I think it’s safe to say we can all agree that COVID-19 sucks. For what feels like forever, it’s been dominating news headlines, taking lives, separating loved ones, cancelling special events and once-in-a-lifetime trips, and even directly impacting the way in which women give birth. I won’t lie, I’ve sat down countless times to write this feature, only to start it and delete it again and again and again. I’m a hopeless overthinker and a first-class worrier, so aside from convincing myself that no one is in the least bit interested in my birth story, I just didn’t know how to actually tell it. For the first few weeks after my daughter was born, I couldn’t talk about it. If I tried, I broke down. Now – four and half months later – I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen, but I tell it as if it happened to someone else. I even find myself laughing about it, because I don’t know how else to handle the feelings it brings up. So, perhaps finally putting pen to paper (or words on the screen, I should say) will allow me to finally process what I went through.
But I’m not doing this for myself and for the cathartic effect it might have, I’m telling my story because I know that there are countless other women who went through the same thing – or worse – and feel alone, lost, and unable to look back at what should be the most amazing moment of their life and not feel anything other than immense sadness and anger. I’m telling this because our fight against COVID is far from over, and perhaps – in some small way – this can help future mothers, or anyone scared to get pregnant during such uncertain times. So, without further ado, here it is in all its glory. The good, the bad, and the ugly. My COVID birth story.
Don’t get me wrong, lockdown did bring with it some benefits when it came to finding out I was pregnant. I could hole up like a hermit all day, eating any and every beige carb in existence. I could turn down a glass of wine without someone screaming “OH MY GOD YOU’RE PREGNANT AREN’T YOU?”. I didn’t have to battle the tube in rush hour with a random sweaty armpit in my face, and I could live in pjs – pretty much the dream whether you’re pregnant or not. On the flipside, my first ever midwife appointment was over the phone, I didn’t get the regular check-ups I was supposed to, and my husband wasn’t allowed at any of the scans, which is – for lack of a better word – shit. That first moment when you see your baby and hear its little heartbeat is overwhelming, magical, and incredibly emotional. It’s also terrifying. I sobbed alone with a mask stuck to my face, while my husband stood outside the ward waiting like a nervous wreck. Yes, mums had it bad – but let’s not forget the dads who missed out on these monumental moments that they’ll never get back. But more on that later.
The day before my due date, I tested positive for COVID. My husband tested negative. We’d both had mild sore throats and – despite the NHS website and 111 saying we didn’t need to get tested as that “wasn’t a symptom” – we thought it best to rule it out. I was 40 weeks pregnant, after all. My husband’s test came back the night before I got mine. He was negative. Naturally, I assumed I would be too. It was when I woke up to the text saying I was COVID-19 positive that everything changed.
I called my community midwives straight away as I was due to attend my 40-week check-up the following day. They instantly put my mind at ease, almost dismissing my result entirely.
Midwife: Oh, a mild sore throat? Doesn’t sound like COVID, love, but we have to go off your test result, so we’ll reschedule your appointment for 7 days’ time.
Me: But what if I have my baby before then? Will she be okay if I do have COVID?!
Midwife: She’ll be getting your antibodies in the womb, so we aren’t worried about her now. If you go into labour before we see you, just give them a heads up at the hospital as you’ll have your own COVID secure room, which they’ll need to get ready.
Me: Okay, phew. And what about my husband? He tested negative.
Midwife: If he has a negative result, then there’ll be no issue – he can be there with you, and you’ll be in your own room anyway.
Me: Okay, PHEW!
And that was pretty much that.
I knew I was in labour the moment I woke up with mild period-like cramps on the morning of December 23rd, 2020. I was nervous but excited. Our hospital bags were packed, the cot was set up and ready to go, and by this point I didn’t care if she arrived on Christmas Day or not because Christmas was, of course, cancelled. Thanks again, COVID.
It was only later in the evening that I had a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. I was no longer feeling my contractions in my bump area, but instead in my lower back. I have a pretty high pain threshold, but by the late evening I was really starting to struggle. By midnight, it felt like someone was smashing my back in repeatedly with a hammer. My husband got straight on the phone to the hospital, and after managing to get a few words out of me, they confirmed it was time to head in. He started grabbing our stuff together, while I informed them that I had, in fact, tested positive for COVID. The conversation then went something like this:
Midwife: Thanks for letting us know, we’ll get a room ready for you. But who’s going to be your birth partner?
