In March 2020, I retreated from the world with a baby bump that was barely visible. I had just told some people at work and hadn’t even told all of my friends yet. Now, more than a year later, I’m re-entering the world with an 11-month-old.
Becoming a mother is at once a rush of newness and noise combined with constant repetition and isolation. I suspect this is true regardless of what’s happening in the world, but for pandemic moms and their quarantine babies, isolation doesn’t even begin to cover it. No one admired my growing belly, very few people met my newborn, and almost no one was there to see how I became a mother. We missed out on even the annoying shared experiences that usually mark the transition to motherhood.
“When I was pregnant, I almost wanted the story of some woman coming up and inappropriately rubbing my pregnant belly in the grocery store,” says Melissa, a woman in my new moms group. “But I didn’t have that shared initiation, those shared battle stories, and without them I wondered ‘How am I going to enter into this mom crew?’”
Many of my friends with older kids have talked about the judgement, the opinions, the unsolicited advice that comes along with becoming a mother. They talk about the challenge of learning to be a mom with everyone telling you what to do. Before getting pregnant, I tried to mentally prepare myself for this.
But I wasn’t judged on my parenting—no one was there to judge me. My transformation to motherhood happened in a bubble. Nobody commented on my breastfeeding in public, no strangers tried to kiss my baby. Any advice I received was advice I asked for. Sure, the women in my new moms’ group saw me and my baby via weekly Zooms and the occasional socially-distanced get together—but there was no judgement there, just support as we stumbled through those first months and into a new universe. Aside from a few touchpoints, I was untethered to the rest of the world and its expectations.
Of course it was lonely, but it was also entirely on my terms.
And as cooped up as we were, we also had far fewer decisions. I didn’t have to think about how I’d get on a plane with her. I didn’t have to find playgroups and select which educational activities to begin enrolling her in. I didn’t have an endless parade of visitors (something that, as an introvert, gave me cold sweats when I thought of it in those pre-birth days).
Instead, I had endless time with my newborn to figure out how I would be with her. There were no distractions from the pain, the sleeplessness, and the acute joy of those early months. It was just the three of us—myself, my husband, and my daughter. Lounging on our bed for hours, marveling at whatever funny, weird new thing she was learning to do (blow spit bubbles! Crane her neck! Clasp her hands!).
There was no rush to start the morning, no need to fit her into our work schedules. After my husband went back to work, he was only a room away, able to sweep in and hug her (and me) at a moment’s notice. Even when I went back to work, there was no barreling out of the house half-awake to drop her at daycare. I kept putting her down for naps, kept breastfeeding her because there was no reason to pump. We saw her crawl, sit up, stand up, clap her hands with delight.
It wasn’t always easy, but it was clear cut. I didn’t have the expectation to meet the outside world, so I could just be with my daughter and our new family. I wasn’t pulled in a million directions and because of this, my time with her came into sharp focus. I loved that simplicity; that tight orbit.
But with the pandemic receding (here in the U.S., at least), comes the end of that simplicity.
In some ways I’m a veteran mom now—I’ve weathered the long sleepless nights, the teething, the blowouts, the cracked nipples, the solids, the learning to crawl and learning to stand and the head bumps that come along. But I also have a soft shell, and I’ve realized that I’m nervous to be a parent in public.
“There are a lot of little things you have to learn at once,” says Megan, whose baby is a month older than mine. “I went to a restaurant for the first time recently with my daughter, and had to figure out how to change her in the restaurant, on the bathroom changing table. If it wasn’t for the pandemic we would have been learning all these things gradually, but now it’s all of a sudden.”
I’ve found myself shy to parent around others, too. A few weekends ago, we got ice cream as a family for the first time. As my husband bought ice cream, I sat and talked to my daughter and I realized, no one—aside from some family—had really seen me interact with my baby. For a second I wondered, “Do I look like a mom? Will people think I’m doing a good job at this?”
“I’ve identified this as a late onset imposter syndrome,” says Melissa. “For so long no one has questioned me because no one has been around me. I didn’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of, I didn’t have any non-verbal cues to look at, I didn’t have any snide comments—I have been doing this exactly how I want to do this for 9 months. With re-entry now I’m second guessing myself more. You wonder, ‘Am I doing this right?’”
And there’s also the part of me that is sad it’s coming to an end—this forced bubble. It means my daughter is growing up. For 11 months, we’ve had a front row seat to everything she did. Now one of the daycares we put ourselves on a waitlist for more than a year ago has an opening for September, and while I’m grateful, I’m also already mourning the distance.
The pictures I took of her when we left her last doctor’s appointment showed me a baby who was closer to a toddler than to a newborn. As we leave our little orbit and “get back to normal,” I know things will only get more complicated from here.
“There are the negative sides to the pandemic and quarantine, of course,” says Megan, “but we’ve been able to spend so much time with our babies, and we’ve been so spoiled by that. Now that we know what that’s like, it’s going to be hard to let that go.”
This weekend, we’ll get on our first plane ride together to visit family in Boston, and in a few weeks, Buffalo. On the day before her first birthday, we’ll get on a plane to visit family in Ireland. I’m doing all these trips, and many things, much later than I initially expected. But alongside the pain of the last year, there’s been joy too—at the opportunity to have been here with her, operating at half speed in her little world, before diving back into the larger one.