Birthing in the Pandemic

I am 37 weeks pregnant in the middle of a pandemic. Ebbing and flowing fears about COVID19 are often nestled in the pit of my stomach next to the growing baby these strange days, but on this cold and frosty March morning, another sort of new life is disrupting the panic.

The mama ewe circles and contracts, lies down and raises her mouth in a noiseless howl. She stands again as two feet emerge from her swollen vulva, then a head emerges. She pushes again and the body of a tiny lamb slips out and lands softly in the hay. Steam rises from the small, damp lump of fuzzy white on the cold barn floor. The mama ewe licks the lamb’s face to clear her airway, licks the tiny body and grunts, nudges the bleating lamb to stand. The baby tries out her wobbly legs and is up surprisingly quickly. The mama circles around her, a crimson string of afterbirth catching on her legs. When the baby nuzzles her udders searching for milk she is stained red.

I rub my belly as my baby kicks within. I am technically at term in my own pregnancy and I hope for the ease of this ewe’s labor, the graceful birth, the health of this new life. My baby squirms and pushes a foot hard against the skin of my belly, which I take as agreement. We plan to birth at home, maybe even outside in an old cast iron tub if the Washington spring weather cooperates. I can just imagine bleating with the goats and sheep, crowing with the rooster, grunting with the pigs as I birth a little girl under the grand old pine tree in our yard. Or, if she is born inside, I imagine bringing her out of our farmhouse for the first time: frosty grass and clucking hens, lilac buds inching towards bloom, robins scattering as we cross the field to feed the piglets. Life on our farm is reassuring in a time when the world feels as if it is breaking apart.

COVID19 has shut down our island, the state, the world; or so it feels like from the confines of the farm. Cars still drive by our house and I wonder where they could be going in a way I never thought before. Grocery stores are still open even if restaurant dining rooms are not. In the past ten days I have not been to either. It feels much as though we have already had the baby, are in the cloistered first few weeks when visitors are limited and everyone who does enter the house washes their hands, covers their coughs and says its just allergies, coos at the baby in my arms from a few feet away. But no one is stopping by because of social distancing. I stand on the porch with bare arms cradling a ripe belly.

Our second daughter is not yet here and I am doing all I can to not freak the fuck out: about labor, about the disease infiltrating our household, about my newborn baby’s first months amidst the peak of an unprecedented pandemic. While the physical landscape of my world has not changed, the emotional sphere around me has. OK, so that’s not true: the physical landscape is constantly changing. Daffodils are in bloom, tulips push up through the grass. The apple, plum, peach trees are budding out. The grass in the back field is lush and will soon support our newly expanded flock of sheep. We are planting our garden and mulching the berry bushes. The sun is out this week and I can smell damp earth and evergreens. The seasons march on despite the lockdown.

The changed societal landscape is the one that is harder to suppress when I let it in. The anxiety and fear in the world is palpable and I try to limit my media consumption, try to quell the worst-case-scenario voices within. But I can’t escape reality: my midwives are instituting strict guidelines. Elderly family members are isolated and scared. The hospitals are already overtaxed with sickness in Washington State and even if the labor departments are separate, contained, open, my imagination shuts them down, leaves me out in the cold on a gurney with a mask on my shivering body as I push a human life into a world where so many lives have and will be extinguished by this virus. (Am I overreacting? That is the question right now. Or am I underreacting to something I can’t possible understand the breadth of in this moment, don’t want to understand for fear of overwhelm?) I am grateful that we do not plan to birth in a hospital but I know from my previous birth experience that plans do not always happen in the way we think or wish. I also know that support is paramount in the process, as is trust. And surrender.

Not totally immune to information hoarding, I have indeed looked up the effects of the virus on pregnant mothers and their fetuses, on newborns and infants. The data so far is very limited but optimistic. It doesn’t seem as if infected mothers are passing the virus in utero or during the birthing process. Vertical transmission, they call it, and with those words I will myself to imagine the opposite of virus transmission. I imagine circles of color and light transferred to the baby as she descends from my body towards the ground she will crawl upon. I imagine her little hands upon the dirt soaking up energy from the molten core of the earth. I imagine her unfocused eyes searching the sky for clouds, stars, the wings of birds, the huge ball of light that sustains all living things.

Then I start reading again. Babies can be infected when they’re out. So far outcomes are relatively positive, but some, mostly for infants under one year of age, are not. Caution and quarantine are still advised as this is so new, so unknown. There are so many unknowns already with giving birth that this is one more to add to the list. I hope a lot of things for myself and my newborn: I hope not to get sick in these last few weeks of pregnancy. I hope my baby doesn’t get sick once she’s born. I hope we don’t become part of the data gathering. I hope this will be a story to tell my daughter when she is old enough to ask about the times in which she emerged from my womb.

I have fear ebbing and flowing through my body but am doing my best to counter it with trust and support. Virtual and six-feet-distanced support from friends and family in a time of social isolation, health worries, financial insecurity. Trust that we will be healthy, that if we do get sick we will receive the help we need. Trust that this is not the end of society. Or it is an end in a much-needed way. Maybe this is the societal shift that both mystics and scientists have been predicting and there is no going back. This is the disaster/wake-up-call that many of us have been preparing for on our farms and homesteads, events that will bring us closer to the ailing earth and each other.

But in this moment I need surrender to the present, to trust that my baby, myself, my family, my community will be strong and resilient. I want to keep in mind the lilac buds and baby lambs born with ease, not the colorful pandemic graphs. I want to imagine holding my new baby in the crook of my elbow, safe and sound, my three-year-old daughter smiling up at us with her arms around my knees. I want to remember that the seasons will continue; this is but one of them.

Jenny Goff is a sailor, farmer, chef, and writer living on an island north of Seattle, WA.

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