Clad in oversized aqua-green scrubs, I sat outside the operating room anxiously waiting for the go-ahead to join my wife and witness the birth of our first child. I’d never felt so alone before: my family hundreds of miles away in Vermont; her parents holed up feet away in the hospital lobby, prohibited from being in the same room as their daughter. Outside the walls of the hospital, the coronavirus pandemic surged across the city.
I was born in 1987 and my wife in ‘88. Our only exposure to the notion of a pandemic came from Fox News’ guarantee of an “Africanized bee” invasion or an outbreak like the one in the movie Outbreak. As COVID-19 spread, we tried our best to stock our pantry and fortify our 600-square foot apartment to the best of our abilities, but there’s no roadmap out there for having a baby during a global pandemic.
We’re a couple whose anxieties complement one another; she sweats the small stuff, I worry about everything else. But the stress of our situation didn’t really hit either of us until the week before our daughter was due. For me, it was the bare supermarket shelves and the string of cleverly-disguised worried texts that turned some distant threat into a surreal apocalyptic reality akin to movies like 28 Days Later or Mad Max. Then the emails started pouring in: “Park Slope Parents have been closely monitoring the CDC and NYC agencies about coronavirus and public gatherings”; “NYU Langone is actively responding to the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic”; “ “Shake’s Shack’s role in the world has always been to enrich the lives of others.”
I know our experience could have been a lot worse. What if this was the kind of virus that plagued infants? What if we didn’t have insurance and access to quality healthcare? What if our parents had ignored our pleas to stay safe and gotten sick? My wife and I were lucky to be born in a country with a comprehensive, albeit imperfect, healthcare system. But still: What a time to have a child.
With every passing hour, a new piece of bad news would pop up, making our tiny cluttered hospital room the only safe place for my wife and baby. The uncertainty of raising a child without the added threat of plague is scary enough, but a screaming baby and incapacitated wife dissolved our confidence and threw us into a situation we never could have foreseen.
Amid the chaos, our sweet little daughter refocused our lives. The disorder surging outside temporarily melted away as we were, for better or worse, stuck in a hospital room with crummy WiFi tending after a newborn. Suddenly, I stopped worrying about the death toll in New York and could only focus on helping my wife make her way from the bed to the bathroom while Googling the best swaddling techniques.
In some ways, the coronavirus has made parenthood a tactical nightmare since we left the hospital. Because of the danger the virus poses to our parents’ generation, neither my parents nor Mary’s will be able to see their granddaughter for weeks. They’ve had to view my daughter’s first few days of life through a tiny camera, plaguing my wife and me with relentless guilt. When my niece was born 16 years ago, my parents were among the first people to hold her after her mother gave birth. Because my brother was so young at the time, they spent every other weekend driving from Connecticut to Vermont to help out in every way they could. Now, almost two decades later, the experience couldn’t be more different. They’ve never looked into my daughter’s big grey eyes or touched her soft feet or smelled that distinct peanuty newborn smell that emanates from the top of her head.
It’s heartbreaking knowing how badly our parents want to help us, but the risk of exposing them to the virus is overwhelming. Every human interaction I have is framed through a lens of paranoia, and a sinister part of my brain is positive I’ve somehow caught this disease and spread it to my family. But all we can do is carry on.
And strangely, there are certain similarities between life with a newborn and life in self-isolation. We planned on spending six weeks indoors. We planned on feeling afraid and exhausted, and our freezer has been stocked with frozen meals for months. Our apartment’s littered with bottles of hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes, our dog is hunkering down in New Hampshire with my in-laws (which makes me really emotional, BTW), and we now have enough pasta in our cabinets to last for months.
The oxytocin coursing through our systems helps us look past some of the hard stuff. I love holding our child in my arms. I feel like I could die every time she makes a cute noise, and I somehow even like doing diapers. Despite the handwritten “Wash Your Hands” signs strung up in our building since our absence, and the general hum of panic coming from every tenant we see, I know I’ve never been happier.
For now, we’ll turn to the creature comforts that got us through the good ol’ days before the nasty germs became our overlords. We’ll eat our pasta, drink our coffee, feed this baby, and down glass after glass of red wine while watching Below Deck. If there’s any takeaway from all of this, it’s that my wife and I can get through anything. We’ve moved together, traveled together, created human life, and have powered through a pandemic while our daughter remains blissfully unaware.
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