Editor's note: Tamara Frankel gave birth to a baby boy on Thursday, May 7 at 9:54pm.
Pregnancy comes with anticipation and excitement — of becoming a mom and raising a child — but also anxiety about what it will be like to give birth and, ultimately, be a parent. Fears are compounded by multiple doctor’s visits, diagnostic tests and endless suggestions about what you should or shouldn’t be eating.
COVID-19 has isolated women from friends and family — the support systems that mothers, new and experienced, rely on to deal with those anxieties and share in that excitement. It's also piled on unpredictability around procedures, new concerns about exposures to the virus and exacerbated postpartum mental health stress. And even as Chicago’s healthcare system is increasingly strained by the coronavirus, thousands of babies have been born in the area since the stay-at-home order was issued in March.
We spoke to three people adapting to the new realities of bringing a baby into the world in the middle of a pandemic: Tamara Frankel, who is expecting her first child, Katie Coombes, who just gave birth to her second child, and Stephanie Martinez, a nurse midwife.
It took Tamara Frankel a long time to get pregnant — but finally, after completing a round of IVF, it happened. She and her husband Zach were at a Cubs game last summer the day they found out she was finally pregnant.
“I remember there was like some, I don't know, birthday tribute on the Jumbotron to maybe someone's kid,” she said. “And I just started crying. I was like, ‘Okay, I guess I’m pregnant for real.’”
Tamara said despite the normal anxiety that comes with a first pregnancy, the next eight months went relatively smoothly. Then she entered into her final weeks of pregnancy, which happened to coincide with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, she said, things were really different, starting with the visits to her doctor. Because she’s close to the end of her pregnancy, she’s going every week for an in-person exam. And she’s not allowed to bring anyone with her to these visits.
“When I get there, they take my temperature,” she said. “They ask me if I have any symptoms, [and] if I've been in contact with anyone who's suspected of having the virus.”
She said that some of these questions cause extra anxiety.
“One of the questions they ask you before you go in is like, do you have any aches and pains or something? Are you short of breath? It's like, yeah, I'm short of breath — I'm pregnant. But then it's like, am I short of breath because I'm pregnant or am I short of breath because I have a virus?”
Tamara said that day-to-day anxiety and unpredictability is an inherent part of being pregnant, but it’s been even harder living in an era where everyone else is dealing with that same loss of control.
“It's one thing when you're experiencing that, let's say, as a pregnant woman and everyone else is kind of going about their business," she said. "But when everyone's kind of operating in that mode, I think it can heighten and exacerbate that anxiety.”
Tamara said another tough part of the experience has been navigating her family’s disappointment that they can’t be there to help more, which is something they’d been looking forward to doing.
"[My mom] is always thinking about it. And I'm thinking about it, too. So it's kind of hard to manage ... let's say, my own sadness around it and hers."
But despite all the challenges, the pandemic has helped her realize something about herself.
“You learn a lot about resilience in this time and like in every possible sense ... you also have to, I think, dig deep to find it sometimes in yourself ... and I try to channel that as much as I can when I'm feeling like I just don't know how I'm going to get through this.”
Tamara said babies come into the world whenever they want to, despite whatever else is going on, including a pandemic. And she hopes to pass along that message of resiliency some day, when she tells her child about what the world was like when they were born.
“Yeah, it was really hard and complicated to like bring you into the world at this time," she said. "But also ... amazing.”
Katie Coombes knows something about that resiliency Tamara described. She had to tap into it when she went into labor at 5 a.m. on Saturday April 18, in the middle of the pandemic.
"I could barely walk because the contractions were so bad," Katie said. "And the first thing that happened at the hospital was the screener came up to me and was like, 'I need to take your temperature."
Her temperature was fine but contractions were coming quickly, Katie said. The screener told her she needed to be wearing a mask.
"I couldn't even move my hands," she said. "I was holding onto the wheelchair, just trying to survive the contraction and he's putting the mask on me."
What she needed in the moment was support, she said, someone telling her: 'You can do this.' Instead, she said she found herself holding onto a wheelchair while the screener put a mask over her nose and mouth.
She’d hoped to have a doula present at the birth — someone to provide support and advocate for her choices during the labor. The family even hired two doulas — one to support and advocate for Katie and another to be there for her older daughter, Lillian, who had asked to be present when her sister was born.
But because of the rules put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Katie was only allowed to have one person in the delivery room. She picked her husband.
Once in the delivery room, things progressed quickly — Eleanor Coombes was born 10:13 a.m. on April 18.
Katie describes her first birth experience as "beautiful" and "life changing." Her second birth experience, though marred by COVID-19, felt "empowering but in a very different way."
