On March 6th, 2020, the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin announced it was banning all visitors in an effort to control the spread of Covid-19.
Other maternity hospitals around the country followed suit, with guidance that ranged all the way from one designated partner only, to the partner allowed in the delivery ward for half-an-hour before the birth, to, in some cases, no partner allowed at all.
A global pandemic adds layers to what is already an exhausting, overwhelming and isolated time.
Carefully laid birth schemes have been thrown in the air along with plans for maternity leaves filled with baby yoga, the odd lunch with friends, and the vital, constant reassurance from grandparents and other family members always at hand.
Delivering a healthy baby is the goal. The mental and physical health of the mother is also paramount. So how have lockdown restrictions affected them?
From the unexpected joys of cocooning to the extraordinary kindness of midwives and hospital porters, from meeting grandparents through the window to modern ways of wetting the baby’s head, five sets of parents share their experiences of having new babies in a lockdown.
Louise and Don Keogh
By Friday, March 20th, as Louise’s husband, Don, dropped her at the door of Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH) to give birth to their first baby, they had mentally prepared for the fact that Louise would be going on alone.
“The day in early March when they changed the rules on partners being allowed in, I was really upset,” she says. “But from then on, we just took it one step at a time. We kept telling each other, one more night and then the three of us will be home together.”
In the early hours of Sunday morning, when Louise was brought into the delivery suite, Don was allowed to join her. Thirty minutes later, their son Sam was born.
Don was allowed to stay for an hour while Louise had the ritual tea and toast and he had his skin-to-skin bonding time with Sam before heading home alone to Ballincollig at 3am.
“I don’t know who I felt sorrier for – me on my own with a new baby or him at home by himself,” says Louise. “Being at home alone in your house for two days not seeing your family isn’t how you imagine it will be after your baby arrives. He had a Zoom call with his friends so he wet the baby’s head virtually.”
Louise describes the CUMH midwives as “saints”.
“They were extra conscious of women being there on their own and you knew they were giving up time they didn’t have just to drop by in the middle of the night for a chat. They made such an effort to make women feel less lonely, it was so reassuring.”
A couple of days later, Sam met his grandparents and extended family – who all live nearby – through the Keoghs’ kitchen window. “You think it will be hugs all round when you get home with a new baby so it’s very odd not even opening the front door,” says Louise.
Even odder is that Louise’s sister had her own new baby, Sarah, four days later in the same hospital and the cousins still haven’t met. “Some days you’re thinking is this real life. And other days you think it makes no difference because I’d be quarantined in the house anyway. You do feel lonely and wish there were people around. But look, we’ll get there.”
Lynne Andrews and Tom Lyons
Several weeks into Covid-19 lockdown, Lynne Andrews said she and her husband, Tom Lyons, were still “playing it by ear” in terms of their plans for the birth of her second baby.
Lynne had opted for the Domino scheme, a service that allows low-risk women have their baby at home along with access to a hospital-based midwife team.
“My bag was still packed for the hospital if we needed it. But when the restrictions came in, a home birth made even more sense for us. We were really lucky we could do it.”
At 8.40pm, Martha Jean Lyons arrived to the song Magnificent – the chorus includes the line 'the world that doesn’t even know how much it needs this little girl'
On the evening of April 13th, midwife Nicola Smith arrived at Lynne and Tom’s home in Dún Laoghaire, and checked that the couple were happy to stay there. They would meet their baby that day, she told them.
Throughout Lynne’s labour, Nicola and her colleague, Fiona Roarty, were careful to maintain a two-metre distance from her.
“But they did it so subtly,” says Lynne. “Even when things got more serious and they put on PPE, it didn’t feel strange. They were so warm and human, explaining at every step any new measures they had to take.”
Being at home meant that Lynne and Tom could choose their own music – a playlist of songs from British band Elbow that Lynne had created two years ago when their first daughter, Robyn, was a baby. She was born the day after the couple saw Elbow perform in Dublin.
At 8.40pm, Martha Jean Lyons arrived coincidentally to the song Magnificent – the chorus includes the line “the world that doesn’t even know how much it needs this little girl”.
The best part of the experience for the couple was getting into their own bed afterwards.
“The three of us walked up the stairs together at around 10pm,” remembers Lynne. “I had a shower and then it felt like Fiona tucked us in before putting a sleeping Martha on my chest.
“I’m just so sad I can’t hug you,” said the midwife, conscious of having to keep her distance.
Any downsides to a home birth in lockdown? “In hospital you get amazing tea and toast after the baby arrives, it’s ingrained in my brain. We were due to do a shop so we’d run out of Barry’s Tea and bread. Tom had to throw on pitta breads and Twinings tea that had been in the press for God knows how long. Despite all our home comforts, the hospital catering was better,” she laughs.
Amy Rose Harte and Jim McGrath
Emilia McGrath made it into the world just before strict hospital restrictions were implemented. Her dad, Jim McGrath, counts himself very lucky. “I was allowed to be around for all of it and spend time with her in the hospital.”
Emilia was born on March 15th in the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin, and “to a certain degree we hadn’t really digested all of the news from outside”, says her mother, Amy Rose Harte.
But the drive home to Castleknock through a deserted city on St Patrick’s Day was “surreal”, they recall. “It all only hit home when we watched the Taoiseach’s address that evening on TV.”
