meeting in person, PACE recognizes how vulnerable this specific population is during these unprecedented times and wishes to continue providing a space for moms to understand that, alongside their new-mom peers, they aren’t alone.
Most of the new PACE moms, such as Jeni, report not being able to introduce their parents or in-laws to their baby. Moms who delivered in the warmer months described relatives driving from great distances just to be able stand outside with masks on and view the baby from six feet away with no physical contact. Imagine having your first child and your own parents can’t hold the baby, can’t hug you. Once the winter weather arrived, social isolation intensified due to fewer outdoor gatherings, as well as the arrival of regular cold and flu season.
Pandemic moms in PACE groups are reporting increased feelings of loneliness, isolation and, most of all, anxiety. Becoming a new mother comes with an expected level of nervousness: “Am I doing this right?,” “Is my baby gaining enough weight?,” “Do we need to go back to the pediatrician?” New mothers are generally provided as much support from outside systems such as pediatricians, postpartum doulas and lactation consultants as they choose. Due to COVID, the PACE moms are reporting being more hesitant to engage in these support systems because they are fearful of the potential exposure risk that comes with meeting with people outside of their “bubble” – oftentimes for something that might be deemed unnecessary after the fact.
The idea of a “bubble” also creates a rise in anxiety and depression. New parents are understandably creating very strict bubble boundaries. The PACE moms often report feeling extreme disappointment and sadness in family members who won’t comply with their “COVID rules” in order to meet the baby in person. Others report frustration with their friend groups, often ones who don’t have children yet and therefore operate with more lenient COVID rules, thus making it impossible for the new parents to join in on any social events.
One PACE mom, Annie, had her first baby in January 2020. Annie’s daughter was born early at just 36 weeks, resulting in a NICU stay and ongoing lung complications. When COVID cases first appeared, little was known about it except that it was a potentially deadly respiratory virus. Due to their baby’s lung issues, Annie and her husband felt they had no choice but to lock down in their home for the health and safety of their newborn. They didn’t interact with another human in person for months. Annie describes their isolation: “We did not let anyone visit the remainder of the year. She started sitting, crawling and even walking without a visit from a grandparent.” Annie also described her fear of not only the baby becoming seriously ill, but her and her husband as well. With no family nearby, they felt they had to protect themselves in order to ensure there was someone to care for the baby. “New momdom is full of anxiety and the pandemic only deepened that. Instead of just worrying about typical germs and the flu, we had to worry about people that weren’t feeling sick possibly passing a virus to our baby or our household when we had no backup system for support.” Annie mentions another common issue postpartum moms face in the pandemic: returning to work. Many families in the DMV were put on lengthy wait lists for a coveted day care spot pre-pandemic, but they now feel that’s no longer a safe option for a vulnerable newborn. “It delayed my return to work (in person) by two months and created additional stress as I decided to make the return. We decided to opt out of our long-awaited day care spot in favor of a nanny to limit possible exposure.” These decisions cause new parents to experience not only immense mental and emotional stress, but financial stress as well. Choosing a nanny in lieu of day care isn’t a foolproof choice either. Parents are still concerned with a nanny’s potential exposure outside of their home, and whether the nanny is actually following the agreed-upon COVID rules when not at work. Every choice comes with a level of risk.
Jeni also opted out of her day care plan in favor of a nanny, which she said was not an easy decision. She does note that COVID isn’t all bad. “With my husband working from home, the usual time spent commuting is now spent with the baby. We don’t feel any pressure to attend social events which we would have otherwise had to awkwardly decline because they didn’t fit with the baby’s schedule. My work found a new rhythm with teleworking and virtual delivery so I may not have to travel as much even after COVID is over. We’re trying to keep the positives in mind.”
Keeping the positives in mind is certainly a challenge during this pandemic. Postpartum parents are struggling with isolation, depression, anxiety and generally feeling overwhelmed and scared. They need more support from friends, family and even the medical community. Friends can still send food or coffee to new parents via a plethora of food delivery services, such as Uber Eats, Grubhub or DoorDash. FaceTime and Zoom sessions can expose babies to unmasked faces other than their parents’, as well as give parents a reprieve from constantly entertaining a newborn. Family or friends can watch a sleeping baby on a monitor over Zoom while parents shower or nap. Moms are being encouraged to postpone their to-do lists and baby chores in favor of a quick nap or mental break. Although it might look a little different, self-care is now more important than ever for new moms. Instead of attending a fitness class or baby-free lunch at a restaurant, it might be a virtual friend gathering, a warm bath or an at-home workout.
One thing is for certain, though: no matter how different the “new normal” becomes, the world will remain in awe of the warriors who become mothers during the coronavirus era. The myriad ways they rise to the occasion and overcome every obstacle COVID-19 throws at them while they continue to seek the silver lining should inspire us all. Their strength, resilience and efforts to continue on will not go unrecognized. Who will remember the new moms when this is all over? Hopefully, everyone!