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Embodied: How COVID-19 Is Changing Childbirth

A pregnant woman holds a yellow face mask over her midsection.
Marco Verch/Creative Commons

Pregnancy and postpartum experiences can already be rife with anxiety. But since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, expectant and new mothers’ anxieties have heightened exponentially. 

From prenatal visit restrictions to cancelled baby showers and welcome-home visits, mothers are feeling more isolated and overwhelmed as they adapt to changes they could not have anticipated or imagined. On this installment of Embodied, host Anita Rao talks about the challenges of carrying, delivering and bringing home babies during COVID-19, with Melanie Patrick, co-owner of Emerald Doulas in Durham; first-time expectant mom and doula Maya Hart; and Megan Roberts, program coordinator at Moms Supporting Moms in Raleigh.

When COVID-19 forced social distancing restrictions, Patrick had to shift her practice almost immediately. “It has really been almost weekly, sometimes daily, changes. The changes that we've made have mostly been just being more open for our clients, encouraging them to lean into us more frequently, with any concerns that they have. We have increased our prenatal visits with them. And the visits are virtual, of course, but instead of having one private prenatal visit with each family, we are doing two, three, sometimes four.”


Mothers are adjusting their initial choices about where to give birth, as they try to minimize potential exposure to coronavirus. “There's so much uncertainty, and things are changing so quickly [that] we did make the decision to move over to care at the local birth center. And as of right now, there are no restrictions in regards to who can be in the room for labor,” says first-time expectant mom Hart.

Given the despair and uncertainty of the times that we're living in, it's been absolutely incredible to have something so beautiful and exciting to look forward to. - Maya Hart



Adds Patrick: “Many of our clients have reached out and asked about the first center, or even doing home birth. We as a company don't attend home birth, but that is a viable option in the area. People are afraid to be in the hospital for a variety of reasons.”


Pregnant moms always need someone near who is willing to advocate for them as they receive care. That has become increasingly important during COVID-19, particularly for black mothers and mothers of color, who both face greater statistical risk of maternal mortality and of contracting COVID-19. 


“Outside of my experience, as an expectant mom,” says Hart, “I work in reproductive health and justice as well. So I'm very well aware of the racial disparities and health outcomes for black women, mothers, parents and babies. It's certainly been on the forefront of my mind this whole time. And I think it would be something I would be anxious about if we weren't in a global pandemic. It’s just an additional layer of something to be concerned about ... and that's absolutely why we decided to have a black doula and friend of ours that we love with us for that extra support for myself and my partner.”


Patrick says it is difficult to maintain the warmth and close connections doulas were able to provide before social distancing. Though remote care and more frequent virtual communication with clients helps, it is not quite the same as being able to offer a reassuring physical gesture. “Touch is one of the things that we rely on the most as doulas and to not be able to do that is hard for everybody. But there have been times when I've been on a very long Zoom meeting at a birth. I think the longest I spent nonstop was nine hours, and I was able to see how the birthing person was moving her body and make recommendations for things, based on what I know as a doula like: Oh, pressing on her back right now would probably be really helpful.”


Postpartum support is just as important during COVID-19, says Roberts, program coordinator for Moms Supporting Moms. “Most mothers and families are going to rely on other family members, community members, neighbors, to come over and give them that support, bring meals, help guide them through those first few months of having a baby — and they're missing. They're missing that support and looking for that support, through Mom Supporting Moms and other programs.”


Stacia Brown comes to WUNC from Washington, DC, where she was a producer for WAMU’s daily news radio program, 1A. She’s the creator and host of two podcasts, The Rise of Charm City and Hope Chest. Her audio projects have been featured on Scene on Radio, a podcast of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University; BBC 4’s Short Cuts; and American Public Radio’s Terrible, Thanks for Asking.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.
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