Note: This post is written from the perspective of a parent who welcomed their first child into the world in 2020. I am aware that I am still writing from a privileged position in which my spouse and I have been able to work from home with support from my parents, who live nearby and also did not have to leave the house this year. Nothing I am saying is intended to take away from front-line health workers or other essential employees who had to risk their lives and the lives of their families to work this past year.
Finally, the struggle of new parents is certainly not the worst struggle that has been had this year, by parents and non-parents alike. This was our struggle, however, and it should not take away from the billions of other struggles that were occurring simultaneously.
On February 19, 2020, I entered Frederick Health Hospital for an induction that would effectively end my pregnancy and begin our lives as new parents. Matt and I looked at the signs about flu season rules for visitors as I was pushed back to Labor and Delivery in a wheelchair (standard procedure, they told us).
We were told that an induction could take awhile, so we should at least bring long charging cords for our phones. While my labor lasted about 20 hours, that was relatively short by induction standards, so we didn’t have time to enjoy much entertainment between my low, guttural moans (followed by an epidural around 10 hours in).
One thing we were keeping up with, however, was the Diamond Princess quarantine in Japan, where people were live tweeting their two-week mandatory lockdown at the end of a cruise in which the novel coronavirus was identified on board. It was a somewhat contained experiment about how this was likely to spread, and there were plenty wondering whether the Americans on board would be bringing it home with them.
As you all remember, this was early 2020, and all we knew was some mysterious virus was shutting down Chinese cities, parts of Italy, and some U.S. airport operations. We had been watching the grainy videos allegedly coming out of Wuhan hospitals of body bags scattered along corridors. An emergency hospital was constructed in the province to handle the extra cases. The city was literally locked down by the Chinese government.
Naturally, as first time parents, our ears had already perked up. I had already begun wearing a cloth mask with a filter at the start of flu season 2019 while we did hospital tours, as I waited in doctor or therapy waiting rooms, and, once or twice, at the grocery store.
I was already a high risk pregnancy, and I figured it might give me and my unborn baby some degree of protection. Matt, however, was mortified, and usually asked me to wait in the car at the grocery store rather than wear my weird mask. Now, in a fun turn of events, that original mask is the one Matt usually wears while we’re out, as I have since expanded my mask collection for obvious reasons.
Baby H arrived on the 20th, and he was able to meet all his grandparents and my brother before lockdown (all of whom we insisted have up to date TDaP and flu shots beforehand. We considered asking that they wear a mask but, again, it was February 2020, so I assumed that was my anxious mom brain talking and I reminded myself they were good with those vaccines).
We were in the new parent haze when I asked my brother if he wouldn’t mind waiting a week to come visit due to a slew of pediatrician/lactation consultant/etc. appointments. My brother, bless him, could tell I was a little frazzled and gently told me he thought he should come down as soon as possible given the state of all this.
And then, with a three-week old newborn, we locked down with everyone else. We snagged a coveted Instacart delivery spot to stock up for a month. We asked in parenting groups whether our pediatrician would remain open for the very important 1-month appointment and vaccinations. We looked in dismay at Amazon delivery times for things we were only just learning we needed (e.g., pump parts, different bottle types, different diaper types….).
And I was side-eyed by an unmasked nurse at that same 1-month appointment, where I was the only parent allowed inside, as I walked in weighed down with a diaper bag, delicate newborn, and that same cloth mask I’d bought in the fall of 2019.
“…Are you sick?”
“…Why are you wearing a mask?”
“Oh…well, the guidance keeps changing so I thought it didn’t hurt to wear one.”
By the time I made it to my 6-week postpartum visit the first week of April, my OB commented that she was surprised but thrilled to see me wearing a mask and that she expected the government guidance to change soon (spoiler alert: it did).
Lockdown continued for us as it did for many of you.
Matt returned to work remotely and eventually I did as well, although we had both been working exclusively remotely for awhile at that point anyway. We canceled our daycare reservation (even though it was technically available again by the time H was 6 months) and worked in shifts, with Matt working 4am to 1pm and me shifting to part time work from 1pm to 5pm.
For the same reasons my pregnancy was high risk, I was high risk for Covid as well.
We eventually were able to see our immediate families a few times in 2020/2021 due to some dedicated quarantining that included not going into the grocery store or interacting with others, and not stopping anywhere along the drive. My parents, who live in town, became our quarantine pod, and we all followed the same restrictions so we felt safe with three high-risk adults in a bubble of five.
