Distressed, Depressed and Isolated; The COVID motherhood experience.
From the moment a woman discovers she is expecting her first child, her life is changed forever. For many, it’s a time of joyful anticipation, family, and community support, but for the thousands of women who have given birth to their first child throughout the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been isolating, stressful and downright hard.
First-time mothers bearing children under the shadows of the coronavirus feel robbed of what is usually an extraordinary experience, first-time motherhood.
From cracked, bleeding nipples, sleepless nights, insufferable isolation, and the inadequacy of the struggling Australian medical system, dozens of first-time mothers from the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales and Victoria have shared their stories; sparing no detail.
Shannon from Canberra found out she was pregnant with her first child, a little boy, in April 2020 during the height of the capital’s first lockdown. Shannon and her partner Sam were ecstatic with the news; however, apprehension and anxiety loomed close as the uncertainties of COVID-19 crept in.
With newly enforced restrictions in place, Shannon had to attend her initial ultrasound alone.
Prior to her pregnancy in 2020, Shannon experienced several miscarriages, making her first ultrasound with Harry even more daunting.
"The first appointment that I had; Sam couldn't come to. I felt so much anxiety around being in there; it was tough to deal with because I just thought that I would be in the situation where they would tell me that it wasn't a viable pregnancy and I'd be alone," Shannon explains.
A wave of relief passed through Shannon following her ultrasound with nothing but good news. However, her comfort did not linger. As it did among societies across the globe, fear of COVID-19 grew, and clusters broke out around the country. So too did Shannon's anxiety.
"I already had heightened anxiety because of my previous pregnancies; I just wanted to be wrapped up in cotton wool," Shannon says.
Dr Darby Saxbe, associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, specialises in the direct correlation stress has on neural, hormonal, behavioural and psychological changes to both mother and baby.
For years global medical studies have shown a clear connection between the increase in perinatal mental health disorders and large-scale societal disruptions such as natural disasters, economic crashes, and terrorist attacks; COVID-19 is no exception to this list.
Saxbe identifies in her research on perinatal mental health and the adverse effects of COVID-19 that, “social support is a key buffer in preventing perinatal mental health disorders.”
So, it is no surprise that in 2020 the Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) helpline doubled, as did call times, a support system that became all too familiar to Shannon.
Pregnancy and newly found parenthood is a time of eager anticipation, family, community and extended social support. Unfortunately, with all thanks to COVID-19 and strict social distancing laws, first-time mothers have been robbed of their social support, community, and families during the pandemic.
Kate grew up in regional Victoria alongside her ten siblings, her mother and father. On the 24th of December 2019, in Newcastle, NSW, Kate's little girl Chloe was born. Just six weeks after birth, the family relocated to Queanbeyan NSW, and within just four months of Chloe's life, the first national lockdown was underway.
"I didn't mind the lockdown initially; I was able to connect and bond with Chloe without the added stress of constant visitors. However, as time passed and the lockdowns continued, it affected my mental health adversely because my little girl hasn't been able to see her grandparents, aunties, or uncles. Being a first-time mum is already a period of great change and mental isolation without the added component of physical isolation," Kate says.
Over the past month, I have asked more than 30 first-time mothers to complete a short survey about their individual experiences, and the results were edifying. For example, 70% of women indicated they suffered increased anxiety during lockdown periods, and 17% affirmed that they somewhat did. In addition, over 50% of women recounted that the most significant struggles they faced during the lockdown period was the isolation of support and attending appointments alone.
"Not being able to have my mum there to help me whilst I was sick on the couch for weeks was arduous, and having to attend appointments alone, while wearing a mask, or socially distanced felt awkward and rushed." – Anonymous.
The ideology that social isolation had damaging effects on first-time mothers' mental health was further concreated, with 82% of survey respondents confirming the inability to access support networks such as family and close friends negatively affected their mental health.
The afternoon of the 18th of February 2021 brought the moment Chelsea from Victoria had dreamed of, the birth of her miracle baby, Hudson. Chelsea longed to be a mother, even at the young age of seven, sneaking over the fence to babysit the kids next door. As she grew into a teenager, doctors delivered news Chelsea never wanted to or thought she would ever hear; you will never be able to have a baby.
Although determination and the yearning to be a mother never wavered, Chelsea fell pregnant after many miscarriages, but fate was still against her. Due to heart problems, the pregnancy was not viable without the prospect of imminent fatality during labour. Chelsea made the heartbreaking decision to proceed with an abortion. A choice between her life or the babies.
Despite the cruel twists of events, this born-to-be mother’s hope never failed, and after multiple miscarriages, Chelsea and her partner Marcus finally conceived amid the first nationwide lockdown. It seemed like life had finally turned around for Chelsea. She was going to be a mother at last, but not without a fight.
“I underwent three surgeries while I was pregnant, all of them I had to be put under. One of them was a major surgery that required my whole abdomen to be cut open whilst Hudson was inside of me,” Chelsea explains.
Not only was Chelsea pregnant with her first feasible pregnancy, but the fears and anxiety of COVID were ubiquitous, and the surgeries required her to travel to Melbourne regularly, right into the centre of a hotspot. For Chelsea, the hardships didn't stop after birth. Like many other first-time mothers throughout the pandemic, she suffered from post-natal depression.
"Everything that I expected wasn't what happened. You have this idea in your mind about what being a mum is going to be like, what you want to be like as a mother. It just wasn't like that. With COVID, there are no mum groups to prepare you or support you. Normally, mums go out and get together. They go to classes and learn how to swaddle and burp their baby, but I didn't get any of that because we were in isolation or social distancing didn't allow classes to run. So, I just had this baby, with no fricking clue what to do with it, it's just been so hard," Chelsea says.
In the eyes of Australian medical professionals, pregnant women are considered high-risk patients for COVID-19. However, demand for maternity services in Victoria over the past 12 months has risen 20%. NSW pregnancies have also increased more than 5%. Despite expert arguments contradicting a COVID-19 baby boom, microbiologist Len Moaven expects an extra 25,000 births in the year to January 2022, a trend confirmed by health fund data, reporting a 22% increase in newborn deliveries to the end of the March 2021 quarter, nationwide.
“I fell pregnant with Clara in February 2020, right before the first-ever lockdown. I had a scheduled c-section in September 2020 throughout another lockdown. I feel so lucky in one way that I fell pregnant with Clara before the first lockdown because now there are so many babies, it is almost impossible to get into midwifery services,” Claudia says.
With the increase in demand for perinatal and postnatal services, Australia's medical system is struggling. As a result, mothers are getting lost in the system; they are not receiving support from medical professionals in the weeks after birth and the inability to access family and friends have first-time mothers feeling underrated and underappreciated.
While the Australian government has identified and acted on the increase in maternity services across the nation, there has been little to no notice of lockdown's adverse effects on first-time mothers' mental health and wellbeing.
The saying, 'it takes a village to raise a child' has been deeply embedded within motherhood for centuries, and as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the saying possesses even more meaning with mothers pleading for change, for support, for their families. Yet, the question remains, will the government finally accept the voices of these women?