Part of The “New” Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
It’s easy to look around at the absolute disaster of the past year — the coronavirus upending society, millions unemployed, a looming climate catastrophe, the continued success of The Masked Singer — and decide that no additional people should have to suffer through existence.
So it made intuitive sense when researchers at the Brookings Institution published a study predicting a “COVID baby bust,” arguing that the instability the virus has inflicted on our lives would dramatically lower the birth rate. Extrapolating from data around the 1918 influenza pandemic and the more recent Great Recession that began in 2007, the authors concluded the US would see 300,000 to 500,000 fewer births in 2021. The prediction immediately made headlines.
Even before the pandemic, the US birthrate was already at the lowest point in American history, with just 59.1 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For many years, millennials’ strangled careers and high student debt helped them drive this decline, though the CDC report shows some signs that they’re belatedly coming around to parenthood. In 2018, the birthrate among women ages 30 to 34 was higher than the rate for women ages 25 to 29 for only the third time in almost 80 years. However, the pandemic, with its increased risks to pregnant women, seems poised to derail these trends.
But even if these baby bust predictions are accurate (for example, left unmentioned in the Brookings study are the millions of Americans who were off fighting in World War I for the first nine months of the 1918 flu pandemic, which surely had its own impact on the birthrate), a decline of half a million births would still mean, using 2019’s numbers as an estimate, more than 3 million babies would be born in the US in 2021. Plenty of soon-to-be and would-be parents are pregnant or trying to get pregnant despite these stressful circumstances.
So we decided to speak to several of them, some of whom sheepishly admitted their good fortune in a time of widespread loss, managing to keep their jobs and stay with their partners. Others felt as though the window of their lives wherein they’re able to have a child was rapidly closing, and there wasn’t a lot of reason to wait. Over and over again, we heard a sense of optimism for the future — even if these expectant parents admitted it was, quite possibly, irrational.
But having a child always involves an element of irrational optimism. “We’re generally optimistic people!” one of the parents, Elisa, told us. Universally, the parents we spoke to were looking past the pandemic and imagining the world on the other side, seeing themselves there with their new children. For them, the pandemic was no match for this prenatal magical thinking, much to the relief of the future of humanity.
Scott (47), baby born in December 2020
We found out we were pregnant right at the strike of the lockdown in California. Coronavirus wasn’t a really huge worry just yet. It was like something far off — we heard rumors it was coming. But the idea of things being locked down, that danger felt immediate, and all of a sudden we were very worried about everything. We were like, “What does this mean? What does this mean about doctors?” We heard rumors that maybe dads were not going to be able to be in delivery rooms. We heard all these things about extra dangers. Just layers and layers of new stresses on top of what was there already. Plus, this is our first baby. We had no idea about all this stuff.
Throughout the entire pregnancy, we would go to see her OB, and I would wait in the parking lot and they would FaceTime me. I saw the ultrasound on FaceTime. I tried to hear the heartbeats and stuff, but … that was one thing I couldn’t share with her. But also, we had nothing to compare it to, you know?
In the beginning, we were scared. But it did kind of help having to stay at home, especially for Meaghan, not having to go into work. She couldn’t believe how people do it, how women are able to go in and just function at a job, especially when they’re having to keep it a secret, probably, for the first three months. She couldn’t imagine the hassle of riding the subway while she was pregnant, and if we were in New York, that’s what she would have had to be doing. That’s just the normal thing.
We had the advantage of having to stay at home. Lockdown was perfectly designed for the nesting that we were getting ready to do, you know? To be forced to be here was actually a very wonderful thing.
Having a baby is the most welcome, wonderful distraction throughout this entire lockdown. Having that to look forward to and that to focus on, it’s like more so than anything else, more than any other time we are nesting, forced to nest together in this little house. We’re not seeing people, so why not have this baby join us? We’re able to truly focus on a baby in a way that maybe we wouldn’t have been able to if we weren’t in lockdown.
And it’s not going to last forever, the Covid thing. We’ll come out of it, and it will be great and back to a new normal of some sort. But growing with [our daughter] like this and experiencing her in the beginning like this is actually a pretty pleasant way to experience lockdown.
Emily (33), 33 weeks pregnant (also has an 18-month-old son)
It was unexpected. We didn’t really consider terminating it, per se, because I’m not in my 20s anymore. And the timing is not so bad — I mean, the fact that there is a pandemic was not enough of a deterrent for me. This is not a Walking Dead situation. Though even then, they still had the baby in that show.
Finding out I was pregnant was pretty much a total shock. I mean, honestly, I thought that maybe there was some other medical reason for getting a positive pregnancy test, because we were just so not expecting it. But then I had my appointments, and it was confirmed.
It was a very strange time. At that point, people were still adjusting to lockdown. We were taking a lot of precautions. I wear the mask and the face shield sometimes, when I’m feeling more nervous. I’m that person. But also, we did the food delivery. We were wiping everything down. And, of course, wearing the masks, not really seeing anyone.
I remember reading some comments on different postings for pregnant women that were like, “It’s selfish to have a baby right now. It’s wrong to bring a baby into this kind of environment.” I didn’t really see it as wrong, I guess.
I’m still under 35, so it’s not like I’m at a point where there were major red flags for me to be able to get pregnant again. But at the same time, I do still see it as something that’s a real gift. And I didn’t feel like it was something I could let the environment of the pandemic control. I felt like it’s within my hands to try to make this baby that I’m pregnant with — and then, of course, my son — as safe as possible. So I didn’t feel like there was no hope, sort of. There was never a point where I felt like this is going to just totally be the end of New York or anything. It just felt like we would be able to overcome this.
