- File: Cat Cutillo
- Eliana Castro
Is there anything more hopeful than having a baby? Babies represent the future. They embody our desire to believe in goodness and life. I've had four of them myself, and as a birth educator and doula, I help families welcome babies into their lives. It's joyful work.
I'm also a journalist. And when the pandemic hit, I realized that women who had children during this time were going through an especially complicated transition. I felt compelled to document and bear witness to their stories, so I applied for and received a National Geographic Society COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists. It allowed me to interview mothers, as well as the midwives, doctors, mental health professionals and nurses supporting them this past spring and summer.
I learned that anxiety and mood disorders in pregnant and postpartum women in the U.S. have doubled since the pandemic began, according to a study conducted last year by Massachusetts' Brigham and Women's Hospital in partnership with Harvard Medical School. Normally, one in seven postpartum women report clinically significant levels of depression. The PEACE Study — the acronym stands for Perinatal Experiences and COVID-19 Effects — found that number has risen to more than one in three.
The women I spoke with told me they were often isolated, scared and struggling. They'd had so many questions: Will I have to give birth alone in the hospital? What if I get COVID-19 and have to be separated from my baby? What if the baby gets sick? Especially in the early days, no one had answers. I also heard stories of resilience and unexpected blessings.
Read on for reflections from six of the moms I recorded for this project. These interviews have been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
'We realized early on that we were going to need a lot more support.'
- File: Cat Cutillo
- Eliana Castro
Kids VT readers may recognize Eliana Castro; she and her daughter, Adelaide, appeared on the cover of the May 2020 Mom and Baby issue. Castro, a 35-year-old assistant professor of secondary education at the University of Vermont, experienced many identity shifts that spring: She earned her PhD, got married, moved to Vermont and then had Adelaide, who recently turned 1. Connecting with other local moms online made a big difference for her, especially after Adelaide was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
I think even before becoming pregnant, I was always a little bit concerned about what motherhood meant for our prospects for travel, for my career — what this meant for, you know, just my free time. I think I was a little bit apprehensive about motherhood and the ways that it sort of takes over women's lives. And, I mean, the pandemic took over my life. I didn't really have a lot of choice, right? The choices were made for me a lot of the time.
We always wanted to come back to New England. It was really exciting, because I got the job and we were pregnant and we had tried really hard. We tried for 18 months, and then our first IUI [intrauterine insemination] worked. So it felt like, you know, That was the end of a very long road, we thought.
One of the first conversations I had with my colleague Carmen was about who to connect with here, so that I could start building community and cultivating some relationships. She told me about Evolution [now Grow Prenatal & Family Center in Burlington] and I started attending the coffee chats in late April of 2020. That made all the difference. That sense of isolation started to dissipate because I had connected to that community online — and I'm still so connected to them. I still do some coffee chats, and those are the moms coming by to bring me meals or, you know, groceries. The VerMamas and the coffee chat moms have been just a major lifeline. I can't tell you what this would have been like without them.
I think, in a way, [the pandemic] sort of forced me to try a little bit more intentionally to connect with other moms. It would have been really easy for me to just sort of recede into my pregnancy bubble or the newborn bubble and just sort of be in our comfort zone. But we realized really early on that we were going to need a lot more support.
[At home], my husband's desk and mine were next to each other, and the living room was right there. And the kitchen was within view. Had it not been for that, my husband and I would have each missed a milestone or two. I saw [my infant] roll over, even though I was at my desk.
I honestly think that knowing her as well as we do was what allowed us to read her symptoms and know that something was really wrong. You know, everybody comments, "Wow, you were really responsive. You really know your child." And I was like, Well, I don't really have an option. We've been with her every waking moment of her life. She's not in daycare. No one else has babysat her, except for one wedding. It was a gift that we've been able to experience every moment with her, for better or for worse.
Maybe I'm just trying to be positive, see the silver lining, but it has offered us a lot of opportunities to just build a strong bond with her and with each other.
'I felt alone.'
- Courtesy Kelli Prescott
- Colleen Twomey
Colleen Twomey lives in the Northeast Kingdom and works for the State of Vermont as a domestic violence specialist for the Department for Children and Families. Twomey already had a toddler at home when she gave birth to twins at the very beginning of the pandemic — in January 2020, before it had even reached the U.S. She and her husband were working from home and trying to care for three children under the age of 3. She was diagnosed with postpartum depression and began taking medication to help.
