My youngest son was born not long before the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the U.S. and stay-at-home orders were issued. I was already on maternity leave from teaching rhetoric, research, and literature courses, but my leave this time around was distinctly different from leave with any of my other children. With my first child, my maternity leave seemed to both crawl and fly by in a haze and a blur. The days ran together, and it was a struggle to get my first little one to sleep through the night. Our sleep schedule was flipped on its head, with the baby going down for the night around 3 or 4 a.m. and sleeping until almost noon.
The life changes that accompany the birth of your first child can be jarring and downright earth-shaking — so much so that it can be difficult to prepare for them and even more difficult to adapt to them. Before I knew what had hit me, I was leaving my baby at home for the first time to head back to work teaching ESL and pumping breastmilk during the day. Those first few months were some of the most emotionally intense months of my life, and yet my maternity leave during COVID-19 proved to be just as emotionally taxing for altogether different reasons.
Once again, I found that the days ran together, although this time, it was because we only left the house to take walks or go to the doctor's office. There was no classroom to return to after my leave ended — only remote classes to teach with my infant and other children seemingly always at my feet and clinging to my leggings. I was lucky to have a job waiting for me after maternity leave during this pandemic, while there are so many others out there have lost theirs. I identify with their struggles having once lost an adjunct teaching position at a university while I was pregnant thanks to dwindling enrollment numbers and decreased funding. Losing that job meant losing my health insurance while in the midst of prenatal care and with labor and delivery on the horizon. I cannot fathom losing health insurance during the uncertainties of a global pandemic.
My maternity leave this year was shaded by sadness for what the world has been going through, disappointment that my family couldn't see my baby boy and hold him in their arms, fear of exposure to the novel coronavirus, and stress over both being housebound and going out when it was absolutely necessary. We've continuously had groceries and other essential items delivered to our home, which is actually rather convenient. But I have realized that those minor shopping trips that once seemed tedious now seem like outings necessary to maintain one's sanity and connection with the outside world.
Taking my newborn son to his pediatrician for well-baby visits and vaccinations feel more important than ever, but these routine visits have also become an unforeseen source of stress and anxiety. I know that our pediatrician takes precautions to protect his patients, but so much prevention of the spread of COVID-19 depends upon personal responsibility — wearing masks, washing one's hands, using hand sanitizer — that many people may not take. Our solution was to make sure that our baby got the first appointment of the day before other patients had a chance to come into the office. Our pediatrician also only allows one patient and one parent in the office at a time to reduce the possibility of exposure.
Aside from the logistics of getting groceries and essential items and going to the doctor's office, the most salient and memorable aspects of my maternity leave during COVID-19 were video calls with family members and self-care practices to reduce postpartum and stay-at-home related anxiety. I had already suffered from and coped with anxiety during my pregnancy, so I knew it would possibly continue after I gave birth. My anxiety was triggered by financial concerns, changes in our family dynamic with a new baby, and feeling generally cooped up and down on myself. I relied on yin yoga and meditation with soothing music, along with expressive writing to reduce my anxiety. As my body bounced back from labor and delivery, I also started to ease back into running with my kids in tow. Video calls with my family members also helped to calm my nerves. It is so important to have a support network both inside your home and out for moments when you are feeling emotionally fragile. Maternity leave during COVID-19 may seem more isolating than ever, but I learned it doesn't have to be.