I am a little nervous about [giving birth] because, I mean, wearing a mask and pushing could be really hard, or just being in the hospital as the infection rate’s going up is pretty scary to me. So I’ve definitely had moments when I really think about that, and that just really does scare me. Hopefully, it will be fine.
Meghann (36), 31 weeks pregnant
For me, even though everything is crazy, this is the best time. I run a business that’s going well, and my husband’s home. We just extended our lease. So I’m like, “Everything’s balanced for me, so I feel ready to have a child.” I’m lucky. I feel really blessed that I feel stable now, when a lot of my friends and family are not, so there just didn’t seem to be a reason to wait.
I’m a born-and-raised New Yorker and still live here. I have felt really grateful for that this year. I don’t live in a small town. I’m half-black, so my kid’s going to be biracial. I think about raising a biracial child in America, and I don’t have to worry about that as much, I feel like, here in New York. But I know that would definitely have been a factor if I lived out in the middle of nowhere, or in Trump country.
One of the hardest parts is that [my husband] is not allowed at any of my regular doctor’s appointments because of Covid restrictions. [At one appointment], they found an abnormality, and it was horrible because I was by myself. I had to hear that. That has been difficult, but he just comes and waits outside, and then I show him the pictures.
At first, I was really mad because I was, like, “How come all these people get to go to brunch and you can’t come in and look at the baby?” I found that really frustrating. It has made me very angry at people that I know, how they’re treating it. It seems very selfish. Then I started to think about people who just, in general, need assistance at medical facilities, who can’t have anybody with them helping them, ever. I think that aspect of it is really upsetting. That’s been the worst part of it, I think.
I haven’t been feeling really well, and I don’t feel like myself. I feel like I can’t do normal things. I don’t have the energy. I don’t feel well all the time. Then there’s this added thing of, when I do have energy, I can’t go out and run my errands. I can’t go out and just get a bunch of stuff done. So I think sometimes that does get to me, and I do get very upset. I’m usually very energetic. I don’t ask my husband to help me with anything, and now I’m asking him to get stuff down for me; I can’t get on the stepladder. It’s just a lot of relying on someone else that I usually don’t do.
Still, I feel optimistic about having a baby now, because no matter what is happening in the world, I know he will be loved and cared for by my husband and I, as well as his extended family. The last year has brought lots into perspective. Everything is fragile and can change at any time. Knowing that on another level now will make my son even more loved, somehow. I am optimistic that I am in the best possible headspace to care for my baby and make him my number one priority.
Elisa (33), 34 weeks pregnant (also has a 3-year-old son)
We knew we wanted to have another kid, and with my son it took longer than we expected. [At the beginning of the pandemic], we were like, “I’m sure it’ll take a while, so we might as well start trying. By the time we actually get pregnant, the pandemic will probably be over.” I think we were optimistic.
I really, honestly didn’t think I would get pregnant so fast. Last time around, we’d had some help from a fertility clinic. Both of us were cognizant that it could work without any additional help; we knew it was a possibility. But there was some element that, if it happens, it’s such an awesome thing that it happens with zero outside help. It would be almost like a sign, and we’d be so happy for it that it’d be fine. And it did; it just happened very quickly.
Maybe it’s like a psychological trick to make yourself feel better, but I don’t regret it. But it’s definitely been a challenge to be pregnant and — soon — to be delivering in a pandemic.
I would say we were always very careful about Covid, but relative to people around us we were maybe on the less neurotically careful side. We always wore our masks, and we washed our hands, and we didn’t hang out with people, but I don’t feel like myself or my husband were, like, super-anxious about getting sick and, like, sanitizing the Amazon packages. We knew people who were that extreme. And to each their comfort levels!
I think the scariest part was when New York was really bad in the early spring. That felt very scary. Just like the vibe was very sad, and it was just overwhelming to think about how many people were impacted. Honestly, even then, we knew we were lucky enough to be working from home in our little bubble. We kept our jobs; we just didn’t feel as exposed as I think a lot of communities did. And maybe that made us more grateful and less worried.
For the first pregnancy, it’s just so many doctor’s appointments. This time, I basically didn’t have a doctor’s appointment between month four and week, like, 30. Two months where all I had was a televisit — they make you take your own blood pressure at home. I had to buy this, like, blood-pressure cuff. I feel like, for kid one, that would have freaked me out, but for kid two I was like, cool, I know what feels normal, and I love avoiding doctor’s appointments.
If I take a deep breath and I’m in a good place, I have zero regrets. And if anything, I feel such excitement about getting to bring this little human into the world and having this positive thing to look forward to. I mean, we’re in a bubble anyway — when you have a newborn, you’re not really doing much.
But then we definitely have these moments where we’re like, oh, my god. It feels a little bit like we’re making some compromises we wouldn’t have had to make if we’d waited. In those moments, I think, I hope we did the right thing. Even when they told me I had low amniotic fluid, and I hadn’t been to the doctor in two and a half months, I thought, how long has this been the case and I didn’t know? Would they have caught it earlier? You get in your head about how this could have played out differently if I’d waited. In those moments, there’s some doubt and angst. But at the same time, you never know how long this is going to last, and there’s never a good time.
We’re generally optimistic people! Maybe that is a determining factor in having a child in a pandemic. In some ways it’s scary, but in other ways it’s like, it will get better. In the grand scheme of my child’s life, this is a blip.
Chris Chafin covers the business of culture for publications including Rolling Stone, Vulture, and the BBC, and previously wrote for the Highlight about fatherhood during the pandemic. He also hosts a movie podcast.