I was really looking forward to the moms group that I'm a part of, having more time to just be around other moms, to be out in the community, to show off my twins. It's funny; that's a simple thing. But just taking them out, having people see your babies, you get that external affirmation that you're doing a good job, which every mom needs. I think with my first daughter, I was experiencing a little bit of postpartum depression, but it was managed because of that sense of community.
But [this time] there was nobody there. No one to say, "Look at you; you're raising these three children." All of the things that I had envisioned — all of the ways in which I was going to be connected and just feel supported or kind of held up, and even just to have another person hold the babies — I mean, none of that happened, and it was extremely isolating.
All of our grandparents missed the first year of their life, and you just can never prepare for that. It's a three-hour drive from my parents, and they did drive up here. They drove six hours round trip to just stand outside. They waved through the window, and it was just absolutely devastating.
And, you know, just the fear. In the beginning of this pandemic, nobody knew anything about the COVID-19 virus. And every time my partner would go to the grocery store, we would try to avoid it and we would be scared. What happens if I get sick and I'm breastfeeding — what's going to happen to my babies? Am I still going to be able to breastfeed? Like, all of these swirling thoughts.
I think having babies, especially twin babies, you're trying to manage all that. And then you add in this really scary virus on top. I felt alone. My toddler, she goes to a home daycare. It's like our second family. She's been going since she was 3 months old, and we pulled her out of that. So now my partner is working from home, we've got three children here — you know, at that time she was, like, 2 and a half. I would just be hearing from so many people, "You're so lucky that you get this time, you get this extra time with your three children." Like there's a blessing in the pandemic. So then I'm second-guessing, like,
I should be grateful. Why am I feeling this way? when people really don't understand.
So I slipped into postpartum depression, which I think is really important to talk about. I'm still taking Zoloft. I see a therapist, and she's like, "You know, you may still have experienced this, but it was amplified by your isolation." When my partner went back to work, it was just really, really hard for me. March and April are the hardest time of the year because you can't really get outside. The weather is kind of miserable. When spring came, when we were able to get outside, it was much better for my mental health.
With the twins, I would look forward to their well-child visits. I mean, that was our only time going out of the house. My oldest is a little shy, but she doesn't have the discomfort of strangers like the twins. They've only seen masked doctors. They spent the first year of their lives not seeing people.
I had so many people say, "You need to just break the rules." My parents are a lot older — my dad's high-risk, and I have a niece with Down syndrome living in that home. And like, No, I actually can't break the rules. Trust me, we wanted to, but we didn't. For me, it's about the concern for other people. And, unfortunately, there's some sacrifice around my well-being for that.
'The pandemic just gave this beautiful permission to stay home.'
- Courtesy of Myra Flynn
- Myra Flynn
Musician Myra Flynn, 37, lived in Los Angeles for eight years and had her first baby there right before the pandemic began. She and her husband, Phil Wills, experienced the lockdown there before returning to her home state of Vermont. Flynn now works for Vermont Public Radio as an engagement producer.
I'm a musician, and my husband's a consultant, and he's on television. So, we had a baby, knowing we were gonna get on the road right away. Previous to taking this job, I had 60 shows slated, and Phil was ready to film, and all of that. I mean, neither of us — in how hard we've hustled as artists in this industry — would have ever stopped.
And, you know, the pandemic just gave this beautiful permission to stay home and learn how to be the best parents that we could. And I didn't have to do it alone. We didn't have to have that juggle where he left while I stayed.
So, in some ways, that isolation was wonderful. We didn't feel like we were missing out on anything. We didn't have any money at the time, but nobody did. Everybody's jobs were going south. Nobody came out of that situation unscathed, so, for us, it was just a leveling thing that just sent us home to be parents. It felt like a gift from the universe in some ways.
I'd say that the hardest part of it for me was really not being able to form community or take notes from other moms. Those moments where you're like, "Is this normal?"
LA was so fraught with COVID that they weren't taking any more regular doctor's appointments. We couldn't go in for our checkups. They canceled all of her shots. Like, everything. So you could only go in if it was an emergency, and trying to get a telehealth visit was insane.
