Pandemic Baby… What it was like being a first-time mum in 2020

Summer 2019 was my favourite summer ever.

I found out that I was expecting our first child. Thankfully, I had a relatively smooth pregnancy. No morning sickness, the doctors and midwives were pleased with how I was progressing at each appointment, and I had the loveliest bump ever. I’ve never been prouder of my growing belly. We decided not to find out the gender and to be surprised. Our baby was due at the end of March 2020 and I couldn’t wait to meet him/her. Little did I know how my blissful pregnancy would not continue through into the “fourth” trimester.

I was looking forward to my maternity leave, a year with my precious little person, and some time away from my busy job as an ITU nurse.

The end of February / start of March was a relatively normal month. Yes, there was chatter of Covid-19 but we were still seeing friends, going to dinner, perhaps pondering the idea of a short lockdown – remember when we thought it would only be 12 weeks?

On the 20th of March I ended up having an emergency C-section. In the grand scheme of things that was nothing that terrible. Our little girl was healthy and that’s all that mattered, as word spread that there was an ITU nurse from another hospital on the ward I felt very much like royalty. Sisters in arms as it were, I was given a private room on the post-natal ward, a nod of recognition from my fellow NHS employees. As I was wheeled onto the ward with my beautiful little girl in my arms a midwife calling out, “hey ITU!!” I was so touched. It was such a lovely gesture even though they had never met me.

But as a nurse, it wasn’t long before my post birth bubble was burst and I started noticing some unnerving, but very necessary developments. The room across the corridor was cordoned off, infection control signs were starting to pop up all over the ward. The chatter of Covid-19 was getting stronger on the news and I was seeing my NHS colleagues roll into action.

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As a nurse my instinct to protect and care is naturally high, but as a mother, those feelings have never felt stronger and I made the decision to discharge myself earlier than the doctors would have liked but I just couldn’t stay with more and more infectious patients moving into the ward.

Luckily I healed beautifully at home and for me it was right decision to leave, especially now that I look back a year later.

I feel for all the women who have had to go it alone this year. As I had my little girl at the brink of entering the pandemic,  my husband was able to come to all my hospital appointments, join me at every scan. He was with me all day whilst being induced on the ward and when we moved to the labour ward he was there throughout. I don’t think I could have handled the 4 attempts at placing an epidural without him at my side. He was the first person to feed my baby. He dressed her. He stayed with us for the 3 days I was on the post-natal ward. He was around when I needed someone to advocate my needs to hospital staff. How could I have managed without him there? Thankfully, I never needed to find out and I know how lucky I am. One week later and fellow new mums were not quite as lucky. I count my blessings every day that my daughter arrived safely and that her father was present throughout.

Before my maternity leave, I was probably better prepared than most for Covid-19. As an ITU nurse, my hospital team were already preparing for Covid-19 before I left. With only Ebola as a point of reference, the preparation was deemed somewhat ‘novelty’, after all, we had no idea how this year would turn out, it was literally unimaginable. We genuinely wondered if we would we get anyone with Covid-19? We were of course prepared, learning to don and doff the PPE, multiple pairs of gloves, masks tested to fit our faces, working as pairs of nurses. We were as ready as we could be. I was going on maternity I was reassured, “you don’t need to learn how to do this, we will keep you away from any Covid-19 patients”.

Still in the early days of the pandemic and Boris’ original stay at home order I was fortunate to have one midwife and one health visitor check in on me after I returned home. “Does anyone in the household have a high fever or cough?” I was asked prior to them entering my home in plastic gloves and apron. Items I was used to wearing on a regular basis but had never seen in my home before. It was laughable really.

One check-up on me, and one check up on my little girl and we were left to it. We were given a telephone number to call if we had any concerns. As you can imagine as first-time parents, every moment was a concern. Is she hungry? Does she need a nappy change? Is she still breathing?

Why don’t you try…

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Is she still breathing? I didn’t think I would be so panicked about that. Post-natal hormones? Guilt over being at home and cuddling my perfect baby whilst my colleagues were drowning under the huge burden of Covid-19 patients?

So often I pondered how I could go back to work. My wound was healing nicely. My mum could look after the baby. I was needed elsewhere, the guilt at not standing in solidarity with my colleagues on the frontline was unimaginable. The NHS were desperate for people with my skills, calling all recent retirees back, skilled healthcare workers, volunteers, anyone willing to do something, anything. My colleagues, my ITU family were in a hopeless situation and I was at home on the couch singing lullabies to my tiny baby, counting all her fingers and toes over and over.

I didn’t go back to work, I stayed put. And although I felt I had abandoned my team in their time of need, I did what I needed to do and looked after my baby. It’s hard, almost impossible to explain how it feels sitting this year out, possibly the most fraught work wise of my career, but I left my ITU nurse hat back at the hospital on my last day and won’t be wearing it again until I go back.

And this really was not an easy decision and not one that I have revelled in either. I made sure to keep in regular contact, checking in on them and how they were all coping. I alleviated some of my guilt by sending care packages to my ITU family as often as my pay cheques would allow (thanks Amazon). I clapped and clapped at Clap for carers. While it was a rallying cry from the nation and a nod to our brave frontliners, it meant so much to me standing on the doorstep, cradling our daughter cheering on the team who delivered her and to my brave colleagues fighting for their patients. As our baby girl got bigger, so did the noise on a Thursday night from our neighbours. Claps, pots, pans, bells and foghorns, all to offer some recognition and respect to our NHS staff. I looked forward to being able to show my support in another way than those regular Amazon deliveries and I must admit, when the clapping stopped, I felt lost. I missed work so much, the colleagues who needed my help.

While most relied on national newspapers and Downing Street bulletins to fill them in on stats on how the fight against the pandemic was going, I had to stop myself from bombarding my colleagues with well meaning WhatsApps. Surely the last thing they wanted was to go over how work was again and again? And after long and draining shifts I wanted to make sure they rested and recovered.

Thankfully my need to show them my support married up with the positivity they needed to see and hear. They loved getting updates on my mat leave life and seeing baby pictures. Because being part of the NHS is like being part of a family, my colleagues have pretty much begged me to stay away as long as possible to keep my little family safe, that’s the kind of love and solidarity that makes working in the NHS so strong

So home is where we are. She’s learnt to smile and wave and is practicing pulling herself up to standing, all these massive milestones we’ve not been able to fully share with our loved ones, but of course, she knows no difference.

To her, mummy is always home, daddy works upstairs; this is her normal.

Despite the guilt I feel at not having had the ability to take her swimming or to baby classes, she is the most sociable of babies, readily stretching out arms to the plumber and waving and giggling for any passing visitor. I know other new mums of 2020 will feel the same, I’m sure for many, this was not the maternity leave we dreamed of, but everyone’s world has been tipped upside down and I’m so grateful we’ve been able to cocoon ourselves for the year.

My daughter is hurtling towards her first birthday and with Zoom fatigue a real issue now, as we all desperately hope the finishing line is on the horizon, I’m struggling with ways to mark the occasion. I can’t help but mourn what she didn’t have in her first year, but we’ve filled it with love and laughter and that’s all that really matters. Most importantly she loves life as she knows it, she thankfully won’t remember the year that we hid ourselves away, those memories are for mummy and daddy to cherish. She will learn to love her grandparents in real life and play with her cousins and make friends when she is just that little bit bigger. But most of all she is adored and that’s all this little girl really needs.

Words: Emily

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