Pregnant in a pandemic

Couples face isolation, missed milestones and hard choices

Kingfield residents Jocelyn Keller and Ethan Johnson with their baby Ilse Bea Johnson
Kingfield residents Jocelyn Keller and Ethan Johnson with their baby Ilse Bea Johnson. Navigating pregnancy during COVID-19 has “been a wild ride,” Keller says. Submitted photo

Laura Hanstad, a doula who lives in Kenny, delivered her fifth baby on the first day of quarantine, March 16.

Because doulas are not classified as essential workers in Minnesota, many couples who were planning to have doulas present at their hospital births have struggled with the current rule preventing more than one support person from attending a birth. Forced to choose between having a partner or a doula beside them, some couples have opted to communicate with their doulas via laptop during labor.

Since the coronavirus pandemic started, Hanstad has been taking more precautions when assisting clients. She’ll don a mask, talk through comfort level and personal boundaries and have two to three other doulas on-call in case she feels ill. Trained in some bodywork and massage techniques, she has had to find ways to adjust her practice.

“Typically the doula’s the person who is right there in front of mom, whispering encouraging words to her and holding her hand, smoothing her hair, giving her a back rub and just kind of getting in her face like, ‘You can do this,’” Hanstad said. “Now I would … keep a little more distance and not necessarily be as hands-on.”

Pregnancies have changed dramatically in recent months. Routine check-ups, prenatal visits and postpartum support have largely moved online. Fertility treatments are being delayed and baby showers are being called off. Many parents have been forced into self-quarantine, with the stress of isolation hitting many new mothers hard. Some have had to rethink their original birthing plans, shifting to birth centers or home births.

“It’s been a wild ride,” said Kingfield resident Jocelyn Keller, who had her first baby on May 26. The two months leading up to the birth of her daughter were the most stressful, she said. Her appointments began transitioning to telehealth and, at 37 weeks, she was told to come to her weekly in-person appointments alone.

Her original plan was to have present for labor a doula, her family and an all-female OB-GYN team from the Haugen clinic in Edina. But due to staffing changes related to COVID-19, she ended up with three physicians who weren’t from Haugen.

Now at home with her newborn, she said she was saddened to not be able to introduce her to friends and family.

“The beginning of life and the end of life now due to COVID have been very lonely,” she said. “These two big transition periods of life have been fairly isolated.”

Fertility treatments

For some in Southwest, changes in fertility treatment have created additional barriers for conception.

Kara Yorkhall, founder of the Kingfield women’s health and fertility clinic Fertile Grounds, said the stressors of the pandemic can negatively affect fertility, though with time the body adjusts to the stress.

“When we’re going through something traumatic and challenging, we need all the support that we had before and probably some extra,” Yorkhall said.

Gwen Griswold, 36, has been trying to conceive a child for over three years. Her fertility clinic stopped all fertility treatment services, even prescription refills, in March, and she just recently found out she’d be able to resume treatment in July.

“You want everyone to be safe, but it is that difficulty of also recognizing you know your own biological clock,” Griswold said. “You really only have a certain window.”

For LGBTQ couples who cannot get pregnant biologically, barriers to conception are even more pronounced.

Many local sperm banks, deemed inessential services, were closed at the beginning of the pandemic, said Janine Stiles, a midwife and member of the Queer Birth Project. The center, stationed near Powderhorn Park, provides queer couples around the metro with culturally sensitive care and support. Sperm banks are now reopened but in vitro fertilization clinics remain closed, forcing many couples to postpone their pregnancy process. Other couples navigating foster care, surrogacy or adoption are facing difficulties as well, Stiles said.

“[LGBTQ] folks have a hard time getting respectful care a lot of times, and now in a pandemic that just [is] an added complication,” Stiles said. “Mostly my folks are just scared and not sure about the decisions they’re making and whether this is a good time to grow their families.”

Navigating birth options amid crowded hospitals can be difficult for LGBTQ folks who may have been misgendered by medical staff in the past, not given proper treatment or assaulted, she said. With hospital staff overwhelmed right now, Stiles said it adds another layer of concern for anyone in a marginalized group.

Ellyn Wyman-Grothem, a doula who specializes in working with queer families, said it is challenging for them to find spaces designed to be inclusive and combat assumptions about gender and partnership in pregnancy.

“Knowing that someone is there for you and is able to physically support you in a way that’s loving — it’s important, especially in a medical system where it’s easy to become dehumanized,” she said.

Maria Wardoku and her husband, Reggie, sit with their son, Felix
Maria Wardoku and her husband, Reggie, sit with their son, Felix. They’re asking friends to get tested for the virus if they want to hold Felix. Submitted photo

Missed milestones

For those who give birth, missing certain milestones of pregnancy due to COVID-19 can make coping even more difficult. Baby showers are being called off, and some families are now barred from taking home the placenta, which is used in some ritual burying ceremonies.

Maria Wardoku said it was hard to not share the birth of her son, Felix, with friends and family. Wardoku’s husband, Reggie, is from Ghana and they had planned to do a traditional “outdooring ceremony” in which Felix would be taken outside and introduced to their friends.

Instead, they’re holding outdoor one-on-one meetings with close relatives from 6 feet apart. They’re also asking friends be tested for the virus if they want to hold him.

“The instinct to hold and cuddle a new baby is so strong,” she said. “That’s such a special thing … how they smell and their micro facial expressions, and they can’t see you from 6 feet away … so that’s kind of heart-wrenching.”

Amid the difficulties, couples are getting creative. Two of Wyman-Grothem’s clients set up a socially distant “meet the baby” event where the couple sat in a chair facing their glass front door and loved ones stood on the other side of the glass to talk and see the baby.

Wardoku said her neighbors have come together to help her, too. After giving birth she posted online to see if anyone in South Minneapolis had a baby thermometer she could borrow. Several neighbors made it their mission to find her one.

“One woman messaged all of her colleagues. Another was calling her daughter who’s a pediatrician in Florida,” she said. “It was so nice to feel like people were going to find a way to help us — not even people who knew us personally.”