Noreen Malone contemplates the pandemic pregnancy
In the group photos from my wedding, we’re all wearing masks, like a gang of old- time, dressed-up bank robbers. The ceremony went off more or less as we had planned it: just our immediate families and a judge, in my parents’ backyard outside Cleveland on a Friday in June 2020. For obvious reasons, we had canceled the 200-person party that was scheduled for the following night; we wanted the marriage more than we wanted the celebration. Everyone got tested and quarantined, and my husband spent the morning of the wedding neurotically spacing tables nine feet apart. We dressed them with hand sanitizer and masks, alongside the flowers. But we still had a dance floor. My nieces and nephews rode their tricycles around us on the asphalt driveway while we swayed to “At Last,” a first-dance song we’d picked on the fly.
As it turned out, the two biggest events of my life so far would happen during a plague year. At first, when I found out I was pregnant in late October, I thought my child might be part of a baby boom. In my little circle, pregnancy announcements have seemed to pop up every couple weeks. But as the months progressed, it has become apparent that this was a choice only the lucky could make. There are some 300,000 fewer births projected this year in the United States; in Europe, Germany bucked the trend, but France, Italy, and Spain all reported sharp declines.
The act of bringing a life into the world during the COVID outbreak felt strange and daunting. For some people, losing a job made having a child seemed economically unwise. For people who were already parents, and spending all their waking hours trying magically to do their jobs and provide childcare simultaneously, the thought of adding another kid was overwhelming. And then—for everyone—there was the visceral sense that life had become fundamentally different overnight, and that maybe this pandemic was the beginning of a decades-long spiral into unknowable disasters and climate-change fallout.
But my husband and I knew we wanted children, and I had passed the 35-year-old marker that gets you rudely tagged by an ob-gyn as “geriatric.” We didn’t know when the pandemic would end, or who the president would be, or if there were even worse things in store globally. But if I were to wait until the world was less frightening—well, I might never have a child.
I understood, from my pandemic wedding, that I would have occasional raw pangs of sadness—ones that I knew intellectually, if not emotionally, were frivolous—about missing out once again on some of the rituals that surround these life transitions. I would probably feel a little cheated if I didn’t get one last unencumbered vacation or to experience the power of seeking a seat while pregnant on a crowded subway car. But I also knew that these things were unnecessary, lovely chaff. There were some advantages to a pandemic pregnancy in which I was lucky enough to work from home. I could nap midday. I could eat saltine after saltine or run to throw up without starting any gossip. I wasn’t sitting at dinners with other people happily drinking wine while I stuck to seltzer. Nor was I missing out on anything fun because I was tired or sick; it was all Netflix, all the time, for everyone. I didn’t need to worry about riding the subway or cobbling together office-appropriate maternity outfits. Most of the world was, essentially, wearing pregnancy-friendly clothes already. And on Zoom, no one knows you have a bump, which meant I got to tell exactly as many people in my professional life as I wanted to tell that I was expecting.
But in other ways, I felt the strangeness of the circumstances keenly. My obstetrician’s office didn’t let partners join for appointments, which meant that when I heard our future child’s heartbeat for the first time, I had a wand in my vagina and my husband on FaceTime. My older sisters, who live far from me, mailed boxes of swaddles and onesies, and texted instructions about the necessity of buying multiple NoseFridas. Still, what I really wanted was to sit in a room with them and my mother, and let them show me how to swaddle, or explain how the torture-device-looking NoseFrida actually worked. (It’s a baby nasal aspirator, in case you’re wondering, which is a polite way of saying “snot-sucker.”)
And the isolation of the pandemic winter also made the difficult early days even more so. I had little to distract me from the disorienting sensations inside my body. I’d started a new job right as the pandemic hit, working on the Slow Burn podcast for Slate, which meant I didn’t know any of my coworkers outside of our computer screens. My old job had been as an editor at New York magazine, where we regularly stayed late to hit our deadlines; I missed the rhythms of the office. A friend suggested acupuncture for the nausea, but at that point, the case count in New York was spiking. I’d read a study that suggested pregnant women were 13 times more likely to die from the disease than similarly aged COVID patients who weren’t pregnant. Any kind of nonmedical service in an enclosed room with even a masked stranger was a no-go. A massage, a pedicure—also out, at least until I got vaccinated. We moved to a new apartment in Brooklyn so we’d have room for a nursery, and a woman I knew in the new neighborhood told me she’d made friends with other mothers by taking a prenatal Pilates class down the street. But that too wasn’t happening.