"It was more validating," she said. "I did the work. I advocated for myself. My husband and I were a strong unit together and the birth went in a way that felt in line with what my body was telling me."
After the birth, check-ins with the nurses and doctors were brief and efficient, as they tried to limit exposure. She was given a packet of papers on post-partum depression, different positions for breastfeeding and the importance of resting after labor, but it wasn't the same as the face-to-face conversations she remembers having after Lillian was born.
"You're not really getting the same kind of education that I remember getting for my first daughter, when they can hang out in the room and chit chat with you," she said.
Her advice for mothers who are pregnant for the first time during this pandemic: Educate yourself as much as you can.
"Take advantage of virtual telehealth meetings with your provider and ask the questions," she said. "They're gonna take the time to answer your questions but they might not think about bringing it up if you don't."
The first thing Katie did when she came home was introduce her two daughters to each other.
"It's very cute, [Lillian] is very afraid when [Eleanor] cries," she said. "It was great to be together again, all four of us."
Her life back at home also looks different than she had imagined nine months ago — her parents aren't able to visit and friends can't stop by to help tidy up or just spend time together.
"It wasn’t the experience I had anticipated but new life is a wonder that makes anything feel possible," she wrote in an email.
Stephanie Martinez knows a lot about bringing new life into the world. She’s about to celebrate her one hundredth delivery since becoming a certified nurse midwife. Stephanie said she pursued nursing school because of The Walking Dead — she wanted to explore how healthcare can be provided even under the most dire circumstances. It’s no coincidence she ended up practicing home birth, but she didn’t expect it to be in the middle of a pandemic.
When COVID-19 hit Chicago, Stephanie was working for Gentle Birth Care — the largest home birth practice in Illinois.
She said patient numbers were on the lower side until March, when the demand for home births started to rise as expecting mothers began to fear infection from hospital visits. Now, she’s at capacity for the next several months.
“As you can see from the bags under my eyes, we have a lot more people giving birth,” she said.
But Stephanie doesn’t only assist patients during labor. The practice also guides mothers through prenatal and postpartum care, which Stephanie says is especially crucial in a time of increased fear and stress.
One patient, who was transferred to the hospital due to unrelated complications, is now back at home with her newborn — but her husband has tested positive for COVID-19. Unable to touch his baby, Stephanie said this mother has felt more isolated in her new routine, and both parents are wearing masks at home to prevent the infection from spreading.
“Having a newborn in the first place is super difficult — it’s super isolating, it’s super lonely — and all those things are just more exacerbated right now,” she said. ”So I’m really feeling for some of my folks right now, especially this particular mama. I mean, can you even imagine that type of stress?”
Normally, Stephanie would go to a patient’s house to evaluate the baby’s health and check in on the new mom, but now that option is off the table.
“Is she supposed to take this newborn with her into the hospital to get checked out?” she asked. “What do we do?”
Stephanie and her colleagues have been reinforcing the importance of a hygienic home environment, hand washing routines, and making sure new moms quarantine with their newborns. Stephanie also encourages them to take advantage of virtual therapy to help with mental health.
But much of the support for new mothers comes from loved ones dropping off cooked meals or dropping by to help with laundry or other household tasks. Now, the options for this kind of support are limited.
“It’s hard trying to figure out postpartum support in the middle of this pandemic because this is when you call in your people to help with childcare or taking care of the house or cooking,” she said. “We really need community for homebirth to work, and this is a time of quarantine — not community.”
Now, Stephanie is serving her community in a new way. She just recently left her home birth practice to work as a certified nurse midwife on the labor and delivery floor of a local hospital — and is experiencing mixed feelings about it.
“I’m excited to work in my neighborhood again and I’m excited to work with my community again...and I’m scared,” she said.“There have been positive [COVID-19 cases] there.”
But Stephanie said what keeps her going is the babies. She’s seen patients and families doing whatever they can to make sure their babies are safe and healthy, and for Stephanie that’s important — this new life will shape the future, even after there’s a return to a new kind of normalcy.
“They give me hope for where the world will be in 30 years,” she said. “We carry them now with our hands and our bodies, so we are very much responsible for how they will treat the world, but I’m so hopeful for how the world will look.”
Paula Friedrich is WBEZ's interactive producer. You can follow her on Twitter at @pauliebe. Mackenzie Crosson is the interim multimedia producer for Curious City. Katherine Nagasawa is WBEZ’s audience engagement producer. Follow her @Kat_Nagasawa. Candace Mittel Kahn is a senior podcast producer for WBEZ.