We had social justice reform, and the riots that came with that were very unsafe in our area. We are a Black family, and I didn't want my husband driving anywhere. The police were everywhere, so that did not feel safe. And so we were inside because of that. And then, just when you thought it couldn't get any more isolating, the Bobcat fires started five miles from our house, and our whole house filled with smoke. And so we were confined with the new baby and our dog to one room with a bunch of air filtration machines.
It was just really, really hard to know: What do we need? It's awful that women will compare motherhood, or children, in a negative way. But it's a wonderful thing to have comparison, or a frame of reference, for what you're doing. I had my mom on the phone all the way over here on the East Coast, but it's been a long time since she was a new mother. I would have probably been the first to sign up for some mommy-and-me groups or something like that, just to be around other women. Like, that breastfeeding scenario could have gotten so much better if I were around other women who could have told me what was normal, and that I was OK, and that my body was OK.
'I mourned my old life.'
- Courtesy of Riddhi Patel
- Riddhi Patel
Riddhi Patel, 38, was born in India but has lived in the United States since 2004; she works as an anti-fraud strategy consultant. She lives in Essex with her husband, a law enforcement officer, and their 1-year-old daughter. She struggled to get pregnant for years and then found success with in vitro fertilization. Her pregnancy coincided with the beginning of the pandemic and a devastating loss.
Two weeks before my daughter was born, my mother-in-law passed away. We got a call at four in the morning. She had a cardiac arrest, and she passed away from the complications from her chemotherapy.
And so that just threw everything off. My husband was there, but he was not there. You know? And I felt like what was meant to be the happiest moment of his life turned out to be, I think, a moment where he was completely lost. He couldn’t mourn his mother’s passing, I mean, do justice to that. And he couldn’t do justice to his daughter’s birth, because they both were such significant events in such a short time.
So I felt the pandemic. I felt like I was stealing my baby from the hospital and running away — I swear to God, that’s how I felt. Everything was so locked down that when we were leaving from the hospital, I was like, This is so weird. This does not feel normal. I’m just taking this child, and we are running away, and we are trying to sneak out of here. I’m hoping we don’t run into anybody, because we don’t want any exposures. That’s how it felt.
I think the first month, every day I thought I made the wrong decision, thought this was the worst thing I did to myself. I mourned my old life. I think the first three months I mourned, every single day, my old self, my old life. I had become very weak. I still had sciatic pain. I had the stitches [from a cesarean birth]. Like, I never had anything done to my body. And all of a sudden I have this scar, you know, and you are still in the pandemic, right? Like, you are still not going out and about, people are not coming to visit you — the arrival of your child and the celebration and the welcome. It was not normal.
I did go through my own mental ups and downs for six months solid. I remember the first 15 days, my husband was home. So, four days we were in the hospital and then we were home; and then he started going to work 15 days later, and he worked night shifts. He would leave at 5 p.m. and he would start getting ready at 4 to leave.
And the witching hours with my daughter were the worst. Like, 6 to 9 were so bad that I remember [my husband] would start getting ready, and I would be in my bedroom with the baby at the time. And I would start, like, literally shaking out of anxiety, because I had so much fear that, Oh, my God, he’s leaving me home. What am I going to do with this child? Like, what am I going to do? How am I going to get through this one more night without him home?
I cannot tell whether what I felt was the postpartum depression, anxiety, or what I felt was the circumstantial life changes, or what I felt was having the child during pandemic or during life loss. I guess maybe next time, if I have a normal pregnancy, I should compare.
I think if there was any saving grace during the entire difficult phase, it was the fact that my parents were very constant. They helped both of us, me and my husband, get through our difficult time.
Looking back, I have a profound appreciation for the opportunity to be a mother. Had it not been this hard or challenging — I mean, I’m sure I would love my child equally, but I feel like now I’m more protective of my time with my child. I’m more protective of this opportunity that we both have to raise a child.
'The emergency plan: I would drive myself to the hospital.'
- Courtesy Studio 2N Portrait Photography
- Stephanie Philips
Stephanie Phillips, 38, lives in Burlington with her husband and three children. Her youngest arrived in March of 2020, just as COVID-19 hit the United States and Vermont declared a state of emergency. Phillips works as a lawyer for the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation.
Charlie's my third, so I wasn't expecting that to be a stressful time. But I felt more anxious, so much more was unknown. It was really just a time of a ton of anxiety.
