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A drawing of a woman cradling a baby in her arms. Amanda Northrop/Vox

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The Lost Year: A new baby who didn’t know your face for days because you were wearing a mask

“I love just looking at his face when he sees there are other people in the world!”

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This is The Lost Year, a series of stories about our lived experiences in 2020, as told to Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff.

A handful of people I know have had babies during the pandemic, a typically joyous but stressful life event made 10 times more stressful, at least, by an accident of history. The sheer isolation of quarantine has led to many new parents essentially having to cocoon even more than usual with their newborns.

But a particularly fraught story of pandemic birth comes from Jacinta, who lives in Melbourne and works in film distribution. Australia enacted incredibly stringent Covid-19 lockdowns — which seem to have mostly worked out, as the country is in the process of reopening — to the degree that the restrictions grew more strict while Jacinta was in labor.

But after her son was born, Jacinta found herself in a minor nightmare, after she was discharged from the hospital and he had to stay in the NICU due to an infection. All is well now, but it led to a frantic, sleepless handful of days for Jacinta and her husband.

Here’s her story, as told to me.

Most of the start of lockdown for us happened in March. I told people we were pregnant, but I wasn’t showing or anything. Then I didn’t see anyone again until about two weeks ago, when I have a four-month-old baby now. My husband and I joked it was like those 1950s pregnancies where they’d send you away to live with an aunt for the summer, and you’d come back with a “baby sister.” A lot of people that I didn’t see regularly didn’t know I was pregnant, especially since we don’t use social media a lot.

In the lead-up to my due date, it had already been a bit of a nightmare with Covid. We hadn’t yet in Melbourne entered the really hardcore level of restrictions, but they had been building for months. All the prenatal classes were canceled. All the birthing classes were canceled. Everything was moved online.

The day that I went into labor, there were already rules in place about how far you could drive from your house without a permit or a valid excuse. We were really scared we were going to get pulled over by the cops on the drive to the hospital, even though, obviously, giving birth would be considered a valid excuse.

About 10 minutes after I got admitted, I got handed a facemask very apologetically. The nurses said that they were really sorry but just at that minute, the policy changed about masks in the hospital, and patients had to wear them no matter what. So I had to wear a face mask for what was a 10-hour labor, which was not great. Toward the end, they took pity on me because my oxygen levels were dropping. I couldn’t breathe super well in the mask when I was having contractions. So they looked the other way and said, “We’ll let you take it off. Just don’t tell anyone.” I put it straight back on again when my son got put on my chest.

A new level of restrictions had come in while I was giving birth, and that meant no visitors, not just to the hospital but to your house. You were only allowed to leave the house for essentials, and there was a whole raft of things you weren’t allowed to do. So we stayed in the hospital. My husband was allowed to stay during visiting hours in the day, thank God. We thought that wasn’t gonna happen. But he had to leave every day and then come back.

Our son had an infection. It wasn’t super serious in the end, thankfully, but he had to go into the NICU for the week. So I got discharged, but he didn’t. Because the hospital was under lockdown, you weren’t allowed to eat food in there or use the lounge area or sit down anywhere except in a chair next to his little crib thing. So if we wanted to eat or do anything except stare at him, we had to go to the car park and hide in our car and eat there.

I hadn’t slept in about 80 hours by the time we found out about the infection. My husband was not able to stay over at the hospital, so I was always too scared to sleep properly because I had this little baby next to me. I was worried the infection could have been a Covid thing at first because all they wrote on his chart was “infection” markers. I didn’t know whether that was Covid or something more serious.

The hospital was wonderful, but they were pushed to the limit. Everything had gone upside-down and topsy-turvy, so it was hard to get time with people to have a chat about what was going on. The whole thing seemed like a big, confusing fog. Maybe that was a good thing, because I was so vague and out of it that I had to put my trust in what the doctors were doing and assume it was okay.

I had the mask on the whole time, so every time I was crying, it was sticking to my face. It was a mess. But the whole thing went by in a blur, and I didn’t really get any clarity about what had happened until probably weeks later. I really felt the warmth of giving birth after I came home and looked back on it.

From a motherhood perspective, I felt very lost at first. A lot of the things I was relying on to help me know what to do, like seeing my mother or going to birthing classes or parents’ group, none of them were there. I called my mom all the time, but I really went on Reddit a lot to read advice. I spent the first month or so after he came home from hospital convinced everything that was wrong with him was a big, serious deal. And it never was. It’s just because the internet makes you paranoid.

My husband and I have been together since we were 18 [both are 34 now], so we’ve always had each other’s backs, but sometimes it would be nice to have a little more space. That sounds ungrateful, I suppose, but one thing that I didn’t anticipate is that because he’s home all the time, I sometimes feel like I’m under more pressure to do a good job. I had it in my head that he’d be home maybe for the first week or two weeks after the baby was born, and then he’d go back to work, and I’d be home by myself.

It’s wonderful that he’s had all this time to spend with the baby. But what was meant to be the baby’s room is now the office that he has to work from. So the baby’s sleeping in our room. If the baby is crying all day or I’m crying because the baby is crying, my husband is in the next room on conference calls or whatnot, and I always feel like I have to live up to some standard. If your baby’s crying all day and it’s just you and your baby in the house, at least you can say, “Well, baby, let’s you and me work it out.” But having another adult in the house — not that he would ever judge me! — sometimes it’s easier to just go to the park and let my son cry there. But it’s honestly been wonderful to have the support. Without any other family, we’ve had to become each other’s everything, really. It’s been difficult, and it’s been rewarding, and it’s been weird.

I have thought about talking to my son in the future about the thing that really panicked me in the first few months of his life, when it didn’t look like Covid was ever going to go away, and people used phrases like “the new normal” or “the way we live will change forever.” It really upset me because I hated the idea of having to explain to my son one day that we used to be able to go out and hug and kiss and shake hands.

I was so wrapped up in him, and we’ve been able to give him so much love and attention in a way that probably would have been a bit more diluted if we’d been out and about. He’s been the center. He’s been the thing that’s got us through all of this. There’s been days and weeks that go past where we don’t even really remember that Covid is happening because we’re just in our house with our baby, and he’s so wonderful.

When he’s old enough, I’ll thank him for coming along when he did because otherwise, it would have been sitting around, not going out, and sadness and awfulness. I look forward to telling him that when he was born, he didn’t see a human face without a mask on it for the first four weeks of his life.

He got the shock of his life when he came home with us and saw we had a nose and mouth and all kinds of things. We’re just now allowed out, so he’s meeting his grandparents, and he’s meeting friends. Our best friend had a baby not long before we did, and our babies just met each other. That was the first time my son had seen another baby. And I love just looking at his face when he sees there are other people in the world!

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