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Becoming a mom in the midst of COVID
or, making sense of matrescence in a global pandemic
Social scientists use the word “matrescence” to refer to the developmental process of becoming a mother. Matrescence, much like adolescence, is a transitionary period characterized by both psychological and biological changes that result in an a new understanding of one’s identity. Even under ideal circumstances, the transition to motherhood can be a challenging time filled with ambivalence and doubt as women work to integrate their new role as a ‘mom’ into their established self-concept.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve often thought about the women who became mothers during this crazy time. It takes a village to raise a child, but what happens when the village is in lockdown? I spoke to half a dozen women who had their first babies between November 2019-August 2020. These women graciously shared their experiences of what it was like to enter motherhood during a time filled with uncertainty, anxiety, and isolation.
In typical times, a woman’s pregnancy is both deeply personal and surprisingly public—both loved ones and complete strangers offer congratulations, dole out advice, and share their own stories of parenthood. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the most palpable theme among the interviews was the sense of isolation so many of these women felt during the first year of the pandemic.
Several women described the anxiety of going to prenatal visits alone and their reluctance to leave the house and risk being exposed to the virus, especially in the confusing first few months of the pandemic. They highlighted how little was known about COVID at that point—we didn’t know whether we should wear masks, let alone the impact of infection on fetuses. Some disclosed that they dealt with panic attacks or depression.
This isolation was accompanied by a pervasive sense of loss. Most missed out on the rituals associated with pregnancy, like baby showers and prenatal classes. Daniela’s parents live in South America and didn’t feel safe traveling internationally. She became tearful talking about how her mother never had the opportunity to see her pregnant body. Alexis, who became pregnant shortly before the pandemic after three rounds of IVF told me, “We struggled to get pregnant for years. Then it finally happened and we couldn’t share it with anyone. Infertility is so isolating, but then we were isolated during pregnancy and the newborn stage too. It was really hard.”
The sense of isolation felt particularly acute immediately postpartum. Some interviewees were encouraged to quarantine for two weeks after delivery, others had family living across the country who didn’t feel safe traveling. Christina said “You have this image of bringing your baby home from the hospital and being surrounded by family, and none of that could happen. We were just on our own for the first several months.”
STRUGGLES WITH IDENTITY
Many new moms struggle with some degree of ambivalence as they both welcome motherhood and mourn the loss of their pre-baby life. Most women seek out familiar activities and relationships in an effort to integrate these two identities—taking a much-loved exercise class, grabbing a drink with friends, making time for a date night. All of these activities serve to remind new moms of who they are, independent from their child.
Of course, the pandemic has made it hard to feel comfortable engaging in activities like these, especially with an infant at home. According to Ashley, “In the past two years, I’ve been a mom, a wife, and an employee. That’s it. I haven’t had the opportunity to develop an evolved identity now that I’m a mom.” Christina echoed the same sentiment, “The non-mom part of me was completely taken away. I really felt like I lost my identity for a long time.”
All six women described getting vaccinated as a major turning point for them. Once they were vaccinated, they began to feel more confident participating in various social activities. By the time vaccines were available to the general public, their babies were also nearing their first birthdays, which further reduced their sense of vulnerability. However, Omicron has been an unwelcome return to isolation for each of them. Laura, Meg, and Christina all had second babies within the past two months and the irony of welcoming another child during a surge is not lost on them.
The birth of a baby changes new parents’ relationships with each other and with their own parents. For some moms, COVID added an additional layer of complexity when loved ones had greater levels of risk tolerance than they did. Meg experienced this when she and her husband required all visitors to take a COVID test ahead of seeing their newborn, a decision that her mother balked at. Meg felt that her mom was dismissive and disrespectful during an incredibly vulnerable and emotional time. Their relationship still hasn't fully recovered from lingering tensions around this issue.
Alexis is having a similar experience with her in-laws, who have not been vaccinated: “The fact that [my in-laws] refuse to get vaccinated, makes me feel like they don’t care about my daughter’s safety. Nothing could be more upsetting to me.” She and her husband have fought over whether, and under what conditions, to allow them to see their daughter. It’s been particularly challenging for her husband, who feels torn between his responsibilities as a father and his responsibilities as a son. Though Alexis empathizes with his position, it has placed significant strain on their marriage with her doubting his commitment to their new family.
