The anxious faces of the men glow in the half-light of their mobiles as they sit alone in cars parked along a dark strip running from the Garden of Remembrance on one side of Dublin’s Parnell Square to the Rotunda on the other.
They are lost in worlds of their own, waiting and willing their phones to bring them news of wives and partners at various stages of their pregnancies inside the maternity hospital.
In another world, these men would be in there with them, marvelling at scans, murmuring words of encouragement and otherwise supporting the people they care about most in whatever way they could, no matter what was happening. They would, in short, be involved.
'She fell pregnant just before Covid hit and I haven’t got to go to any of the scans'
But Covid-19 and the sometimes suffocatingly cruel restrictions it has caused mean that since March, women in Irish hospitals have had to attend all scans, routine or otherwise, alone, visit emergency rooms alone and spend most of their labours alone, without partners to swear at and to cry with and to hold. (We will be publishing women’s stories and experiences in the coming weeks.)
But partners are left to play the waiting game in car parks and on city streets, never far from but never close enough to the unfolding events that will shape the rest of their lives.
It is shortly after 8pm on an early winter evening and Steven Harris is working on his laptop. He jumps a little when The Irish Times knocks softly on his car window. He has been parked outside the Rotunda for 30 minutes tonight. It’s the second time he has driven from his home in Kinnegad to Dublin today.
His wife Marian, two days shy of her due date, had an appointment at the hospital this morning and, in what has become their routine, he parked up and she went in alone. And he waited.
Everything was hunky dory at the check-up so they drove home and had something to eat. Then she thought she might be in labour so they dropped their son Jacob off with a family member and headed back.
“She fell pregnant just before Covid hit and I haven’t got to go to any of the scans,” he says. “But my parents got me a present of a private scan in May for my birthday. Normally they get me a tray of Guinness so this was just a bit different. But I have to say it was great.”
He says the pregnancy “was a whole different experience for us this time round but we were lucky because she hasn’t had any problems”.
He turns back towards his laptop and the complex-looking spreadsheet on the screen. “I’ve a bit of work to do now so that will keep me busy.”
We leave him to it.
'The first scan was cancelled as it was just around the time Covid came. That was upsetting because it was our first child and there was so much uncertainty'
Around the corner and across the road from the Dublin Writers’ Museum is a dishevelled-looking man leaning against a car and pulling deeply on a cigarette. His name is Phelim Coughlan from Donabate.
“I haven’t smoked in a year,” he says. But the emotion of a day he will never forget has got the better of him.
His wife gave birth to their first child, a girl, at 11:44am, less than 12 hours earlier. “It was a section and she was told to come in at 8am,” he says. “I was waiting for two hours and then at 10am I got the call from the midwife. I met my wife before she was prepped and that was really good because it was so overwhelming for her. It was great to be able to spend even a few minutes together before she was brought into theatre.”
Like Harris, Coughlan missed all the scans leading up to the biggest of days. “The first scan was cancelled as it was just around the time Covid came. That was upsetting because it was our first child and there was so much uncertainty,” he recalls.
People were 'able to go into a pub for hours and drink as many pints as they wanted in large groups but I can’t see my baby being scanned. It is hard to understand'
But they made it through and the relief on his face is evident as he smokes. “The hospital has strict visiting times between 5pm and 7pm. I left the car at 4.40pm and there was a big queue and I was really worried I’d lose time with our little girl but the hospital was brilliant and started letting people in a little before five so I was in bang on time. They let me stay until 20 past seven and it was great to get those extra few minutes. My wife is happy out and I have to say the midwives were lovely. And for a few minutes after she was born it was just the three of us together. That was very special.”
Rewind to the early morning and move across the city to the Coombe hospital where the waiting games are being played out just the same. It is, if anything, more tense.
The car park is as full as it always is but not all the cars are as empty as usual. There are the men sitting alone staring at their phones. One man has pushed the passenger seat right back and is asleep. Another clearly wishes he was. He looks bleary-eyed as he sips coffee from a silver keep cup. A third man is standing in the rain smoking.
Richard Kennedy from Maynooth has found a good parking space in the waiting place. “I am only after getting here,” he says, brightly enough. His wife had just said goodbye to him and headed through the doors for a scan.
“It’s a load of sh**e, excuse my language,” he says, when asked how he feels to be left out in the cold.