He was breech, unlike my first two. The time immediately before COVID really hit the U.S., I was fully absorbed in trying to flip this baby. I'm sure I was doing handstands in pools and nightly exercises, like on the couch with my head down on the floor. All sorts of things to get him to flip, mostly just to avoid a C-section for faster recovery. But then, when COVID hit, that took on a whole new meaning, because the difference between a vaginal birth and a C-section is the difference between two days in the hospital or five days. The complications go up.
On March 13th, we kept our older girls home from school. I didn't go into the office. My husband already works from home. We started complete isolation. Like, nothing — no groceries, no visitors, no outings, nothing — and all to preserve, as much as possible, a sense of safety around going into the hospital and giving birth. And my big fear was that I was going to go into labor early. And so then the question became, Well, if I go into labor in the middle of the night, what do we do?
So the emergency plan was that if I went into labor, I would have to drive myself to the hospital while my husband stayed with the girls. So my big fear was that I was going to end up driving myself alone to the hospital, that they were not going to allow visitors, and I was going to have an emergency C-section alone, in a hospital during a pandemic. And depending on how things went, they might take my baby from me — for safety.
I was reading up on what we should be doing [at the hospital]. It seemed like everybody should be wearing masks. And I remember them sort of looking at us [wearing masks] like, Well, that's strange. And by the time we checked out, you know, everybody had to wear masks. And I remember them apologizing.
My husband was able to come and stay, but he couldn't leave to go check on our daughters because he wouldn't have been able to come back. We dropped them off at my brother and sister-in-law's house in Richmond. The first time they saw their brother was over FaceTime from the hospital. We had no visitors. We never sent [the baby] to the nursery, just so he would never leave the room.
One thing that was challenging for me was when I returned from my 20-week maternity leave. First of all, going back was just a bit like turning on a computer, which was very anticlimactic. I returned to a virtual work environment that I had only experienced for a week or two, and everybody else had been dealing with it for months. So I got back and was like, "Hey, we're all remote." And everyone's like, "Yeah, welcome to the party."
That was a weird transition, but everybody was really, really nice. I think it's just, when you go to a physical office, people are like, "Oh, hey, welcome back! How's the baby? Show me a picture!" Whereas when you go back remotely, unless you have a meeting with somebody, they don't know you're back. And so it can be a very lonely, isolating experience there, too."
'We were all just trapped in our one-bedroom apartment.'
- Courtesy Studio 2N Portrait Photography
- Nathalie Boyle and Oliver
Poet Nathalie Boyle, 32, is a stay-at-home mom to Oliver, 1. She and her husband moved to Vermont in the summer of 2019 from the Boston area. She found it hard to make connections with other new moms as Vermont went into a second lockdown in the winter of 2020, just after her son was born.
I had a Zoom baby shower, and it just made me so fucking sad. I saw my parents and my brother once when I was pregnant in January, and I wasn't even showing; I was just really tired and eating a lot of pineapple. I thought [pregnancy] was going to be more like going to prenatal yoga classes.
When he was born, I thought we were going to be able to go to mommy-and-me classes and, you know, be able to find some community. But instead we were all just trapped in our one-bedroom apartment with no help. Every decision felt like, What we would be gaining if our parents came to help us for a little bit, but what would the cost be? We always had to consider it — not just Oliver's health and safety, but everyone's health and safety.
All my sadness about it has nothing to do with Oliver. It's more about the loss that I feel about the experience that I thought that I was going to have.
I think the rage goes to people who don't really understand. We had an electrician here, and I was grinding some [coffee] beans, and I was like, "OK, Oliver, I'm going to turn this on, but it's going to be cool and fun." And the electrician was like, "Oh, just wait until you have, like, your second or third, then it's just, like, not even an issue."
[Having a baby during the pandemic] was a traumatizing experience for me, and I am not interested in having more babies, because I don't want to relive that. A part of me is like, Well, maybe it would be therapeutic. But I don't think that that is a good enough reason.
Still Life II
Anticipation is the emotion
I am most truly afraid of.
I wait for warm weather to flourish
with spring, the shelter in place orders
to lift, the pandemic to abate.
I await the quickening
our doctors and mothers say
will happen any day now.
