Bringing Home Baby
Accepting loss and leaning into the unknown when delivering during COVID-19.
Posted Apr 28, 2020
By Drew Teer, MA and Margaret A. Martinez, PhD on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates
“This is not the world I want to bring her into,” my partner said to me, both of us bleary-eyed, watching our then three-day-old daughter finally sleep on the first night we brought her home. One month, a few breakdowns, and lots of tears later, things have finally begun to stabilize: We have schedules, we are getting sleep, and baby is doing well.
But those interceding days encompassed some of the biggest challenges I think I've ever had to face. We’ve felt alone and exhausted, worrying about how to care for this small child in the new, muffled world around us. And we’re by no means alone in searching for solace. From holidays to graduations to festivals, the springtime traditions that draw families, neighborhoods, and cities together as a community have all been cancelled.
It is normal, expected, and even good to grieve.
The title of a Harvard Business Review interview with Dr. David Kessler that has made its rounds online sums it up all too well: “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.” One of the hardest things for my partner and me to come to terms with has been the way our daughter’s birth and our new lives stand in complete contrast to all we had expected and planned. Labor started suddenly, with no warning. Our families who had planned to come in person have instead “met” her via videochat.
Her first three weeks of life have felt immensely lonely, largely because the thing we want to do the most – share this bundle of joy with our loved ones – is so limited. This grief is normal and expected. Post-partum depression is one of the most common complications of pregnancy, according to the American Psychological Association, and symptoms of depression and anxiety are more common than not.
Coupled with a global pandemic, the grief my partner and I felt (and still feel) was all but inevitable. Kessler, in another interview on Dr. Brene Brown’s “Unlocking Us” podcast astutely noted that what one needs in the grieving process is not problem-solving or reframing, but rather someone to bear witness to that grief. And as Kessler points out in is 2019 book, Finding Meaning: the Sixth Stage of Grief, grieving can lead to acceptance, which is an important step in moving forward.
Accept that this is how things are.
In hindsight, the unwelcome party guest metaphor from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a good summary of my mental state during those early days. I was too focused on keeping unwanted emotions at bay, just like someone trying to kick out an unwelcome guest. I experienced an incredible urge to put what free time and energy I had into trying to fix everything, trying to hold back the inevitable. And during those times, I noticed myself losing sight of what mattered most – the time I had with my new family.
One of my favorite clinical supervisors said that emotions need motion, and, in time, I realized that I had been ignoring that advice by denying myself space and permission to grieve the shared experiences I was hoping for. Letting go of the things we cannot control takes self-control and self-reflection. It is an active choice. I cannot make my daughter stop crying but I can comfort her through her distress. The risks are present when in public spaces and one can take steps to mitigate those risks. We can feel sad or stuck or hopeless and still be okay.
Viktor Frankl may be the most prominent voice on how to find meaning amidst immense struggle: “the meaning of life is to give meaning” (Frankl, 1984). Despite having to stay physically distant, it is essential to form and deepen our social ties. We are a social species, and in times like these, we need to lean on our social networks more than ever.
After a month with a newborn, this truth is painfully obvious. Our family and friends have been immensely supportive. I caught up with college friends from whom I’ve have drifted apart. My partner and I have spoken more with our neighbors in the past four weeks than we have in the prior two years we have lived here. People we barely know from have offered to help us shop and sent diapers. And in turn, we have borne witness to their struggles (dealing with already-anxious children, working from home with toddlers, living with frontline staff), having hopefully reciprocated the support.
I have found myself coming back to a famous line from Virgil’s Aeneid (1983). A refugee shipwrecked on unknown shores, Aeneas says to his battered and demoralized people, “Perhaps one day it will be pleasing to remember these things.” The idea that enduring hardships will somehow afford a brighter future is not new or novel. Remembering that, though, is one of the hardest things to do in the midst of the storm. This is not the world we want and it is the world we are currently facing. What we do is up to us.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man's search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Kessler, D. (2019). Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. Scribner.
Virgil., & Fitzgerald, R. (1983). The Aeneid. New York: Random House.