He points out that before the second lockdown people were “able to go into a pub for hours and drink as many pints as they wanted in large groups but I can’t see my baby being scanned. It is hard to understand.”
Kennedy works in construction and every day he sees people piling into vans without masks. “If I was in the hospital now I’d have everything they wanted: masks, PPE.”
'I haven’t been in once over the last six months and my big fear is that if anything goes wrong I won’t be there'
He says his wife was “nervous going in and she has nothing by way of support if there is anything wrong. That is why I am so nervous, she is in there on her own.”
The reason for the nerves becomes clear. Although she is in for a 12-week scan, it is her second hospital visit. “We have already had a scan, we thought she was nine weeks but they said the baby was too small and was measuring for around seven weeks. When she came out last time she was so upset and it took ages for her to be able to tell me what was wrong. There was a heartbeat and everything but we were told we just have to let nature take its course.”
The last 2½ weeks have been “terrifying”, he says. “We have just been trying to do all the right things. That is all we can do.”
He goes back to his phone. In a follow-up text he contacts The Irish Times with two words about the outcome of the scan. “Went great” is all he needs to say.
Not far away stands another man waiting to hear news about a different type of scan. Jonathan McGrane’s wife is 38 weeks pregnant “but is measuring two weeks early so could go into labour at any time”. It will be his first child. “I haven’t been in once over the last six months and my big fear is that if anything goes wrong I won’t be there. She is just being checked every week now and it is a very nervous time and made worse because she has no one in there to support her.”
'I don’t think it is right. Even if they were only allowed in for the big scan at 20 weeks. They get very upset by that one. They are parents too'
The couple drove in from their Tallaght home and he has been waiting for almost an hour and is settling in for a couple more. “The car park here is a disaster and on most visits I just spend my time circling it looking for a space and waiting for my wife to let me know what is going on.” He plays “a lot of football games” on his phone too.
On the footpath outside there are more men waiting. “My wife is only four days away from her due date,” says Mossabber Hossain from Newcastle, Co Dublin. “I am very excited. It is our first baby, we are having a son.”
He has never been inside the hospital where his son will be born but accepts the rules as they are. “I wish I’d been allowed in, I think it is very hard for her. I just sit here and wait for news.”
Across the road from the hospital is the Mad Barber shop. “I get around four or five of the lads coming in every day,” says Karl McDonald. “They are just hanging around and bored so they come in. Most of them think the rules are unfair and they seem pretty annoyed. On the whole they understand I suppose but it is crazy carry-on, them just sitting in their cars. I don’t think it is right. Even if they were only allowed in for the big scan at 20 weeks. They get very upset by that one. They are parents too.”
Fast forward and move back across the city to Harris who tinkers with his spreadsheet outside the Rotunda. He has no idea what is about to happen next.
“After I was talking to you I was in the car waiting when Marian rang to say she was definitely in labour and that I could come in at midnight when they were moving her to the delivery ward,” he recalls.
With a couple of hours to wait, he finished up his work and went for a stroll around the city centre. “There was absolutely nothing open, it was very weird,” he says.
'I thought I’d be allowed go to the ward to make sure they were settling in but the midwife said, "this is where we part ways"'
Then 20 minutes before midnight, another message from his wife lit up his phone. “She texted me to say she wanted lollipops so I went looking for them. I found one shop open on O’Connell Street and got the lollipops. I got another text then asking me where I was. I got to the hospital at 11:56pm. That was good timing for me and normally I’m late. If I am told to be somewhere [at 12] I would usually be there at 12:15.”
Not this time. “It’s lucky I got back when I did,” he says. “I thought we were in for an all-night job but eight minutes after I got to the hospital, Hailey was born. She was born at exactly four minutes past midnight.”
He was allowed stay for “the coffee and the bit of toast as the baby was cleaned up”.
Then Marian and Hailey were transferred from the delivery suite to a ward. “I had to leave them in the lift. I didn’t even get to go down to the ward,” he says.
“It was around half one then. I thought I’d be allowed go to the ward to make sure they were settling in but the midwife said, ‘this is where we part ways’. I’ll never forget that. Those were the actual words: ‘You can come down in the lift with us but you can’t come down in the wards. This is where we part ways.’ I thought that was very sad.”