Despite it all, the new parents were deeply comforted that there were no gaps in postnatal care. “The public health nurse still called out. We met the lactation consultant on WhatsApp. Everything has been just a phone call away.”
The only gap, they say, is the connection with their families in Donegal and Tipperary. Specifically, Emilia’s two great-grandmothers, four grandparents, seven cousins and seven aunts and uncles. But the loved ones have been innovative.
“On Mother’s Day, my brother gave me a bouquet of flowers through the window and my aunt, uncle and cousins appeared there too with paella and Prosecco to toast Emilia’s arrival,” says Amy Rose.
Friends were highly practical. “They dropped lasagnes at the front door, ordered us takeaways and emailed us Just Eat vouchers.”
Baby blues are a real thing and you’re second guessing everything like any new parents. More so now because you’re nervous about the virus
Jim’s aunt, a nun, sent the family a prayer in the post and their mantelpiece is a sea of congratulations cards. “Funnily enough, it’s made us feel very close to people. We know everyone has a lot going on in their lives and it takes more effort to go to the post office at the moment. We really appreciate it and it makes it all feel extra special. The kindness that surrounds you when a new baby arrives hasn’t ebbed at all, it has just flowed in a different way.
Amy Rose last saw her own mother on February 8th: “You’re teary and vulnerable when you have a baby, it’s times like this you really want to see your mum. On the other hand, it’s given us the opportunity to cocoon with Emilia,” she says.
“I know we’ll look back on this time and think it was actually quite extraordinary.”
Aidan and Jiwan King
The plan was to live there temporarily before buying their first house.
As lockdown measures came in, Aidan’s sister Orla and twin brother Barry – with his dog, Róisín – headed for home too. Now, for the first time in years, the King family are living under the same roof again. Plus a baby and a dog.
What is it like being locked down with six adults and a newborn? “We had converted two rooms in my parents’ house until we got sorted, so we have our own little bedroom and a nursery,” says Aidan. “We’re the only ones sleeping downstairs and we’re at the other end of the house so they can’t really hear us.”
There are upsides to having so many adults in the house. “It’s great to have so many hands. Grandad or granny are delighted to take her so we can have half an hour to go for a walk together.
“We have been blessed. But it doesn’t stop the worry – baby blues are a real thing and you’re second guessing everything like any new parents. More so now because you’re nervous about the virus. The public health nurse was brilliant, she rang us loads when she couldn’t visit any more; it’s priceless for someone to say you’re doing okay.”
It’s a very different maternity leave to what we could have imagined. But when we’re back to work in November, I know we’ll look back at how lucky we were to have this time
Sophie – the first grandchild on both sides – was born a few days before strict social distancing measures were introduced, for which Jiwan is very grateful.
“I was so lucky that my mam, my uncle and my sister could call over the day we got home and meet Sophie properly. It’s really hard not seeing her now.”
Aidan says: “It’s sad for Jiwan, this is my family, not hers.” On the bright side, he adds, “We’ve just bought a house behind her mam’s in Leixlip so she’ll get her time back when this is all over.”
Aidan, who took two weeks’ parental leave from his job as an actuary and analyst, is now working from home – the best thing about all this new order for the new parents.
“Before, the thought of him going back to work was hard, that I’d be responsible all by myself and my mam wouldn’t be here,” says Jiwan.
Aidan agrees: “I’ll never have time like this again. I do the night-time feeds and we both have a chance of seven or eight hours’ sleep. If I was commuting, I’d be on the 6 o’clock train into town and could be in the office until 8 or 9pm.
Méabh McMahon and Philipp Weber
Both sets of grandparents – Mary and Michael from Navan, Co Meath and Pit and Gertrude from Karlsruhe in southern Germany – were in Brussels for Tess’s arrival and again in March for her brother Seán’s second birthday.
Tess was six weeks old when Belgium imposed its lockdown. The immediate impact on the McMahon and Weber families was the postponement of a trip to Kerry this month.
Méabh’s parents had given Philipp’s father, Pit, entry to the Ring of Beara Cycle as a 60th birthday present and everyone was planning to be there to cheer him on.
“We were so excited,” says Méabh. “We’d booked two Airbnb houses in Kenmare. As well as our parents, Philipp’s brother and his girlfriend were coming, my sister and brother with their partners and my nephews as well as my uncle and his wife coming from Galway.”
The couple planned to spend the rest of the month in Ireland introducing Tess to Irish friends and family. “We have a suitcase full of gorgeous dresses we got as presents for her and nowhere to go,” Méabh laughs.
It has been hard on the grandparents, she says, who are “really hands-on and love being part of our lives in Brussels”. But everyone has adapted and become very creative in how they spend time together.
“My mum reads to Seán or does baking with us on Zoom. He plays with his toy police cars on video calls with Philipp’s dad who has just retired after 43 years as a police officer.”
“Before all this,” Méabh says, “weekends were all about where are we going; who are we meeting? Spending a whole Saturday at home was never on the agenda. Now you just have to get more creative. We’re very lucky our house has a garden and only a 2km walk from a beautiful forest.
“It’s a very different maternity leave to what we could have imagined. But when we’re back to work in November, I know we’ll look back at how lucky we were to have this time. And we have Kerry to look forward to in 2021.”