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3 Women On Their Experiences Having Their First Children During A Pandemic

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This time last year, I was nine months pregnant...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CORNISH: It's 6:30 in the morning on March 17, 2020.

...And keeping an audio diary.

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CORNISH: And I was just lying here with my eyes open. The idea that this whole coronavirus panic, outbreak, pandemic - it's like being chased by something invisible.

The images coming out of Italian hospitals, the quarantines that emptied the streets - other couples I knew were talking about giving birth at home. But then I went into labor early.

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CORNISH: It's 10:20 a.m., and I'm in early labor.

Once my husband and I did get to the hospital, it was like there was a new layer of uncertainty over everything.

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CORNISH: OK, so just so I'm clear - in the two, three hours that we've been waiting, they have changed the policy for labor and delivery to only the parents only, no support person or visitors. And they had a COVID simulation-slash-drill.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes.

CORNISH: In the end, it was fine. My baby was born a healthy 7 pounds, 9 ounces.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COOING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Temperature looks great.

CORNISH: But uncertainties around giving birth in the pandemic, they didn't end in 2020.

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ELIZABETH BARON: You think you're a regular pregnant person with no risk factors, and all of a sudden, you as a group are considered a high-risk population.

CORNISH: Elizabeth Baron had her child around the same time as me, only in New York City, right in the moment when even spouses were banned from delivery rooms. We brought her together with Irene Mathieu of Charlottesville, Va., who's around 21 weeks into her pregnancy, and Ashley Falcon, a commercial fashion stylist from New York who's seven months pregnant. Now, pregnancy puts one at higher risk of becoming severely ill from the virus. But the CDC says, currently, there is limited data on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines in pregnant people.

We started with Irene Mathieu because she's a pediatrician, and we spoke to her about why she decided to get vaccinated.

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IRENE MATHIEU: You know, it was a really tough decision. I spent several weeks thinking really carefully about this, talking to friends and family and really reaching out to other health care providers, some of whom were also pregnant. And ultimately, for me, it was a risk-benefit analysis, like we do in medicine all the time. And I felt that my personal risk, both in terms of being a pregnant person - so that puts me at high-risk - and then also being a health care worker and having a higher exposure level every day - both of those put me in a high-risk category.

CORNISH: When you had doubts, what were they?

MATHIEU: You know, I felt like this is something new. And the mRNA vaccine is using a new technology. The mRNA piece of that is something we haven't seen deployed at a large population scale. And so my doubt was that I don't know what impact this is going to have on me or on my unborn baby. But from the science that I read about it, there was no way that I could fathom it could actually have a material impact.

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BARON: I also am double vaccinated, and my partner is halfway there. And at this point, it's important to call out that there has been ever-changing communication and information on the risk factor. But it is interesting that OB-GYNs and midwives are still sort of - some - like, of course, I can't overgeneralize - tend to not be as clear about their recommendations, whereas, you know, people are really trying to find information from their pediatricians and their colleagues and their friends or mental health providers, anyone who has clear information. And now there is more data. It's not as limited anymore about antibodies and what this means for pregnant women through the placenta - right? - in the event she gets the vaccine.

CORNISH: Ashley, I want to let you jump in here. Since you're the person who doesn't have a medical degree, you will not be judged for whatever your decision is around this. But what have your thoughts been about the vaccine?

ASHLEY FALCON: So here is something that I think is pretty fascinating about this conversation. As someone who doesn't have sort of the medical background and perhaps the access that the other two ladies have, I have chosen not to have the vaccine. Now, it's not to say that if I wasn't pregnant, I would have been the first one in the line. Granted, I'm much younger, and, you know, I'm not necessarily the first priority, but I'm all for it.

And what I've done as a result is I've been on this campaign to get everyone around me vaccinated. I was OK with the risk factor for myself. I was not OK with the limited amount of information to take that choice for the baby. And it's not to say that I blame anyone in the medical profession 'cause we're all playing catch-up. I mean, we have a better idea...

CORNISH: Right. But typically, when you're pregnant, you're like, should I have coffee? So you're (laughter)...

FALCON: Yeah. Like, I need pretty concrete answers. This is the life of, like, my first - you know what I mean? Like, I'm like, I can't have a - well, it probably won't do anything.

CORNISH: Let me ask another question. I'm going to start with Irene on this. What do you think you've learned throughout this time in terms of, you know, advice (laughter) you think you would be able to offer expecting parents in the pandemic?

MATHIEU: I think that, you know, I've learned about myself - I don't know how translatable this is to other people - but that I can tolerate a higher level of uncertainty than maybe I gave myself credit for prior to this pandemic. In terms of advice to other parents, it's hard to say because this is my first child, so I don't know what it's like to actually have a kid and have gone through the kind of year that we had. But I would say in general, whether you're a pregnant person or a parent, be kind to yourself, be gentle to yourself and don't be too hard on yourself.

I think as a culture, we have a tendency to be very judgmental and say, this is the right way to do things and this is the wrong way. And I think what this pandemic has shown us, which Ashley so eloquently pointed out, is that when you have a situation where there's constantly changing data and new information and, really, there isn't a hard-and-fast correct answer, it's OK to just let people make the decision that feels the best for them and feels the safest for them.

CORNISH: Ashley, what advice can you offer to other people who are expecting or going to be expecting or making a decision to be expecting?

FALCON: To me, it's like, COVID couldn't rob us of everything. You know, at a certain point, we had to hedge our bets and make choices and sort of move forward. I would just say if you and your partner, you know, are in a strong relationship and you feel like you can weather anything together, then you should do it because I wouldn't change anything. I would do this all over again. But I think you just have to really actively talk to each other about how you're feeling and just, really, kind of knowing what you're getting into a bit more.

CORNISH: And I want to bring in Elizabeth here. You're a mental health counselor. That's why I have you last (laughter). And you've already had your baby. So what's your advice?

BARON: During my birth experience, I had to keep telling myself, I am strong, I am brave, and I miss my husband at the same time, right? I'm excited to meet this baby, and I'm terrified and angry about COVID. So today I feel both grateful and disappointed in many, many, you know, moments during the day when I see something on social media about another baby welcomed with a partner. But I have to make room for both, and I want moms - new and expecting moms out there - to also make space for these two opposing things that can exist at the same time because I think it allows and gives permission to have some self-compassion in moments where you might be feeling guilty or might be feeling unable to sort of say, hey, I'm really struggling.

CORNISH: That was Elizabeth Baron in New York, Ashley Falcon in Florida and Irene Mathieu in Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN HOWARD SONG, "WHAT A DAY (EDIT)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.