'Bittersweet' reality of becoming a mother in the time of Covid-19: ‘If I need to cry, I’ll cry’

UAE mothers reveal the sacrifices and lessons that have shaped their unique journeys into motherhood during the pandemic

“When I mention to someone that my husband wasn’t there for the birth of our daughter, I realise that I try to normalise it,” says Rekha Simpson, a Dubai lawyer who welcomed her second daughter, Freya, in April. “Then when I listen to what I’m saying, I think: ‘That’s not right. That’s not how it should have played out.’

“I don’t feel angry, it’s more I can’t believe this is what we went through,” the 37-year-old adds. “There have been days when I’ve cried. I thought I would enjoy last part of my pregnancy. I thought my husband would be there, but he wasn’t. I thought our families would be there, but they can’t be, so no one has seen our beautiful little girl.”

Having given birth during a time when tight restrictions were in place in the UAE to combat the spread of Covid-19, Simpson's experience is one that will resonate with new mums and parents-to-be, who have found themselves having to make choices and sacrifices that would have been unthinkable a year ago.

Husbands absent from the delivery room, families missing out on welcoming the new addition, and friends who can’t offer a reassuring hug and a whispered, ‘You’re doing great,’ that can be so important to new mothers have all played a part in making giving birth this year a unique and isolating experience.

A 'bittersweet' birth without daddy present

“The idea had been to have friends take care of (our 2-year-old daughter) Layla, but the risk of leaving her with friends wasn’t an option, especially with the baby coming home,” explains Simpson. This led to a “tricky conversation” with her husband, Chris, during which it was decided that he would have to look after Layla and so couldn’t be at the birth.

"We just didn’t have anyone there to help," Simpson says. “At first he went into practical mode about it because we had no choice. But not seeing the birth of his daughter upset him, of course. Now, six months later, I’m probably still quite emotional about it.”

And Simpson's residual emotions are ones that her doula, Louise Atkinson, has experienced first hand as she continues to act as a birthing partner to UAE women delivering during the pandemic.

“Being there for the moment of birth is a time of elation, but it’s also bittersweet,” says Atkinson, 36, a birth worker and childbirth educator. “Because when the baby arrives, you and the mother both think the same thing: that the husband is not there to experience it, and it’s heartbreaking.”

The stress of isolation

One of the most impactful outcomes of the pandemic has been social distancing. While necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, new mothers have been denied the lifeline of not only socialising with friends and family, but also from receiving home visits from healthcare workers that are considered vital for a mother’s mental health and wellbeing.

“This sense of being isolated from our parents and friends has been one of the hardest parts,” says Liouba Raytcheva, a 33-year-old marketing manager from Dubai who welcomed her son, Leo, on July 15. “My parents are in Canada and Bulgaria, so no one could come and offer support or even see the baby now he’s here.”

For Raytcheva, her journey into motherhood was particularly exhausting, as Leo spent the first three days of his life in the neonatal intensive care unit suffering from water on his lungs.

"We were alone and I felt isolated,” she says. “Normally I would have been visited by the lactation consultant, but they weren’t allowed, and neither were post-birth visits from our doula or the nurses. We ended up cocooning in the house.”

The stresses of a new baby coupled with a lack of external help inevitably reached a tipping point.

"That first night we brought him home, he had just fallen asleep and we were like: 'He's asleep, let's get something to eat really fast'," Raytcheva remembers. "And I started eating and crying out of sheer feelings of being overwhelmed."

The pandemic and postpartum depression

Indeed, isolation can be both a contributing factor to and an indicator of postpartum depression, when, either through her own volition or not, a new mother is cut off from her support system.

“The pandemic has had a tendency for people who weren’t predisposed to depression to suffer,” says Dr Zahid Malik, chief medical officer at NAS Neuron. “It has increased incidences of postpartum depression, increasing the chances because socialising was prohibited, people were restricted to their homes, as well as the personal fear that there might be a threat to life of the child during pandemic.”

Another problem faced by new mothers is recognising what might be considered ‘normal’ anxiety regarding the current state of the world, and what might be symptoms of postpartum depression.

"If you have postpartum depression, you feel like you don't want to get out of bed, you cry all the time and feel constantly anxious that something might happen to the baby," says Tilda Timmers, the Dutch author of This is Postpartum. "You have intrusive thoughts, such as that a fear you might harm your baby. It gets bigger and bigger and worse and worse. If you feel anxious or sombre because of the pandemic it will feel different, particularly around those intrusive thoughts."

It was Timmers's experience with severe postpartum depression back in 2014, following the birth of her first daughter, that led her to retrain as a therapist specialising in postpartum depression and write her book.

“For me, I was suicidal,” she says. “I’d had such lovely, romantic ideas of me being at home with my baby, and yet here I was thinking of killing myself. I felt so guilty.”

'It's the stupidest thing I could have done'

Guilt has been another tricky emotion to navigate during the pandemic, not only concerning the negative thoughts new mums might be having when it’s supposed to be the ‘happiest time of your life’, but around needing and wanting extra help.

“It’s the stupidest thing I could have done and I’m still working on it,” admits Raytcheva, of having turned down a friend’s offer of help when she needed it most. “One of my friends, who had a baby a few weeks after me, had a nanny and so she offered me help, even to cook for us a little. I said: ‘No way, please don’t.’ She wouldn’t have asked if she didn’t mean it, but it’s that reluctance to accept help. That we feel like less of a mum, less of a person if we allow it.

“Now I ask for help more from people, from my husband,” she says, “but as a society, we feel asking for help is a sign of weakness.”

It’s a sentiment that will resonate with many mothers, new or not.

“A lot of mums are afraid to admit they don’t like being a mother sometimes, that they’ll be labelled a bad mother, and that taps into the feeling of not being good enough,” says Timmers. “It’s a horrible feeling, and those two things combined means mothers put on brave face and don’t talk about their needs or feelings.”

Nurturing life outside of motherhood

Finding solace in activities outside of just ‘being mum’ has been something these women have embraced to overcome the obstacles the pandemic has put in their path to and through motherhood.

For Raytcheva, getting back to work and setting boundaries has proven to be a successful combination.

“When I felt myself becoming consumed by negativity, I came off social media and set my boundaries with people,” she says. “I said: ‘Thank you, but I’m trying not to go down that path’, if anyone wanted to talk about the coronavirus.”

Looking to the future with positivity is something Atkinson advocates for her clients, new mums and people everywhere.

“We talk about when they will be able to see their family again and the importance of communicating with family and friends regularly,” she advises. “Also, that it’s OK to feel frustrated with how unfair the situation is.”

“I allow myself to have a bad day if that’s how it’s going,” says Simpson. “If I need to cry, I’ll cry; that’s important. I tell other people if I’m having a bad day, I don’t try and hide it.

"A couple of weeks ago, my parents still couldn’t come to visit and it was overwhelming in the moment. I had to talk about it and that helped me realise we will reunite at some point.”