The pandemic may have sucked out joy and happiness that comes with childbirth, and replaced it with fear and vigilance. (Representative Image)
Let me paint you this picture: you are walking in your neighbourhood when you spot a house. A house that seems quiet from far, but the closer you go, it gets louder. You realise there’s a constant hustle and bustle of people. You see there are gifts, balloons and flowers bouquets with congratulatory messages in every nook and corner. You notice that the floor is full of toys. There are voices of multiple people in the house and the air is strongly scented with baby powder. Amid all the chaos and cacophony, you distinctly identify one noise -- the cries of a newborn baby.
If it isn’t already clear, that house is usually every household when a newborn baby is welcomed in the family. Now, let me take you inside Seema Jangra Khandelwal’s house. She’s a 28-year-old resident of Gurugram, Haryana who gave birth to her baby on April 15.
In her house, you will find a sanitizer instead of balloons and toys in every corner. You will see people physically distancing. In fact, you will not be able to see anyone properly because they are all double-masked at all times. There’s barely any chaos and all you can feel inside this house is a strong sense of caution and alertness, of course with the baby's cries.
This is the scenario in most households where a baby was born in the last year -- a world that’s been at war with the novel coronavirus. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit all of us in early 2020, life changed completely. Waves of infections hit people -- some survived, but some couldn’t. Staying indoors, wearing a mask, avoiding meeting people, isolation, quarantine, constantly sanitizing hands, being extremely alert, trying to maintain physical distance -- all of this soon became a way of life. Now, the situation has started returning to normal in some countries.
India, however, is currently in the midst of a deadly second wave of COVID-19 cases. Many Indians continue to find it difficult to get a hospital bed, many are gasping for a single pump of oxygen and many are standing in queues to cremate their loved ones.
In such difficult times, the birth of a child and motherhood may become a rather confusing and perplexing journey. While you are elated with the birth of your child, you can't celebrate this with anyone. You are scared for your baby’s safety and health which makes you anxious, but at the same time, you need to stay calm and relaxed for your and the child’s health. The pandemic may have sucked out joy and happiness that comes with childbirth, and replaced it with fear and vigilance.
Srija Sinha Roy, a 29-year-old social development worker residing in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand conceived in April 2020, when the outbreak was new to all of us. She delivered her baby in December 2020.
As it was a planned pregnancy, she did not anticipate a virus causing havoc in the world at the time she began her journey into motherhood. Her movement was extremely restricted and limited to errands for grocery and medical supplies, and routine checkups and scans.
“During my initial months, I remember how my husband would not be allowed to accompany me for any of the doctor's appointments or USG scans (precautionary measures) at a time when I would have liked nothing more. To this day, four months after having delivered our baby boy, we still wish he (her husband) could have been there the first time I heard my baby's heartbeat,” Srija recalls.
For 24-year-old fashion designer Ayesha Siddiqua from Bangalore, Karnataka who also conceived in April, her first and second trimester was quite tricky. As India was under a strict nationwide lockdown, it was only her and her husband during the initial days. “My first and second trimester was rather tricky because I stayed alone with my husband and we couldn't really visit family due to the lockdown. I had to do everything alone while dealing with the morning sickness, fatigue and constant need to sleep”, she says. She couldn't meet her family or friends during pregnancy and that made it quite lonely and sad for her. “It was my first baby and everyone was so thrilled, but I couldn't share it with them in person.”
While the day of the delivery is an emotional and physical roller coaster for any pregnant woman anyway, the pandemic didn't make it any easier. Seema’s delivery was unexpected and a cesarean due to some complications that showed up in her third trimester. She remembers stepping into the hospital for her delivery and seeing a queue of people standing in front of a lab where COVID-19 tests were being conducted. The grim reality of giving birth in a hospital so close to a COVID-19 testing centre is something that has stayed with her.
Srija and her family chose a maternity hospital rather than a multi-speciality hospital to minimise the risk, but the experience was equally daunting. “I delivered via C- Section. My delivery was planned in a hurry because of some complication I had developed and I was immediately referred for a COVID-19 test. I had to do two such tests over a span of a week because my surgery ultimately got shifted out by a week and the result of each test was apparently valid for only three days”, Srija says.
“I remember, on the day of my surgery, my family members easily spent 4 hours in the cafeteria outside till they got news of the birth. My husband, after meeting me, had gone down to give them the news and I hear it was one teary-happy event. For the next four days, all that anybody got were photos and video calls,” Srija adds.
For Jayshree, a 40-year-old homemaker in Chennai, the situation was tenser. She already had a very difficult pregnancy, losing two of her triplets early on. Her child was born prematurely through a C-section because of complications in the pregnancy. In the midst of this pandemic, the doctors and she had to be extra careful as the baby was very susceptible to infections.
Once the baby is born, paranoia and fear shoots up the roof. Everyone is extremely careful and cautious around the baby. Not many people are allowed to meet or see the child and those who are able to, are always wearing a mask and constantly sanitizing their hands. Every item that is bought into the household is thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. People, who are living in the house with the baby, restrict their movement and become extremely careful to ensure they are not transmitting the virus in any way.
Srija, Ayesha and Seema – all have had very few people or none at all over at their house post-delivery. Ayesha, in fact, didn’t even employ anyone to help her as she just couldn't take the chance of having an outsider in the house at the moment. So she has been managing everything by herself with the support of her husband. Although Seema has her in-laws to help her out, she manages and cleans the room herself in which she and the baby live.
For Srija, her biggest fear is contracting the virus and then having to be isolated from her baby. She can’t even bear the thought and hence, she and her family have been precautious at all times. “It has turned us into seemingly hostile, cold and unsocial humans, but that's the bare price that we have to pay if we are to even have a shot at safety,” she says.
While all these mothers chose to keep people away from their baby, it pains them to not be able to celebrate such a joyous occasion with all their loved ones. Video calls and photos are the only medium through which family and friends can be a part of this journey. These mothers also crave to take their child out and show them the world. But of course, it's way too risky at the moment.
“I would love to take her out for a walk in her pram, take her out to dinners and drives, but all of that has been put off for later now,” says Ayesha.
So one might ask, is there anything blissful and joyous left about childbirth now?
For Jayshree, the sole fact that she is a mother now and has a baby to hold in her arms after everything she went through is happiness enough. “The funny thing about having a baby is that it becomes your cause of concern and source of joy and distraction. Taking care of him through the day, fortunately, or unfortunately leaves us with very little bandwidth for much else,” Srija explains.
For these ‘pandemic moms’ their journey into motherhood has mostly been overpowered with a strong feeling of protectiveness. Protecting their baby from the virus, protecting their family from the virus and protecting themselves from the virus.
Guarding their babies as fierce lionesses in these challenging times, for these new moms, motherhood now has a different meaning altogether.
And what keeps them going?
Hope that unlike Srija and Seema, who missed out on their baby shower and babymoon, women will once again be able to live their pregnancy to the fullest. Hope that houses will once again be filled with people and their voices, rather than sanitizers and masks. Hope that soon enough, all these newborns will live in a happier world where they can wake up with a toothy smile or draw a clumsy sunflower on a card, wishing their moms ‘Happy Mother’s Day!’.