Me: Sorry? My husband. You just spoke to him…
Midwife: It can’t be your husband because you tested positive, and he lives with you.
Me: Erm, what? We called our community midwife team and they confirmed that as he got a negative test, he can be there.
Midwife: I don’t know who told you that, but legally he has to self-isolate. If he enters the hospital, he’ll be removed by security.
I pleaded. I begged. I sobbed. I wailed. The noises coming out of my mouth weren’t human. But – despite what we had been told previously – those were the rules, and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. I’d be giving birth to our daughter on my own. From that point on the entire thing becomes a blur. All I remember was crying like I’d never cried before. I refused to leave the house. But obviously, the baby was coming, and I didn’t have a choice. I remember it being so dark, insanely cold, and freakishly windy. And I felt numb, despite being in excruciating pain. It was beyond surreal.
I remember noticing that the Christmas tree that had stood by the entrance the hospital had blown over onto the pavement, its lights strewn everywhere. It was the early hours of Christmas Eve. I gave my husband one final hug, and in I went. Alone. Barely able to walk. Lugging my hospital bag that we had excitedly packed together. I was taken to my “private room”, which turned out to be the bereavement suite.
Without going into the nitty gritty details (I’d literally be here all day if I did that), I thought my back was going to break open and that I was going to die. The pain was mind-blowing, and it knocked everything out of me. The midwife took one look at me and knew something wasn’t right, confirming that baby was back-to-back. A.k.a. facing the wrong way, which is why my back was being shattered with each contraction. I was given pethidine and later an epidural, both of which knocked me out. So much for my waterbirth plan, but then that wasn’t an option either. Thanks again, COVID.
I spent the day in and out of sleep. Meanwhile my husband was alone at home, unable to get hold of me. I later found out that he called the ward 11 times to make sure I was okay. I can’t begin to imagine what that was like for him. He’d spent the last few months reading a mammoth guide on being a birth partner. He was so excited to play his part. And he ended up meeting his daughter on FaceTime. He’d made me a playlist to (literally) push through, which made me laugh and made me cry. For just a second it was like he was there, only he wasn’t.
It was only when I heard fast, hushed voices after I’d been pushing for an hour and a half that I could tell something was up. Then I heard the words “We need to get the resuscitaire ready”, which confirmed it. Baby hadn’t turned properly, and her head was stuck. Her heartrate was dropping. Fast. They spoke in calm, hushed voices. “The doctor needs to get her out, right now. We need to move very quickly”. I had no one there to hold me, to just be there with me. I have never felt so terrified and so alone. After an episiotomy and a forceps delivery, she arrived in this world on Christmas Eve – as healthy as could be. I saw the visible relief on the amazing midwives’ faces. Holding her in my arms made everything else that had happened so insignificant. I just wish – more than anything – that her dad could have been there.
To make matters worse, when we finally got to go home – on Christmas Day evening – I was told my husband could come up INTO the ward and collect us. One minute we’re being told he can be there at the birth, then he’s not even allowed to step foot in the hospital, and the next he can walk right on in to take us home. I can’t help but think that if someone else had answered the phone that night, I’d have had a birth partner – my husband, and the father of my daughter – there by my side.
At the end of the day, I was lucky enough to give birth to an incredible little girl, and I know there are so many women who would do anything to be able to say those words. I don’t for one minute pity myself, as I know that when it comes to conceiving, pregnancy, and birth, there is so much that’s out of our control and that can go heartbreakingly wrong. I count myself lucky every single day. Of course, nothing can replace having a loved one there, but the support, kindness, and compassion of the incredible midwives got me through. I’ve always been in awe of what they do, but seeing them PPE’d up was a stark reminder of the risk they take every day, just doing their job. One thing COVID can’t cancel? Their incredible strength and resilience. And for that, I am forever grateful.
words by Frankie Rozwadowska