RETURN TO WORK & CHILDCARE DECISIONS
The clearest theme regarding these moms’ return to work was that the women who had reliable and safe childcare (often, but not always, provided by family) had the smoothest returns from maternity leave. For Ashley, whose mom and mother-in-law took turns watching her son, the transition back to work was one of the “silver linings” of the pandemic. Being able to work from home allowed her to play with her son during slow times and keep up with household chores, which prevented her from feeling absent or overwhelmed.
Christina, on the other hand, struggled when her maternity leave ended. Although she and her husband had planned on sending her son to daycare, they decided to keep him home for the first three months and juggle childcare themselves. Their constant negotiations of whose meeting was less important (and therefore responsible for watching their son) took a toll on her, as she felt that she was often the one expected to compromise.
The return to work was particularly fraught for Laura, a healthcare worker, whose maternity leave ended right as the first surge began. Describing the whole period as a “blur”, she recalled feeling constantly fearful that she would have a COVID exposure and bring the virus home to her family.
COMING INTO THEIR OWN
Though there were times of self-doubt, sadness, and loneliness, the reality is that all of these moms figured it out. They formed mom communities online and over text, sought out and curated their own pregnancy and parenting resources, and took stroller walks in the freezing cold because it was the only opportunity to safely come together.
Several of the women shared that, although it was difficult to meet new “mom friends”, they became particularly bonded to the ones they had. They all seemed to feel that the shared challenges allowed friendships to deepen more quickly than perhaps they otherwise would have. Similarly, some of them also noted that they felt that their relationships with their partners deepened because of the shared challenges.
Their resourcefulness and resilience has instilled a well-deserved sense of assuredness. As Daniela said, “In some ways, it was easier to establish my confidence away from all the bullshit and noise. There was no one around to tell me I was doing it wrong or make me second-guess myself. I just had to trust my gut.”
These interviews took place over the last two weeks, right in the heart of Omicron, when infection rates were the highest they’ve ever been. These women were exhausted, frustrated, and in disbelief that they were back in the stage of quarantines, daycare closures, and social distancing. The reality is that these moms (and dads) have never parented under “normal” circumstances which is a heavy load to carry.
In my last newsletter, I encouraged you to check in with a friend or colleague with younger children, and I think that suggestion bears repeating. If you know someone who became a first-time parent during the pandemic, send them this article and encourage them to share their experience with you. We’ve all been so focused on just powering through the past two years that they would probably appreciate the opportunity to process it.
I’ll leave you with something Meg shared: “Like any parent, you just want people to respect you and think you’re doing a good job.” Don’t underestimate the power of a kind word. We can all use some positive reinforcement sometimes.
READ – CONNECT – REFLECT
You’re busy, I get it. Each week I provide a digest of important articles to read, new ways to connect with the people in your life, and a self-reflection question. Enjoy!
Sharing personal stories won’t move the needle on paid family leave. Talking about money might (TIME). Paid family leave helps curb inflation, retain workers (attrition is expensive!), and positively impacts morale (which contributes to profitability). The author of this articles argues that we need to start pushing the economic argument for paid family leave.
When losing a pregnancy leads to losing friends (The Atlantic). We often struggle with how to grieve in American society, and the complicated grief following pregnancy loss can be particularly difficult to navigate. This article made me think of the value in sitting with someone else’s pain, as well as the importance of depersonalizing someone’s need for space.
Diaper need is an invisible part of poverty in America (The 19th News). This article was published back in November, but it’s really stuck with me. Diapers (like feminine hygiene products) are not eligible purchases under food stamps or WIC. A 2013 study found that almost 30% of mothers report having a diaper need, and the pandemic has only increased that need.
The people deciding to ditch their smartphones (BBC). I have such a fraught relationship with my own phone. It’s become such an integral part of modern life, yet I constantly feel like it’s a huge distraction that sucks my energy. I was challenged and inspired by the people profiled in this article who have given up smartphones completely.
Building on the last article listed above, consider setting “downtime hours” on your smartphone in an effort to be more present. If this feels daunting, start small—maybe just 30 minutes or an hour once or twice a week. Think about the times in your day that would be most enriched by your greater focus and presence. Perhaps it’s right when you get home from work? During your weekly team meeting? At bedtime? Try the experiment and then pay attention to its impact on yourself and those around you.
What felt easy this week? What felt difficult? Why?