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Being born during the pandemic

We are pleased to publish the project work of Donata Potito, Specialist in Paediatrics and Childcare and Counsellor, and Giancarla D’Aurizio, Ims Functional Medicine, Linguistic Mediation and Intercultural Communication, developed within the last edition of the Master in Applied Narrative Medicine.

This project arose from the need to help, during the COVID-19 emergency, young mothers during childbirth and the maternity experience at home, without the possibility to count on the physical help from experienced health professionals and family members (especially their mothers) because of contact restrictions. I have been a paediatrician for forty years and a mother of daughters who could have lived this kind of experience, for their age. More, because of my age and pathology, I could not “work in the field” because considered a “fragile person”. For these reasons, the project also originated from the personal need to find a way to help. It was necessary to find a new and effective way to give immediate and real help.

Developing the project work within the Master in Applied Narrative Medicine, we decided to involve some motivated family Paediatricians, to whom we proposed to write their experience in this particular period and that of their patients’ mothers. Initially, we involved health professionals from the Varese area. Later, we included the Pescara area, to represent two Italian realities, distant from the logistical point of view and for the number of infections. Still, both were characterized by the same new mothers’ fear, loneliness, unfulfilled expectations, in time of the pandemic, living the impossibility of sharing childbirth with their partners and other mothers at the hospital. They could express the loneliness and fear of not being able to manage their newborn children, finding comfort in telling their story through written and spontaneous oral narratives. They freely described the moment of childbirth, the hospitalization, the return at home, the space dedicated to video calls, and the first releases lived during the second phase of the pandemic.

The collection of narratives aimed to let both an interior and external process of what was lived in that time – from the end of February to the end of June 2020, phase 1 and 2 – that no one, including the health professionals, would ever have thought to live. From the collected narratives, some common themes emerged. First of all, the contrast between the joyful event and the drama that, on the contrary, had been happening outside: the whole world was stopped, but life still was going on: 

… At two o’clock in the morning, while we were running to the hospital, we were stopped by police; obviously, they let us proceed immediately in the race, without asking us any document, without wasting our time, but for a moment they reminded us what was happening in the world, while we were rightly concentrated only on our small world… 

On the way to back home, I understood and became aware of what was happening. The sky was crying, and the streets were deserted, the shutters of the stores were closed.

The fear of getting sick and yet feel somehow protected in hospital; the abrupt grandparents’ awareness of being subject at risk; the health professionals’ frustration, divided between the fear of bringing the virus at home, and the guilt of not doing enough; the great difficulties in establishing a relationship due to social distancing:

… The perceived midwives and other staff’ frustration (obviously, frustrated by fatigue due to lack of staff)…

… I regret not remembering the names of the two midwives who followed me into the delivery room. I would have liked so much to greet and thank them before going home. Unfortunately, this is why physical contact had to be limited as much as possible…

… because of the virus, doctors tried to discharge as quickly as possible…

The staff was overworked, and I lacked the human part, the listening part.

… They tell us that probably no one would have visited us because of the lack of anesthesiologists, all of them employed in the intensive care unit…

… I don’t know the name of the midwife who helped me to give birth, I don’t know anything because it was so anonymous, so fast…

… Both our sons, without agreeing with each other, wrote to us not to leave the house… For the first time, we sadly understood that we are old and our sons were right. 

The loneliness and the forced distance by the closest affections, the impossibility to consult a doctor or a midwife in person, the fear of not doing well the treatment of the cord, the bath, the feeding… Without the possibility of a confrontation, a reassuring visit, only telephone consultations or video calls, even with strong limits: 

I referred to a midwife, a very competent, welcoming and professional person. Still, the sessions could only be through video, and when a person needs help and support, a video is not enough, it does not transmit the necessary warmth. The midwife couldn’t see how L. was sticking, she couldn’t see how I was holding him in my arms; in short, it wasn’t enough.

No grandparents, no friends, no uncles, no balloons or gifts… well, I must admit that this was a bit heavy, I remember my first birth as a great party, I had my parents close to me, especially my mother’s help, I missed it very much!

After birth, I needed my mother. She was suffering so much and I had some complications, which during the video calls I didn’t show, the video calls were full of smiles, and when I hung up I cried, I didn’t want to give her a burden to worry about. This was the worst thing. Only we could pick him up.

More, the disappointment of not having had the partner next to them during the birth and the days in hospital: “I did all the labour alone at home, then, at the hospital, my husband wasn’t allowed to come to the delivery room with me, because of the instructions, so he waited in the car. My delivery was so fast that by the time I called him, he went upstairs and signed all the access papers, got dressed, the baby was already born… I was sorry. I had to leave J. at home three days alone because, after the childbirth, I went into the ward and he came home, so I could not experience the joy of motherhood with him, his family, and other close relatives. I had always imagined the party outside the delivery room, everyone waiting for me, instead, when I went out, nobody was there. 

Yet, there was a positive aspect: the distance prevented the not always welcome visits and allowed dads in smart-working to stay at home in the weeks after the birth. This gave a great intimacy otherwise impossible in ‘normal’ times, the tranquillity of being all together in the house, safely. 

No one could visit us in the hospital, but, after all, I was very tired and aching, so not having visitors had small advantages.

… At home no one could come to visit us, to meet L., I took the advantage of not being “disturbed” in the first days after childbirth when you have to get to know each other, try to understand each other, find time to rest, take rhythms. 

… In the morning we woke up together the 3 of us and had breakfast in bed. P. always smiled and chattered; without smart-working, we would not have had the chance to live this experience. 

Conclusions

We can say that narrative helped both mothers and health professionals to retrace the experience, to rework the trauma, and to find relief in the sharing of thoughts and emotions. The cathartic effect of telling their own story allowed women not only to be aware of their role as mothers but also to understand their strengths in defending their child in the fragility of birth.

L. is my first child. He made me become a mother, every moment with him is new, unique, full of intense emotions that make you forget what happens in the world; for this reason, it is not easy to imagine how it would have gone without pandemic, many things were very different from how I had imagined before. Still, maybe this happens to most new mothers.

This child is teaching me a lot; the essential is becoming enough; joy is in small gestures.

We can also say that motherhood and children, who will be our future, have been among the great forgotten people in this surreal period, together with the health professionals who care for them and foster families in this important and significant moment of life. Nevertheless, in this epochal drama, even if what was experienced did not meet the expectations, the rediscovery of the intimacy of the reduced family nucleus (mother-father-children) and the inner strength coming from the children’s embrace and smile, made these relationships stronger and indissoluble. The empathetic listening carried out by motivated providers of care allowed a two-way personal and professional growth, creating new and stronger ways of communication and organization of care.

And we will continue to follow these children born in an extraordinary moment because their story is only at the beginning. We will still ask for the collaboration of motivated health professionals, so thus to allow women to continue to narrate their story, telling us about their children and families.

We will listen to other child care workers, who did not have a voice.

We will continue to reassure mothers by watching their children grow up healthy.

As health professionals, we will continue to question ourselves, to invent new ways of relating with children left in the arms of masked mothers, like us. Still, the looks beyond the visor and glasses will always be the expression of a shared love for humanity.

A mother collects in this sentence the teaching that this dramatic moment of history has given us: … A mother at the time of Coronavirus cannot do much, but she can so much, she can try to make her child always feel the joy she feels in being with him, she can make him live the moment in a different way, his unconscious memory and experience of events may depend on how he sees the world through me. At this moment, being resilient and teaching to him, even as a child, is my duty, but maybe he, more than me, is already capable of it and he shows it to me every day. 

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