In the summer and fall we finally were able to do some outdoor meetups with friends. We had an outdoor baptism for H thanks to a local Lutheran pastor who understood our predicament of not being able to return to my “home church” in Georgia as originally planned (and Matt’s Catholic family’s concern about having babies baptized as quickly as possible, particularly during a pandemic….).
And then…the vaccine news arrived.
The light at the end of the tunnel.
The opportunity to return to normal.
…But what did our new normal look like?
Of course, everyone is crafting a new normal right now. But for those of us who entered lockdown pregnant or with under 1 year olds, we are also emerging as parents for the first time.
In modern history, only a small segment of parents who had babies in 2020 can understand the unique first year as parents we have had.
I would also say that our friends and family with 2019 babies felt a bit of the same panic and shift of thinking since their children were still babies when they entered lockdown, and now they are full blown toddlers. And, naturally, early 2021 babies have gotten a taste of things as well.
*This observation should not take away from the fact that all parents of minors had their own challenges this year (and that should also not take away from the face that literally everyone had their own unique challenges this year. I am speaking and writing from the perspective of a pandemic baby parent).
Women left the workforce in droves as daycares shut down and some parents questioned the safety of inviting a new caretaker into their homes. I dropped to part-time work and now say that I’m “very part time,” because although I freelance and do contract work, some weeks (and months) I am now effectively a stay at home parent. A role I never expected to fill.
And now, as of May 2021, everyone who wants to be vaccinated can be….kind of.
My son, currently 15 months old, cannot be vaccinated and is too young to wear a mask.
Where does that leave him, and, by default, his vaccinated parents, when it comes to summer vacation? To going into stores (which he just did for the first time ever a few weeks ago)? To eating inside at restaurants?
Since my son is still not vaccinated, we cannot comfortably make too many changes to our lives as everyone else emerges from quarantine.
Yes, children are less affected by Covid, but that doesn’t mean they’re entirely unaffected. We don’t know what “preexisting conditions” my son has because he is still practically a baby. My own autoimmune disease and other issues were likely active well before my official diagnoses.
There is no way to know the long-term impacts of Covid on children or adults, so we’re not interested in gambling on his health since he’s “less likely to die.” Also, if he were, in fact, one of the rare children to die, that statistical anomaly certainly wouldn’t make me feel any better!
“But Mallie,” you say, “children are more likely to die in a car accident.”
Yes, and that’s why we have such stringent safety regulations on car seats and cars themselves. The Covid equivalent to this is masks and vaccines, neither of which my son can take advantage of at 15 months old.
Thankfully, H is still nursing a few times a day, and research suggests that gives him some degree of protection thanks to my own Covid vaccine (note that the linked study focused on infants, who digest and process things differently than a toddler does).
So…we will venture out some this summer.
We’ll visit (vaccinated) family, go to the beach….but we won’t be bringing him into a grocery store or an indoor restaurant.
We’ll be dodging strangers around our condo and/or hotel. We have a little hat with a face shield that he can wear for I guess a mobile sneeze guard for his face in the stroller. We bought some tiny masks for him to try if he feels left out or we end up in tight quarters unexpectedly.
And I’ll continue nursing as long as he wants to to offer up some antibodies until he can be vaccinated (my original nursing goal was 6 months, so Covid has really changed a lot of our parenting “plans” on multiple levels).
I’m not saying our choices are the only right ones for parents. Obviously, they are right for us at the moment and given the data and work flexibility we have.
What I want to highlight with this post is that parents of young children have been left to fend for and figure things out for ourselves this year, and that continues as lockdowns end and mask mandates are lifted.
What, exactly, are we supposed to do? Without childcare during the pandemic? Without a vaccine for children under 12 (yet)? Without knowing which unmasked adults are actually vaccinated in stores as they come over to “look at the baby?”
Yes, children’s vaccines are coming, which is terrific and a true marvel of science. But that doesn’t help parents of high risk children (who, by the way, exist), high-risk parents who still need to exercise caution after being vaccinated (as we learn more about how virus variants can impact the vaccinated and immunocompromised), or simply those who feel the risk is too high to expose their child if they don’t, technically, have to.
A little grace, please, for people you still see masked this summer. And for parents making the best decisions they can for their families in these “unprecedented times.”
I have turned off blog comments but would love to chat on Twitter or Instagram: @ MallieRydzik