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A study by two researchers at Dalhousie University looks at the positives and negatives new parents faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Megan Aston, a professor at the School of Nursing at Dalhousie, and Dr. Sheri Price, an affiliate scientist at the IWK Health Centre, are the lead researchers and authors of Blessings and Curses: Exploring the Experiences of New Mothers during the COVID-19 Pandemic, which was published in December 2020. The pair have been researching the experiences of new parents for the past 30 years.
“What we found over the years is parenting can become very isolating and it’s a very difficult time in just non-COVID times,” says Aston. “When COVID-19 hit, we thought this is extreme isolation, so we were able to go out and ask parents what their experiences were.”
Aston and Price put out a call on Twitter, Facebook, and their website www.mumsns.ca looking for new parents who might want to share their experiences. Aston says very quickly they heard from 68 parents.
Yet while the call-out was seeking all parents, including mothers, fathers, and grandparents, they only heard from moms, all of whom were white, heterosexual, and middle class. These mothers were a mix of new parents and second-time parents and they had babies ranging in age from zero to 12 months during the pandemic.
The study includes several quotes from the parents, all categorized under blessings or curses. There are the blessings of freedom, quiet enjoyment, learning, and bonding and snuggles. And then there are the curses, including isolation, robbed moments, and limited socialization and bonding.
One of these quotes inspired the name of the study.
“When the mothers started talking and telling their stories, we got the positives and the negatives, but it came from a mother’s quote,” Aston says. “That’s what’s really important in this research. You have to listen really carefully to the language they use.”
Aston says the isolation and being at home gave some of the mothers freedom from outside pressures. This mother talks about the freedom created by the isolation and stay-at-home rules:
COVID has been a blessing and a nightmare for our new family . . . [our baby] gets a lot more daddy time every day and I get help during the day if I need it . . . I now feel no pressure to be a “super mom”. I just focus on spending time with her [baby] and enjoying her baby days. I know if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I’d be out doing “mommy and me” classes, doing visits, and generally trying to be more productive.
Still, other mothers enjoyed the quiet moments the isolation brought for them:
It’s been great . . . we have this opportunity to bond as a family and he [partner] is here for every moment during the newborn stage! It has been amazing not having to worry about visitors coming and going and cleaning out home and me worrying about breastfeeding in front of others – instead we have a very relaxed atmosphere for everything!
As for the curses, many of the mothers expressed concerns about missed opportunities, which included everything from cancelling newborn photo shoots to meeting up with friends and family. Says one mother in the study:
I am home with a now six-month-old. She is missing out on social interaction with family, friends, and other babies. I can’t take my child shopping or to meet with other moms for coffee. I worry she will be overly attached to myself and husband, as we are who she sees outside of driveway visits from grandparents.
“They were really scared their babies wouldn’t be socialized properly,” Aston says. “Some might say once COVID is over the babies will learn as they grow up. But in the moment, this was really extremely important to parents. We can’t brush it off, we can’t keep it invisible. We can’t continue to do it like this. We need to stop and really listen.”
Many of the mothers connected with family, friends, and other supports through online groups or by using FaceTime and Zoom. And while they said they were thankful to be have those online connections, the mothers also said it wasn’t enough. This mother shared this about her experience:
We were supposed to fly to Alberta to see my family at the end of March but had to cancel the trip. This is my family’s first grandchild so it just breaks my heart they will miss her whole babyhood. I also feel so alone with the baby. I have nobody here to help me figure out what is normal or how to progress through these early days. Although people can video chat it isn’t the same. I just want somebody to be in the room with me and the baby to see the things she can do and help me with things.
“At the end of the day, [the mothers] said, ‘We don’t want to do it all the time like this,’” Aston says. “In person is so vital to their well-being.”
Aston says social networking, whether it was offline or online, is also important in the mental health of new parents (Aston and Price previously researched the importance of online and offline social networking for new parents). Combine that with the isolation, mental health was an issue for some of the mothers. Aston says she wasn’t surprised about the concerns over mental health, but she says she didn’t realize it would be so extreme.
“Some mothers were saying, ‘I struggled with depression my entire life and this really pushed me over the edge,’” Aston says.
“We really want to pay attention to to the words the moms used and they used words like stress, anxiety, loneliness, being worried. We really need to stop and pay attention to those.”
Aston says they learned that some experiences could be a blessing and a curse for the parents, especially around their partners, many of whom were working at home as their offices shut down. For some mothers, that meant more work. One mother said:
My husband has been more supportive as he’s home more but there is also more to do since there are more meals to cook and more messes to clean and more activities to plan.
Another mother said, ““although having my husband home allowed him to spend more time with the kids, it increased stress between us as we argued more.”
Aston says she and Price are now looking for funding for a new project to look into how to create more positive online support systems for new parents. She says technology needs to be better if it’s going to help support new parents, connect them with others, and build confidence in their parenting skills.
“If we’re going to go online, how can we do that well?” Aston says. “How can we do online and feel that empathy and feel that it’s interactive and supportive. I feel there are ways we can do that and be creative.”
Midwives in the province, who take care of their clients for the first six weeks after the birth of their babies, noticed new parents experienced similar blessings and curses.
CJ Blennerhassett has been working as a midwife in Nova Scotia for almost two years and she’s been president of the association since January 2020. Blennerhassett says midwives had to adjust how they work with their clients during the first week post-partum. Clients got an in-person visit from their midwife within 24 hours after the birth. On Day 3, the midwife would call to check in. And then on Day 5, there was another in-person visit. Some clients, depending on their progress in breastfeeding and if there were complications from the birth, need to be seen every day in that first week.
Blennerhassett says isolation is the biggest challenge new parents they work with are facing.
“Traditionally if you’re in a place where you have a good support network, whether it be family or friends, those people come to your aid in the first weeks with a new human in your life and that’s really not happening,” Blennerhassett says. “We were seeing people at home on Day 5 and we were perhaps the only other people they’ve seen who had been in their home and hold their babies. For a lot of families, especially those undergoing their first birth, that was really tough not having those people to rely on.”
Blennerhassett says most of the blessings were experienced by clients who have privilege; they can take time off work, have the financial resources, and get meals delivered to their home.
“The blessings are they are able to focus on breast or chestfeeding, if that was there feeding plan, because they’re not entertaining a tonne of visitors or going out into the world or having family visits,” Blennerhassett says. “They really are at home, in bed, feeding their babies. In some ways, for some families, that was really quite good.”
That experience was different for other families, including single parents or those parents with other children, who Blennerhassett says were feeding a newborn, while healing from childbirth, and taking care of other children, all without usual support from friends or family.
“We had many families with a three-day-old baby dealing with milk coming in and the older children not being in school and then also functioning as a teacher,” Blennerhassett says. “It was really quite something to witness.”
As Aston learned in their study, Blennerhasset says new parents missed those early milestone moments, too.
“This is a major transition and a lot of families weren’t able to share the significance of that,” she says. “Imagine having your first child, coming home, and being home isolated for the first week, there’s nobody sort of there to even bring you tea or share the joy in that moment or the struggles.”
Blennerhassett says the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of community for new parents, not only after the birth, but during the pregnancy, too. She says in some cases clients went to their appointments on their own. But having a spouse or support partner in those appointments is crucial.
“Often a pregnant person has a co-decision maker with them through the process and really that person should be prioritized as being a part of this,” Blennerhassett says. “It isn’t like other medical care. It’s a major life transition for more than one person.
“We empathize with all the ways in which pregnant people were not able not honour their pregnancies in a way they wanted. We watched people really have to gather the strength to do this on their own. I think it’s really been hard.”
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