by Mary Margaret Sutherland
COVID-19, unheard of just a year ago, has infiltrated and altered the landscape of nearly every aspect of human life. This alteration is unique to each of us and varies in enormity and severity for every individual. Yet, each story is one with merit and value that has the potential to reveal characteristics of what it means to be alive in 2020. Grace Malone, a 38 year old woman from Traverse City, Michigan, granted me access to her story of COVID-19 and reported her experience with pregnancy and now motherhood, as well as being a small business owner in this unprecedented time.
In the fall of 2019, at the age of 37, Grace discovered she was pregnant with her third child. Being on the older end of child-bearing years, and having a previous history of pregnancies with fetal distress, her pregnancy was considered high risk. This was a jarring reality to an expecting mother. Despite these predispositions, she progressed without issues and became hopeful of the prospect of a healthy pregnancy. This ease was abruptly disturbed in February of 2020 when the panic of COVID-19 began to ensue across the United States and the globe. With scarce amounts of knowledge regarding the virus, and little to no information on how it affects fetuses and their mothers, uncertainty and anxiety hung in the air. Doctors warned of the high-risk nature of pregnant mothers to the virus, and news sources depicted the pregnant demographic as one of the most vulnerable. The third trimester of Grace’s pregnancy was thus spent in a state of unknown as the world shifted around her and threatened hers and her unborn child’s life and livelihood. The heightened pressures on one’s life that come with pregnancy, those of health risks and financial strain, had suddenly been intensified beyond reason with the introduction of COVID-19.
As a collective, pregnant women in the western world become subject to the medical system, as doctors quantify the individual into data surrounding the pregnancy and claim medical jurisdiction and authority. Expecting women often lose their bodily autonomy in the process and are positioned in relation to the will of the medical world. Along with this, the woman’s narrative and the relationship between fetus and mother, particularly in high risk pregnancies, becomes secondary to the medical narrative. (Frank, Pg.5) We see this in cases where mothers have pre-existing health conditions, are above the age of 35, fetuses have detected genetic issues or birth defects, or, in 2020, the very existence of COVID-19. (“What’s a ‘High-Risk’ Pregnancy? (for Parents) – Nemours KidsHealth.”) In Grace’s case, three of the four factors were in effect. As a result, her body and her pregnancy were “colonized” by the medical field. (Frank, Pg. 10) The medical narrative she was placed within threatened her ability to maintain her autonomy, as doctors became the primary dictator of her story and her body. Grace spent the last months of her pregnancy residing in the position of “patient” rather than “person” or “mother to be”, compromising her individuality as well as her ability to create her own interpretation and desires of her pregnancy. Constant monitoring and doctor’s visits, as well as frequent COVID-19 testing with the looming threat of exposure, heightened her experience of narrative surrender (Frank, Pg.6). While necessary for doctors to overturn the individual in times of a pandemic, Grace suffered the effects of COVID-19 to the detriment of her pregnancy’s sanctity.
Grace carried the pregnancy to full term and delivered a baby boy on March 29, what was at the time considered the peak of the Coronavirus. In her recounting of the delivery, she explained the high anxiety atmosphere of the hospital and the methodical and sterilized nature of the experience. Grace and her one allotted guest went through an extensive COVID-19 screening before entering the hospital, where they were quickly ushered into a private delivery room. They were unable to leave the hospital once entering and were advised to stay in their room unless absolutely necessary. They sat nervously in a nearly abandoned wing, with an invisible threat hovering around them. Masked and gloved doctors periodically shuffled in, avoiding contact whenever possible and quickly prepping her with precision before hurrying out of the room. After the delivery, Grace was discharged from the hospital within 24 hours, far earlier than new mothers in the pre-covid world.
The space once held between mother and child within the medical world has been tarnished at the hands of COVID-19. The coronavirus itself, in many ways, has dehumanized all, and perception of the individual has become altered through the lens of the virus. With this, people have become mere “carriers” of illness based on a potential threat. Trying to maintain sovereignty of one’s own experience within this global condition, particularly when already residing under the label “patient”, is nearly impossible within the medical world. For the sake of everyone’s safety, the hospital where Grace delivered was forced to implement policies to protect mother, child, and staff. The unintended consequence of these policies was the marginalization and disfigurement of the delivery process. These policies, in turn, limited Grace’s ability to remain an active participant in her own labor.
After delivery, Grace quickly made the shift from patient to caregiver. Once home with her infant, she immediately began feeling the pressures that come along with being a new parent, all of which were heightened by the pandemic. As caregiver, it was now her responsibility to maintain the state of sterilization once maintained by the doctor and protect her child from the deadly threat that loomed all around them. Isolation, therefore, became a necessity for survival. Any act of human socialization or task once associated with normalcy in day to day life became a potential risk to her child’s life. Because of this, Grace spent the next several weeks in high intensity quarantine and was forced to close her business, which she ran solitarily. As the weeks ticked by without income, financial instability became a pressing issue. The state offered no assistance, refusing her request for unemployment as well as a small business grant which had the potential to keep her business afloat. With her new baby and the new role of caregiver, her primary concern for her child’s life was a direct contradiction to her ability to provide financially.
As COVID-19 lingered with no end in sight, Grace continued to become increasingly vulnerable to eviction and food insecurity. Her options, as a result, were to risk the health of her family by reintroducing them to the threat of the virus and return to work, or to continue into a state of financial distress and risk being unable to provide life sustaining necessities. This choice torments families around the world, once with no right answer, and two horribly wrong ones. For Grace, the decision was made to return to work despite the danger it presented. She discussed this reality with sadness and a sense of hopelessness rooted in the acute awareness that today, one’s fiscal stability is often contingent on a willingness to risk one’s own and one’s family life. Yet the position of caregiver is unyielding, and the responsibility placed upon Grace to maintain her child’s narrative, even if it meant sacrificing their safety as well as her own narrative, became the only option.
As a mother, Grace’s story was now framed through the lens of her child. As a caregiver, the transcription of her own narrative became secondary, her body and her story now scaled in relationship to their contribution to her baby’s wellbeing. This reality seems to be applicable to most new mothers, as a newborn’s life in contingent on parental service. Yet in the times of COVID-19, when individual autonomy has already been stripped to the core and replaced by a virus that carries the demons of fear and anxiety, motherhood’s insistent crucifixion of the mother becomes crippling. Unable to allot space for processing the turmoil COVID has inflicted on her individual spirit and her own narrative, Grace struggled to maintain her depression and manage her urges for substance relapse. Society’s scrutinous eye and the expectation placed upon her to fulfil a predisposed idea of caregiver in a time of incomparable stress was a failing to Grace as well as her baby. The mental health implications of this pandemic have been vast, and the added pressures of motherhood make managing these emotions all the more challenging. The loss of her voice and its validity in these times of hardship, along with the sacrifice of her own individuality and narrative journey, are no less than a failing of society.
“What’s a ‘High-Risk’ Pregnancy? (for Parents) – Nemours KidsHealth.” Edited by Armando Fuentes, KidsHealth, The Nemours Foundation, Oct. 2018, kidshealth.org/en/parents/high-risk.html.