Pandemic-era Birth Stories
Unknowns, Rainbows, and Hard Choices
By Suki Wessling
Pregnancy and birth are full of unknowns even in the best of times. During a pandemic, everything you thought to expect gets thrown by the wayside.
Three moms talked to me about their experiences with birth during this time. Two of them were first-time moms and so their experiences were all new. One was having her third—and her experiences were all new as well!
I want to thank these moms for their openness and sharing. Although each related struggles associated with pregnancy complications, Covid restrictions, and mental health challenges, their stories—like all good birth stories—are about perseverance and strength in the face of adversity.
If you are pregnant now or wondering whether you should consider it, please read these stories knowing that three happy moms and healthy babies were the result of all the pain and difficulties that they describe.
“You’re lucky you’re cute because that pregnancy was horrific!”
Vanessa Garcia and her husband Albert had decided to have a third child after years of hesitation. Vanessa was by then an ‘older mom’, 36, living with her extended family in Aromas and working as a site coordinator for PVUSD’s Watsonville Children’s Center. Many monthly pregnancy disappointments helped Vanessa develop great empathy for first-time moms experiencing infertility, and when the pandemic started to approach, she and Albert made the decision to stop trying. They had a happy, healthy family of four already.
That’s when a plus sign appeared in the indicator panel.
And that’s when the pandemic hit and Vanessa and her two children (12 and 9) were sent home for distance learning. At first, although she was uncomfortable with turning an early child development program into a distance learning program, she was happy to spend more time with her kids, and made a fortuitous discovery about the younger one.
“I got to see some of Adrian that I hadn’t seen since I’d been working full time since he was pretty young,” Vanessa explains. She realized that his challenging behavior, which had been an ongoing issue, was tied to a learning disability. But she hardly had time to consider options when she faced the first challenge of her pregnancy: hyperemesis. Made famous by British royal Kate Middleton, this condition causes severe nausea and vomiting during pregnancy.
“On Zoom meetings I’d have to turn off my camera to throw up in my little garbage can next to my desk,” Vanessa remembers. And the medication wasn’t much better. “I’m trying to work from home with two kids doing distance learning, one of whom had unidentified special needs, and [I’m supposed to] take these meds that are going to make you fall asleep and I’m, like, ’yeah, that’s gonna work’.”
Vanessa ended up taking leave from her job until the symptoms abated. In the meantime, she had the time to pursue a diagnosis for her son—severe dyslexia. “[When the tester] said, ‘he is profoundly dyslexic’ I was laughing like a crazy person. What I’m saying about my kid is real.”
But Vanessa’s pandemic-era pregnancy complications didn’t stop there. She was diagnosed with gestational diabetes a few months before her due date, and once again had to take a leave of absence under doctor’s orders. At this point, the stress compounded. She was anxious about her health and the baby’s health, anxious that they’d have to perform an early c-section, and concerned that Albert wasn’t able to take part in the pregnancy as he had with the other children.
“Albert didn’t get to come to any of the ultrasounds so he was having a hard time connecting with the pregnancy,” she remembers. “Birth is already so emotionally raw and vulnerable and to add those layers, like Albert had to be wearing a mask when he saw his baby being born. It was weird.”
Vanessa and family are now doing well, and Benji truly is a cute baby!
“Being a first-time mom then to have a frickin’ world pandemic going on, it’s a little different, to say the least!”
Getting pregnant didn’t come quickly for Roxanne Sweeting, a 32-year-old medical assistant from Capitola. It was her first baby, and after nine months of a relatively normal pregnancy she entered the hospital to give birth—right when the shelter-in-place ordinance was announced.
Roxanne was completely unprepared for the experience of pandemic-era birth. She was distraught that her sister couldn’t be with her, and though she has nothing but the warmest praise and admiration for everyone from her husband to the staff who cared for them, her mental health took a sudden and severe dive after the birth.
First of all was the magnification of all of the typical problems that a new mom might face. Roxanne’s milk didn’t come in, so she had to bring her dehydrated baby to the Sutter Lactation Center when he was only two days old. It’s typical for new moms to feel inadequate if they need help with breastfeeding, but to have this happen at a time when leaving the house felt risky brought it to a new level.
“They were all stars in making me feel I wasn’t a terrible human,” Roxanne says of those who cared for her in this time.
But it wasn’t enough. No one in Roxanne’s close family was able to visit except by video until her son was four months old. During this time, postpartum depression hit—and hit hard.
“Being so excited to be a new mom and not be able to share with one person in your family besides the people in your own home was heartbreaking,” Roxanne says.
She says that she remembers very little of these months, describing the disappointment she felt in herself for not being able to find joy in her life as a new mother. “There’s this expectation for you to be head over heels and love at first sight with your baby,” she says. “[With postpartum depression] that’s not the case. It’s traumatizing, and there’s also this fear—this pandemic going on.”
At the same time, record numbers of others were seeking mental health care. Roxanne found that practices were full up. When she finally did get a therapist, her therapist had to go on pregnancy leave herself. Although many people were sympathetic and supportive, offhand comments like a receptionist on the phone compounded the hurt. “Like I was just another mom going through motherhood problems.”
Still, Roxanne says of her overall experience, “There’s so many providers that you could say thank-you thank-you thank-you to because they’ve done so much.” She especially appreciated the help of women’s health practitioner Dana Ramsey (our mom of the month!).
Roxanne is better now, back to work with a healthy son and an intact family. But she struggles to find the silver lining in this experience. “My son is my world and my everything, but the experience was so—I wouldn’t want to do it again. My husband and I are talking about baby number two and I’m terrified.”
“It was just a tornado of all the bad stuff happening at once.”
“It was such a sweet time for our family!”
A worldwide pandemic is not good. But sometimes adversity leads to unexpected sweetness that a family enjoys all the more because of the negative backdrop. That’s how Leilani Kanter, a 32-year-old Santa Cruz resident, relates her birth experience.
“I had always envisioned a homebirth but had decided to deliver in the hospital for practical reasons like insurance,” Leilani explains. Then came the pandemic, her husband Matt’s job loss, and the uncertainty of her own business, Botanic and Luxe in downtown Santa Cruz. Against that backdrop, Leilani and Matt made a sudden choice.
“I was born at home and it made me feel so empowered that I made that huge decision last-minute and made it happen,” Leilani explains.
The pandemic also brought a very different experience to the early months. With her husband at home, Leilani found peace in nurturing her family at a time that might have been hectic.
“Day-to-day life was amazing during the pandemic,” she remembers. “I had such a sense of relief that all the plans and obligations I thought I’d have to juggle with a new baby were canceled. Sadly, [they were] events like weddings and bachelorettes, but I was looking at the bright side that at least I got to spend that time with my baby.”
In the meantime, Matt got to act on his plan to further his education in preparation for a career change. After four weeks, however, Leilani found it necessary to return to work.
“I own the business with my best friend and she was drowning by herself as all of our employees were laid off,” Leilani remembers. “It was so hard leaving my baby so little but ultimately what the times called for and the decision I made.”
Leilani says that they feel grateful for the way a pandemic gave them time, for living in Santa Cruz, and for being able to pursue their dreams.
“Overall, I felt so happy and lucky most days to be in the sweetest little baby bubble with my girl.”