The fears and resilience of having a baby in the time of COVID-19
No grandparents, no baby showers and even no husband around – for some, this is what it’s like to have a newborn now.
SINGAPORE: After nearly eight years of trying to have a child, and finally conceiving last year, Vivien Heng should have been looking forward to welcoming her baby with nothing but joy.
Now 39 weeks pregnant, she is due anytime and full of worry.
In a world of COVID-19 “circuit breakers”, lockdowns and movement control orders (MCO), the first-time mum faces the prospect of having no post-partum support.
“Taking care of a baby is something we are not familiar with. How am I going to handle it?” she asked.
Her husband, who is in an essential service, will return to work after his two weeks of paternity leave are up.
Her Malaysian parents are not allowed to travel out of their country because of the extended MCO. Vivien tried hiring a confinement nanny, but many are from Malaysia too.
Even the domestic helper that she had hired from the Philippines is stuck in her home country because of a lockdown there since last month.
Her remaining option was to get her mother-in-law to help, but under Singapore’s enhanced safe distancing rules, grandparents can care for their grandchildren only if they live under the same roof throughout the “circuit breaker” period.
Indeed, the pandemic has spawned more than the usual uncertainty for new and expectant mothers.
On top of the normal anxieties of pregnancy and new parenthood, some now grapple with the fear of the virus, disrupted caregiver options, even occasional diapers shortages.
New mother Chanelle Wang is increasingly feeling the strain of isolation. She has been largely managing one-month-old Clarice on her own, as her husband is at work for the duration of the circuit breaker.
“I feel like every day is testing my emotional and physical limits,” said the 30-year-old IT analyst. While Chanelle lives with her father, he is 80 and can provide only limited help. She has had to feed, bathe and burp her child, while recovering from childbirth.
Thankfully, she had a confinement nanny initially to teach her those skills. “I thought we could handle it after that.
"But the (COVID-19) situation worsened and my husband had to go away. It’s too late to get a maid now,” said Chanelle, whose parents-in-law are unable to help because of safe distancing.
New mother Sharon Lim, whose baby girl Emma was born on Apr 1, had considered herself lucky to secure the services of a confinement nanny – only to have the latter to quit after three days, when the nanny found out that Sharon’s husband was a hospital doctor.
“I was very distressed and worried that I wouldn’t know what to do. I haven’t recovered fully, and suddenly this thing… even implying my husband had germs,” recounted Sharon, 29. “It didn’t feel nice.”
The confinement agency was unable to find her a replacement nanny. Fortunately, her supportive husband stepped up and helped with Emma Rose’s night feeds. They are also living with his parents, and Sharon is grateful for their additional support.
For another first-time mum Yvonne Yeo, her parents and in-laws are practising safe distancing, which means the entrepreneur must juggle her work duties and the demands of her two-month-old baby boy without their extra help.
Yvonne, who is married to a physiotherapist, said: “It has been difficult. When there are video calls, one parent has to make sure the baby is not crying.”
Still, the 32-year-old feels she’s lucky to have her husband’s help: “I’ve read that some of the mothers on online forums can’t get a confinement nanny and parents (to help). And they have another child to take care of too.”
HOSPITALS TAKING PRECAUTIONS
But what really scares expectant mothers like Vivien is the thought of catching the virus and passing it to her unborn child.
When she goes to the hospital for her routine scan, she opts for a Grab ride instead of taking public transport.
“It (COVID-19) has spoilt the atmosphere, the whole experience,” said her husband Alex Tan. “It’s more taxing for us and it adds on more worries.”
Vivien is also not clear whether the grandparents will be able to visit and carry her baby at the hospital after she delivers, because of the stricter visitation policies.
“If so, both our parents will not be able to hold the baby until the circuit breaker ends,” she said.
Before her baby was born, Sharon, a public servant, had to go for routine scans at the hospital, which she described as akin to “going to a warzone” with multiple security checks and that constant fear of infection.
Her birth plan was also upended when a month before her delivery date, she was told to switch hospitals as her doctor was restricted to working within one hospital so as to prevent cross-institutional transmission.
Since Emma was born, Sharon’s own parents have hugged their grandchild just once. “They have to make do with videos and photos every day. It’s a bit sad, practising social distancing with babies,” she said.
Meanwhile Gwendolin Mah, 32, chose to have her two-month-old girl vaccinated at a private pediatric clinic instead of a polyclinic. Most childhood vaccinations for Singaporeans are subsidised at polyclinics.
“The polyclinic is too crowded and even though there are separate sections for kids, there’s still a lot of interaction,” she said, adding that she would rather pay extra to minimise the risk at a quieter private clinic.
FROM DIAPERS TO CANCELLED SHOWERS
Then there’s shopping for groceries, which has become another source of worry for Chanelle.
As she’s the primary caregiver for her baby, her elderly father has to leave the house to get the groceries when delivery slots on online supermarket platforms are full.
And thanks to panic buying, some popular brands of newborn diapers are in short supply, said Chanelle, who is down to her last few pieces.
“We just grab any brand (these days). I have to plan ahead and order online,” she said.
Yvonne has resorted to buying her groceries and baby supplies online to reduce the frequency of going out, even though it can be stressful when there are no delivery slots.
“I am tired, I don’t want to think about being short of diapers… Adults can make do without certain things, but not babies,” said Yvonne, who has taken to ordering online at 3am when she’s nursing her child, just to be able to secure a delivery slot.
For most new parents, safe distancing also means that baby showers have to be scrapped.
Yvonne had already sent out the invitations for a celebration in May, with the catering all planned for her son’s big party.
“When the ‘circuit breaker’ happened, we notified our guests it would be postponed,” she said. “The grandparents had been looking forward to it. A lot of my family members haven’t had the chance to meet him. But as parents, it’s better to be responsible.”
While Sharon too cancelled her baby shower, she’s thankful for friends who send her packages to cheer her up.
“I haven’t really hung out with people since February. There’s some cabin fever of course,” she said. “I keep telling myself it is for the greater good.”
BECOMING STRONGER, TOGETHER
Despite the anxieties of bringing up baby in these trying times, the mothers are taking it as a learning experience and character-building exercise.
“With so many last-minute changes, we learn to be emotionally stronger,” said Sharon. “Pregnancy is not easy, (one) gets hormonal; but we have to be strong for the baby. This kind of circumstances is very exceptional.”
Yvonne appreciates that her husband, who works from home now, has more time with the family. “And I have the excuse to extend my maternity leave,” she added.
“As new parents, we get more time with the baby and learn to cope with no support. It used to be easy to call for help; now, we’re better at multi-tasking.”
For teacher Kanages Kuma, mother of twin three-month-old boys, this ‘circuit breaker’ period has also resulted in more family time as everyone’s forced to be at home.
This 34-year-old who’s still on maternity leave lives with her in-laws, and there’s plenty of support from the family of 11. “Having twins is double the joy and double the fatigue – our heart and hands are always full,” she quipped.
Her husband, who is in IT, is never far away – the twins nap in the same room where he works.
“In a way it’s good, there’s more family time and the focus is always about the kids,” said Kanages, a first-time mother. “There’s more time to do things as a family.”
Online resources for those with newborns:
Families For Life: Dr Shefaly Shorey's Facebook Live sessions on caring for newborns
Baby Bonus Parenting Resources portal videos