I use my new baby bump
as a prop for Ninth Street Women,
the book I'm reading
about the women painters
of the Abstract Expressionist movement,
where I read this sentence:
where there is life, there is hope.
I am impatient.
Advice and Resources From Postpartum Professionals
The medical and mental health workers who help women through the postpartum period are struggling to manage the increase in demand for their services.
Ann Smith, a certified nurse midwife and women's health practitioner who served as the president of the nonprofit Postpartum Support International last year, said the group saw a dramatic spike in inquiries. "We were flooded with calls and texts asking for help, looking for support, looking for ways to get themselves to feel more normal," Smith said.
A certain amount of anxiety is natural, especially for first-time parents. But it becomes pathological when women can't function normally, said Sandy Wood, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and certified midwife at the University of Vermont Medical Center. Even when the baby is sleeping, their minds are busy "catastrophizing," she said.
If people aren't sleeping when the baby sleeps, if they're having intrusive thoughts, if they can't get out of the house and they're scared of everything — those are the things that "are really pathologic and really get to the point of biochemical, needing medication," she said.
Wood pointed out that a lot of issues, even anxiety and depression, can be addressed with therapy, relaxation techniques and asking questions like: Is that a helpful thought? What else could I think about this? She has a background in mindfulness-based stress reduction and employs that approach frequently when working with postpartum women.
She also noted that Google and social media can contribute to anxiety. She tells a lot of women to stay off their digital devices. "You don't have to be nursing and surfing the internet," she said. "Just nurse. Just be with your baby."
Sometimes going online can help, though. In response to the surge in demand, PSI has created about 18 online groups that meet weekly.
Southern Vermont therapist Rachel Totten has referred many women to them. Totten runs a networking group for Vermont therapists. She says of the 550 professionals in that network, everyone is either at capacity or exceeding it.
"A lot of moms were saying they were missing just being pregnant in the community, the things that would happen, the little smiles you'd get walking in Target passing another mom who sees you pregnant, or just comments you might get, like 'When's your baby due?'" Encounters like that can help new moms adjust to their transition, she said.
If you or someone you love is seeking perinatal or postpartum support, here are some places to find it:
- Vermont's Chapter of Postpartum Support International has a "warmline" with local coordinators who provide support, information, encouragement and connection with mental health providers. Call the PSI support helpline at 1-800-944-4773, or learn more at psichapters.com/vt.
- Access virtual support groups at postpartum.net/get-help/psi-online-support-meetings.
- Learn more about perinatal and postpartum mood disorders at postpartum.net/learn-more.
Resources to help new parents connect and adapt:
- Grow Prenatal & Family Center in Burlington offers prenatal and postnatal yoga classes; free Saturday morning coffee chats for pregnant and postpartum individuals; birth, breastfeeding and newborn care classes; and a virtual pregnancy circle. Check out growfamilyvt.com for a list of virtual and in-person offerings and to sign up for VerMamas, a postpartum support group.
- The Janet S. Munt Family Room in Burlington offers a Drop-in Postpartum Coffee and Tea Hour on Zoom, traveling playgroups, and family support and home visits. A program called the Brotherhood provides support for new dads and gives them the opportunity to talk with others about the transition to fatherhood. Find a list of available services at thefamilyroomvt.org/programs.
- Burlington-based nonprofit Dad Guild also supports new fathers. Connect with the group at dadguild.org.
- Good Beginnings of Central Vermont offers childbirth education, online meetups and activities for new parents and families, as well as babywearing clinics and a Journey Into Parenthood workshop. It also hosts a program called Postpartum Angel Family Support, run by community volunteers who are trained to bring respite, support and companionship to parents and caregivers during the tender postpartum period. Learn more at goodbeginningscentralvt.org.
- The Fletcher Free Library in Burlington offers programs such as sing-alongs and Stories With Megan, held both virtually and sometimes outside (weather permitting). Find a list at fletcherfree.org/kids-events.
- Lamoille Family Center and Appleseed Pediatrics is one of several sites around the country that offers the DULCE (Developmental Understanding and Legal Collaboration for Everyone) program to help families in rural areas. A specialist meets with families at their first newborn pediatric visit and stays connected through their first six months. Sign up through Appleseed Pediatrics at Copley Hospital in Morrisville by visiting lamoillehealthpartners.org.